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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 9783

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

ALTHOUGH the people of Fairview frequently did not dress comfortably, and lived in the plainest manner, they never failed to attend the services at the church, to which everybody belonged, with the exception of my grandfather, and Jo, and myself. I have often wondered since that we were not made the subject of a special series of meetings, and frightened into repentance; but for some unaccountable reason we were left alone. They even discussed Jo's situation, laying it to contrariness, and saying that if all the rest of them were wicked, he would be religious; but they said nothing at all to me about the subject. I often attended the revivals, and sang the songs as loudly as the rest of them, but when I thought that I was one of those whose terrible condition the hymns described, it gave me such a turn that I left that part of the house where the excitement ran highest, and joined Jo on the back seats, who took no other interest in the novel performance than that of looker-on.

As soon as a sufficient number of children reached a suitable age to make their conversion a harvest, a revival was commenced for their benefit, and they were called upon to make a full confession with such energy, and warned to cling to the cross for safety with such earnestness, that they generally did it, and but few escaped. If there was one so stubborn that he would not yield from worldly pride, of which he had not a particle-no one ever supposed it possible that he lacked faith, though they all did-the meetings were continued from Sunday until Monday, and kept up every night of the week at the house where the owner of the obdurate heart lived, so that he finally gave in; for peace and quiet, if for nothing else.

If two or three, or four or five, would not relent within a reasonable time, the people gave up every other work, and gathered at the church in great alarm, in response to the ringing of the bell, and there they prayed and shouted the livelong day for the Lord to come down among them. At these times Jo and I were usually left at home to work in the field, and if we heard the people coming home in the evening shouting and singing, we knew that the lost sheep had been recovered, and I often feared they would form a ring around us in the field, and compel a full surrender. A young woman who lived at our house to help my mother, the daughter of a neighboring farmer, once engaged their attention for nearly a week, but she gave up one hot afternoon, and came down the path which led through the cornfields from the church, shouting and going on like mad, followed by those that had been present when the Lord finally came down, who were singing and proclaiming the event as loudly as they could. This frightened me so much that I ran into the house, and hid under the bed, supposing they would soon go away, and that then I could come out; but they immediately began a prayer-meeting to give the new convert opportunity to face a frowning world by relating her experience, and thus they kept me in my uncomfortable position until I thought I must smother from the heat.

My father received little aid in the conduct of these meetings except from a very good farmer, but very bad exhorter, named Theodore Meek, whose name had been gradually shortened by neighborhood familiarity until he was known as The. Meek; and for a long time I thought he was meant when reference was made to "The Meek and lowly," supposing that Lowly was an equally good man living in some of the adjoining settlements. This remarkable man laughed his religion rather than preached, or prayed, or shouted, or sang it. His singing would be regarded at this day as a very expert rendering of a laughing song, but to us it was an impressive performance, as were his praying and occasional preaching, though I wonder we were not amused. The. Meek was, after my father, the next best man in Fairview; the next largest farmer, and the next in religion and thrift. In moving to the country I think his wagons were next to ours, which headed the procession. He sat nearest the pulpit at the meetings, was the second to arrive-my father coming first-and always took up the collections. If there was a funeral, he stood next my father, who conducted the services; at the school-meetings he was the second to speak; and if a widow needed her corn gathered, or her winter's wood chopped, my father suggested it, and The. Meek immediately said it should have been attended to before. He also lived nearer our house than any of the others, and was oftener there; and his house was built so much like ours that only experts knew it was cheaper, and not quite so large. His family, which consisted of a fat wife by a second marriage, and so many children that I never could remember all their names-there was always a new baby whenever its immediate predecessor was old enough to name-were laughers like

him, and to a stranger it would have seemed that they found jokes in the Bible, for they were always reading the Bible, and always laughing.

Another assistant was Mrs. Tremaine, the miller's widowed sister, who had lived in the country before we came, a wax-faced woman who apparently had no other duty to attend to than religion; for although she lived a considerable distance from Fairview church, she was always at the meetings, and I have thought of her as being constantly occupied in coming from or going to church, finding it time to start back again as soon as she reached home. The only assistance she afforded was to pray whenever called upon in a voice so low that there was always doubt when she had finished; but this made little difference, as it gave the others opportunity to be heard in short exclamations concerning the kindness of the Lord if sinners would really renounce the world and make a full confession. Her speeches in the experience meetings were of the same order, and when she sat down the congregation invariably began a song descriptive of a noble woman always battling for the right, and sure to conquer in the end; from which grew an impression that she was a very sainted person, and that the sins of her brother, the miller, were much on her mind. It is certain that he thought little of them himself, never attending the services, or sending his regrets.

It was usually a part of my duty on Sunday to take one of the wagons, Jo taking the other, and to drive about collecting infirm and unfortunate people who would otherwise be unable to attend church; for my father believed in salvation for all who were willing to accept it, though they were poor, and unable to walk, or hear, or see, or understand; and he was kinder to the unfortunate people than to any of the others, favoring them out of his strength and abundance in a hundred ways.

There was always a suspicion in my mind, which may have been an unjust one, that they shouted and went on in response to his preaching because he was their friend, and wanted them to do so. In any event, he could throw them into the greatest excitement, and cause them to exhibit themselves in the most remarkable way, whenever he saw fit, so that they got on very well together.

One of these unfortunates was Mr. Winter, the lame shoemaker, who wheeled himself around in a low buggy. Pushing this into my wagon with the assistance of his wife, after we had first made a run-way of boards, I hauled him to Fairview, where we unloaded him in the same manner. He was a very devout man, and a shouter, and during the revivals he wheeled himself up and down the aisles in his buggy, which frequently squeaked and rattled in a very uncomfortable manner, to shake hands with the people. I suppose that at first this performance was a little odd to people, but they got used to it; for I have noticed that while strangers regarded Mr. Winter as a great curiosity, he attracted no more attention at home than a man unobjectionable in the matter of legs. There was a good deal of talk from time to time of holding special services to restore Mr. Winter's shrivelled legs by prayer, but if ever it was tried, it was in secret, for I never heard of it. There were probably half a dozen of these unfortunates altogether, and they were always given the best corner, which was near the pulpit, where their piety could be easily seen and heard.

With the addition of a blind woman who cried and lamented a great deal, and whom I also went after nearly every Sunday, those I have mentioned were the ones most conspicuous in the meetings; for while the others were very devout, they had nothing to offer for the general good except their presence and a capacity to rise to their feet and confess the Lord in a few words. My father was the leader, of course, and occupied the time himself when others could not be induced to occupy it, which was often the case after those I have mentioned had appeared in what might be called their specialties.

This, coupled with the unforgiving doctrines of Rev. John Westlock, was the religion to which I was accustomed, and which I believe added greatly to the other miseries of Fairview, for Fairview was afflicted with a melancholy that could have resulted from nothing else. There was little visiting, and there were no public gatherings except those at the church already mentioned, where the business of serving the Lord was dispatched as soon as possible to allow the people to return home and nurse their misery. The people were all overworked, and I still remember how the pale, unhappy women spoke in low and trembling tones at the experience meetings of heavy crosses to bear, and sat down crying as though their hearts were breaking. I was always touched by this pitiful proceeding, and I doubt not their petitions went further into heaven than any of the others.

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