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 XI. Here and There Among My Flock

THERE were several military garrisons distributed throughout Wyoming and Idaho when I was sent there as bishop. In Wyoming were Forts Russell, McKinney, Laramie, and Washakie, while at Rock Springs the government maintained a small troop in order to protect the property of the Union Pacific Railroad and preserve peace in the mines. In Idaho were Fort Sherman and Boise Barracks. Once a year, as in the course of my visitations I came near these military posts, it was my custom to hold service for the soldiers. Some of the most valued friendships I had the privilege of making in the West were formed during those annual visits. At Fort Sherman I met General Carlin, and Captains Price, Coates, Bubb, and Thompson; while at various posts in Wyoming I knew Colonels Burt, Coolidge, Freeman, and other officers under their command. Of these worthy representatives of our army, some have since returned and others have been promoted to higher rank. The cordial welcome and gracious hospitality uniformly extended to me by the officers and their families never failed to make my brief sojourn with them memorable; and I shall always cherish a most grateful recollection of these bright spots in my missionary experiences. The glimpses I thus obtained of army life left on my mind a most favorable impression of the dignified and soldierly bearing of the men commanding the United States forces in the West. I have since followed the careers of my army friends with the keenest interest, and have felt it an honor to have been thrown into such close relations with them.

Among the prominent laymen whom it was always a pleasure to meet in my busy life as a bishop were Senators Carey, Warren, and Clark of Wyoming, and our distinguished representative, Congressman Mondell. In Idaho were Senators Shoup, Dubois, and Heyburn. Of these latter Senator Shoup has recently passed away. He was, perhaps, the best-beloved man in Idaho, quite apart from his political affiliations. Indeed, he was one of nature's noblemen, and I cherished for him the warmest affection. He was a native of Pennsylvania, served through the Civil War with distinction, and afterwards had a most thrilling experience in Indian wars in Colorado and elsewhere. He was absolutely without fear, and under his courageous leadership as colonel the warlike tribes that had terrorized the frontier were speedily brought under the strong arm of the government. He was generous to a fault, modest and unaffected, of transparent integrity of character, and instinctively won the confidence of men. He was always ready to respond with generous liberality to every good cause.

The mention of Senator Shoup's venerated name leads me to state that the conditions of frontier life often developed a high type of manhood, quite unusual elsewhere. Frequently these men were not connected with any church, a fact which may be explained by the absence of organized Christianity during the earlier years of their residence there; but they were in fullest sympathy with the principles of righteousness for which the church stands, and could always be relied upon to use their influence in behalf of decency and morality. They were the warm personal friends of the clergy in general, and a bishop felt the stronger for their outspoken loyalty and support. Their wives and families were, for the most part, members of my flock, and I always thought of the men themselves as an important part of my diocesan family.

In the Wood River country of Idaho there lived a most lovable man of whom I became very fond. His wife was a cultured gentlewoman, devoted to her husband, and enthusiastically interested in the church. I was frequently entertained at their house. It was a cause of great concern to her that her noble husband had never been confirmed. There was one weakness that held him back. The Colonel would occasionally give way to the convivial habits so common in the West, and his sprees would continue for some days. These periodical lapses greatly mortified his wife. When they were over the colonel was duly penitent, and would brace up bravely, and sometimes be able to remain firm for several months. But the consciousness of this tendency made him hesitate to take a position as a member of the church, lest in some evil hour he might bring contempt upon a cause for which at heart he cherished the profoundest respect. Just before leaving Idaho to become Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, I was making my last visitation to the little parish where the Colonel lived. They again claimed me as their guest, and, on my arrival, his wife had much to say about her husband's relation to the church. She dwelt upon the long friendship that had subsisted between himself and me, and was good enough to say that he was deeply grieved at the thought of my leaving Idaho; that he was fond of me, and that I had more influence with him than any one else; that she felt sure he was thinking seriously of being confirmed, for she had talked with him about it; that she believed, if I would present the matter to him, he would decide to act; that in order to give me a good opportunity to do so, she had arranged for me to be alone with him after dinner. When we were together I followed out the suggestions of his good wife, and told him that I believed the grace and spiritual strength which confirmation was intended to convey would enable him to lead a consistent life; that hitherto he had made the struggle alone, but that the church was established on earth in order to help men to overcome temptation and to give them a support not to be found elsewhere. My argument seemed to impress him. He listened with evident interest and every mark of respectful consideration. When I had finished he said he supposed I was right, and that he had often thought of taking the step to which I urged him, but he continued:

"I should like to ask you a few questions, if you do not object."

