Circuit Preacher Tales II: Shanghaiing up a flock

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By Finn J.D. John
March 13, 2016

IN THEIR LATER years, most old frontier circuit riders looked back on their itinerant-preacher years through a nostalgic haze from a considerable distance — as most of us do when we get older. Days of mud and misery and discouragement went forgotten; days of joy and exhilaration and success were relived at every family gathering and church event, often growing noticeably more joyful and exhilarating and successful at each retelling.

These recollections are, of course, just as unreliable as any other kind of memoir. Although they hold themselves to a higher standard than most of us do, preachers are only human. But they make for very interesting reading.

An illustration from an 1874 book about circuit riders shows a mining-camp preacher being accosted by two hostile miners demanding that he leave. (Image: Schribner & Sons)

Of course, the most common kind of story they tell is the inspirational kind, of the “Rogue River Jim swore he’d never come to Jesus, but after I pulled him out from under a landslide the Lord spoke to his heart and he got saved on the spot” sort. Such stories are all well and good if one is in the mood for them; but, and let’s be honest here — they’re far from the most entertaining.

Luckily, some of those old preachers kept a lively frontier sense of humor, and passed on a few less respectable yarns.

Episcopalian Rev. Lemuel Wells was one such. Wells worked the circuit in the old Oregon Territory that included the area of Oregon, Washington and Idaho roughly centered around Walla Walla, and in later years he settled in Washington Territory as bishop of Spokane. Wells had a bit of the lovable rascal in him, and at one point in his career he found himself in Tacoma, up in Washington Territory, helping with the founding of Trinity Church. When it was built, the community wasn’t quite as welcoming as had been hoped, and Wells found he was having difficulty filling the pews.

Not to worry: Wells had a plan. Under his direction, the ushers of Trinity arranged themselves in ambush at the front of the church and waited for passers-by to walk along the street.

“They selected the most pleasing man in the congregation,” Wells recalls in his memoir, “who would stand in front of the church and when anyone appeared in the street passing by, would step up to him and say, ‘This is Trinity Church, I suppose you are looking for it,’ and without waiting for a reply would take him by the arm, volubly telling him what a fine lot of men we had, and what a good fellow the clergyman was and what a fine preacher, until in spite of resistance he would firmly but gently push the would-be passer-by toward the church steps. The ushers would rush out to join the party, shake hands with the stranger – and help with the pushing. The protests of the victim would be drowned out by the cordiality of the ushers and before he knew it the poor man would be seated in the front pew.”

“Strange to say, this method was rather liked by the victims,” Wells adds, “and many an attendant and eventually a communicant was gained in this way.”

OTHER ITINERANT MEN of the cloth found it convenient to cooperate with the proprietors of the more secular temples at which frontiersmen were wont to worship: saloons. Another future Episcopal bishop, Ethelbert Talbert, built a church in Murray, Idaho, right next door to the local saloon. Both buildings were quite flimsy and very close together, so the prospect loomed of noisy barroom activity disrupting services. Fortunately, the Rev. Talbert got along very well with the publican next door, and soon had worked out an arrangement: At the time for services, on Sunday morning, the saloonkeeper would close up shop for two hours. “That’s all for now, gents,” he’d holler. “Let’s all step over and hear the Reverend talk!”

Out the door and around the corner would go the crowd of day-drinkers to sit down in the pews next door and soak up some religion, before returning to resume their celebrations.

“Many of the fellows fresh from their drinks were hardly able to realize just where they were,” Talbot later recalled.

On one particular occasion, Talbot selected a sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican — a gracious nod to his saloonkeeper friend next door.

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An illustration from an 1874 book about circuit riders showing a suspected horse thief, about to be lynched, being rescued by a circuit preacher. (Image: Schribner & Sons)


“I proceeded to condemn the pride and self-complacency of the Pharisee, and, in correspondingly strong language, to praise the publican for his humility and self-abasement,” Talbot said.

But it soon became clear that one of his audience members — one of the saloon patrons who’d come next door when the bar closed — was not having any of it. As the sermon continued, he glared fiercely, then started muttering angrily to himself as his fellow congregants eyed him nervously. Finally he leaped to his feet, apparently able to take no more.

“Tha’sh all wrong,” he yelled resentfully, and would have continued, but the other bar patrons — perhaps pleased to have an opportunity to leave the church without offending the keeper of the only saloon in town — leaped to their feet and hustled him, still incoherently protesting, out the door.

Back in the saloon, everything became clear. The disruptive day-drinker was a hard-core Democrat, and all the praise of the ’Publican Party without so much as a nod to the ’Emocrats had simply been more than he could take.

was all well and good for an Episcopal pastor to make friends with the saloonkeeper. For preachers of denominations with less worldly attitudes toward Demon Rum, that sort of thing would have been unthinkable.

Legendary Methodist circuit rider James H. Wilbur — better known as Father Wilbur — rather set the tone for his denomination’s attitude in the Umpqua gold fields in the 1850s, during the California gold rush. Wilbur was leading a team of Methodist ministers holding a week-long revival event of sorts for nearby miners, and had attracted a considerable crowd. This crowd had, in turn, attracted the attention of a duo of itinerant liquor peddlers. These two gentlemen had a wagon loaded with distilled spirits and a big tent they’d pitch beside it, forming a portable saloon; the wagon sides would serve as the bar. Like modern “tailgaters” partying in the parking lot at a Beavers game, they now came and set up this booze wagon as near to the revival tent as they dared, ready to slake the miners’ always-prodigious thirst.

You can imagine how this went over with the Methodists.

The men of the cloth tolerated the interlopers for several days, putting up with the nearby whoops and howls of drunken revelry during services in hopes that the booze-wagon soon would move on; but finally, several days into the revival, things came to a head.

The event that set it off was a gang of drunken miners — fresh off the wagon, as it were — who decided to attend services. At the back of the congregation, they started laughing and disrupting the meeting. Finally Father Wilbur could take no more.

“Sing something,” he muttered to the other preachers. “I’ll be right back.”

Slipping out the back of the meeting, Wilbur made his stealthy way to the booze wagon. He caught its two proprietors alone and completely unawares.

Fired up with righteous wrath, the good pastor seized a bottle of whiskey and, using it as a club, set about getting the local earthworms drunk. Shards of glass flew; cheap whiskey and rum spattered everywhere. The two liquor peddlers, belatedly realizing they were under attack, leaped upon Wilbur; but Wilbur was a very large and powerful man, and more than a match for two half-drunk liquor men even when he was not animated with a spirit of crusading fury. They didn’t have a chance.

Wilbur didn’t stop swinging until he saw that every bottle had been broken. Then, bleeding from several cuts inflicted by flying glass, he ordered the two liquor men to pack up and move on (which they meekly did, on the spot), and returned nonchalantly to his congregation — where, his face and shirt smeared with blood and his entire person doubtless reeking of cheap rotgut, he finished out his sermon as if nothing had happened.

(Sources: Wells, Lemuel H. A Pioneer Missionary. Seattle: Progressive Publishing, 1930; Kennedy, G.W. The Pioneer Campfire. Portland: Marsh Printing, 1913)

TAGS: #PEOPLE: #doers #progressives #goodGuys #promoters #showmen #largerThanLife :: #PLACES: #oregonTrail #goldFields :: # #cultureClash #irony



Background photo is a hand-tinted image of downtown Medford, published circa 1930 on a picture postcard.
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