Moncure Daniel Conway.

Autobiography, memories and experiences online

. (page 9 of 41)
Online LibraryMoncure Daniel ConwayAutobiography, memories and experiences → online text (page 9 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


were distant from each other five, ten, fifteen miles.

My first sermon was given in a small private house, ** brother
English's," at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 6. Text, Gen. xlix. 18,
" I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord." My first sermon in
a church was the next morning, April 7, at " Goshen," on Gen. iv.
9, '* Am I my brother's keeper ? "

The junior preacher is an annual, and his first appearance an
important event. Goshen was far away in the woods ; but the
region was populous, and when I rode up that Simday morning
I was appalled by the number of vehicles. And when I looked
down on the crowded seats and felt every eye fixed on me, I
had a sort of pulpit-fright. I felt that there would be a disap-
pointment. Had a written sermon been admissible I might
have had confidence, but one small page held all my notes.

I knew nothing whatever of anyone before me. Were they
educated ? Were they fond of rhetoric ? They were apparently
well-to-do people, and some impression was on me that a good
many belonged to fashionable churches. Not one of them knew
that I was about to give my first sermon in a church. I had
taken pains with the sermon, and suppose there may have been
some response, for I find that soon after I selected it to give
on my first appearance in Washington.

Among my old papers I have now and then come upon
mouldy skeletons of my earliest sermons. I cannot think what
flesh and blood clothed them, but find that I was in morbid
reaction against the worldliness my boyhood envied. On one
occasion, hearing that some Methodist young ladies had danced
at a ball, I preached so severely against such pleasures that the
family resented it and joined another church.



Digitized by



Google



CHAPTER IX.

My Early Ministry — Probation — Webster in the Supreme Court — ^The
Gaines Case — F. W. Newman's Book on " The Soul " — Studjring
on Horseback — A Round on Stafford Circuit — Sermon at Falmouth
— Samuel Janney — Quaker Meeting — Roger Brooke — Fairhill School
— Correspondence with Emerson — Visits to the Widows of John
Q. Adams and Alexander Hamilton — Kossuth in Washington —
Death of my Brother Peyton.

My uncle Dr. John Henry Daniel said to me, when I was leaving
home, " So you are going to be a ]oume3nnan soul-saver." I
did not begin life with that burden on me, and, when it came,
was too young to question whether it was part of me — my hunch
—or a pack of outside things like that strapped on Bunyan's
pilgrim. My pack was S3mibolised in my saddle-bags, where
the Bible, Emerson's Essays, Watson's Theology, Carlyle's
Latter Day Pamphlets, Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and
Dying, the Methodist Discipline, and Coleridge's Aids to
Reflection, got on harmoniously — for a time.

Dr. Daniel's label, " a joume5mian soul-saver," told true in a
sense ; it was really my own enmeshed soul I had to save. I was
struggling at the centre of an invisible web of outer influences
and hereditary forces. I was without wisdom. How many
blunders I made in my sermons, with which I took so much
pains, I know not, but I remember a friendly hint from the wife
of the Hon. Bowie Davis that a sermon of mine was too " agrarian."
In another case the recoil was more serious ; it came through my
presiding elder, who said, " From what I hear, a sermon of yours
on the new birth was too profound." This troubled me deeply.
I had supposed that Jesus meant to be profound, and put much
study into the sermon, the only favourable response to which
was from an aged negro woman, who, long after I had left Metho-
dism, laid her hand on my head and said, " I never knew what
the Lord meant by our being bom again until I heard you preach
about it, and, bless the Lord, it's been plain ever since ! "



Digitized by



Google



MONCURE D. CONWAY. 87

My early training in law courts determined my method of
preaching. In preparing a sermon I fixed on some main point
which I considered of vital importance, and dealt with it as if I A
were pleading before judge and jury. This method was not
Methodism. I was in continual danger of being " too profoimd,'*
and though congregations were interested in my sermons they
brought me more reputation for eccentricity than for eloquence.
This, however, was not a matter of concern to me. Ambition
for fame and popularity was not among my faults. My real
mission was personal — to individuals. In each neighbourhood on
my circuit there were some whom I came to know with a certain
intimacy, aspiring souls whose confidences were given me.
However far away I might be, they rose before me when I
was preparing for that appointment. No general applause
could give me the happiness felt when these guests of my heart
met me with smiles of recognition, or clasped my hand with
gratitude.

