In my last blog, “We’re all pilgrims looking for home,” I mentioned having lived for a while at Rolling Acres Ranch when I was a boy of 12. That brought to mind a carpenter I remember now as “Old Tom” who came there for a few weeks in the fall to build a couple of camp cabins.
Old Tom – I think his last name may have been Thomson, or Thompson – was about the age I am now. (So, he wasn’t that old, eh.) He was tall and lean, rather reserved and dignified, and always impeccably dressed even in his work cloths: dark, sensible, broadcloth pants, vest, clean white shirt, and armbands that kept his sleeves safely up. I believe his background was Scottish Presbyterian, like a lot of born-and-raised people then in Egremont Township.
In the evening after dinner, he and “Dad” Brush would retire to the living room, where Old Tom always sat in the same rocking chair. Because I was the oldest of the boarding kids, but mainly I think because I did so much work down at the barn, I was allowed to take an after-dinner seat there too.
Old Tom had a routine: first, he would have his cup of hot water (for some reason, possibly for health reasons, he didn’t drink tea or coffee); then he’d play his fiddle for a while, with the Brush’s pet cocker-spaniel howling along as he played; but that never fazed him. Then, he and “Dad” Brush might talk for a while. I remember once Old Tom looked at my long, lean feet and predicted I’d grow up to be a “six-footer.” Well, I stopped about an inch short, but nobody’s perfect.
The one evening that stands out the most in my memory is when Old Tom took a notion to tell a story. I’ve often thought of it over the years. I’ve come to realize it was a piece of local, oral folk history, doubtless based on actual events that happened during and just after pioneer times in that area.
Old Tom told it better than I ever could, but I’ll do my best:
When the pioneers first arrived there was a preacher among them. He helped them build their homes and barns, and they helped him build a church. That too was considered a priority. The preacher was not a big man, but he was lean and wiry, and still apparently strong and fit, though it was hard to judge how old he might be.
Life in those early pioneer days was very challenging to say the least. There was little or no margin for error; otherwise, the consequences could be tragic. For example, you dare not fail to put aside a sufficient amount of firewood for winter, without risking sickness and death for your family, or yourself, come to that.
The preacher’s sermon every Sunday was designed to meet the needs of the pioneer community, by reminding them in no uncertain terms of the need to work hard, stay on the “straight and narrow” path, or risk God’s wrath and the awful flames of eternal hell. There were no two ways about it.
Every Sunday, week after week, year after year, he would work himself into a fine, old fury of righteousness as he delivered that stern message in his sermons. When the service was over the people always left feeling inspired to carry on, and well-entertained. He, with God’s help of course, was their rock.
But one day, in the very height of one such passionate sermon, the by-then, no doubt, old preacher suddenly dropped dead, in the pulpit, right there in front of them.
The shock ran through the congregation. Men and women ran to his aid. But it was no use. He was gone.
It took them a while to get their bearings. Someone had to write to church Presbytery authorities and tell them what had happened. A suitable funeral was held. And in due time the search for another preacher began; meanwhile, the local church elders did the best they could to ensure weekly services continued.
But the search for another preacher proved to be more difficult, and took longer than anyone had imagined. The weeks went by, and then months. But finally word came from Presbytery that a recent graduate from Bible college, a university graduate, in fact, had expressed heart-felt interest in moving up from the city to be their new preacher. He was willing to come for a while on a trial basis, and of course preach a few sermons. But the local elders wrote back and said, no, that was all right, tell him to come up and start work right away. After all, he sounded well-qualified. What could be the problem?
So, the Sunday of his first service the church was full as the congregation turned out to welcome the young man.
He certainly didn’t look at all like the old preacher: whereas he had been much shorter, though tough and wiry¸ this young fellow was overall bigger and taller; but there was a softness to the way he looked, like a son of the city, not a muscular, well-toned, hard-working “farm boy.”
Still the service went smoothly enough. He had a good singing voice that seemed to soar rather gently above the collective voice of the congregation during hymns. It wasn’t strident, or, well, dominant.
As he was about to begin his first sermon, the people became especially quiet with anticipation. They had been waiting so long for real “fire and brimstone” again.
But it didn’t happen, at least not like that. Instead what they got was something quite new and unexpected: a sermon about “The New Testament” of God’s love, about his generous willingness to forgive, about the gift of redemption. His voice was certainly audible and clear enough throughout the church, though he spoke rather more quietly than the old preacher ever had. At one point he seemed to raise his tone and slow down his delivery somewhat for emphasis, as he quoted the words of Jesus from the Gospel of St. Mathew:
“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
There was nothing wrong with that of course; after all, it was scripture.
But that was it, that’s where the sermon ended. There was no passionate crescendo of words, no sweat on the young preacher’s brow.
There was a collective air of unspoken disappointment in the church that day, some grumbling afterwards in homes. A few more-generous souls said, in so many words, “give him a chance, it’s just one service, one sermon.”
But his style and his message of God’s love, forgiveness and redemption continued much the same Sunday after Sunday. And gradually the unthinkable started to happen: attendance at church services fell off; and finally only a handful of people, and most of them women, took their usual seats in the pews.
Still, the young preacher persevered. He did not change his style, for want of a better word, or the message. And he continued his regular pastoral visits around the community.
One day a particular farmer noticed the preacher’s horse and buggy turn off the road into his long driveway. This man happened to have a dog known to be vicious. He normally kept the large animal tied up out of sight behind the house. But, for reasons known only to himself, he decided as the preacher’s buggy approached the house to let the dog off its chain.
He timed it perfectly; as the preacher had just got out of the buggy and put his feet on the ground, the dog came running, barking and growling, from behind the house and leaped into the air, it’s jaws open, gleaming, white teeth ready to strike the preacher’s throat.
He really had no time to think about what to do; his response was reactive and immediate. And in a moment the dog lay dead at his feet.
(During his telling of the story Old Tom used a certain gesture to describe what the preacher did. But I will spare the reader – many of whom are dog lovers, I’m sure – that graphic detail. Let imagination suffice.)
Without saying a word, the young preacher bent down and picked up the body of the dog, and gently lay it in the buggy. He took his own place on the seat again, called on his horse to “giddup,” and drove away.
That next Sunday, just a few days later, “the church was full,” Old Tom said emphatically, looking straight at me. And that’s where he ended the story.
I didn’t think about it much at the time. It was mostly an interesting story that held my attention all the way through. Funny how the mind works, how it sort of files things away in “important” folders to be remembered, and processed in some mysterious way. I’m sure there’s somebody somewhere who could explain how that happens.
But, be that as it may, I know that story has helped form my understanding of religion. And I think it speaks for itself in that regard.
I also think oral-history stories like that get changed and perhaps embellished a little as they pass by word-of-mouth from one story-teller to another. I will add the following to my version, with the explanation that I think it’s quite plausible it actually happened this way:
After those events took place, the young preacher acquired a dog, the same large, mixed-breed type of animal he had encountered that fateful day, right down to the colour. You’d almost think it was the same dog, but of course that’s not possible. Besides, by all accounts it was a gentle, good-natured creature.