"I shall be only too glad to answer them if I can, Colonel. Please proceed."

"Well, Bishop, do you think my wife is a good woman?"

"One of the best I have ever known."

"Do you think she is a Christian?"

"If she is not, I should doubt whether any of us could be so considered."

"Well, now, do you think she will make it?"

"How is that, Colonel?" I asked.

"Do you think my wife will get in?"

Still determined not to appear to divine his meaning, I said: "Excuse me, Colonel, but please explain."

"I simply mean this, Bishop: Do you think that St. Peter will let the old lady pass through the pearly gates?"

"I have not a doubt of it, Colonel."

"Then you think that you can guarantee that she will get in?"

"So far as my opinion is worth anything, I cannot for a moment question it."

"Well, then, if that is so, I do not think I shall be confirmed. In fact, I do not see that I need to be. You see, Bishop, it is just this way: If the old lady gets in, and they lock the door against the old man, she will simply raise hell until she gets me let in. And she's sure to succeed."

It was in vain that I tried to convince him of the futility of such an argument. His faith in his wife's influence was too strong to be shaken by anything I could allege. I have never seen so firm a believer in the doctrine of the "Intercession of the Saints." Ah, well, they have both gone hence, dear, good souls! And it is not for us to presume to place any limitations on the boundless mercy of Him who knoweth so well whereof we are made.

One evening, on reaching a mining-camp, I was in the wash-room preparing for dinner after a dusty ride in the stage-coach. In the adjoining hotel office I overheard this conversation.

"Are you going to hear the Bishop talk this evening?"

"Yes," was the reply, "I thought I would go. They say there's quite a number goin' to join the church."

"Is that so? Do you know who they be?"

"No, I 'ain't heered who they all be, only they tell me Jake Simpson's got religion, and he's among them."

"You don't say! Well, that beats the Dutch. If he's got religion, I'll bet ten to one he's got it in his wife's name."

I did not fully comprehend the significance of this comment until later, when I learned that Jake did not enjoy the best reputation as a man of business integrity, and whenever his creditors, who were numerous, tried to collect their bills they found that he had put everything in his wife's name. Evidently his friends thought that Jake would be likely to carry the same tactics into his religious practice.

It was during this visit that a saloon-keeper called on me at my hotel. When I came down-stairs he said:

"Bishop, we have three kids for you to brand, and the old woman asked me to come and see if you could not do it some time to-morrow. Bishop Tuttle fixed up all the rest on 'em when he was here the last time."

Of course, I was glad to have the privilege of baptizing the dear little children, and an hour was agreed upon.

"Well, now, Bishop, the old woman would like to have a little spread and celebrate the occasion, if you don't object. You sec, we are all old-country folks."

It would surprise some of my readers to have seen how genteel a company gathered on that occasion at this saloon-keeper's house. The tastefully dressed men and women, the modest and reverent behavior of all during the service, the delicious refreshments served in perfect form--for all this I was hardly prepared myself. Then the toasts proposed for the health of the newly baptized little Christians completed a function in every way seemly and appropriate.

On this occasion I met a Mrs. Thompson, who told me an amusing incident in connection with Bishop Tuttle, my predecessor. This good woman was a Missourian, like myself, and very proud of her native State. She was always quick to resent the slightest imputation against it. The Bishop had been elected to Missouri, and was making his last round of visitations before leaving Idaho to take up his new work. He was calling on the Thompson family. With a good deal of emotion he said:

"Yes, my dear friends, in God's providence I have been elected Bishop of Missouri. I have thought of it much, and prayed over it faithfully, and it seems to be my duty to accept this call. And so, in a few weeks, I am to say good-bye to dear Idaho, and leave for Missouri. And at length," he added, sadly, "I must fold my hands in death, and be buried in old Missouri."

"Oh, Bishop, don't feel so badly about it," said Mrs. Thompson. "Why, we have the most beautiful cemetery in St. Louis you ever saw."

I used to hear many amusing stories told at the expense of my native State. It was said that the brigade of General Sterling Price, of the Confederate army, when disbanded, came almost in a body to Idaho and Montana. Of course, they continued to vote the Democratic ticket, and were ever loyal to the memory of the "lost cause." There were Missourians and Missourians, and some of them were pretty tough citizens, and Pike County became somewhat notorious.

One evening four men were seated at a table in a restaurant. One of them said:

"Well, boys, here are four of us at this table, and I'll bet we are each one from a different State. It does beat all how in this new country we come from all over the Union. Now let's see. Neighbor, what's your State?"

