Joseph Tarkington.

Autobiography of Rev. Joseph Tarkington, one of the pioneer Methodist preachers of Indiana online

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Online LibraryJoseph TarkingtonAutobiography of Rev. Joseph Tarkington, one of the pioneer Methodist preachers of Indiana → online text (page 1 of 10)
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Autobiography of R{
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Rev. Joseph Tarkington,




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SOME people read only the Preface or Intro-
duction, and then, glancing through the text,
lay the book down, supposing they have mastered
it all. But the reverse is likely to be the method
in this case; for the chief charm of the book is in
what Mr. Tarkington has to say of himself and his
times. But to properly appreciate that, the reader
must bear in mind that what he wrote was not for
the public, but that, at the urgent solicitation of his
children, these personal incidents were written
down for their special use, and that they appear in
this form at the suggestion of personal friends and
admirers, who insist that they, too, have a right to

Not having been written for the public, the style
is simply narrative, such as he was accustomed to
use when talking in the family circle or among a
company of familiar friends. Those who often en-
joyed these conversations will not fail to see the
original Tarkington before them as they read, and
almost hear the sound of his voice, and catch the
peculiar twinkle of his eye and his modes of ex-

Because the style is so like him, and because
this family treasure is put into this form for the

4 Rev. Joseph Tarkington.

especial pleasure of those whose veneration for him
entitles them to family privileges, that style is pre-
served, and the booklet goes to them just as it came
to the more immediate members of the household,
marred only by this prosy introduction, in which
the writer has attempted to throw a sidelight upon
some incidents that will seem obscure to the
younger people who may happen to be drawn into
its perusal.

Some statements are incomplete as they stand
in the text, and many of them require a little ex-
planation from contemporaneous history to bring
out the supreme worth of the narrative, a photo-
graph of early times and old-fashioned Methodism
in Indiana.

How far this Introduction will aid in this, the
reader must judge for himself, if he turns back to
read it after having read Mr. Tarkington's story.

The story will be interesting to all who wish to
study the beginning of things. No general history
of the struggles of the early settlers of Indiana can
possibly give as accurate an idea of its hardships
and its incidental delights as this graphic account
of his own experiences. The fact that the experi-
ences of the Tarkington family were not excep-
tional, but were duplicated over and over again in
all the river counties by those who had sought a
home where the blight of slavery would not reach
them, and, with slight modifications later on, when
the "New Purchase" offered inducements to immi-

Introduction. 5

grants from a more northern latitude, will make the
story the more instructive. It narrates things as
seen and felt from within by one who saw it all, and
was himself a great part of it.

The senior Tarkington seems to have been a
roving character, seeking rest, but finding none for
many years; but rovers were common then as now.
He was evidently a man of pluck, however; and
when he got started in the right direction to escape
the curse of slavery, he never stopped until he was
confronted by the boundary between civilization
and the Indians, and so near the very "jumping-off
place" that Indians were for several years his im-
mediate neighbors from over the line. After all,
were not such rovers a sort of social and political
necessity? They could not always choose the final
resting-place at the first venture. It was probably
best they could not. Each successive move served
as an educator or preparation for the final.

The reader of Mr. Tarkington's brief story of
himself and his times will often wish for more de-
tail than he finds in it. If, in attempting to supple-
ment this lack of fullness by incidents coming under
this writer's observations, and in his personal ex-
perience, which further illustrates early customs and
old-fashioned Methodism, he seems to be tedious
and soitietimes irrelevant, the reader may skip the
surplusage, if indeed he turns back to read this
Introduction at all. The truth is, Mr. Tarkington
does not do himself justice, even to his children,

6 Rev. Joseph Tarkington.

for whose special information the meager story is
told; hence the necessity of supplementary remarks
for them as well as the public. His modesty would
hardly allow him to tell all he knew of the priva-
tions of his childhood and youth, and the hardships
of his early years in the ministry.

