Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Rural Parish A.D. 1800

For McCormick Speaking | c1948
By Jesse Halsey

East Hampton lies well toward the east end of that sand-spit known as Long Island, which like a sperm whale has its head anchored toward Manhattan and throws its double-pronged flukes a hundred and thirty miles out into the Atlantic. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, made a journey down the Island in 1800 and leaves a report of his impressions in his journal. One of the objectives of his long trek by horse-back and coach along the sandy trails through the scrub oaks, and dunes, and beside the water roads, was a visit to his former pupil Lyman Beecher, then the minister at East Hampton. A deep mutual affection existed between the young parson and his old professor. Beecher was thoroughly grounded in Dwight’s type of theology—liberal for its time.

The East Hampton Church, like several of its neighbors, was founded in the 1640s. They were called individually, The Church of Christ in East Hampton, Southampton, Southold, and so on. Congregational of necessity at first, by 1800 they were Presbyterian, at least in name, and Long Island Presbytery was one of the constituents of the first Synod (1717). These churches were closely allied geographically, ethnographically, culturally, financially, and every otherwise with New England; most of their ministers came from Yale college.

East Hampton Parish consisted of 300 souls scattered in several hamlets and centering in “the village” which sprawled around the Church. This stood near it on the east side of the Town Pond, the cemetery, and the Common. Across the street stood the Clinton Academy, the first of its kind in New York state. The steeple of the church, the cupola of the academy, and three towering Dutch windmills dominated the skyline. Scraggly elm trees, long since become stately, bordered the wide village street; sandy in the summer, a quagmire of mud in the springtime.

The manse, a gray-shingled salt-box house stood hard by the church. Its wide-planked floors like all other in the town were powdered with clean white sand from the ocean beach. The minister’s bride had received a gift in money from an uncle with which Beecher bought a bale of cotton. This, spun and woven into fabric, Mrs. Beecher determined to make into a carpet. She tacked it to the attic floor and on it painted a bright floral design of roses. This in due season was fitted to the living room floor. Soon after Deacon Talmadge made a call. As the deacon hesitated to enter the preacher said, “Come in, deacon, it is made to walk on.” The old deacon threw up his hands and exclaimed, “All this, and heaven too?”

“Wide was the parish, with houses far asunder,” as Chaucer says of his parson, but like his prototype Beecher, on horse-back and on foot, covered the territory between the village and the Springs, on Montauk 15 miles away where dwelt the remnants of an Indian tribe. With the fervency of youth and the zeal of the old time religion, the pastor went his rounds visiting and “holding meetings.” The trip to the Indian settlement entailed a toilsome journey across a trackless waste of sand called Nappeague, the ocean on one side and the bay that opened into Long Island Sound on the other. Here along the route in season there were wild grapes, blackberries, huckleberries, beach plums, and cranberries: with these the preacher kept his growing household well supplied.

Beecher was also an ardent fisherman and no mean hunter. There were several brooks along the trails through his parish and he would often bring home fish for supper, as he always carried tackle in the pockets of his long-tailed coat. On one occasion he hooked some fish, slipped them into the big pocket of his Sabbath coat, and forgot them until he appeared in the pulpit on the next Lord’s Day, when as he extracted his handkerchief, the remnant of the fish were revealed.

The young minister introduced the country-side to horticulture. Like Jonny Appleseed, he started trees, budded them, developed an orchard and taught his parishioners and neighbors to do the same.

The duel in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton called forth great indignation throughout the states. Beecher wrote a sermon condemning the practice, and after submitting it to his friend Lyon Gardner (the owner of a large island adjoining the mainland which had been entailed from his ancestors since 1638) preached it in his own pulpit, and again at a meeting of Synod in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and in new York City, where it gained newspaper publicity. This, historians say, was the beginning of the active agitation that led to legislation that outlawed the practice. Moreover, it gave the young country minister a national reputation.

Beecher had been preceded in his pastorate by Dr. Samuel Buell who served nearly sixty years. It was he who converted Sir William Erskine, the British general in command during the occupation of Long Island by the British. The conversion was not from Anglicanism to Presbyterianism, but to the patriot cause so that the general resigned his commission and went back to England. Dr. Buell had promoted several successful revivals and this, both in his day and in Beecher’s, was the criterion of a successful ministry. Moreover, Dr. Buell practiced what was known as “the half-way covenant,” that is, children were universally baptized regardless of whether their parents had communicant church connections or not. Beecher did not believe in this practice and frankly said so. This led to at least minor frictions with his deacons and congregation. Nonetheless, the young minister went from strength  to strength, and for ten years, with a series of revivals and by consistent pastoral ministrations built up his church in membership and influence, and his own influence in the Presbytery, and his reputation throughout the Island and southern New England.

