Project Canterbury

Mahlon Norris Gilbert: Bishop Coadjutor of Minnesota 1886-1900.

By Francis Leseure Palmer
with an Introduction by Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, Presiding Bishop of the American Church.

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1912.
London: Mowbray, 1912.

Chapter III. School-Days

THE GILBERT FARM has been described as in New Lisbon, but actually it stood at the meeting of three townships, New Lisbon, Pittsfield, and Morris, near the surveyor's mark of the butternut stumps, explained in the first chapter. The house stood in the township of Morris, but the village of Morris was five miles away, while that part of New Lisbon called Noblesville was near by. "School District Number One" of the town of New Lisbon included part of the Gilbert farm, and it was to this school, only half a mile away, that the brothers naturally went. The schoolhouse is described by Mr. George A. Yates, a close school friend of the Gilbert boys, as an oblong frame building, standing near the Creek. The front door was in the center of the north end, and opened into an entry from which an inner door, also in the center, opened into a long schoolroom.

"The desks in the schoolroom were in one continuous row the whole length of the building on each of the long sides of the room, each desk having a lid that would open back against the wall. The seat was one flat board running the whole length, and the scholars when studying faced the wall." For recitations there were parallel benches in front. There was no platform for the teacher but his desk stood at one end between the long rows of desks. In the center of the schoolroom there stood of course the long wood stove, which overheated those nearby, leaving the farther regions north and south in the cold, an object lesson in geography. There were then about forty scholars in the school, and there were two terms only in the school year. During the summer term, a woman taught, but in the winter term, when some of the older boys attended, a schoolmaster was in charge. The practice of moving up or down in the class, according to one's proficiency or failure, was then common in the East. Whittier's poem, "In School-Days," turns on this custom. Mr. Yates describes it as follows:

"If a scholar missed a question, the first one below in the class that could answer it would take the place of the one that failed. The one that stood at the head of the class at the close of one recitation would take his place the next time at the foot. Mahlon was very studious, and was always ready to answer questions on which others had failed."

Of this period, his brother Frederick writes: "Mahlon took great delight in his books, especially in reading and elocution. Having a good voice and confidence, he was often called upon, when visitors came to the school, to read or declaim some stirring piece like Eienzi's 'Address,' or Webster's 'Keply to Hayne.' His oratorical powers never left him, and as he thrilled his listeners in his school-hoy days, so he thrilled his hearers in the mountains of Montana, and on Minnesota's plains, as he told them the story of the Cross."

Mahlon's physical health as a hoy was excellent. He is remembered by his schoolmate, Mr. George Yates, as "very quick on foot, a fast runner and a fast walker." He was very good at the game of "Fox and Geese," which was often played in winter in the snow, or at the simpler game of "Fox," in which one boy, called the "hound," tried to catch the others, often running long distances.

Mr. Yates recalls an incident of their schooldays, when a difference of opinion arose between Mahlon and another boy who became very angry. Suddenly Mahlon, pointing his finger at the boy, shouted in thrilling tones, "Bevera Vashtashni!" The boy was so "scared" by this unexpected epithet, that he quite forgot his anger, and had no more to say. The magic words were from Mahlon's geography lesson. The name is not found in modern atlases, but geographies may have changed. One is reminded of that other geographical term of magic power--"Mesopotamia."

Mr. Edwin E. Carpenter, editor and proprietor of the Morris Chronicle, recalls an anrasing accomplishment of his uncle Mahlon. Any word which he could spell in the usual way he was able to spell with equal rapidity backward. His friends often tested this ability with difficult words, but he never failed to answer promptly, and when tested his answer was invariably correct.

These are trifling incidents, but they show the natural accuracy and alertness of his mind.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Frederick was fourteen and Mahlon eleven. Frederick remembers the intense patriotism of his brother. He had always listened intently to his grandmother's stories of Revolutionary times and wished that he might have had part in them. And now "his voice could be heard above the loudest, cheering the soldiers as they marched away to the front in '61."

When Mahlon Gilbert was fourteen years old, there came into his life, in God's good plan, a strong new influence, that was in a large measure to determine his career. It was the friendship and guidance of the new "assistant minister of Zion Church," the Rev. Daniel Sylvester Tuttle. Mr. Tuttle had just completed his course at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, in the class of 1862. It was a notable class, for it included, beside Bishop Tuttle, three others who rose to the same chief office--Bishop Robertson, Bishop Jaggar, and Bishop Walker.

