Chapter VII.


Poganuc was a pretty mountain town in Connecticut. It was a county seat, and therefore of some considerable importance in the vicinity. It boasted its share of public buildings—the great meeting-house that occupied the central position of the village green, the tavern where the weekly stage put up, a court-house, a jail, and other defenses of public morals, besides the recently added Episcopal church.

It was also the residence of some stately and dignified families of comfortable means and traditions of ancestral importance. Of these, as before stated, a few had availed themselves of the loosening of old bonds and founded an Episcopal church; but it must not be supposed that there was any lack of dignified and wealthy old families in the primitive historic church of Poganuc, which had so long borne undisputed sway in the vicinity. There were the fine old residences of Judge Gridley and Judge Belcher adorning the principal streets. Conspicuous in one of the front pews of the meeting-house might be seen every Sunday the stately form of Col. Davenport, who had been a confidential friend of General Washington and an active commander during the revolutionary war, and who inspired awe among the townspeople by his military antecedents. There might be seen, too, the Governor of the State and the High Sheriff of Poganuc County, with one Mr. Israel Deyter, a retired New York merchant, gifted, in popular belief, with great riches. In short, the meeting-house, for a country town, had no small amount of wealth, importance and gentility. Besides these residents, who encamped about the green and on the main street, was an outlying farming population extending for miles around, whose wagons conveying their well-dressed wives, stalwart sons and blooming daughters poured in from all quarters, punctual as a clock to the ringing of the second bell every Sunday morning.

Not the least attentive listeners or shrewd critics were to be found in these hardy yeomanry who scanned severely all that they paid for, whether temporal or spiritual. As may have been noticed from the conversation at Deacon Dickenson's store, Dr. Cushing had rather a delicate rôle to maintain in holding in unity the aristocracy and the democracy of his parish; for in those days people of well-born, well-bred families had a certain traditional stateliness and punctiliousness which were apt to be considered as pride by the laboring democracy, and the doctor, as might be expected, found it often more difficult to combat pride in homespun than pride in velvet—perhaps having no very brilliant success in either case.

The next Sunday was one of high expectation. Everybody was on tiptoe to hear what "our minister" would have to say.

The meeting-house of Poganuc was one of those square, bald, unsentimental structures of which but few specimens have come down to us from old times. The pattern of those ancient edifices was said to be derived from Holland, where the Puritans were sheltered before they came to these shores. At all events, they were a marked departure in every respect from all particulars which might remind one of the graceful ecclesiastical architecture and customs of the Church of England. They were wide, roomy, and of a desolate plainness; hot and sunny in summer, with their staring rows of windows, and in winter cold enough in some cases even to freeze the eucharistic wine at the communion.

It was with great conflict of opinion and much difficulty that the people of Poganuc had advanced so far in the ways of modern improvement as to be willing to have a large box stove set up in the middle of the broad aisle, with a length of black pipe extending through the house, whereby the severity of winter sanctuary performances should be somewhat abated. It is on record that, when the proposal was made in town meeting to introduce this luxurious indulgence, the zeal of old Zeph Higgins was aroused, and he rose and gave vent to his feelings in a protest:

"Fire? Fire? A fire in the house o' God? I never heard on't. I never heard o' hevin' fire in a meetin'-house."

Sheriff Dennie here rose, and inquired whether Mrs. Higgins did not bring a foot-stove with fire in it into the house of God every Sunday.

It was an undeniable fact not only that Mrs. Higgins but every respectable matron and mother of a family brought her foot-stove to church well filled with good, solid, hickory coals, and that the passing of this little ark of mercy from one frozen pair of feet to another was among the silent motherly ministries which varied the hours of service.

So the precedent of the foot-stove carried the box-stove into the broad aisle of the meeting-house, whereby the air was so moderated that the minister's breath did not freeze into visible clouds of vapor while speaking, and the beards and whiskers of the brethren were no longer coated with frost during service time.

