Project Canterbury

My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter IX. Some Wyoming and Idaho Missionaries

AMONG the most serious difficulties which confront a western missionary bishop is that of securing well-equipped ministers to assist him in his work. The salaries are necessarily so small that he is compelled to insist that men shall come unmarried, and this condition is made more imperative from the fact that social life in the mining-camp renders it a very undesirable place for women and children. As a result, the bishop must either take young, inexperienced men fresh from the seminaries, or he becomes the victim of a certain type of nomadic clergymen who move from diocese to diocese, never remaining long in one place because never succeeding anywhere. Thus, while the very wisest, most efficient, and devoted men are required to cope with the peculiar difficulties of a new country, and lay wisely the foundations of a new Christian civilization, such men are simply beyond his reach, save in a few exceptional cases. If a zealous and gifted young man is moved in his heart to go West, his success soon makes him a shining-mark for some comfortable Eastern parish, and he is lost to the missionary field. Such men frequently accomplish excellent work while they remain, and I am glad to observe that a much larger number of well-equipped men are offering themselves year by year for this glorious work. Indeed, the tide of the missionary spirit is steadily rising, and the time is not far distant when, by virtue of the growing enthusiasm for missions, the church's noblest and best young men will claim the privilege of having a share in this heroic work in the mission field. It has never seemed to me too much to ask that every young clergyman who consecrates his life to the service of his fellow-man should be willing to spend at least the first four or five years of his ministry in the difficult and isolated stations of the church's frontier.

When, in 1887, I found myself the Bishop of Wyoming and Idaho, there were eight clergymen of our church in the entire field, four in one territory and four in the other. The work had suffered sadly from the lack of Episcopal supervision, owing to the long vacancy; and it was evident that if any advance was to be made recruits must be secured. The case was so desperate that I felt disposed to take almost any earnest and godly man, whether an ordained clergyman or not.

It was at this time that I received a letter from a young Irishman. He informed me that he had just read in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette that I was the youngest Bishop in the American church, and that I had the largest diocese; that I was sadly in need of men; and that my people were composed largely of miners and cow-boys and Indians. He begged to offer himself unreservedly for the work in my great territory. He was sorry that he was only a layman, but hoped some day to be ordained, and reminded me that he had had much experience in making addresses and in Christian work; that he was in the employ of the Primitive Methodist Evangelization Society, an organization in communion with the Church of Ireland, which had for its object preaching the simple Gospel to the poor and neglected; that he was associated with a number of young men in this good work, and, having been blessed with a measure of success, felt anxious to cast in his lot with me in the Far West. He added, that so far as salary was concerned, that was a matter of indifference to him, as his great object was to win souls, and he felt sure that the Lord would provide for his temporal needs. In my dire extremity I could not but regard this letter as providential, though I felt the importance of proceeding with all due caution. I replied that I was greatly pleased with the tone and spirit of his letter and his evident zeal in the good cause; that I was disposed to consider his application for work, only I must ask him to be good enough to refer me to some prominent clergymen and laymen who knew him well, and to whom I could write for information as to his qualifications and character. In due course of mail I received another letter with the names of well-known dignitaries in the Irish church to whom he referred me. I wrote them, and I was fully reassured by their letters that the young man was entirely sincere and of an unblemished record, and that he possessed gifts which would fit him for a successful work. I therefore determined to receive him. Knowing that he was without funds, I sent him a draft for fifty dollars to help defray his expenses. In anticipation of his coming I arranged with the people in a coal-mining town in Wyoming to receive him as their missionary. The salary, even when supplemented by a small grant from the Board of Missions, was small; but the little flock was delighted at the prospect of having a pastor settled among them. My only regret was that his stipend was necessarily so inadequate, but I hoped that, being all alone, he could with economy manage to get on. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when a few days later I received a letter from him stating that my draft had reached him, and, while it was entirely unexpected, yet it was none the less acceptable; that he intended to sail in less than a week, and that, owing to the "mildness of the climate and the salubriousness of the air," of which he had read in the encyclopaedias, he proposed to bring a wife along with him. This was almost too much even for Episcopal patience; but I was powerless. Already my young friend and his bride must have sailed. It was impossible to head him off by cable, I hastened over to the mining-camp, and met in the evening at the company store around the stove, the prominent men of the little flock, and laid before them the sad predicament in which I found myself. Now, what could be done? The wife was surely coming. Immediately the mining boss spoke up:

"Look here, Mr. Bishop, that's all right. Don't you worry about that young wife. The one thing this here camp needs is a nice lady. We're glad he's going to bring his bride. We can raise twice as much money for her as we can for the parson. I'll go around among the boys, and I know many of them will double their subscriptions when I tell them the good news. We'll take care of them all right."