Studying the characteristics of life in early times
in Indiana, the reader will be struck with the simi-
larity, in every essential detail, between that of the
immigrants from the South who found their home
in Monroe County, and those from the East who,
a little later, settled in Switzerland County, to be-
come, later on, one in interest and fellowship. Mrs.
Tarkington 's recollections of her early life are
hardly less interesting than those of her revered
husband. In each is an inkling of what the fathers
and mothers of that period had to endiu'e. These
were representatives of that class of families that
succeeded, and they were nothing more nor less.

His conversion and preparation for the ministry
were characteristic of the times, except that a year
intervened between the conversion and his joining
the Church. Among the first impressions of his
new life was an abiding conviction that he was
called to preach : but in what Church was not at
first so plain to him. The cause of this perplexity
was the diversity of creeds and denominations
around him. In no quarter of the earth were ever
more "isms" to be found than were within a radius
of twenty-five miles of his home in Monroe County.

Introduction. 7

His parents had been Episcopalians or of Epis-
copalian stock; but as they had not given much
attention to religious matters since his childhood,
that settled nothing with him. The immigrants
coming from the South had, almost every one of
them, brought some different shades of belief.
There were two kinds of Baptists, three kinds of
Presbyterians, with New Lights, Christians, Dis-
ciples, and the like galore; each preaching some
modification of Calvinism, except the Old Side Bap-
tists, who took it straight, infant damnation and
all; and a cardinal virtue with each was to earnestly
"contend for the faith" — as he understood it. There
were Methodists; but as they preached on week-
days only, at private houses, he saw but little of
them until he went to the camp-meeting at which
he was converted.

That year of deliberation and study was profit-
able to him all his life. In it he thoroughly investi-
gated the various beliefs of the period, and armed
himself for the defense of the distinctive doctrines
of Methodism, against which, at that time, all
seemed to hurl missiles.

His account of passing through the several ap-
proaches to the ministry, reveals the usual steps
then taken — class-leader, exhorter, preacher. His
collegiate training was short. In his plan, it con-
templated much more than he received. Intent on
better qualifications than he had been able to ac-
quire on the farm, he entered the Indiana Seminary,

8 Rev. Joseph Tarkington.

now Indiana University; but the fates — let us call
it Providence — decreed that his stay should be
short. So, likewise, was his post-graduate course
short. It consisted in accompanying the presiding
elder northward along the western border of the
State, a hundred miles or more; then westward,
into Illinois, fifty miles or more; thence, south-
ward, to the Ohio River, one hundred and fifty
miles or more; taking lessons in preaching from the
presiding elder, in whom were blended the functions
of a whole Faculty of a modern theological school.
That which will be most wondered at by modern
observers of how preachers are now prepared for
the ministry, will be how this student and the travel-
ing Faculty managed to carry their wardrobe and
library with them all that long round. That was
nothing. The wardrobe consisted of an extra shirt
only. Undershirts and drawers were not then
known in pioneer society, and only one handker-
chief (a red or yellow silk bandanna, though often
it was cotton), and an extra pair of socks. This
gave ample room in the saddlebags for a Bible,
Hymn-book, and Discipline, and a copy of Fletch-
er's "Appeal" or Wesley's "Sermons" — hardly ever
both at once; leaving room, ordinarily, for an assort-
ment of books for sale. Shirts and socks were
changed once a week, and the soiled goods were
washed while the preacher waited at some hospi-
table farmhouse, or rather at the cabin of "the

Introduction. g

No short period covered by Mr. Tarkington's
paper suggests more incidents that are illustrative
of Methodism in Indiana sixty years ago than that
connected with his pastorate at Lawrenceburg in
1838-39. He had been on the superannuated list
the preceding Conference year. At the close of the
Conference year of 1836-37, he was too sick to
move, and to have remained a second year would
have been almost an unheard-of proceeding, and he
was therefore superannuated. Another case, illus-
trative of this custom, was that of James V. Wat-
son, a young man of rare gifts and promise. He
had traveled the Columbus Circuit, embracing the
most miasmatic region in Indiana, the year 1837-38;
and when Conference came, he had the real "shak-
ing ager," and could not even attend Conference.
Though in the usual course of the disease he might
easily be counted on for duty as soon as frost came,
he was superannuated, as Mr. Tarkington had been
the year before.