It was an agricultural region, in which crime and even vices
were rare. Slavery existed only in its mildest form, and there
was no pauper population to excite my reformatory zeal. Nor
was there even any sectarian prejudice to combat ; the county
was divided up between denominations friendly to each other
and hospitable to me. My personal influence was thus necessarily
hmnanised. I could not carry on any propaganda of Methodism
in the homes of non-Methodist gentlemen and ladies who enter-
tained me, even had I felt so inclined, without showing my
religion more narrow than theirs.

My belief is that I gradually preached myself out of the
creeds in trying to prove them by my lawyer-like method. More-
over, I had the habit of cross-examining the sermons of leading
preachers, finding statements that in a law court would have told
against their case. At a camp-meeting in 185 1 I learned that
our presiding elder was about to preach on the resurrection of
the body. I slipped into his hand the following query : —

A soldier fallen in the field remains unburied ; his body mingles
with the sod, springs up in the grass ; cattle graze there and atoms
of the soldier's body become beef ; the beef is eaten by a man who
suddenly dies while in him are particles of the soldier's body, con-
veyed to him by the grass-fed beef. Thus two men die with the



)(



Digitized by



Google



88 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

same material substance in them. How can there be an exact re-
surrection of both of those bodies as they were at the moment of death ?

The preacher read out the query, and said, " All things are
possible with God." Nothing more. It made a profound im-
pression on me that a divine should take refuge in a phrase.
The doctrine in question involved the verbal inspiration of
Scripture and the " Apostles* Creed."

I made a note of another thing at this camp-meeting. The
Rev. Lyttleton Morgan, an accomplished preacher, declared that
in his Passion and Crucifixion Christ suffered all that the whole
human race must have suffered in hell to all eternity but for that
/ sacrifice. At dinner some ministers demurred at this doctrine ;
I maintained that it appeared to be a logical deduction from our
theory of the Atonement.

Rockville Circuit being near Washington, I was able at times
to pass a few days in the capital, where I had relatives and ac-
quaintances. I attended the debates in Congress, and in the
Supreme Court, where I heard Daniel Webster's speech in the
famous Gaines case. It was a powerful speech, impressively
delivered, but I had sufficient experience in courts ^o recognise
several passages meant for the fashionable audience with which
the room was crowded. He was against the appellant, Mrs.
Gaines, who was pleading for her legitimacy as well as property,
and described his client persistently besieged by litigation as a
rock beaten by ocean waves. He drew all eyes on pleasant M)n^
Gaines, and I remember thinking the metaphor infelicitous. My
S3niipathies were with the lady, and the " rock " might S3mibolise
the stony heart of the man holding on to her property. But I
was so interested in Webster's look and manner that, in my ig-
norance of the evidence, my attention to what he said was fitful,
and the speech swas obliterated by the strange romance rehearsed
by the judges in their decisions. For it was in two volumes,
the minority opinion of Justice Wayne and Justice Daniel (my
grand-uncle) in favour of Mrs. Gaines being especially thrilling.
No American novelist would venture on such a tale of intrigue,
adultery, bigamy, disguises, betrayal, as those justices searched
through unshrinkingly, ignoring the company present.

On one of my visits to Washington I heard a sermon from
the famous Asbury Roszel which lifted the vast audience to



Digitized by



Google



MONCURE D. CONWAY. 89

exultation and joy. His subject was the kingdom of God and
triumphs of the Cross, and he began by declaring that it was
imiversally agreed that ideal government was the rule of one
supreme and competent individual head. This Carlylean senti-
ment uttered in the capital of the so-called Republic gave me ^
some food for thought at the tune ; and I remembered it when I \
awakened to the anomaly of disowning as a repubUcan the para-
phernalia of ro5ralty, while as a preacher I was using texts and
hymns about thrones and crowns and sceptres, and worshipping
a king.

My interest in party politics had declined ; I began to study
large human issues. One matter that I entered into in 185 1 ^
was International Copyright. On this subject I wrote an article
which appeared in the National Intelligencer. I took the manu-
script to the oflftce, and there saw the venerable Joseph Gales,
who founded the paper, and W. W. Seaton, the editor. Mr.
Seaton remarked that I was '* a very young man to be in holy
orders," and after glancing at the article said he was entirely
in sympathy with it. In that article I appealed to Senator
Sumner to take up the matter, and thenceforth he sent me his
speeches.