So I was in a measure comforted. I then began to be apprehensive about the severe climate in that bleak Wyoming camp, where the wind howled continuously, and snow might be expected almost every month in the year. It was evident that my young friend had been reading about Southern California, and the tropical regions of America, and supposed he was coming into a land smiling with plenty and abounding in luxuriant flowers and vegetation. When he actually arrived and got off the train in the midst of a raging blizzard, it is said he looked around with evident dismay and inquired: "But where are the poincapples?" But whatever disappointment the weather may have caused him and his charming young wife, there was no disappointment for the people themselves. He proved to be a jewel, and soon won the hearts of the miners and their families; and, as to the young wife, she was greatly beloved. In the fullest sense she was a helpmeet to her husband, unselfish, gentle, devout, scrupulously neat as a housekeeper. The humble rectory soon became the centre of refining and elevating influence in the little community. After they had been there some months I made my first visitation to the mission where the young man had done such excellent work. Having received with much modesty my most sincere commendation, he said:

"Bishop, would you like to secure another Irishman?"

"Indeed, I should be delighted," I answered, "if he is at all like you."

"Oh," said he, "but he is far superior to me. He is an excellent preacher and most successful. He is one of my co-workers in the Primitive Methodist Society, and is a most eloquent man."

"But," I inquired, "would such an able man be willing to come?"

"Yes," he replied, "he is most anxious to come. I have written him about the work and the country, and he longs to join us."

"But," I continued, "have you told him of the small salary and the severe climate, and all the discouragements which surely await him?"

"Yes," he answered, "he knows it all, but such difficulties do not dishearten him in the least. He is full of the missionary spirit."

Finally, after satisfying myself that his friend was a worthy and useful man, I said:

"One more question, my brother. Do you think he is such a man that the 'mildness of the climate and the salubriousness of the air' will induce to bring a wife along with him?"

"Indeed he is," he replied. "That is just the point. He is engaged to my wife's sister."

Of course, the prospect of getting two excellent missionaries instead of one led me to send another draft, and soon his friend came. These brethren have reflected honor upon their country, and won the respect of all who know them. From that same Irish society I obtained several more excellent men.

In the course of time one came whom I placed in a very discouraging coal-camp. He was there for several years, and his salary was very small. Now and then as I met him he would hint about his "loneliness," and intimate that he would like to get married; but I felt it my duty to advise him to wait until he should have a better place and a more comfortable income. One day he came to make me a visit. Before leaving he took my wife into his confidence, and begged her to use her influence with me to induce me to allow him to go to Ireland and bring over a wife. He told her he was engaged, and had been for five years; showed the young woman's picture, and said she was anxious to join him and help him in his work. My wife urged him to go to my study and tell me the whole story, assuring him of my sympathy and cordial consent. But he declined to do so, saying that I was much opposed to my young clergy getting married on such small salaries and bringing a wife to such wretched places as mining-camps. He implored Mrs. Talbot to say nothing to me until he had gone, and then to break it to me gently. So, when my genial young guest had departed, I was duly waited upon, and promptly yielded to every demand.

A few weeks later I found myself the guest of the young missionary in his little sixty-dollar shack. I said:

"And so you are engaged?"

He blushed, and replied:

"Yes, Bishop."

"And you want to go over to Ireland and get her?"

"Yes, very much."

"Are you sure she will come back with you?"

"Oh yes; we have been engaged for years, and I get letters from her every week. Here is her picture," showing me the picture of a beautiful young woman.

"Do you mean to say," I asked, "that this lovely girl has promised to marry you and come to this camp?"

"Yes, indeed," he replied, "she is eager to come."

"But, my brother, do you realize how expensive it will be? It will cost a great deal of money for you to reach New York from here; and then there is the passage over to Ireland, and the voyage back for two, and the long journey from New York to Wyoming."

Still undismayed, he said: "I have figured it all out, and I have the money."

"You have the money?" I asked. "Where did you get it? You have only been receiving eight hundred dollars a year."

"Oh, I have saved it up, Bishop," he replied.

"You have?" said I. "Then evidently I have been paying you too much."

He laughed heartily, and then I congratulated him, and commended his rare financiering and good management, and told him I would gladly add a small check to show my appreciation.

