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Iowa Historical Record Quarterly

Published Quarterly by the State Historical Society, Iowa City, Iowa

 

Volume X. July, 1894. No. 3.

SOME PIONEER PREACHERS OF IOWA.

 

     I have had it in mind to write my recollections of those ministers who came on the advance wave of civilization into the wilderness of Iowa Territory where I, as a child, listened to their preaching.
     In those days the groves and log cabins were "God's first temples," and the congregations were small, often consisting of two or three families, which, living within easy reach of the cabin of one of them, gathered together there with their little ones to "listen to the word." The minister on these occasions, performed the duties of choir leader and choir, and having preached the morning sermon, all sat down to the rude table, upon which was placed by the kind-hearted hostess. a bounteous meal, which of all the meals of the week it was the best that the circumstances of the family could afford.
     All this time the horses standing tied to the wagons were munching the green prairie grass which had been cut from a slough while on the way to this happy gathering.
     The afternoon services over, there came the hand shakings, the invitations to "come and see us," the preacher made his appointment to preach next Sunday at some other cabin where all knew there was welcome and plenty to eat. The "goodbyes" were said and each family hitching up its team tumbled the children in among the fresh prairie grass supplied by the host for the evening feed. All took their way straight across the prairie to their humble but happy pioneer homes. So many a Sunday was passed by the pioneer fathers and mothers with their children in the happiest of social intercourse. The women exhibited their new dresses made of twenty-five cent calico, not after the "modes de Paris," but each dress fashioned after the maker's taste, who also was the wearer; they compared their children as to the industry and smartness which they individually evinced, and wondered. the good aspiring souls, what sphere of usefulness they each would fill in after life. These holy aspirations of the pioneer mothers, as looking into the bright and prosperous future with an inspiration more than prophetic, not only pointed the way to success for their children, but laid down the precepts of a successful life and set a most industrious daily example to them. Nor were these fond hopes, these most holy whispered prayers, for a successful, manly life for their-offspring without avail, for I believe that no other pioneer community has ever surpassed them in giving to a state a more intelligent, patriotic body of citizens, and thus has the State of Iowa become a crown of glory to its pioneer mothers.
     But I digress. Among the ministers to come early into the Iowa wilderness, preaching, was Francis Bowman. He was quite a young man, full of energy and to him the infant capital of the Territory was indebted for its first Methodist Church. Mr. Bowman made a trip to the extreme eastern part of the United States, about 1840 or 41, as it seems to me, soliciting aid for the erection of this church, which now stands a monument to his energy. At that time I had an aunt, my mother's eldest sister, living in New York City. She, with her husband, was a devout Methodist, and after giving liberally of their means to the building fund for the church, she, the kind hearted soul, remembering the two little boys in my father's family, sent in Mr. Bowman's care, to them each a bright silver twenty-five cent piece. The minister soon after his arrival from his long journey came to my father's house to deliver messages from loving friends and relatives who, as it afterwards proved, had only a few years before bidden us a last and long farewell. He delivered the letters and messages, and then produced the silver quarters, such money then very scarce, and quite a curiosity with us. Taking us upon his knees the coins were given to us with the loving words from the kind hearted donor to "be good boys and use the money well." The minister talked to us about the building of the church, the need of money, and soon so impressed our childish fancies that we donated the gift to the building, and thus became of the founders of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Iowa City.
     Mr. Bowman married a niece of Mrs. Judge Hawkins, and after filling the pulpit of the new church for some time after its completion, he left Iowa City, and in after years became the founder of the Mount Vernon Methodist University, in Linn county. It is said that in 1843, during the excitement attending the "Millerite prophecies" to the effect that the world was about to come to an end through sudden destruction by fire. Mr. Bowman did not denounce these prophecies as false, but in his sermons bearing upon that subject contended that "they might be true." "Thus it was that he inaugurated and carried on for weeks the greatest revival meeting ever held in Iowa City. Nearly every body in the county joined the Methodist Church, including Tone Cole and Mrs. Dupont. John Powell, Mathew Teneyck Towner Andrews, my father Captain Irish, and S. H. McCrory were not moved by the preacher's eloquence, and firmly withstood the attack of "Zion's battalions." I heard a pious, well-intending Methodist say that if Brother Bowman could get the above named incorrigibles into the church "he then would have completely conquered the devil's kingdom in Iowa City."
     Among the first peripatetic Methodist preachers to come among us was a Mr. Taylor. He was a native of Virginia, and brought his family with him. He entered the lands afterwards owned by Mr. James Hill, at the place on the Dubuque road called the "Five Mile House," and lived there for a time. From his habit of shedding tears during his sermons he was given the soubriquet of "Weeping Jeremiah." He afterwards improved a farm near Gower's Ferry, and I believe died in California.