I little imagined how much personal interest I was to have
some years later in Gales and Seaton, who were among the
founders of the Unitarian church in Washington. I used some-
times to saunter into the bookshop of Franck Taylor, or that of
his brother Hudson Taylor, afterwards intimate Unitarian
friends, before I knew that there was a Unitarian chiwch in
Washington. From one of them I bought a book that deeply
moved me : " The Soul : her Sorrows and her Aspirations. By
Francis William Newman." I took this book to heart before I
was conscious of my unorthodoxy, nothing in it then suggesting
to me that the author was an unbeliever in supematuralism.

The setting given by Newman's book to Charles Wesley's
hymn, " Come, O thou Traveller unknown," made that hymn
my inspiration, and it has been my song in many a night wherein
I have wrestled with phantoms.

But my phantoms were not phantasms, and brought no
horrors into those beautiful woods and roads of Montgomery
County. These were my study. I was wont to start oflE to my



Digitized by



Google



go THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

appointments early, in order that I might have no need to ride
fast, and when clear of a village, take from my saddle-bags my
Emerson, my Coleridge, or Newman, and, throwing the reins on
my horse's neck, read and read, or paused to think on some point.

I remember that in reading Emerson repeatedly I seemed
never to read the same essay as before : whether it was the new
morning, or that I had mentally travelled to a new point of
t / view, there was always something I had not previously entered
into. His thoughts were mother-thoughts, to use Balzac's word.
Over the ideas were shining ideals that made the world beautiful
to me ; the woods and flowers and birds amid which I passed
made a continuous chorus for all this poetry and wit and wisdom.
And science also ; from Emerson I derived facts about nature
that filled me with wonder. On one of my visits to Professor
Baird at the Smithsonian Institution, I talked of these statements ;
he was startled that I should be reading Emerson, with whose
writings he was acquainted. At the end of our talk Baird said,
"Whatever may be thought of Emerson's particular views of
nature, there can be no question about the nature in him, and in
his writings : that is true and beautiful."

A college-mate, Newman Hank, was the preacher on Stafford
Circuit, Virginia, and it was arranged that for one roimd of
appointments he and I should exchange circuits. I thus preached
for a month among those who had known me from childhood.
Though few of them were Methodists, they all came to hear me,
and I suppose many were disappointed. I had formerly spoken
in their debating societies with the facility of inexperience, but
was no longer so fluent.

The culminating event was my sermon in our own town,
Falmouth. How often had I sat in that building listening to
sermons — Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian — occasionally falling
under the spell of some orator who made me think its pulpit the
simimit of the world ! How large that church in my childhood,
and how grand its assemblage of all the beauty and wealth ci
the neighbourhood ! When I stood in the pulpit and realised
how small the room was, and could recognise every face, and
observe every changing expression, and when I saw before me
my parents, my sister and brothers, with almost painful anxiety
in their loving eyes, strange emotions came to me ; the first of



Digitized by



Google



MONCURE D. CONWAY. 91

my phantoms drew near and whispered, " Are you sure, perfectly
sure, that the seeds you are about to sow m these hearts that
cherish you are the simple truth of your own heart and thought ? "(/^
My theme was that every human being is on earth for a purpose.
The ideal life was that whose first words were " I must be about
my Father's business," and the last, " It is finished."

When we reached home my uncle Dr. John Henry Daniel
said, " There was a vein of Calvinism nmning all through that
sermon." " I hate Calvinism," cried I. " No matter : the
idea of individual predestination was in your sermon. And it
may be true ! " My father was gratified by the sermon, but he
said, with a laugh, " One thing is certain. Mono : should the devil
ever aim at a Methodist preacher, you'll be safe ! "

In this sermon, which ignored hell and heaven, and dealt j(
with rehgion as the guide and consecration of life on earth, I //^/
had unconsciously taken the first steps in my " Earthward
Pilgrimage." When I returned to my own circuit, a burden
was on me that could not roll off before the cross.