Catherine Beecher, the oldest daughter, was herself a pioneer in education, writing extensively in magazines and books, not only about pedagogical theory but practical methods, including kitchen arrangements—with drawings attached. Years afterword, when most of the family had become farmers, in writing to her brother, Charles, she tells many interesting things about the East Hampton home where she was born. “Strict discipline—‘Mind your mother’; ‘Quick!’; ‘No crying’; ‘Look pleasant!’ These were words of command, obeyed with almost military speed and precision. This strong government was always attended with overflowing sympathy and love.”

The parson’s chief daily recreations were frolics with his children. “I remember him more as a playmate than in any other character during my childhood.” He was fond of playing pranks, for his amusement as well as that of the children. Once he swung Catherine out of the garret window by the hands to see if it would frighten her, which it did not in the least. Another time, as he was running past a washtub he ducked her head into it to see what she would do. “He taught me to catch fish and I was his constant companion, riding in his chaise in my little chair to the villages around where he went to hold meetings,” she writes. “As I grew older I began to share his more elevated trains of thought. By this intellectual companionship our house became in reality a school of the highest kind in which he was all the while exerting a powerful influence upon the mind and character of his children.”

The ocean was nearly a half-mile from the house. The roar could be heard any hour of the day or night and white sails could be seen from the windows. On the occasions of a northeast storm, members of the family often went down to watch from the shelter of the beach banks. There was a cranberry marsh between the village and the beach, and the dunes were covered with beach plums in season.

The children who in summer constantly played on the beach often played tag with the surf—“Sometimes we were overtaken and drenched. “ As they learned to swim they were taught to watch out for the “sea-poose” made by two waves meeting from opposite directions then creating a sort of suction-vacuum in their furious race back to the ocean.

With the other villagers they watched for the “weft” when a whale was sighted off-shore. The first to see it removed his coat and waved it, ran up along the beach-banks shouting, “Whale off!” “Whale off!” “When it came its strange wild notes poured out over the town. It seemed as though I could almost fly so great was my excitement,” wrote one of the children. Once, at least, the preacher went off with a village crew chasing a whale ten miles to sea.

Beecher was fond of hunting the wild birds—ducks and geese—which came in profusion every spring and fall. He once took his two boys, William and Edward, with him to fish for eels and “they brought back nearly a cartload of them.” They gathered beach plums by the bushel and these, with quinces and cranberries, were the common table sweetmeats.

Because of straightened finances, Mrs. Beecher kept a school for young ladies. The boarding pupils lived with the family; two English girls, one from Honduras, and several from Island villages as much as fifty miles away, all lived with the family. Mr. Beecher had learned to play the violin while in college and for the benefit of the girls “every day played the liveliest airs, but if any of the girls began to take a dancing step, he would make the violin give a doleful screech and thus ended every attempt to dance.”

One of the girls, Eleanor Lawless from Honduras (“as wild and untamed as her name”) brought a piano with her, the first ever seen in the village. No wonder that the house was filled with wondering and delighted listeners. The manse overflowed with young people and “father’s constitutional mirthfulness developed itself more freely than ever afterwards.”

During his pastorate Beecher was seriously ill for over a year, unable to preach and journeyed as far as Baldston Spa looking for a cure. His salary was promptly paid, however, and the deacons took responsibility for the conduct of the services. Toward the end of the year, Deacon Fithian refused to pay his tithe. “Why is it,” asked the deacon, “that ministers are so greedy for money? “That,” replied the minister, “is the only way to save the souls of some of their parishioners, they are so greedy themselves that we have to take it from them!”

A series of revivals attended Beecher’s ten year pastorate: “times of refreshing from the Presence of the Lord.” On one occasion one hundred were added to the membership of the church. The Infidel Club that was in the town, headed by a school teacher and a doctor, quietly broke up under the influence of Beecher’s logical preaching and his friendly ways that included the doctor and teacher on fishing and hunting trips.

Methodist evangelicals were “undermining” the (stolid) Presbyterian constituency here and there on the Island. One such itinerant drove into East Hampton. Beecher immediately went to the tavern, took the preacher home with him, entrained him royally, rang the church bell that evening, and loaned him the pulpit. Next morning the Methodist brother was seen leaving town, driving back toward New York, the last visit of a Methodist during Beecher’s time.

Family obligations (four children were born) led Beecher to ask for an increase in salary, which the congregation refused. He then moved to Litchfield, Conn., where Henry Ward and Harriet (Beecher Stowe) were born. The old church building is gone long since, though Beecher’s high pulpit is preserved in the Clinton Academy. The old windmills remain and one of them still grinds grist.

Beecher and his family went on from strength to strength—Litchfield, Boston, Lane—so that at his funeral in 1860 the officiating minister (Rev. Bacon) could say with some truth that the country was made up of “Saints, Sinnerx, and Beechers.”

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