J.A. Mattern, "The Pioneer Preacher" by T.A. McNeal, Barber County, Kansas Barber County, Kansas.  

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Reverend J.A. Mattern


From When Kansas Was Young, pages 129 -132.

"The Pioneer Preacher"

by Thomas Allen McNeal

The other day in running over some old newspaper files I noted the assignment of Methodist preachers for the Larned district, back in 1879. Among the number was Rev. J. A. Mattern, assigned to Medicine Lodge. Mattern really started the Methodist church in Medicine Lodge. True, there were a few Methodists among the early settlers and occasionally a Methodist preacher would wander out that way and hold services in the old frontier schoolhouse, but to Mattern must be given the credit for building the first church and getting the flock together as a permanent congregation.

Mattern was not gifted with eloquent diction nor was his mental equipment great. It may be said to his credit, however, that he did not pretend that he possessed either. He was just an humble laborer in the vineyard, ready to go anywhere he was sent and to perform without complaint any drudgery that might be imposed upon him.

His ambition was to build a church in the frontier town. There were not many Methodists there and what few there were, were not possessed of much wealth, but that fact did not discourage Mattern. He made arrangements with a man by the name of Hartzell to burn a kiln of brick to be used in making the walls of the church, and in the making of these brick he made a full hand and more. Day after day he shoveled the mud into the machine which ground the clay and moulded the brick, and then with an eager industry he helped to pile the moulded brick into the kiln. At night he helped to keep up the fires until at last the brick was burned. Then he toiled in loading the brick into wagons and hauling them to the site for the future meeting house. When it came to building the church Mattern was the most industrious and efficient man on the job, so far as tending the masons was concerned.

All day long he carried the hod with no thought of financial recompense and on Sunday conducted the regular services, morning and evening. His sermons were not models of either thought or diction, but the genuine earnestness and conscientiousness of the man won him many friends among the hardy men of the frontier. At last after months of the hardest kind of grueling toil the ambition of the humble preacher was realized. The church was completed and for the first time Medicine Lodge boasted of a house of worship - and the church was made of brick.

Rev. Bernard Kelly, better known as "Barney Kelly", came down from Wichita to conduct the dedication services and also to collect the money necessary to lift the debt incurred in erecting the building. At that time, forty years ago, Barney was in his prime, between forty and fifty years of age. He was as vigorous as a well-fed two-year-old colt and as full of sap as a sugar maple tree in the spring. As a collector of pledges at a dedication he had few equals and no superiors. He seemed to exercise a sort of hypnotic influence on men who were natural tightwads, and under the spell of his vigorous appeal they would obligate themselves to an extent which astonished their neighbors and which probably caused them some regret after they had come out from under the influence which induced them to make the promise.

On the day of the dedication the new church was crowded to the doors, and Reverend Barney was at his best. I think I never saw a man perspire so freely or with more effect. Those who are acquainted with this well known divine know that a distinguishing feature of his countenance is a nose of Grecian architecture and rather remarkable length. As he warmed to his work he left the pulpit proper and paced back and forth just behind the altar rail. The perspiration trickled from the end of his olfactory organ like sugar water dripping from the spile in a fresh tapped maple tree and splashed on the heads of those who had been crowded into the front row. A baldheaded man or two who happened to be crowded up against the outer edge of the altar rail, protested mildly against the involuntary baptism, but for the most part the audience was so interested in the fervent appeal that they paid no attention to the gentle shower of perspiration and felt, no doubt, that they were simply sitting, as it were, under "the drippings of the sanctuary."

At that time I was young and single and not affiliated with the Methodist church or any other, but had been attracted to the service, perhaps largely through curiosity. Rev. Barney Kelly did not know me, but some one had pointed me out to him as the editor of the town paper. I had taken a seat pretty well back beside one of the young matrons of the town, who was accompanied by an active and interesting child about two years old. The baby thought I looked friendly and climbing up on my lap was busily engaged in examining my neck-tie of somewhat loud and inharmonious pattern.

Pledges were commencing to come thick and fast when it suddenly occurred to Elder Kelly that there was no secretary to make a record of them. Looking over the crowd, he said: "Here, we must have a secretary. I see brother McNeal, the young editor of your local paper, sitting back there. Here, brother McNeal, just put your child over on its mother's lap and come forward and take down these subscriptions." In a frontier town and neighborhood everybody knows everybody else and all of them knew me. Instantly that house of worship was filled with unholy mirth, the loud and coarse laughter of the rude men from the range, mingling with the shrill cachinations of the female part of the audience. Personally I did not join in the hilarity and neither did the mother of the baby, but we two formed the entire minority. Barney saw that he had made a mistake but was not dashed in the least, only remarking that if brother McNeal was not married he ought to be and then returned to the work in hand: "Who is the next brother who wants to have the privilege of subscribing $50?"

During the years which have come and gone since that day, the Rev. Barney Kelly has told this story frequently and with great enjoyment, but I have observed that in later years he is getting his dates mixed. The last time I heard him tell the story he said that on that occasion he met the town marshal, Jerry Simpson, who introduced himself and said: "I suppose you are brother Kelly who has come down to dedicate our church?"

Barney said that he was much impressed with the appearance of Jerry and told the Republican politicians when Jerry was nominated for Congress that he was a dangerous opponent and that unless they put up a great campaign he would be elected. The fact was, however, that Jerry did not come to the county for three years after the church was dedicated and was not appointed town marshal for ten years after the dedication, and furthermore Jerry was a well known heretic both in politics and religion who didn't care a hoot whether there was any church.

In reading over this story I observe that the Rev. Mr. Mattern seems to have sort of faded out of it, but that really was characteristic of the man. He was ready any time to efface himself, glad of the opportunity to be just an humble gleaner in the vineyard.

I have often wondered what has become of him.


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