"Illinois," was the reply.

"And yours?" pointing to the next man.


"And yours?"


"There, what did I tell you? Just as I said, here are four men and four States."

"But," said one, "my friend, now you have found out what States we come from, but you have not told us your own State."

"That's none of your darned business."

"Well, you needn't get mad about it. You started the racket. Are you ashamed of your State?"

Quick as a flash the man ripped out his six-shooter, and said:

"Well, if you must know, I'm a Missourian. Now, darn you, don't laugh."

When I first went out to Idaho there were few church buildings in the mining-camps. Indeed, unless there was a prospect of the camp proving more or less permanent, it was not wise to erect a church to be deserted in a year or two when the mine should be worked out. On the occasion of the bishop's annual visitation, as a consequence, services were usually held in a hall, often known as the "dance-hall," and used for political meetings, lectures, theatricals or whatever object served to call the people together. This dance-hall was literally the only place available for public gatherings.

At a certain mining-camp I had appointed an evening for service well in advance of my coming, so that the people, many of whom had to come from a distance, might be duly apprised of the visitation. Nearly every summer there was a theatrical troupe, known as "The Billy and Eva McKinley Show," that made the rounds of the mining-camps. They varied their programme each year, and were always very popular, succeeding in attracting the whole community to their performance. When Billy and Eva reached this particular camp they found that I had already engaged the hall for the evening. They had an appointment at another camp for the next night, and I was due at still another. Hence it was not at all convenient for either of us to give way. It was a blow to Billy that I had pre-empted the evening and the hall; but he was fertile in resources, and promptly came to see me.

"Well, Bishop," he said, "I have come to see you. This is the first time I ever run up against a bishop, and I find you've got the cinch on me. This is one of my very best towns, and I can't afford to miss it, and I reckon you're in the same box. Now, can't we make some kind of a deal?"

I replied that it would give me pleasure to accommodate him in any way in my power.

"Well, now," he said, "what time does your show begin?"

"At eight o'clock," I answered.

"And how long does your show last?"

"I shall see to it," I assured him, "that it does not last more than an hour. You shall have the hall by nine o'clock. In fact, it will be easy to send around word that my service will begin at seven-thirty, so that I can be through by eight-thirty, and I shall see that this is done. Moreover, I'll tell the people when they assemble that your entertainment will follow immediately after the service."

"Bishop, will you do that?"

"Certainly I will. I wish the people all to have the pleasure of attending your performance. I know you present a clean and entirely praiseworthy play, and my friends here have so few opportunities of this kind that I am in hearty sympathy with you. Indeed, I shall be there myself."

"Well, if that ain't treating us stage-people white, my name ain't Billy McKinley. You bet, I'll fetch all my troupe to your show, and we'll be mighty proud to be there, too."

At the hour of divine service the dance-hall was packed, the theatrical troupe had the front seats, and everybody was happy. In a surprisingly short time after the service the play was put on, and proved a delightful little comedy, with a touching finale, the moral effect of which could not have been otherwise than up-lifting. In meeting the various members of the theatrical party afterwards, I found several of them communicants of the church.

There were not many colored people in that new country, but I felt a particular interest in the scattered few I found there, because the fourteen years of my work as a clergyman in Missouri had been passed in the midst of a large population of the negro race. Indeed, one of the most touching incidents connected with leaving my old home for Wyoming and Idaho was associated with an old colored man who had been a faithful servant in my family for many years.

Uncle Billy was the janitor of my boys' school, and was anxious to show me some special mark of his esteem before I left. One Sunday morning he came to see me, and said:

"Professor, our colored biship is gwine to preach in our church to-night. He has came clar from Washington City, and the bredderin would be mighty proud if you would come over and set wid him on the pull-pit."

"Thank you, Uncle Billy," I replied. "But unfortunately I have an evening service of my own in St. James's at the same hour. Otherwise I should be glad to come."

"Oh, I knowed dat, Professor; but you see de colored folks don't have dere meetin' till about half-past eight, case many of our wimmen folks is work-in' out and can't git dar no sooner. You'll be all froo your meetin' 'fore ours takes up."

"Is that so?" I answered. "Then, Uncle Billy, you may depend on me. I shall be glad to come over and hear and meet your bishop."