"But," I continued, "now, my dear fellow, I hope you are perfectly sure she will come back with you. You have been gone a long time, and the girls are sometimes a little uncertain. Just think how horrible it would be, after spending all that money and cherishing this beautiful dream for years, were she to change her mind."

He took my facetious remarks good-naturedly, and laughed at the very idea that such a thing could possibly happen. This conversation took place early in September.

The following October I was attending the general convention in Baltimore. Sitting at my desk in the House of Bishops, the page brought me a number of letters. Among them I recognized the familiar handwriting of my young friend and an Irish post-mark. Opening the letter, I read as follows. I quote from memory, but substantially the letter as I received it:

"My dear Bishop,--I have a sad, sad story to tell you. You remember you warned me lest the young lady to whom I was engaged might deceive me. On reaching Ireland I went at once to the town in which she lives. She knew I was coming. As I was on my way to her house I met some of my old friends. One of them said: 'We are so glad to see you; but have you read yesterday's paper?' 'What paper?' I asked. 'Why, our town paper, in which it is announced that your girl is engaged to another man,' mentioning his name. At first I thought they were joking, but with much earnestness they assured me it was true. Still I could not believe it. I determined to go and see for myself. When I reached her home she did not receive me as cordially as I had expected, and soon she told me what had happened. She said that she had waited and waited until hope deferred had made her heart-sick, and that, besides, she had always loved the other young man. It was a staggering blow. Think of the cruelty of it! She had waited until I actually got back to crush my heart with disappointment. Life seemed no longer worth living. I wished that the ground might open and swallow me up. I hardly knew which way to turn. My mother did all she could to console me. She told me I ought to congratulate myself that I had made such a narrow escape; that the girl never was worthy of me, and that she always feared she might serve me in some such manner. She added: 'Now, my son, cheer up. Do not think of it any more. Let no one know what has happened. There are just as good fish in the sea as were ever caught. Do not mope around and distress yourself about that girl. Here is something that will interest you," showing me an invitation to a reception to be given me that week by my old friends and neighbors. I told my mother that I simply could not go to any reception; that I felt more like going to bed; that my heart was broken. But she urged me to go, reminded me that I was young and that life was before me; that I must be brave and meet the world with, courage; that not to go to the reception so kindly given would cause serious offence and call for explanations which would be embarrassing; that I simply must go. And so, Bishop, I' went. There were many of my old friends present. Of course, in a way I was glad to see them, but I was in no frame of mind to enjoy anything. It required a terrible effort to keep up. But as the evening advanced I met a young lady whom I had known as a child. During my absence she had grown to womanhood. Oh, Bishop, I wish you could hear her play the piano! Such exquisite touch I never before heard! Then her voice! As she sang some of those beautiful hymns, like 'Abide with Me' and 'Lead, Kindly Light,' it just seemed to me I was in heaven. Gradually I began to forget my sorrow. I lingered and she sang on. When I left I asked her if I could not come over the next morning and hear some more music. She said she would be glad to have me do so. So I went again. I then asked her if I could not come again in the afternoon. She said certainly I could. And then, Bishop, it occurred to me what a splendid missionary she would make; and I thought of you. I knew you would have no respect for me if I did not bring a wife back with me. So I at last asked her if she did not want to be a missionary and go back with me. She said she did; that she had always wished to be a missionary. So we called in the old folks, and they gave us their blessing, and we are going to be married early in October, and leave at the same time I originally intended for America. Just one thing more, Bishop. Please do not let my people know that I am not bringing back the same girl I came over for."

In this instance, again, I am most grateful to relate that no mistake was made. Say what one may about the suddenness of it, a most kindly Providence must have guided our young friend and more than compensated him for his disappointment.

On one occasion a letter from the Bishop of Pittsburg arrived asking me if I could make use of a young Welshman who had been a pastor in a non-Episcopal church in the suburbs of Pittsburg. The Bishop represented him as devout and earnest, and as one who had made a change in his ecclesiastical relations from honorable motives of conviction, and assured me that he had enjoyed the respect of the religious body from which he came. I had a little church vacant at Douglas, Wyoming. We had bought it from our Congregational brethren, and a number of their people had decided to throw in their lot with us. Of Episcopalians, strictly speaking, there was not one in the place; but there was a strong desire on the part of many in the little community for an Episcopal church. I felt that as the new minister was unaccustomed to our services he would be, in this respect, only on a par with his flock, and they could gradually learn together. So I requested the Bishop to send him on. He arrived at the Episcopal residence at Laramie one Friday morning. The next Sunday I was under promise to have him installed in his new parish. When he presented himself at my front-door my heart sank within me. He was so diminutive, and so demure. But I gave him a cordial welcome. I soon ascertained that he was entirely unfamiliar with the Prayer-Book and our form of worship, and, so far from having any clerical vestments, he did not even know their names, or how they were to be worn. In reply to nearly every question I asked him he confessed to absolute ignorance, but assured me that he was sound on the doctrine of the apostolic succession.

