Old Valley Meeting House

The Register,

Thursday, May 5, 1904


(Written for the Register)

The Old Valley Meeting House

It stood where three roads met, an old fashioned, barn-like structure, with rows of many paned, uncurtained windows; its clapboarded sides innocent of paint, but bleached by the sun and storm to a soft, gray color, that blended well with the green fields and meadows which surrounded it.

Around it stood a row of lofty elms, planted by some brother with anusual sense of beauty, their drooping branches shading the bare windows from the glare of the summer sun.

Under the trees were a few hitching posts, but most of the teams were tied to the pole fence, that meandered along the south and east sides of the yard, and whose corners in summer were filled with daisies and buttercups, and later on by great bunches of golden rod, or “yaller weed,” as the farmers called it.

Over the east fence ran a riotous tangle of blackberry bushes, white as snow with blossoms in early summer, and loaded with luscious fruit in autumn. Here the patient horses shivered in the icy blasts of winter, or stamped and switched away the tormenting flies in summer. Horse sheds were things unknown in those times.

Over a mossy doorstone, sunk deep in white clover and green grass, you entered a low porch on the west end of the house, and passed through narrow, double doors to the interior of the old building. Here were rows of wide seated, high backed pews, above whose tops the heads of the children barely showed when they stood on the floor. From the doors, on each side, extended a wide pew which was always regarded by our childish minds as the “seat of the scornful” spoken of in the psalm. This was the usual seat of the toughs of the neighborhood, and many and varied were the carvings rudely executed in the wide pine board that formed the front of the pew. Among the rest were cows with wide spreading horns, and ships under full sail, familiar objects to the occupants of the pew.

Against the north and south walls were the wall pews, raised a step above the floor and separated from the body pews by narrow aisles, meeting at right angles a broader one which crossed before the pulpit. Here were the wing pews, where sat the “Parson’s folks,” and some of the deacons’ families, as far removed from that wicked back seat as possible.

Around three sides of the building was a deep gallery, in the middle of which, facing the pulpit, was the “Singing Seat,” and on either side more pews. In the east end, between two windows, was the pulpit, reached by a steep flight of narrow stairs, and directly above it hung the sounding board, shaped like an old fashioned tea tray, and suspended, as we used to believe, in some miraculous manner above the preacher’s head. Afterward, when we discovered it was held up by a hook, we used to wonder what would happen if that hook should break in sermon time.

Just in front of the doors was the great box stove, red with rust in summer, and glowing with fervent heat in winter. From it, rusty pipes zig-zagged across the house to the chimney, upheld by wires that sprawled, like huge spiders, over the ceiling.

At the evening services, light was furnished by tallow candles, brought by the worshipers and stuck in queer tin candle sticks, hung on the walls, and on the great wooden posts which supported the gallery. From the corners of the pulpit sprang gracefully curving wires ending in wonderful tin lilies whose cups held each a candle. Where are those lilies now? Probably long ago thrown away as useless rubbish.

Long before the hour for service the people would begin to assemble, and gather in little groups, to talk over the news. As there were not many papers in those days, and about the only one taken by the old farmers was the Christian Messenger, the news in which had become history before reaching them, the time before meeting was a golden opportunity to gossip in a friendly way. Outdoors, the older men in their homespun and homemade suits, swapped, not horses (as that was a sin to be visited with stern reprimand from the Elder, and if they ever did they “exchanged animals for a slight consideration” – none but hardened characters “swapped horses”), but they compared notes as to the state of the weather, or the crops and like matters of interest; while the younger men leaned on the fence, to watch the girls go into the old church. Inside, the old ladies, each with a sprig of southernwood or caraway seed, and a flower or two in her hand, talked over the new bonnets and babies, and told how many pounds of butter old Brindle made last week, till the minister was seen crossing the hollow. Then they took their seats and waited, while the Pastor, a small, spare man, but with enough dignity for one twice his size, walked slowly up the aisle, pausing in front of the little hinged communion table in the deacon seat to deposit, hat, gloves, and muffler, before climbing the pulpit stairs. He was a little man, with thin hair brushed carefully from the back of his neck to a point in the middle of his forehead, and an anxious expression of countenance But, though small, he was a great expounder of scripture, strong in the doctrines of regeneration, predestination and election, and a mighty destroyer and downpuller of the strongholds of sin and Satan. When he preached on such themes as dancing, card playing, and the final destruction of the wicked, sinners grew pale, and the back seat trembled in its shoes.

Slowly and solemnly, the deacons took their places in the deacon seat, each, as he passed it, carefully standing his beaver hat on the anxious bench, just in front of the front pew.

Good old Deacon Jones, with his snow white hair, Roman nose, broad Scotch brogue, and decided limp, one leg having been left shorter then the other by an illness in his youthful days! Of him it might be truly said “he was known by hi walk and conversation.” Deacon Jenkins, from the mountain, a tall thin man, who wore a high white beaver, and an immense black satin stock, and with a shirt collar so high that the irreverent black seat affirmed “that he stood on a chair to spit over it”; Brother Smith, whose shoulders were bowed by hard work, who sung through his nose, and who was so steeped in tobacco that we always wondered what the angels would do with him when he got to heaven; and so on through the list of worthy men, seven or eight of them, grave and solemn men they were, who took life seriously, and regarded it as a sin to laugh on the Sabbath day.

One after another the farmers file in, each bringing his long whalebone whip, if he has one, in his hand. Taking his seat, he stands the whip in the corner of his pew, and wipes his face with a huge red handkerchief.