Our most cultured congregation was at Brookville, a village
named after the race of which Roger Brooke was at this time the
chief. Our pretty Methodist Church there was attended by some
EpiscopaUan families — Halls, Magruders, Donalds, Coulters — ^who
adopted me personally. The finest mansion was that of John
Hall, who insisted on my staying at his house when I was in the
neighbourhood. He was an admirable gentleman, and so friendly
with the Methodists that they were pleased at the hospitality
shown their minister. Mrs. Hall, a grand woman intellectually
and physically, was a daughter of Roger Brooke. She had been
" disowned " by the Quakers for marrying " out of meeting,"
but it was a mere formahty ; they all loved her just as much.
Her Uberalism had leavened the families aroimd her. She was
not interested in theology, and never went to any church, but
encouraged her lovely daughters (of ten and twelve years) to
enjoy Simday like any other day. After some months she
discovered that some of my views resembled those of her father,
and desired me to visit him.

There was a flourishing settlement of Hicksite Quakers at
Sandy Spring, near Brookville, but I never met one of them,
nor knew an5rthing about them. " Hicksite " was a meaningless



Digitized by



Google



92 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

word to me. " Uncle Roger,** their preacher, was spoken of
throughout Montgomery County as the best and wisest of men,
and I desired to meet him. When I afterwards learned that
" Hicksite " was equivalent to " unorthodox,*' it was easy to
understand why none of them should seek the acquaintance of a
Methodist minister.

The Quakers assembled on first and fourth days, and hap-
pening one Wednesday to pass their meeting-house, I entered,
impelled by curiosity. Most of those present were in Quaker
dress, which I did not find unbecoming for the ladies, perhaps
because the wearers were refined and some of them pretty.
After a half-hour's silence a venerable man of very striking
appearance, over six feet in height and his long head full of force,
arose, laid aside his hat, and in a low voice, in strange contrast
with his great figure, uttered these words : " Walk in the light
while ye are children of the light, lest darkness come upon you.**
Not a word more. He resumed his seat and hat, and after a
few minutes* silence shook hands with the person next him ;
then all shook hands and the meeting ended.

I rode briskly to my appointment, and went on with my usual
duties. But this, my first Quaker experience, had to be digested.
The old gentleman, with his Solomonic face (it was Roger Brooke),
who had broken the silence with but one text, had given that
text, by its very insulation and modification, a mystical sug-
gestiveness.

After I had attended the Quaker meeting several times, it
was heard of by my Methodist friends. One of these, a worthy
mechanic, told me that Samuel Janney had preached in the
Quaker meeting, and once said that " the blood of Jesus could
no more save a man than the blood of a bullock.** This brother*s
eyes were searching though kindly.

Roger Brooke belonged to the same family as that of Roger
Brooke Taney, then Chief Justice of the United States. His
advice, opinion, arbitration, were sought for in all that region.
Despite anti-slavery and rationalistic convictions, he leavened
all Montgomery County with tolerance.*

♦ Helen Clark, daughter of the Right Hon. John Bright, showed me
a diary written by Mr. Bright's grandmother, Rachel V^lson, while
travelling in America in 1768-^. She was a much esteemed Quaker



Digitized by



Google



MONCURE D. CONWAY. 93

One morning, as I was riding off from the Quaker meeting,
a youth overtook me and said imcle Roger wished to speak to
me. I turned and approached the old gentleman's carriole.
He said, " I have seen thee at one or two of our meetings. If
thee can find it convenient to go home with us to dinner, we
shall be glad to have thee." The faces of his wife and daughter-
in-law beamed their welcome, and I accepted the invitation.
The old mansion, " Brooke Grove," contained antique fimiiture,
and the neatness bespoke good housekeeping. So also did the
dinner, for these Maryland Quakers knew the importance of good
living to high thinking.

There was nothing sanctimonious about this home of the
leading Quaker. Uncle Roger had a delicate hmnour, and the
ladies beauty and wit. The bonnet and shawl laid aside, there
appeared the perfectly fitting " mouse-colour " gown of rich
material, vdth unfigured lace folded over the neck, and at a
fancy ball it might be thought somewhat coquettish.