"But, my brother, do you know how to conduct the services?"

"No, my lord, but I believe with all my soul in the doctrine of the apostolic succession."

"Have you ever taken any part in conducting one of our services?"

"No, my lord, but I think the Bishop of Pittsburg will assure you that I am stanch on the doctrine of apostolic succession."

It was rather discouraging. At length I ventured, to beg him not to address me as "my lord," explaining to him that in America we are a very democratic people, and such titles of nobility are quite out of place.

"Then what would your lordship have me call you?''Just 'Bishop,' if you please." 'Oh, my lord, excuse me, but it is impossible. I could never presume to be so familiar with your lordship."

We had to start for Douglas the next morning, and there was no time to be lost. I first addressed myself to the problem of getting the little man properly vested. A large cassock had come in a missionary box, but when I tried it on him he was literally lost. But the good ladies of the household came to my rescue, and we cut off the sleeves, and about two feet of the length, and tucked up the back, until finally he made a very respectable appearance in it. Then we found a little cotta in our boy choir which fitted him admirably. Next I began to drill him in the church service, and told him how to find the lessons, and how to announce them; and instructed him as to the postures to be observed. Taking him into the procathedral, I gave him some suggestions as to the reverent conduct of morning and evening prayer. My only comfort was that, even if he made mistakes, his congregation would not recognize them as such. Early the next day we left for Douglas.

At that time the Cheyenne & Northern Railway was only built as far as the Platte River, and at the terminus, as was usual, there was a motley crowd of graders with their teams. When the day's work was over they made the night hideous with their drunken revels, firing off pistols, and yelling and swearing until sleep was next to an impossibility. All lived in tents. One of the officers of the crew most kindly gave us a tent to ourselves, but even then my young brother was far from happy. Of course we had to sleep on the ground, and that almost broke his heart; not that he cared for himself, but, said he: "Think of your lordship sleeping in this rude tent on the ground." Just then a pistol was fired off within a few feet of us.

"Oh, my lord, are you hit?"

By the candle-light I could see that he was pale with fright. I fear he passed a wretched and sleepless night.

The next morning we had to take the stage. I offered him my seat on the box with the driver, but he preferred to get inside. The motion of the stage and the tobacco-smoke made him deathly sick. When we reached the river we found it very high for fording. The water came into the coach, and the current was very swift. In truth, there was much danger in crossing, and I did not wonder that my little friend was alarmed. Once safely over, he was evidently much relieved, but very silent.

We reached Douglas about six o'clock in the evening, Saturday. It was court week, and the hotel was crowded. I presented the new minister to the proprietor, as he was to board at the hotel and I wished him to feel at home. I asked the landlord if he could give us each a room. He was very sorry, but the hotel was so crowded there was only-one room to spare.

"If you and the young man will sleep together I think you will be comfortable," he said.

"Very well," I replied. "How does that suit you, my brother?"

"Oh, my lord, please excuse me. I could not do that. Think of my sleeping with your lordship!"

It was in vain that I told him I often slept with my clergy, and considered myself fortunate to get a bed at all. I could do nothing with him. He said he would sleep on the floor. Later in the evening the proprietor came to me and said:

"Bishop, I guess that little preacher is a tenderfoot, ain't he?"

"Yes," I said, "most tender."

"Well, I have been able to make a new deal, and he can have a room all to himself."

So the vexed question was settled.

Early the next morning, Sunday, I heard a gentle rap on my door. It was the new minister. As I opened the door he said:

"Oh, my lord, I have not been able to sleep for thinking of you. You have no valet, no one to wait on your lordship. I have come to ask if I may not have the honor of blackening your lordship's boots?"

"Thank you," I said, "but I have already finished that part of my toilet. Come in and put up your foot and let me give you a shine."

"Oh, my lord, shocking! And does your lordship have to blacken your own boots?"

To a man brought up in the old country, with the ideas of dignity and deference and awe felt there for the person and office of a bishop, it was a great trial to the righteous soul of my little friend to note the habits of an American bishop.