As soon as my evening service was finished I went to the African Methodist Church. As I drew near I saw a large number of the colored brethren standing at the door unable to get in. Uncle Billy was watching for me, and, as I approached, took my arm, and led me through the crowded doorway into the building. The aisles were filled with people standing. It was a great occasion to have a colored bishop come from Washington, and all wished to hear him. It was yet a quarter of an hour before the appointed time for service. With difficulty we made our way up the middle aisle. When near the platform I noticed that the bishop was kneeling at the conventional sofa, his back to the congregation, engaged in silent prayer. I paused, and said:

"Uncle Billy, we will wait here until the bishop is through. Let us not disturb his devotions."

"Never mind, Professor. De biship kin pray any time; but he don't git a chance to meet de professor ebery day."

With that remark he fairly dragged me to the edge of the platform. He then said, in a voice quite audible throughout the church:


At first the bishop appeared to pay no attention to the interruption. But Uncle Billy again called to him in a loud voice. The bishop looked over his shoulder at us, still kneeling.

"Please come dis way jest a minute," said Uncle Billy.

With a graciousness altogether admirable the venerable divine approached us.

"Biship, dis am de professor," said the old man.

We greeted each other, and I was invited to take a seat by his side on the sofa. I ventured to apologize to the bishop for Uncle Billy, telling him that I could not control the situation.

The bishop replied:

"Oh, it doesn't matter. You see I am staying at Brother Jones's house, and he means no harm."

The service proceeded, and I was asked to read a lesson and offer a prayer. After the scholarly and excellent sermon the collection was taken up. Then came a rousing hymn sung as only our colored brethren, when spiritually aroused, can sing. The bishop rose and said:

"Let us kneel while Brother Jones leads us in prayer."

This was Uncle Billy's supreme opportunity. Probably in recognition that he was entertaining the distinguished preacher, and ministering to his physical wants, it had been arranged that my old servant should take this particular part. Uncle Billy knelt on one knee so that he could keep time with his toe and hands. He prayed with great fervor and unction. He thanked the good Lord that he had sent the bishop to "deliver dat powerful sarmint." He prayed that it might go straight to the hearts of all "de sinners and bring 'em to de Saviour." He reminded the Lord that "de professor come ober from de college to be wid us at our meetin'." He said:

"You know, Lord, de professor is tryin' to bring up dem young men in Dy fear and admonishun. We pray Dee to help de professor in his great work of Christian eddication. May de young men under his keer grow up as pillars in de temple of de Lord. Yes, good Lord, be wid him as he goes out to dat fur Western land to preach de Gospel to ebery creecher. Be wid him in all his ways, in his gwine'-in and comin'-out. Finally, 0 Lord, we pray Dee to send down on de professor Dy sanctum sanctorum."

A hearty amen from the people showed how they appreciated my old friend's effort.

Early the next morning when Uncle Billy came into my room to make the fire, I felt an irrepressible desire to ascertain just what he meant by his "sanctum sanctorum." I said:

"Uncle Billy, I wish to thank you for inviting me over to hear your bishop. He is an able and eloquent preacher, and I was glad to meet him. And then I was greatly touched by your kind thought in remembering me and my boys. I appreciate your interest in my anxious work, and need the prayers of all good men. But," I added, as tactfully as possible, "Uncle Billy, are you aware that in closing your prayer you made use of a very unusual and striking theological expression? Do you remember that you asked the good Lord to send down on me his 'sanctum sanctorum'?"

"Oh yes, professor. Dat I do remembers it. The fac' is I had dat all fixed up fur you beforehand."

"Well, now, Uncle Billy, may I ask just what you mean by the 'sanctum sanctorum'?"

"Well, now, professor, you ax me a pretty hard question. I don't know's I kin 'zactly 'splain to you jest what I does mean by dat. But de Lord and me understands each other. He knows jest what I means. I means dat I want de good Lord to send down on you jest de very best He's got on hand."

So interpreted I felt that the petition was all that could be desired by any one.

When I reached the Union Pacific I met a colored porter named Shadrach. He has recently passed away, after many years of faithful service to the Pullman Company. He was a great favorite with the travelling public, and as my official duties required me to be on the road very frequently, we became excellent friends. One strong bond of sympathy between us was the fact that his wife was an earnest member of my church, though Shad himself continued to be a Baptist. I felt that I owed much of the kindness he was ever wont to show me to her influence. During the latter years of her life his wife was frequently ill, and one could see that he was greatly troubled about her condition. She was afflicted with epilepsy, and was often seized with convulsions. I used to comfort the poor fellow so far as I was able. One day when I entered his car I could see from his manner that he was much distressed. As soon as his duties permitted he asked me to follow him into the smoker, where we could be alone. He broke down completely, and, sobbing, told me his wife was dead.

