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SALEM, MARION COUNTY; 1859:

Plain-talking preacher made lawmakers squirm

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By Finn J.D. John
January 27, 2019

Back in 1859, when the pioneer lawmakers of the very first Oregon State Legislature extended an invitation to Missionary Baptist circuit preacher “Uncle Joab” Powell, the most famous man of the cloth in the state, to come to Salem and serve as the first Chaplain of the Legislature, it seems very unlikely that any of the legislators actually knew what sort of preacher he was. If even a single one of them had, he would surely have warned the others that they were about to make a big mistake.

They’d learn soon enough, though.

Immediately upon Uncle Joab’s arrival, it was obvious that he was not going to fit in. When he arrived, he was dressed in the same home-made clothes he always wore — simple working farm garments; he looked very out-of-place among the well-tailored lawmakers. Several sources claim he also smelled a bit farm-ish, as he had been shoveling manure when the summons came; but this is exactly the sort of detail that often gets added to stories like this by over-eager storytellers, so whether it’s true or not isn’t clear.

What’s very clear, though, is that the Legislators were taken aback by Uncle Joab’s frankness.

The tension started immediately, at the very first session of the very first Legislature. The meeting was called to order, and Uncle Joab took the floor to deliver the invocation. The Legislators folded their hands like good little churchboys. And then that famous voice boomed out over their bowed heads:

“FATHER, FORGIVE THEM,” Uncle Joab roared, “FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.”

An inset portrait of Uncle Joab Powell published in 1919 in John B. Horner’s book, Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature. (Image: Gazette-Times)

As you are likely aware, this was the prayer Jesus offered up for the Roman soldiers who were about to crucify him, according to Luke 23:34. The implications of this — Uncle Joab praying for them rather than with them, analogizing them to ignorant pagans, and literally telling Almighty God that they didn’t know what they were doing — cannot have failed to register with the Legislators. I haven’t been able to find a source that describes their reaction, but it must have been something to see.

Well — however insulting this inaugural prayer might have been, it was at least short. And if Uncle Joab’s subsequent prayers had stayed that way, they might have found a way to live with him. But Uncle Joab’s services were not ordinarily known for brevity, and it very soon became obvious that that first one had been something of an outlier in that respect.

Nor were Uncle Joab’s sermons known for obsequiousness or deference to worldly power. Uncle Joab had not gotten to be the most popular pastor in the state by rendering unto Caesar the things that were God’s. It was clear that in the course of his official duties he would be denouncing some sins and calling out some sinners … present company most emphatically NOT excepted.

That made for some rather uncomfortable moments. Many of these frontier legislators were saloonkeepers and owners of stores that sold liquor. One or two were, or had been, professional gamblers. Other legislators were slavery-friendly or even slave “owners”. And, of course, many of them patronized prostitutes, had mistresses, engaged in sharp dealing, or otherwise deviated discreetly from the straight and narrow. From Uncle Joab’s perspective, they were a pack of preening sinners in fancy clothes, standing in grave need of some plain talk. And he was just the guy to give it to them.

Very soon, it was clear that inviting Uncle Joab to Salem had been a dreadful mistake, and the sooner he was sent off home the better. A group of legislators, seeking safety in numbers, formed a sort of ad-hoc committee to slip him the sad news.

Perhaps to their surprise, Uncle Joab was very professional about it. Absolutely no trouble at all, he told them. Just pay me my $30 and I’ll be on my way.

(In point of fact, he was probably delighted. Although being the Legislature’s first chaplain was a great prestige gig, by now Uncle Joab knew very well that he wouldn’t be saving anyone’s soul — Old Scratch had his hooks into these law-making rascals but good. He likely was very much looking forward to getting back on the circuit and putting up some more numbers for the Lord.)

But, say, um, about that $30. You see, it was like this: They didn’t actually have the money. If Uncle Joab had been the Oregon Legislature’s first chaplain, and supplied its first prayer, he had also been the occasion of a less auspicious Oregon “first”: its first act of deficit spending.