For two years the Rev. George L. Foote had been rector of Zion Church at Morris, but from the spring of 1862 he was confined to his room by a paralytic stroke. He was so beloved that the parish wished to keep him still in office, and accordingly the vestry asked Mr. Tuttle, who was a near relative, to come to "fulfill temporarily the parish duties of the rector." Mr. Tuttle hesitated, but Bishop Horatio Potter, whom he consulted, urged him to go. "It is one of the best rural parishes in the diocese. The farmers from a great sweep of country round about are loyal Churchmen." So the decision was made, and Daniel Tuttle came to Morris, his first and only parish.

The Rev. Mr. Foote lived a year and a half, giving wise and valued counsel to his young assistant, but from the first Mr. Tuttle was practically rector, and from the first he won the hearts of the community. The introductory chapter of Bishop Turtle's Reminiscences describes his five years of strong and fruitful service at Morris. One page from this chapter, written while Bishop Gilbert was still with us, belongs to our narrative:

In the Sunday school and in the Bible class of Saturday afternoon were two brothers, who came some miles from the country to attend, sons of Mr. Norris Gilbert, the senior warden. The younger one attracted my attention from the first Sunday. He was fourteen years old, large-eyed and bright-eyed, quick to answer at catechising, an untiring listener at the "talks." This was Mahlon N. Gilbert, now Assistant Bishop of Minnesota. Mr. Poote, when coming to the parish two or three years before, had also been singularly attracted by him. Going up to him one day after Sunday school, in the kind way Mr. Foote had with children, he said, placing his hand on his head, "You are a good listener, my hoy, it interests me to look at you when I am speaking; I hope you will grow up to be one of these days a minister yourself to help us in the Church." The thought was first put into the boy's mind then and there. Behold its growth and fruit! Ought we older ones not to bethink ourselves how a word in season uttered to a boy or young man may be the starting-point for securing him for the work of the sacred ministry? Subsequently young Gilbert studied Latin and mathematics with Mrs. Tuttle and myself. . . . I cannot tell all the story of how the lines of my life's history have become closely woven with his, or how my heart is gladdened as a loving father's over the great good work for the Church that he is doing in these later days. [Bishop Tuttle's Reminiscences, p. 19.]

Five other boys who were members of the parish during Mr. Tuttle's rectorship, became clergymen: Henry L. Foote, Albert O. Bunn, Romaine S. Mansfield, Daniel W. Duroe, and Louis O. Washburn. Mr. Tuttle's immediate successor as rector, the Rev. N. S. Rulison, became Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. Miss Sanderson's History of Zion Church Parish records the names of five others who grew up in the parish and entered the sacred ministry: Noble Palmer, George W. Foote, Daniel Washburn, Robert Washbon, and Robert Ferine. The total number has since been increased to sixteen. The character of this remarkable rural parish has thus been summed up by the present junior warden:

"The atmosphere of this old parish of Zion Church was always strongly charged with the missionary spirit, and we cannot but believe that Mahlon Gilbert's early life amid such surroundings was a providential ordering indeed."

At the age of fifteen Mahlon was confirmed by Bishop Horatio Potter. The service was a notable one, the record in the Diocesan Journal being as follows:

July 19 (1863), Seventh Sunday after Trinity, A. M.--In Zion, Morris, preached, advanced the Rev. Daniel S. Tuttle, the Assistant Minister of the Parish, to the Priesthood, and also confirmed twenty-three (two of them in private), and addressed them.

Some items from the parochial report of Zion Church from the same Diocesan Journal are of interest:

Number of families, 157. Number of individuals 668. Baptisms: adults, 5; infants, 27; total, 32. Communicants, 236. The Holy Communion celebrated the first Sunday of every month, and on Holy Days of special Preface. Catechists and Sunday school teachers, 32. Catechumens: number of children taught the Catechism openly in the church, 173. Number of times, 40. Members of other classes for Religious Instruction, 14. Sunday scholars, 54. Total number of young persons instructed, 241. Contributions, total, $1,057.74 [of which only $620.92 was for parish purposes].

