“Uncle Joab” Powell was more than Legislature bargained for
Powell, a pioneer preacher and Baptist circuit rider, gave the first invocation in the Oregon State Legislature, but turned out not to be quite the sort of pastor the lawmakers expected.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2019 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.
By Finn J.D. John — June 6, 2010
Pioneer and Baptist circuit rider “Uncle” Joab Powell was famous for spending hours preaching when the spirit moved him. So when he took the podium before the first regular post-statehood meeting of the Oregon Legislature, in 1860, one imagines the representatives settling down comfortably for a long discourse.
What they got was a bit shorter.
“Father, forgive them,” roared Uncle Joab — Uncle Joab’s voice was legendary — “for they know not what they do.”
In subsequent invocations, though, Uncle Joab did go on longer — much to the dismay of many of the representatives there. Although Uncle Joab was the most renowned preacher in Oregon at the time, the lawmakers hadn’t realized quite what sort of preacher he was when they offered him $30 for his services.
Oregon's most famous preacher, from Tennessee
Uncle Joab was in his 60s, just under six feet tall and a good 300 pounds. He was born in the South, in the hills of Tennessee, but was a fierce abolitionist and fought with all his considerable forces for Oregon to be a “free” state. His place of birth could be deduced by listening to his accent as he preached his “sarvices.”
Atop his broad shoulders was a massive head, seeming to have no neck, from which exhortations and imperfectly remembered Bible verses emerged at tremendous volumes. (He himself was illiterate, but his wife read to the family from the Bible every night, and he had a good memory.) His eyes were blue and piercing; his hair, a bit wild and unkempt.
Passion, fearlessness a problem for lawmakers
He had that magic combination of ferocious passion and brotherly love that good Baptist revivalists are known for. And in his travels as a circuit preacher, it was remarkably effective. By the time he appeared in the legislature in 1860, he’d baptized at least 3,000 people.
A homespun preacher
Not that you’d know it to look at him. He cared little for his appearance, and when he came before the legislature he was wearing home-made clothes spun and stitched by his wife, Anna Beeler Powell; Joab and Anna were the leaders of a family of 14 living on their homestead at the forks of the Santiam River, and keeping 14 people in store-bought clothes would have been impossible. When Uncle Joab arrived on the first day, he also smelled a bit farm-ish: he had been shoveling manure when the messenger from Salem arrived to invite him to come and preach.
Soon the representatives were wishing they had left Powell on his farm with his shovel, and thinking perhaps they didn’t need a preacher after all. When they worked up the courage to tell him so, he was gracious and affable: Just give me my $30, he told them, and I’ll head for home.
Oregon's first act of deficit spending:
This was a problem, because if Uncle Joab had provided the state legislature with its very first plea for divine assistance, he also was the occasion of its first example of deficit spending. It turned out that the $30 he had been promised for his “sarvices" was not in the budget.
Oregon's first political fund-raising event:
So the legislators came up with a plan for another Oregon political “first”: The fund-raising event. They printed up a stack of fliers advertising a “grand entertainment” in Salem, with Uncle Joab as the headline act. They hoped to make — ahem — about $30 at the gate.
But they underestimated Salem’s thirst for “grand entertainment.” Gate receipts came to about $300, and when Uncle Joab took the stage he faced an enormous crowd.
A sold-out show
Uncle Joab was a seasoned performer, so there likely wasn’t much to worry about — but, probably remembering the 20-second prayer with which the preacher opened the first legislative session, lawmakers were nervous. If Uncle Joab bombed in front of half the city, it would certainly reflect poorly on them.
Luckily, Sen. Victor Trevitt had a plan. He armed a group of youngsters with handfuls of the coins they’d taken in at the gate, and stationed them in the front row. Whenever Uncle Joab seemed like he was winding down, the youths were instructed to shower him with money and yell encouragement.
It worked. The event was a huge success, and Uncle Joab bundled off home to his farm with his $30 wages and his pockets full of tips.
Oregon's first legislative den of iniquity
Which was just as well. He likely wouldn’t have wanted to be around Salem to see what the lawmakers did with the rest of the $300 fruits of his labors:
They set up and stocked an open bar for themselves in one of the committee rooms — yet another Oregon political “first.”
(Sources: Nichols, M. Leona. Joab Powell : Homespun Missionary. Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1935 — now in the public domain; Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991; McCormack, Win et al. Great Moments in Oregon History. Portland: New Oregon Publishers, 1987)