Yet Poganuc was a place where winter stood for something. The hill, like all hills in our dear New England, though beautiful for situation in summer was a howling desolation for about six months of the year, sealed down under snow and drifted over by winds that pierced like knives and seemed to search every fiber of one's garments, so that the thickest clothing was no protection.

The Sunday in question was one of those many when the thermometer stood any number of degrees below zero; the air clear, keen and cutting; and the bright, blooming faces of the girls in the singers' seat bore token of the frosty wind they had encountered. All was animation through the church, and Mr. Benjamin Davis, the leader of the singing, had selected old "Denmark" as a proper tune for opening the parallels between them and the opposing forces of ritualism. Ben had a high conceit of his own vocal powers, and had been heard to express himself contemptuously of the new Episcopal organ. He had been to Doctor Cushing with suggestions as to the tunes that the singers wanted, to keep up the reputation of their "meetin'-house." So after "Denmark" came old "Majesty," and Ben so bestirred himself beating time and roaring, first to treble and then to counter and then to bass, and all the singers poured forth their voices with such ringing good-will, that everybody felt sure they were better than any Episcopal organ in the world.

And as there is a place for all things in this great world of ours, so there was in its time and day a place and a style for Puritan music. If there were pathos and power and solemn splendor in the rhythmic movement of the churchly chants, there was a grand wild freedom, an energy of motion, in the old "fuguing" tunes of that day that well expressed the heart of a people courageous in combat and unshaken in endurance. The church chant is like the measured motion of the mighty sea in calm weather, but those old fuguing tunes were like that same ocean aroused by stormy winds, when deep calleth unto deep in tempestuous confusion, out of which at last is evolved union and harmony. It was a music suggestive of the strife, the commotion, the battle cries of a transition period of society, struggling onward toward dimly-seen ideals of peace and order. Whatever the trained musician might say of such a tune as old "Majesty," no person of imagination and sensibility could ever hear it well rendered by a large choir without deep emotion. And when back and forth from every side of the church came the different parts shouting,

"On cherubim and seraphim

Full royally he rode,

And on the wings of mighty winds

Came flying all abroad"—

there went a stir and a thrill through many a stern and hard nature, until the tempest cleared off in the words,

"He sat serene upon the floods,

Their fury to restrain,

And he, as sovereign Lord and King,

Forever more shall reign."

And when the doctor rose to his sermon the music had done its work on his audience, in exalting their mood to listen with sympathetic ears to whatever he might have to say.

When he spread out his sermon before him there was a rustle all over the house, as of people composing themselves to give the strictest attention.

He announced his text from Galatians iv., 9, 10, 11.

"But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed on you labor in vain."

The very announcement of the text seemed to bring out upon the listening faces of the audience a sympathetic gleam. Hard, weather-beaten countenances showed it, as when a sunbeam passes over points of rocks.

What was to come of such a text was plain to be seen. The yoke of bondage from which Puritan New England had escaped across the waters of a stormy sea, the liberty in Christ which they had won in this new untrodden land, made theirs by prayers and toils and tears and sacrifice, for which they had just fought through a tedious and bloody war—there was enough in all these remembrances to evoke a strain of heartfelt eloquence which would awaken a response in every heart.

Then the doctor began his investigations of Christmas; and here his sermon bristled with quotations in good Greek and Latin, which he could not deny himself the pleasure of quoting in the original as well as in the translation. But the triumphant point in his argument was founded on a passage in Clemens Alexandrinus, who, writing at the close of the second century, speaks of the date of Christ's birth as an unimportant and unsettled point. "There are some," says the Father, "who over-curiously assign not only the year but the day of our Saviour's birth, which they say was the 25th of Pachon, or the 20th of May."

The doctor had exulted in the finding of this passage as one that findeth much spoil, and he proceeded to make the most of it in showing that the modern keeping of Christmas was so far unknown in the earliest ages of the church that even the day was a matter of uncertainty.

Now it is true that his audience, more than half of them, did not know who Clement was. Even the judges, men of culture and learning, and the teacher at the Academy, professionally familiar with Greek, had only the vaguest recollection of a Christian Father who had lived some time in the primitive ages; the rest of the congregation, men and women, only knew that their minister was a learned man and were triumphant at this new proof of it.