Mr. Tarkington was soon able for duty, and put
in the year farming with his father-in-law, and in
teaching school, preaching almost every Sunday
and attending funerals for many miles around with-
out any pecuniary compensation; but he received
from the Conference Fund for the year, $94.04.

That year, Lawrenceburg concluded to stem the
popular tide, and become a station again. It was
at that time one of the most important commercial
towns in the State. The wheat and other market-

lo Rev. Joseph Tarkingtori.

able farm products from Indianapolis and intermedi-
ate districts found their best market there, whether
for manufacture or shipment, and the merchants,
manufacturers, and bankers of the town were mostly
Methodists. They had tried the station experiment
four years before; but it was too un-Methodistic to
succeed, with even as good a preacher as John
Daniel. It is almost incredible that Methodism so
long and so persistently resisted a change from the
circuit system. Even that year, Cincinnati had two
circuits in the city, each with two preachers on it;
and as late as 1845, the Western Christian Advocate
editorially protested against the tendency to sta-
tions, contending that the Lord's sending out his
itinerants by twos was Divine authority for the two-
and-two system. No one of the peculiarities of
early Methodism gave way under more persistent
effort of the presiding elders and the bishops to re-
tain it, in opposition to the growing demands of
the laity.

He had only about forty miles to move, and a
two-horse farm-wagon was sufficient for the entire
stock of furniture. Of course, this afforded no great
display of household goods; but, nothing daunted,
he set up housekeeping with what he had. The
characteristic hospitality of the brethren made him
and his family quite comfortable until he was duly
installed in his own hired house.

After preaching on his first Sunday, he an-
nounced an official meeting at the parsonage for

Introduction. ii

Monday evening. No town in the State could have
mustered a better Board — men of affairs and busi-
ness abiHty. There were but three chairs in the
house. As the brethren filed in, one by one, the
affable pastor seated them on these as far as they
would go; then he brought out an empty box or
two; then gave them the edge of the bed and the
table, — all without any embarrassment or apology.

The official business was soon disposed of, and
none seemed inclined to remain for miscellaneous

Once out of doors, after adjournment, the meet-
ing was reorganized on the sidewalk informally,
and the question of furnishing the parsonage was
briefly discussed, and a committee was appointed
to see that chairs and tables and carpets and dishes
were forthwith provided, and long before the next
Sunday every need was abundantly supplied.

In his sketch, he speaks of one of the most won-
derful revivals that prince of early evangelists, John
Newland Maffttt, ever had; but he fails to tell why
more of its fruits remained to bless the Church than
was usual then or is now. Being personally con-
versant with the conditions, I have no hesitancy in
ascribing it to the faithful pastoral work of Mr.
Tarkington. He visited and prayed with every one;
almost immediately and at once led them to Christ
and to useful endeavor in the work of the Church.

A most affecting scene occurred during this
series of meetings. The house was crowded, and

12 Rev. Joseph Tarkmgion.

Mr. Maffitt had finished the opening- prayer, when,
as the congregation sang the voluntary — all sang,
and all sang lustily — one of the hymns of the period,
with no organ accompanying, some one handed him
a letter. He saw from the postmark it was from his
home in Brooklyn, New York, nearly a week's
travel away. He nervously broke the seal, and read
it. Those who could see his face behind the high
pulpit readily perceived that the letter contained
bad news. He covered his face in his hands a mo-
ment, and the congregation sang another hymn.
At the close of that hymn, he arose, quoting Job
xix, 21 : "Have pity upon me, have pity upon me,
O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath
touched me." He then briefly stated the sad in-
telligence he had received — a lovely daughter had
died nearly a week before; and then he proceeded
to preach with even more than his usual power,
conducting all the services as if no bad tidings had
been received.

The Indiana Conference met at Lawrenceburg
in 1839, and it long lived in the memory of those
who were there, and it yet lives with the very few
who remain, as the most eventful Conference ever
held in the State. Bishop Roberts presided.
Bishop Morris was also present. Edward R. Ames
was secretary. The Conference included the whole
State and one district in Michigan. Except the few
that lived along the Ohio and lower Wabash Rivers,
all had come on horseback, many traveling more

Introduction. 13

than two hundred miles. They were, with very few
exceptions, dressed in home-made goods, and most
of them were seedy — even a new suit of jeans would
be the worse of the wear after a journey on horse-
back of two hundred miles. Many had come from
a month's tussle with the ague, and some kept up
the shake habit every other day during Conference.
To have given up so as to not be able to attend,
meant superannuation — the bugbear of the itiner-
ancy then, even more than now.