The hour of service drew nigh, and we went up to the little church in good time so I could give him one farewell rehearsal. According to the announcement he was to preach. He got through the service remarkably well, and, as he had been accustomed to extempore speaking, gave us an excellent sermon on the text "God is Love." The only departure from good form happened at the close of the sermon, when he said:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your kind attention. Good-bye, until this evening."

It is greatly to the credit both of my young brother and of his people that their relations continued for several years, and that he was greatly beloved by the community. In due time he passed his examinations, and was ordained.

I am glad to be able to say that my experience with missionaries of other religious bodies was always pleasant. Indeed, the denominational lines were less distinctly drawn on the frontier than in older communities. Occasionally, there would crop out a little good-natured rivalry between the churches. At one place where I had organized a "preachers' meeting," which was held in my study every Monday morning, there was an interesting passage-at-arms. For months the various ministers had met with me, and there had not been a jar or note of discord. But it happened that in the prosecution of my work I had recently delivered a series of lectures on the claims of the Episcopal Church in its faith and ministry and sacraments. At the close of the lectures a large number of people offered themselves for confirmation. Of these, some had attended upon the ministrations of my several brethren of other churches. It was perfectly natural that this should have aroused a little feeling, especially as I felt it my duty to dwell strongly upon the question of ordination and ministerial authority. So, on the Monday following the confirmation service, all gathered as usual, but I thought I could notice a little coolness of manner on the part of two or three of the ministers. It chanced that a young Baptist minister had recently come to town, but had never attended our "preachers' meeting." I had, therefore, called upon him and urged him to be present, and assured him of a fraternal welcome. He was there. When the meeting was called to order one of the brethren remarked that he understood the Rev. Mr. Blank had prepared a platform looking to the better organization of the preachers' meeting. Whereupon, I ventured to say that I did not see the need of any written platform; that hitherto we had met together very unconventionally, and all had proceeded amicably; and that I could not but feel that one reason of our perfect agreement was the absence of any formal, written constitution. However, I added that if Brother Blank wished to present a platform I should be entirely willing to hear it read. It was then moved and carried that the platform be presented. It read as follows:

"In order to promote that fraternal feeling which should subsist between all of God's people, and especially between those whom He has set apart as leaders in his church, we hereby express our belief in and assent to the equal ministerial and ecclesiastical authority of each other in the Church of God."

Of course I saw at once the drift of the platform. It was a rebuke to my claims of an apostolic ministry--the crux between them and myself. But I was determined not to take it to myself. Near by sat my kind and unsuspecting Baptist brother. I could see at a glance that the platform was just as applicable to him as to me. I arose and said:

"Brethren, I am very sorry that this platform should be presented on this occasion particularly. We have invited here for the first time our Baptist brother. He is our guest. He came somewhat reluctantly, as he had never met any of you, but I called on him and begged him to meet with us, and assured him of a most cordial and fraternal welcome. Now I deeply regret that he has scarcely taken his seat before you present for his signature a document which you must all have known he cannot possibly sign. Our brother is a conscientious Baptist, and, as such, honestly believes that no one has been baptized who has not been immersed. Of course, he cannot recognize your ordination or mine, as from his point of view we have not even been baptized. He may grant us honest, and recognize, us as Christians, but when you come to a question of ministerial authority he must draw the line. I appeal, brethren, on behalf of this our brother. This is the close of the nineteenth century, and not the age of the Inquisition. I believe our brother has as much right here as any of us, and I hope the platform will not be adopted."

How well I remember the scene! My young Baptist brother stood up, and with much emotion said:

"Brethren, I wish first of all to thank Brother Talbot for saying for me that which it would have been so difficult for me to say for myself. Brethren, I love you all, and, as Brother Talbot has said, I have no doubt you love the Master as devotedly as I do. I recognize you as Christians and as brethren, but as I read my Bible I can only find one mode of baptism--namely, immersion. I cannot, therefore, acknowledge your ministerial authority, as baptism is a prerequisite to the ministry. I am sorry that this platform has been presented, for I had looked forward with pleasure to our intercourse together." He then resumed his seat.

Another minister arose. He said:

"Brethren, I am amazed at this platform. I have preached the gospel all over the country, and I never heard such a platform as this. Of course, our Baptist brother cannot sign it, and we have no right to ask him to sign it. Indeed, when I come to think of it, I can hardly see how Brother Talbot himself can sign it."

So the issue of the platform was ended, and our Baptist brother won the day.

The heroism, self-sacrifice and devotion evinced by our Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Roman Catholic, and other brethren in the Far West were such as to win my reverent regard. And great is the debt which our new civilization owes to these pioneers of the Gospel.

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