They were fairly acquainted with current literature, and
though not yet introduced to Emerson, were already readers of y
Carlyle. I gained more information about the country, about
the interesting characters, about people in my own congrega-
tions, than I had picked up in my circuit-riding. After dinner
imcle Roger and I were sitting alone on the veranda, taking our
smoke — ^he with his old-fashioned pipe — and he mentioned that
one of his granddaughters had rallied him on having altered a
Scripture text in the meeting. " In the simplicity of my heart
I said what came to me, and answered her that if it was not what
is written in the Bible. I hope it is none the less true." I after-
wards learned that he had added in his reply, " Perhaps it was
the New Testament writer who did not get the words quite right."
I asked him what was the difference between " Hicksite " and
" orthodox " Quakers ; but he turned it off with an anecdote
of one of his neighbours who, when asked the same question,
had replied, "Well, you see, the orthodox Quakers will insist
that the Devil has horns, while we say the Devil is an ass." I
spoke of the Methodist ministers being like the Quakers, " called

preacher, and gives a pleasant account of her visit to the Friends at Sandy
Springs, where she was received in the home of Roger Brooke. This was
the grandfather of our ** uncle Roger."



Digitized by



Google



94 THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

by the Spirit " to preach, and he said, with a smile, " But when
you go to an appointment, what if the Spirit doesn't move you
to say an3rthing ? "

Uncle Roger had something else on his mind to talk to me
about. He inquired my impression of the Quaker neighbour-
hood generally. I said he was the first Quaker I had met, but
the assembly I had seen in their meeting had made an impression
on me of intelligence and refinement. For the rest, their houses
were pretty and their farms bore witness to better culture than
those in other parts of the county. *' That I believe is generally
conceded to us," he answered ; " and how does thee explain this
superiority of our farms ? " I suggested that it was probably
due to their means and to the length of time their farms had
been under culture. The venerable man was silent for a minute,
then fixed on me his shrewd eyes and said, " Has it ever occurred
to thee that it may be because of our paying wages to all who
work for us ? "

For the first time I found myself face to face with an avowed
aboUtionist ! My interest in politics had lessened, but I re-
mained a Southerner, and this economic arraignment of slavery
came with some shock. He saw this and turned from the subject
to talk of their educational work, advising me to visit FairhiD,
the Friends* school for young ladies.

The principal of the school was William Henry Farquhar,
and on my first visit there I heard from him an admirable lecture
in his coiu-se on History. He had adopted the novel method of
beginning his course with the present day and traveUing back-
ward. He had begim with the World's Fair, and got as far as
Napoleon I. — subject of the lectiu-e I heard. It was masterly.
And the whole school — the lovely girls in their tidy Quaker
dresses, their sweet voices and manners, the elegance and order
everywhere — filled me with wonder. By this garden of beauty
and culture I had been passing for six months, never imagining
the scene within.

The lecture closed the morning exercises, and I had an oppor-
tunity for addressing the pupils. I was not an intruder, but
taken there by Mrs. Charles Farquhar, daughter of Roger Brooke
and sister-in-law of the principal, so I did not have the excuse
that it would not be " in season " to try and save some of these



Digitized by



Google



MONCURE D. CONWAY. 95

sweet sinners from the flames of hell. It was the obvious duty
of the Methodist preacher on Rockville Circuit to cry : " O ye
fair maids of Fair HiD, this whited sepulchre of imbelief — ^not
one of you aware of your depravity, nor regenerate through the
blessed bloodshed — ^your brilliant teacher is luring you to hell !
Those soft eyes of yours will be lifted in torment, those rosebud
mouths call for a drop of water to cool your parched tongues ;
all your affection, gentleness, and virtues are but filthy rags,
unless you believe in the Trinity, the blood atonement, and in
the innate corruption of every heart in this room ! '*

But when the jimior preacher is made, the susceptible youth
is not unmade. According to Lucian, Cupid was reproached by
his mother Venus for permitting the Muses to remain single,
and invisibly went to their abode with his arrows ; but when
he discovered the beautiful arts with which the Muses were
occupied, he had not the heart to disturb them, and softly crept
away. This pagan parable of a little god's momentary
godlessness may partly suggest why no gospel arrows were shot
that day in Fairhill school ; but had I to rewrite Lucian's
tale I should add that Cupid went off himself stuck all over with
arrows from the Muses' eyes.

However, Cupid had nothing to do with the softly feathered
and imperceptible arrows that were going into my Methodism ^^
from the Quakers, in their homes even more than in this school.
I foimd myself introduced to a circle of refined and cultivated
ladies whose homes were cheerful, whose charities were constant,
whose manners were attractive, whose virtues were recognised
by their most orthodox neighbours ; yet what I was preaching
as the essentials of Christianity were unknown among them. These



Online LibraryMoncure Daniel ConwayAutobiography, memories and experiences → online text (page 9 of 41)