Something of my personal estimate of the rela-
tive importance of this Conference may be due to
the fact that it was the first I ever attended. It was
held in the dingy court-room of the old court-
house, while there was preaching in the little church
on Short Street at eleven and three o'clock and
night, except one night devoted to the missionary
anniversary. It was held with closed doors, not
even those to be admitted on trial or to be con-
tinued on trial being permitted to attend. When
the order was issued for all but members to retire,
James L. Thompson nudged me, and whispered,
"Don't go;" and I didn't. Several of the older
brethren looked reprovingly at me; but none of
those things moved me, and as no one cared to take
the responsibility of ordering me out, I remained,
and had my first view of the inside workings of an
Annual Conference. The truth is, the spirit of
Americanism had begun to modify many of the
British notions that had hampered American Meth-

14 Rev. Joseph Tarkiyigton.

odism from the beginning, and which continued to
liamper it much later. It was not until 1852 that
preachers on trial were lawfully permitted to wit-
ness the proceedings of an Annual Conference;
though the rule excluding them from the sessions
was more and more relaxed until it became a dead
letter, and its lifeless remains were buried in that
year, as the lifeless remains of several other dead
rules were buried; but not until they had been so
long dead that they emitted a bad odor.

At that Conference, one young man on trial,
John H. Hull, who was afterwards to make his mark
in the ministry, also defied the rule, and kept his
seat, when those not entitled to stay were invited
to leave. It was much later that inquisitive laymen
ventured to defy the rule of closed doors, and still
later when they were cordially invited to attend;
and it was not until 1864 that the Disciplinary rule,
not allowing laymen, not officially belonging to a
Quarterly Conference, to be present at its sessions,
was buried, after it, too, had been so long dead that
it was a malodorous relic of the British regime that
had long prevailed. The proceedings of the Con-
ference at that period differed, in many respects,
from the proceedings of an Annual Conference to-
day, particularly in what was known as "the exami-
nation of character." It seemed to be not only the
privilege, but the duty, of everybody who knew
little or much about a brother to have a say. The
man under examination retired, so that those who

Introduction. 15

had nothing good to say would not be embarrassed,
and so that the good things to be said might not
exalt him above measure. He was not required
to give any report of his work, and, except as to
those about to be admitted into full membership,
no committee had any report; and even that report
was quite a different affair from corresponding re-
ports to-day, and generally ran about thus: "Gram-
mar, good; geography, good; Wesley's Sermons,
good; Fletcher's Appeal, very good; Watson's In-
stitutes, only fair." Then came the representation
of his presiding elder, and then followed an expres-
sion of opinion as to general fitness for "the work"
by the Conference at large.

One case greatly interested me. William J.
Forbes had traveled that year on the Bloomfield
Circuit under John Miller, presiding elder. It was
the close of his second year, and he might be ad-
mitted if deserving. The report of the committee
on his studies was very complimentary. He was
good on everything, very good on several; but on
Watson's Institutes and Fletcher's Appeal, very ex-
cellent. Then came the presiding elder's repre-
sentation. It ran about thus: "This is a peculiar
case. Brother Forbes is a very good man and a
very good preacher, and the people love to hear
him. He reads a great deal, and understands what
he reads, and I am not surprised at the very favor-
able report of the committee ; but somehow or other
nobody is converted under his preaching — "

1 6 Rev. Joseph Tarkington.

"Let me ask Brother Miller a question," inter-
posed James Havens, jumping hurriedly to his feet.
"Does he make anybody mad?"