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        — (Jump to top of next column)

Providence Pioneer Church, the church founded by “Uncle Joab” Powell, as it appeared in 1954. This church building was constructed some time after Powell’s death; it dates from 1898. (Image: Ben Maxwell/ Salem Public Library)

Flummoxed, the committee reported back to the assembly. It was a dilemma. They could have passed a kitty and paid Uncle Joab off out of pocket, but nobody wanted to do that. Yet trying to put him off with an IOU would make them look and feel like a ridiculous lot of deadbeats.

Finally, Senator (and saloonkeeper) Victor Trevitt hatched an idea: They would solve this problem with yet another “first” (are you keeping track? That’s four so far). They would hold the state’s first political fund-raising event — a “grand entertainment” starring Uncle Joab, with a modest admission fee charged at the gate. They estimated crowd size, and calculated a cover charge that would, they figured, add up to about $30.

 

Now, the rest of this story is rather heavily tinged with folklore. The bones of the tale are surely accurate; but, it has the distinct air of a story that’s been augmented a little over the years of being passed around. So, keep that in mind as we continue.

Opening night came, and with it more evidence that Uncle Joab had been right — the Legislators knew not what they were doing. Specifically, they’d seriously underestimated Uncle Joab’s fame. When word got around that the famous man of God would be preaching in Salem, the residential district of the town emptied itself out. On opening night, a very nervous group of legislators watched the venue fill to overflowing.

The financial problem was solved, several times over. But a new issue taxed them now: What if Uncle Joab bombed? They well remembered the ten-word opening prayer he’d boomed out on that first day, and fretted. What if he did that again? Insulted the audience and sat down? Would they riot? What would happen?

Senator Trevitt had another plan. He collected together all the small coins taken in at the gate, and distributed handfuls of them to a group of children. These he instructed to work their way to the front of the crowd and, if Uncle Joab showed any signs of winding down early, to shower him with money and shout, “Encore! Encore!”

Whether this worked, or whether Uncle Joab just delivered a great sermon as he always did, the show was a big hit. Uncle Joab went on home to his wife’s farm, pockets nicely lined with his $30 plus all the “tips” showered on him by the urchins; and the Legislature got back to work, having chalked up yet another Oregon political “first” — the first act of Throwing Money at a Problem to Make It Go Away.

But they weren’t done yet. The last and greatest Oregon political “first” to come from Uncle Joab’s brief political career — number six — was the one the man himself would most disapprove of. You see, the gate receipts from Uncle Joab’s “grand entertainment” were considerably over $30 — in fact, the total had come to roughly 10 times that much. And, being as loath as many of us are to follow the 10th Commandment too assiduously, the Legislators had gone ahead and hung onto all of the surplus, paying Uncle Joab only the $30 they owed him. But now something had to be done with it, and it couldn’t be seen to benefit any one legislator disproportionately.

So, taking one of the as-yet-unused committee rooms in the capitol building, they did a little remodeling project — stocking it with a fine assortment of wines and spirits as a sort of private lounge. It was Oregon’s first Legislative den of iniquity — the sixth and final legislative “first” associated with the brief and colorful political career of Uncle Joab Powell.

(Sources: “WPA Interview: Peterson, Rachel Arminta (Powell),” a government document transcribed by Patricia Dunn in 2000 and published on the Linn County Genealogical Society Website at www.lgsoregon.org; Roadside History of Oregon, a book by Bill Gulick published in 1991 by Mountain Press; In Search of Western Oregon, a book by Ralph Friedman published in 1990 by Caxton Printers Ltd.)

SUMMARY: “Uncle Joab” was the most famous preacher in the West for a reason ... and that reason was pretty much exactly why the pioneer lawmakers found him to be such a lousy fit for the job of Chaplain of the Legislature. Suddenly they were desperate to get rid of him. But, they'd hired him before his salary was in the treasury....

 

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