The doctor used his point so as to make it skillfully exciting to the strong, practical, matter-of-fact element which underlies New England life. "If it had been important for us to keep Christmas," he said, "certainly the date would not have been left in uncertainty. We find no traces in the New Testament of any such observance; we never read of Christmas as kept by the apostles and their followers; and it appears that it was some centuries after Christ before such an observance was heard of at all." In fact the doctor said that the keeping of the 25th of December as Christmas did not obtain till after the fourth century, and then it was appointed to take the place of an old heathen festival, the "natalis solis invicti;" and here the doctor rained down names and authorities and quotations establishing conflicting suppositions till the wilderness of learning grew so wild that only the Academy teacher seemed able to follow it through. He indeed sat up and nodded intelligently from point to point, feeling that the eyes of scholars might be upon him, and that it was well never to be caught napping in matters like these.

The last point of the Doctor's sermon consisted in historical statements and quotations concerning the various abuses to which the celebration of the Christmas festival had given rise, from the days of Augustine and Chrysostom down to those of the Charleses and Jameses of England, in all of which he had free course and was glorified; since under that head there are many things more true than edifying that might be recounted.

He alluded to the persecutions which had forced upon our fathers the alternative of conforming to burdensome and unspiritual rites and ceremonies or of flying from their native land and all they held dear; he quoted from St. Paul the passage about false brethren who came in privily to spy out our liberty that we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us again into bondage—"to whom" (and here the doctor grew emphatic and thumped the pulpit cushion) "we gave place by subjection not for an hour."

The sermon ended with a stirring appeal to walk in the good old ways, to resist all those, however fair their pretenses, who sought to remove the old landmarks and repeal the just laws and rules that had come down from the fathers. It was evident from the enkindled faces in every pew that the doctor carried his audience fully with him, and when in the closing petition he prayed to the Lord that "our judges might be as at the first, and our counsellors as at the beginning," everybody felt sure that he was thinking of the next election, and Tim Hawkins with difficulty restrained himself from giving a poke of the elbow to a neighbor in the next pew suspected of Democratic proclivities.

As to Dolly, who as a babe of grace was duly brought to church every Sunday, her meditations were of a very confused order. Since the gift of her red dress and red shoes, and the well remembered delightful scene at the church on Christmas Eve, Christmas had been an interesting and beautiful mystery to her mind; a sort of illuminated mist, now appearing and now disappearing.

Sometimes when her father in his sermon pronounced the word "Christmas" in emphatic tones, she fixed her great blue eyes seriously upon him and wondered what he could be saying; but when Greek and Latin quotations began to rain thick and fast she turned to Spring, who as a good, well-trained minister's dog was allowed to go to meeting with his betters, and whose serious and edified air was a pattern to Dolly and the boys.

When she was cold—a very common experience in those windy pews—she nestled close to Spring and put her arms around his neck, and sometimes dropped asleep on his back. Those sanctuary naps were a generally accorded privilege to the babes of the church, who could not be expected to digest the strong meat of the elders.

Dolly had one comfort of which nothing could deprive her: she had been allowed to wear her new red dress and red shoes. It is true the dress was covered up under a dark, stout little woolen coat, and the red shoes quenched in the shade of a pair of socks designed to protect her feet from freezing; but at intervals Dolly pulled open her little coat and looked at the red dress, and felt warmer for it, and thought whether there was any such day as Christmas or not it was a nice thing for little girls to have aunties and grandmas who believed in it, and sent them pretty things in consequence.

When the audience broke up and the doctor came down from the pulpit he was congratulated on his sermon as a master-piece. Indeed, he had the success that a man has always when he proves to an audience that they are in the right in their previous opinions.

The general opinion, from Colonel Davenport and Sheriff Dennie down to Tim Hawkins and the farmers of the vicinity, was that the doctor's sermon ought to be printed by subscription, and the suggestion was left to be talked over in various circles for the ensuing week.

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