"O no! He is a sweet-spirited man; everybody
loves him; but somehow — "

"Then I am opposed to him," interrupted Mr.
Havens. "A man under whose preaching nobody
is converted and nobody made mad is not fit for a
Methodist preacher,"

How much farther this "examination of char-
acter" might have gone, if the case had been longer
open to general remarks, no one could tell; for, evi-
dently, Mr. Havens had sympathizers; but the
bishop cut it short by saying: "A young man that
reads a great deal, and understands what he, reads,
and preaches well, and that everybody loves, is a
safe case. All who will admit Brother Forbes, raise
your hands." And he was admitted. The incident
is, however, illustrative of one of the peculiarities
of the times, which often cropped out. Literary
attainments and habits of reading counted little, if
they were not a detriment, in the absence of
" 'rousements."

One of the incidents that illustrates the genius
of the Methodism of that period, was provoked by
John S. Bayless. He had married a well-to-do
young woman at Vincennes just before Conference,
and had brought her to Conference on a steamboat;
but as no provision had been made for entertaining
wives, she was entertained at Rising Sun. With no

In troductio7i . 1 7

fear of tradition before his eyes, he had had his
wedding-suit made by a tailor in the height of the
fashion. The fact that it was made of store-goods
was not of itself to be censured; for Edward R.
Ames, William H. Goode, and a dozen or more
others, wore store-goods; but the style of the
clothes gave offense. The pants were "tights," with
narrow falls; the coat was "pigeon-tailed;" and the
hat of the stovepipe variety, giving the wearer
a unique appearance in a body of Methodist preach-
ers in regulation uniform. This was too much of a
departure from traditional Methodism to go un-
rebuked; hence, Samuel C. Cooper offered a reso-
lution that every member of the Conference be re-
quired hereafter to wear to Conference straight-
breasted or shad-bellied coats, and breeches with
broad falls. It passed without a dissenting vote;
but more and more, from that on, preachers dressed
as they pleased, so that the cut of the coat or pants
is no longer a distinguishing badge of a Methodist

The most notable event of the session was the
first appearance at the Indiana Conference of Dr.
Simpson, the young president of Asbury University.
Comparatively few of the preachers had ever met
him. His personal appearance was a perpetual dis-
appointment. He was too youthful to meet ex-
pectation, being less than thirty years old, and his
dress was of jeans, neat and well-fitting; but not
what most expected of so distinguished a man. His

1 8 Rev. Joseph Tarkingtoyi.

praise as a preacher was in all the land, and every
one desired to hear him.

The opportunity came in a sermon on the cente-
nary of Methodism. The house was crowded, of
course. His text was Ezekiel's vision of the waters
flowing from the sanctuary. To intensify the efifect
of such a sermon as that must inevitably be, a fact
almost forgotten had much to do. To an extent
now hard to realize there had been going on in
England and America that discussion of the millen-
nium which culminated in the Millerism craze in
the early forties. There was every conceivable
shade of opinion as to just what the millennium
implied; but the general thought was, that whatever
it meant was near at hand, and the young president
had unconsciously imbibed more or less of the
vague and indefinable general thought, and so had
the preachers. This sentiment was so universal that
the traditional sermon on Calvinism at camp-meet-
ings and other popular occasions had largely given
way to a sermon on the triumphs of the gospel.

Imagine, therefore, a congregation largely com-
posed of Methodist preachers, all of whom believed
that some great moral victory was near at hand,
and some faint conception may be had of the prob-
able effect of such a graphic description as he gave
of the widening, deepening, healing waters that
Ezekiel saw would produce. Many of the preachers
were so overcome by emotion as to almost drown
the voice of the speaker, whose heart was quite as

Introduction. 19

much on fire as theirs. At one of his climaxes, an
intelligent lady, not usually excitable, jumped to
her feet, waving her parasol, and looking upward,
exclaimed, "Sun, stand thou still, and let the moon
pass by," repeating the sentence until some one
started to sing, while her immediate friends took
her out of the congregation.

Dr. Simpson was at once voted the prince of
pulpit orators, an opinion never reversed in Indiana
to the day of his death. Yet only a few thought it
the proper thing to do to elect him to the General
Conference that year. In the first place, he was not

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Online LibraryJoseph TarkingtonAutobiography of Rev. Joseph Tarkington, one of the pioneer Methodist preachers of Indiana → online text (page 1 of 10)