     But the leader of all the early circuit riders of the early times was "Father" Thompson, as he was familiarly called by all who knew him. He made his home in the beautiful grove on the Rochester road about three miles east of Iowa City and here he reared his very large family. Father Thompson was a large hearted, kindly man, who by his genial manners became endeared to all who knew him. He was an inveterate horse trader, so it was his habit to start on his circuit with three or four extra horses, and many a time he would return with two or three head more than he took away; but success was not always on his side of the bargain. The writer once heard him relate that on one of these trips he met with a lot of Hoosiers who succeeded so well in deceiving him in the swap which took place, that he found himself minus four good horses, and instead, the unlucky possessor of two very vicious, but fine looking ones; one of these would kick and bite so savagely as to be decidedly dangerous, the other would balk so bad that "it would not pull an old hen off her nest," and if a harness was put upon it, that horse would not move ahead a rod a day; would refuse to go until the harness was taken off its back; under the saddle it was the same, so he swapped them off for a rifle and four calico handkerchiefs. Preceding the advent of these "regular preachers," we had a class of irregulars, or "exhorters," as they were called. They, like St. John, went about the wilderness of groves and prairies, and would stop and preach to any family they might find domiciled in a cabin on their way. These preachers were men well along in years, had no fixed thoughts on religious subjects, but got off a sing song address containing many scriptural quotations. One of these wandering evangelists was murdered by the Indians quite early in the settlement of Johnson county. An account of this unprovoked murder will be found in early volumes of the Iowa Annals.
     Another of this class was a disciple of Miller, and wandered about the country preaching the final destruction of the world. This man's name was Click, and he was known as "Old Click." The people considered him crazy, and many were afraid of him, so his welcome was not as certain as that of the others. I well remember seeing him enter the Territorial Supreme Court room with his old black greasy bible under his arm; bareheaded he was, his long tangled gray hair hanging down over his shoulders, his clothing in tatters, but rudely mended; his manner that of great importance as he slowly marched up towards Judge Mason who was holding court. "Old Click " passed the barrier between the spectators and the lawyers, halted directly in front of the Judge, opening his bible he began, "A Prophet of the Lord has comeó" "Marshal, take that man into custody and out of this court room," thundered the Judge, drowning the remainder of Click's sentence. My father, who was acting marshal, went to the "prophet of the Lord" and taking him by the arm led him out without trouble, the prophet making no resistance; leaving him outside, the marshal returned and reported to the Judge that the man was of unsound mind and that he would be responsible for his future actions, so the Judge paid no further attention to the matter. My father always gave Click shelter and food when he came to our cabin, so the prophet had a revelation to the effect that he was, together with his family, one of the elect and would have a small fragment of undestroyed earth saved for his eternal abiding place.
     I never knew what became of this poor old fellow, he may have perished by the wayside as did his Indian compeer, the "Prophet Cow-an-jutan," who was wandering about among the white settlements at the same time.
     Another of these self-styled evangelists was an old man by the name of White. He always used the murder of the preacher, before spoken of, to arouse the tearful sympathy of his hearers. He often preached at my father's house and I have many times heard him descant upon that murder, which he always did in crying tones and copious tears. "Now my bretheree-ee-n and sisters-s, I shall go to-to-morrow-o-ah across-across the gree-een prahrees on foot-ah and alone-ah, to preach the word-ah of the gospel-ah to the weeked and rebellious people-ah of Bloomington-ah. But it may-ah be that you will-ah never a-gin see-see-ah poor old White-ah for-ah the woolves-ah--ah may pick-ah my poor old-ah bones on-ah on those beautiful-ah prahrees--ah and and-ah you will-a never see me any more-ah in this wicked-ah world-ah." This closing of his sermon he would wind up with a regular boo-hoo and sit down; often he would be joined in the lament by some of the females of his little congregation.
     It was this preacher of whom I have heard Peter Roberts relate a funny incident attendant upon one of his sermons. It was at the time when the basement walls of the Capitol were up to the water table and the workmen had constructed sheds inside the walls under which to work at stone cutting and other occupations incident to the construction of the edifice then going on. These sheds were often used to hold public meetings under, and, indeed, I remember a fourth of July celebration held there once. Well, Mr. White had announced that he would hold "Divine Service " in the basement of the new Capitol on a certain Sunday. Mr. Roberts with a companion, seeing the notice, went up to hear him. They found him seated under the shed looking over his text, they took seats, and after awhile, no others coming, the preacher began the services, which included the usual preliminary prayers, and the lining out and singing of a hymn, the latter all by himself.
     He then read his text and began on a sermon which was arranged in subjects all the way from "firstly up to six-teenthly." The sermon was a long one, and the preacher had proceeded as far as thirteenthly and the time about two o'clock, P. M., when in came Mr. Coe, to swell the congregation. The preacher paused while the new comer hunted up a slab out of which, with some rocks properly piled up, he constructed for himself a seat; that being accomplished and Coe seated, the preacher announced that "for the benefit of the brother who has just come in I will repeat what I have said," which he proceeded to do from firstly on to sixteenthly concluding with a lined out hymn and benediction.
     Mr. Roberts assured me that this account was no fiction and constituted the longest drawn out divine service that he had ever listened to.
     I would like to give an account of the Rev. J. W. Brier, one of our pioneers in the Iowa garden, who with, his wife made the trip overland to California, starting in 1849. Their party unfortunately took the southern trail from Salt Lake, and passed through the furnace of the then unknown Death Valley, losing all their outfit, many of their companions, and nearly all of their animals. It was to the hopefulness, courage and supreme physical power manifested in the slight form of Mrs. Brier, that any of them were saved. She was the only one, who in the last days of their sufferings, could arouse them and lead them on from the Valley of Death to the settlements of southern California. They now reside in the town of Lodi, in that State, enjoying the sunset of life, which with their experiences, is of itself a history of the privations, triumphs and joys of the lives of our illustrious pioneer fathers and mothers.

Washington, D. C., June 13th, 1894. CHAS. W. IRISH

 

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