This report shows remarkable economy of administration combined with great generosity in missionary gifts. Of chief interest, however, is the light thrown on the broad extent of the work of the parish. The report as to "Catechumens" is according to a schedule drawn up for all the parishes, and suggests some lines of religious instruction in which the Church to-day fails to maintain the efficiency of fifty years ago. It was indeed an active and wise pastoral care that provided systematic instruction for so large a proportion of the parish.

Mr. Turtle's interest in Mahlon showed itself in practical ways. The boy's ability as a speaker interested the clergyman and promised well for the future. Accordingly Mr. Tuttle would take Mahlon and sometimes another boy into the woods, and give them lessons in the use of the voice. The Reminiscences describe the training of that remarkable power of speech which Bishop Tuttle possesses and uses with such vigor and charm.

Beyond my swimming-pond at Morris was an island, away from houses, reached by a long slab over the stream, and with a beautiful grove upon it. Between two trees, almost joined together, I set up a rude pulpit board, and there every Saturday I spread out my sermon for the next day, and preached it, loud and full, with the birds for listeners. The exercise helped my voice. Emphasis took to itself right inflections. Eye and hand and bodily posture familiarized themselves with their duties, and adjusted themselves to the ways of most efficient work. [Reminiscences, pp. 17, 18.] One day the elocutionary practice was interrupted.

Two Morris boys, Warren Lull and a cousin, were trout-fishing along Butternuts Creek, when suddenly a most startling sound was heard among the trees. The cousin was greatly frightened, and declared there must be some madmen in the woods, but Warren recognized the tremendous voice of the good rector, Mr. Tuttle, who had taken Mahlon and another future clergyman into the open air to give them a lesson in elocution.

In the autumn of 1864, at the age of sixteen, Mahlon entered Fairfield Academy. This was a private school of a type then common in the East. These academies were usually co-educational, and filled the gap between the common school and the college. Under altered conditions some still survive, but most of them long since finished their useful work. Fairfield was then, as it is now, a small rural village of Herkimer County, New York. It is a few miles north of Little Falls, and over forty miles from Morris. Fairfield Academy was founded in 1803 and was for many years a very popular school; it continued its work through the century, and closed in 1901. When Mahlon entered, the principal was the Rev. L. Bartlett Barker, and there was at least one teacher of rare ability, Professor Albert B. Watkins.

There was in the Academy a literary organization with the high name of "The Philorhetorean Society." It was founded in 1854, partly as a debating society, partly to encourage writing and speaking, as its name suggests. It soon became a fraternity, large in numbers and marked by ability and enthusiasm. At the reunion of 1894 Bishop Gilbert made the chief address, and spoke with high praise of the "healthful and stimulating" life of the Academy, as he had known it, thirty years before. "With the keenest pleasure" he recalls the companionship, the inspiration of those years. He pictured himself when first attracted to these "classic shades" in all the enthusiasm of youth. "The gates into the enchanted land of knowledge seem to swing open; the future with its possibilities of usefulness and fame appears a veritable reality."

With vivid memory he recalls the patriotic spirit of the Academy. Of this society nearly seventy members served in the Union Army. The Bishop says:

This period in the history of the school was unique and significant. The awful stress of the Civil War rested heavily upon the people. The glory and the glamour of marching squadrons and waving banners had passed into a grim and terrible reality. . . . To us, the boys of those days, as we looked into the battle-rent air, there came a realization of the tremendous meaning of life and its duties. We caught the high inspiration which thrilled the nation's heart. The fires of patriotism were kindled. To become worthy of citizenship, to take up, if need be, the battle for freedom and carry it onward to a victorious end, were thoughts which in a certain way solemnized and dignified our lives.

Then back to the school came men to take up anew the class book, which they had dropped for the sword. ... I was one of the younger boys, and how honored I felt to recite in the same classes and mingle in debate with these war-worn and battle-begrimmed heroes.

It was, I say, not possible to be in touch with such an environment without being uplifted by it. ...

It was in the midst of such scenes and amidst such associations that my Fairfield days were passed. Then I was too young to fight for my country, and now, should the occasion arise, I am too old. So men come and go, so we step from the stage, and another generation appears to act the same drama in which we have taken part. Nothing is permanent but God and the individual soul. Reunions of the Philorhetorean Society, p, 140, 141.]

Project Canterbury