Now the pastor rises in the pulpit, and blowing his nose like a trumpet, gives out a hymn from “Dr. Watts collection” – eight or ten stanzas in length. The choir in the gallery stand up, all the rest of the congregation remaining seated, while the chorister, a short, stout man, struck his tuning fork on his knee, held it to his ear, and singing, Do, Sol, Mi, Do, started the hymn to the tune of Antioch, New Jerusalem, or Blow ye the Trumpet, Blow, New Jerusalem being a favorite and usually sung at least once every Sunday. Away they go, the soprano carrying the “air”, the counter taking the top line, and the bass growling and rumbling along after them, but generally managing to catch up on the last line, and all come out together at the end of the verse. In the absence of the regular chorister, Brother Steadman used to set the tunes with a natural tremolo in his voice that would make a modern soloist turn green with envy, but with an ear so true that he seldom failed to strike the exact pitch without the aid of a tuning fork. To hear him sing, “Our daays aare aas thee graas, or liike aa moorning flowwer,” to his favorite tune Boylston, was something long to be remembered. Once a daring innovator brought a violin into the choir. He played through the first tune, but promptly subsided, when the pastor announced that “the choir will now sing and fiddle the 63rd hymn, long metre”.

Occasionally the pastor would invite all to sing, but congregational singing was not encouraged by the choir. On one such occasion, when his request had not been responded to, he quoted let those refuse to sing, who never knew our God, but children of the Heavenly King must sound his praise abroad. Needless to say that all joined in singing the next hymn. Some few musical souls outside the singing seat were always ready to help. Sister Content Brown, who sat by a window, and who had a high pitched squawky voice, and sang with a time and tune peculiarly her own, always came out half a line behind the rest, to the great edification of the back seat. Old Brother Mills, from the Bay Shore, fairly revelled in St. Martin’s, and whenever it was sung stepped out into the aisle, carefully adjusted his spectacles on his nose, and then shutting both eyes, sang with might and main, regardless of choir or chorister. And there were others, besides.

After the hymn came the prayer, during which we all stood with our backs to the pulpit, while the pastor led his hearers over all the habitable globe, to the uttermost ends of the earth, remembered the heathen who dwelt in the habitations of cruelty; prayed for our Queen and all the Royal family, collectively and individually, and for those in authority under them and over us; our institutions of learning, our brethren who are soon to meet, in an associated capacity, (referring to a yearly business meeting of the churches); and after further instructing the Lord as to his duties, both politically and socially, closed, while the deacons responded, Amen ! and the congregation thankfully sat down.

A long chapter from the Bible came next, the Pastor explaining obscure passages as he went along. After another hymn the good man takes his text, to which we children pay strict attention, well knowing that we shall be called upon to repeat it after dinner. Then, while the sermon proceeds, learned and logical, from firstly to seventhly and lastly, my brethren, we look about for something to while away the weary hours.

We count the panes of glass in each window and find there are twenty; then counting the windows, try to reckon how many there in the whole building, but soon tire of this, as every new computation differs from the preceding one.

Presently our eyes are drawn to watch Mart, who sat in the back sat, and who went through the most aweful grimaces every few minutes. The poor fellow could not help it, being a sufferer from some nervous affection, but why he did it was beyond us children then.

One after another, the tired farmers, worn by their long week’s work in the hot fields, and soothed by the monotonous tones of the speaker, would begin to nod, and after making desperate efforts to keep awake, would drop off to sleep, to be aroused by a punch in the ribs from the elbow of a scandalized wife. Waking with a start they would straighten up and look about with a bewildered air, only to repeat the performance a minute later. At last, when the limit of our endurance is about reached, the welcome Amen is heard, and the pastor, leaning over the front of his pulpit, calls on Brother Jones to “lead us in prayer.” Slowly rising to his feet, and loudly clearing his throat, the good brother, with a fluency gained only by long practice, would present his petitions at the Throne of Grace, not forgetting to implore the lord “to pardon and forgive all our pasture fences” – at least that was how we understood it. A very appropriate petition it seemed to us, too. When he closed, two other deacons, each taking a tall hat, passed up and down the aisles, taking up the collection. We always wondered if any change ever caught in the lining when the hats were emptied.

The appointments for the following week were next in order. Divine Service will be held in this house next Lord’s day morning, D. V.; a prayer meeting will be held at Sister Green’s, beginning at early candle light; other in other parts of the wide field; and a Bible class will meet at the parsonage next Friday evening to pursue the study of God’s word. Then the pastor announced “that marriage is intended between Susan Smith and Jonathan Brown, two estimable young people,” at which the young folks smile and the old ladies try to look as if they had known it all along.

The benediction pronounced, the congregation passed reverently out, lingering about the door to shake the hand of their beloved pastor to whom they brought their joys and sorrows, sure of hearty sympathy and wise counsel. A shrewd business man, he drew up their wills, and wrote the deeds to their farms, managing their temperal as well as their spiritual affairs for them. A man loved and revered alike by saints and sinners, and well known and respected throughout the country.

The trees still wave as in the days summer winds sigh through their drooping branches as they bend mournfully over the desolate site, but the old meeting house is gone. Torn down by sacrilegious hands for the sake of the fine lumber of which its pews were built. Was there no public spirit in the land that such a thing could be permitted – That the venerable building, hallowed by so many precious memories, should be so ruthlessly destroyed for a few paltry dollars?

Across the hollow, in the old burying ground, where the wild roses blossom, and the birds sing all day long, on the white stones so thickly set, you may read the names and ages of pastor and people. But they themselves have joined the great company that no man can number, and are tuning harps of gold in the New Jerusalem of which they sang so exultantly.

Some of their descendants still live in the lovely valley, while others have wandered far to distant lands. As for me, could I sit once more in that old pew, and see once more the dear faces on which I used to look, earth for me could hold nothing further.