The Circuit Preacher Chronicles: Rev. Lemuel Wells’ wild ride
Eagerly, the Reverend leaped into the waiting bathtub, positioned at the top of the stairs in the chilly foyer of the frontier hotel. And then, to his horror, he realized it was sliding toward the top of the staircase on a sheet of ice ...
By Finn J.D. John — March 6, 2016
In the early years of Oregon Country, back before it was a state — back even before Idaho and Washington were separate territories — newly arrived settlers found themselves completely on their own. There were some circumstances in which Native American tribes might help out, but most of the time, the early arrivals had to shift for themselves as best they might.
That meant, of course, that folks had to grind their own wheat, whipsaw their own lumber, and birth their own babies without any kind of professional assistance. For the most part, they made do pretty well.
But one category of professional was in particularly short supply, especially in the more rough-cut districts and mining camps of Eastern Oregon: preachers.
Preachers might not seem, to a secular modern reader, to be nearly as important as, say, doctors, or even blacksmiths. But to those old-time pioneers, they very much were. There was a whole lot of sinning going on, especially in those mining camps on Saturday nights. And yes, once in a while there was a funeral to be preached on Sunday morning as a result of those sins — but most Sundays there were just several dozen grimy miners with emptied purses and repentant headaches, trying to get close enough to the Almighty to sort of whisper an apology in His ear before taking up the pickaxe and pan for another week in the toils.
To help these poor souls get back into Heaven’s good graces, a cadre of itinerant clergymen took up the task of ministering to their souls. Called “circuit riders,” these preachers would travel from village to town to camp, making a regular circuit; upon arriving, they’d usually stay with a hospitable family for the night, preach a rousing sermon the next day, perform any marriages and other ceremonies that might be required, and ride on for the next town.
Marriages, in particular, posed a problem in pioneer communities. Legally, the local Justice of the Peace could do the job; but the quality of that experience varied rather widely from place to place. One J.P., in the town of Murphy (in what’s now Idaho), employed a ceremonial style with minimal input from the bride and groom, dispensing entirely with that whole “I do” rigmarole. “Take hold of hands,” he’d instruct the happy couple. “What God and me put together nobody can put asunder. Now you buss her. Now you’re married!”
Like the green frontier moonshine dispensed in the nearby saloon, this ceremony was a bit rough, but it got the job done. Well, most of the time it did. On at least one occasion, the Justice of the Peace accidentally grabbed the wrong dressed-up gent, and twelve seconds later — before anyone could interrupt him — he’d married the bride off to the best man.
But even at its best, this quasi-legal swearing-at lacked a certain dignity and solemnity which many affianced couples looked for in a wedding celebration. So they’d wait for a week or two, and present themselves ready for nuptials when the circuit preacher arrived in town.
One particular circuit rider — Lemuel H. Wells, who would one day become Episcopal bishop of Spokane — seemed to have a particular knack for getting into strange situations (or maybe he just had a great talent for telling a good story, and perhaps just a little human weakness when it came to strict adherence to the letter of the Ninth Commandment). In fairness, these episodes weren’t always random misfortune. Some poor decision-making on his part occasionally played a role.
One fine day, the Rev. Wells arrived in the town of Weston, near Pendleton; and he was invited to stay for the night at the home of a local Episcopalian family. When bedtime came along, he found the arrangements very crowded: two beds in a single room, with Mama and Papa in one and their three children in the other. Wells was to sleep on the bed with the children.
In the middle of the night, though, the four-year-old boy started having a nightmare, and with a shriek kicked out, catching poor Wells in the solar plexus. This happened two more times, and the last time, the exasperated and exhausted Wells secured a length of cord from his valise and set about tying the lad’s feet to the bedpost.
Now the boy really did start to scream, bringing his parents running. Upon arriving at his bedside, they found their son lashed to the bed and Wells guiltily fumbling at the knots.
We can imagine how the subsequent conversation went. In fact, we have to, since Wells doesn’t give the details; nor does he mention where he spent the rest of the night. But, “They never came to church again,” he writes. “And I never received another invitation to their home.”
The next time Wells came to Weston, he was on his own for a place to stay — word having apparently gotten around. So he bedded down for the night in a haystack, piled up against a fence to which he tied his horse.
The horse, who knew a good thing when he saw it, spent the evening taking bites of the hay and yanking them over the fence so that he could enjoy them at leisure. Sometime in the wee small hours, having developed a desire for a midnight snack, the horse stretched his neck over and got a big mouthful of hay — with Wells’ trouser cuff in it. The horse gave a lusty yank, and the snoozing Wells came flying over the fence and down into a heap at his horse’s feet.
Quite possibly Wells’ most picturesque misadventure — and, I’d argue, the one that it’s hardest to believe consists purely of plain, unadorned Gospel truth — was one that he had in a small town in northern Idaho. In the hotel there, he requested a bath, and was told a tub would be ready for him in the morning at the head of the stairs. Upon coming out the next day, he found the tub — one of those old-style giant washbasins that one sometimes sees miner-’49er types using in old Western movies, half full of water. It was the dead of winter, and the foyer of the hotel was about 20 degrees; so, shivering in the chilly air, the Reverend leaped into the tub to get his morning ablutions over with as fast as possible, so that he might put clothes on and get warmed back up.
He immediately made two unpleasant observations.
The first was that the water in the tub was just above freezing; he broke through a skim of ice on his way into it. It seemed the hotel owner had prepared the bath the night before, so as not to have to bother with it in the morning; so it had had all night to get very cold in the pre-dawn winter’s chill of the unheated hotel lobby.
But the second discovery made Wells forget all about the coldness of the water. It seemed the tub leaked a little. It had been leaking out onto the floor throughout the night, forming a small puddle which had then frozen like black ice on a highway. When Wells had hopped into the icy water, the momentum of his leap had set the tub in motion on that sheet of ice. Majestically and inexorably it sailed straight toward the top of the staircase … and decanted its contents over its rim.
And so the Reverend Lemuel H. Wells, shivering cold and stark naked and helpless in the hands of a cruel fate, rode a half-full washtub down the stairs of the hotel, tumbling with it to the bottom and ending up with the tub perched triumphantly atop his battered and shivering body in a great puddle of freezing water on the landing below.
This was, of course, hardly a silent procedure. The crashings and thumpings of the tub, and the terrified shrieks of its helpless passenger, roused every person in the building and probably several neighbors to boot. Luckily, he wasn’t badly hurt. He was escorted back to his room as discreetly as was possible under the circumstances, where he tried to warm himself as best he could and get ready for a day’s preaching of sermons to people who had, a few hours earlier, seen him naked under the most undignified of circumstances.
Just another day on the job, right?
We’ll talk about some other adventures of early-day circuit preachers in next week’s column.
(Sources: Bromberg, Erik. “Frontier Humor: Plain and Fancy,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sept. 1960; Wells, Lemuel H. A Pioneer Missionary. Seattle: Progressive Publishing, 1930)
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