"Bishop, it was them operatic fits what done it. The doctor told me some time ago that if she had any more of them operatic attacks she would die."

Later, when I left to take charge of my Eastern diocese, Shad took care of us as far as Chicago, and there bade us good-bye with much genuine feeling. It happened that after spending a few months in central Pennsylvania I again returned West for the summer, that I might set in order certain matters in my own missionary field, and visit for the last time various parishes. Shad greeted my family and myself on the train. He knew I had finally taken up my abode in the East, and was much troubled and completely mystified by my reappearance. He had once or twice, through the complaints of disgruntled passengers, been laid off, and narrowly escaped being dismissed. His conduct towards me betrayed a certain sympathetic tenderness. Not wishing to approach me on a matter so delicate, he sought out my wife, and said:

"You know, Mrs. Talbot, we all think a heap of the bishop out here in this Western country."

"I am very glad to hear it, Shad," she replied.

"Well, Mrs. Talbot, I thought the bishop had went to Pennsylvaney to be bishop."

"So he did," she answered.

Then knitting his eyebrows and looking much troubled, he came to the difficult and embarrassing question.

"Mrs. Talbot has the bishop lost his job?"

He was greatly relieved when he learned the true situation.

In a new country such as the territories of Wyoming and Idaho at that time, various nationalities were represented. Coming fresh from Norway, Sweden, or Italy, these foreigners had but a limited knowledge of our language, and acquired it gradually from actual contact with the people. It is not strange, therefore, that the first words they learned were often slang expressions most frequently upon the lips of the uneducated classes with whom they were thrown in contact.

I remember a Swedish mother who was greatly afflicted by the sudden death from diphtheria of two beautiful children. She and her husband had been brought up very devoutly in their native country, and regarded the baptism of their children as a most sacred obligation. Their two youngest children had not been baptized, simply because their lot had been cast upon a lonely ranch far distant from any missionary station, and they had never had an opportunity of meeting a minister. Learning that I was to make a visitation at the nearest railroad station twenty miles distant from their home, they eagerly availed themselves of the chance to present their little ones for the holy rite. The entire family came in a wagon, and all were present at the service. When I learned of their recent bereavement, just before the service, I ventured to express my sympathy to the poor, heart-broken mother, and to utter such words of consolation as seemed fitting. In reply to every remark I made the poor woman, clad in deep mourning, and looking most distressed, would say: "You bet. You bet."

"And now," said I, "you have brought these dear children here to be baptized."

"You bet, you bet," she answered.

"I hope they may be spared to you, and may prove a great comfort and blessing."

"You bet, you bet," she replied.

Even the Indians, when they attempted to speak English, were very apt to bring in some slang expression which they innocently thought appropriate and fitting. On one occasion when old Black Coal, chief of the Arapahoes, came to call upon me, he said:

"Me damned glad to see Heap Sleeve man, the bishop."

But one of the most amusing illustrations of this tendency was furnished by an Italian. I had held service and preached the night before in our new church at Cambria, Wyoming, where a large number of Italians were employed in the coal-mines. Early the next morning I took the train for New Castle, a few miles down the canon. Soon after I took my seat a young Italian entered. He had evidently been in our country but a short time, and his only associates had probably been miners, whose language was not always most chaste. He quite surprised me when he recognized me and said:

"Ah, you ze cardinal. I hear you talk last night. Damn pretty church! Damn big crowd! Damn good talk!"

I nearly always found in every chance acquaintance on stage-coach or buck-board some one who interested me. Being compelled to ride nearly thirty miles in a stage with an "old-timer" who had been engaged in mining in Idaho for many years, I found him, after he had sobered off, a most entertaining companion. Some of his reminiscences were rich and racy. He had been the victim of many hair-breadth escapes, had been engaged in several shooting affairs, and, as I afterwards also learned from others, had killed in self-defence a number of men. His name would be familiar to the old-time Idaho people were I to mention it. I was not a little impressed, when we reached the end of our journey and bade each other farewell, to hear him say:

"Bishop, we fellows are pretty rough. We have seen some hard times out here in the mountains, and we have not had much chance to go to church. But deep down in our hearts we mean all right. Most of us have had a good mother, and we have never forgotten what she tried to teach us. I have still a little Bible I brought from home, and no money could buy it. And, Bishop, let me tell you the truth before God, I never get in that bucket to go down in the mine without just saying that little prayer she used to hear me say, 'Now I lay me down to sleep.' If a man will only do what is right the Lord is not going to be very hard on him when he passes in his checks."

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