Nina Daniels



Wednesday, May 18, 1949

The little red school-houses were used for other purposes besides teaching the children of the settlement. The itinerant preachers who used to come at frequent intervals to minister to the spiritual needs of the settlers, held their meetings in the school-houses before churches had been built. From many miles distant, the hard-working men and women came often in ox-carts, sometimes on foot or horse-back, to listen to the exposition of the Word. Most of them read their Bible daily and believed every word of it sincerely. The miracles, for instance, never troubled them or disturbed their faith, for the universe spread all around them was, itself, a miracle. Lying at night, perchance under the stars, they beheld the glory and the mystery of the heavens, and felt that the One who created and planned that miracle could perform others as marvelous. So they believed that the blind were made to see, the dying restored to health, and the dead brought back to life by the Man of Galilee, and were strengthened and comforted thereby. And often those women who followed their men into a wilderness to be housed in a shanty or crude log house, needed a strength and comfort only obtainable in their religion. For often they were called upon to sit beside a dying neighbor, or in agony of soul, watch in the pale candle light as a beloved child slipped out of a life which had proved too hard. And those pioneer women, raising their big families in the crudest surroundings, in ignorance of all which we of to-day consider indispensable in knowledge, not only of medicine, but of hygiene. Their faith and courage sustained them, and both were renewed when with neighbors and friends they took their way to the school-house when the traveling preacher came with his message.

He might have been a Baptist, Methodist, or of the doctrine brought to America with the Pilgrims, a Congregationalist, but I imagine their creed mattered little to the tired congregation.

There were, however, little of languor or weariness evident as the meeting progressed. Those old-time preachers or exhorters drove home their message with shoutings, poundings of clenched fists, and violent contorts of the body. They could paint the glories of Heaven with eloquence enticing to saint and sinner alike, and their pictures of a hell as real and terrible to them as Heaven was desirable, could leave their hearers frightened and "converted," terrified over sins already committed, and suspicious of their will to avoid other as black. They moved their congregations to tears of repentance, and to sobs of joy when the realization of their acceptance by the Lord, of so unworthy as one burst upon them.

Sometimes the little school-room resounded to pleadings and groanings hysterical with fear if unrepentant, or perchance joyous, over the reclamation of an especially hardened sinner. A contagion of excitement swept through the audience, not entirely unpleasant. Often after the evangelist had finished his message, the congregation was invited to "testify." Then to each other, perhaps to their God, they ensured their "experiences" and confessions. Singing of the ancient hymns was interspersed with the testimonies. My mother's tiny, leather-bound hymnbook printed in 1847 lies before me. It contains only the words, in extremely fine print and the meter. Very likely a leader started off the hymn with his tuning fork, all joining lustily in the singing. The meetings were lengthy, lasting two or three hours, for the Bread of Life was not eaten in haste or impatience. Can you see them in the mind's imagination, wending their homeward ways, strengthened and uplifted by their devotions, ready for another day of felling great trees, planting the corn or potatoes, watching for wolves or wildcats, preparing the way for us who came after them, laying the foundations of a Commonwealth? It is not only possible, but probable that we, their descendants, owe to them our comforts, our progress, our desirable way of life.

And we might ask ourselves if we have their faith and their zeal to, in turn, pass on to our descendants. We might measure ourselves, occasionally by their standards, their stupendous strength of will, their endurance and their devotion to God and country.

Here are the verses of an old song my mother used to sing. All her songs were long and many were sad. This was a favorite. Perhaps it was a folk song.

The Infants' Dream

"O cradle me on your knee mama

And sing me that holy song

That soothed me last as you fondly pressed

My glowing cheek to your loving breast

I saw a scene as I slumbered last

That I fain would see again.

And smile as you then did smile, mama,

And weep as you then did weep.

And cast on me a loving eye

And gaze and gaze till the teas be dry

And rock me so gently and sing and sing,

Till you lull me sound to sleep.

I dreamed a heavenly dream, mama,

While slumbering on your knee,

That I lived in a land where forms divine

And kingdoms of glory eternally shine

And this world I'd give if this world was mine

Again that land to see.

I fancied I roamed in a wood, mama,

We rested, as under a bough

When near us, a butterfly flounted in pride,

I chased it away in the forest wide

And night came on and I lost my guide,

I knew not what to do.

My heart grew chill with fear, mama,

I loud did call for thee;

When a white robed maiden appeared in the air

And threw back the locks of her golden hair

And kissed me sweetly ere I was aware

Saying "Come, pretty babe with me."

My tears and my fears beguiled, mama,

And led me far away;

We entered the door of a dark, dark tomb

And passed through its long, long vaults of gloom;

We opened our eyes in a world of bloom

And sky of cloudiness day.

I mixed with the heavenly throng, mama,

With seraphs and cherubim fair

I saw as I roamed in that region of bliss

The spirits that came from a world of distress

And O, the joys no tongue could express

For they knew no sorrow there.

So you think of that poor old man, mama,

Who came and called our door

When the night was dark and the storm was loud?

His heart was weak and his form was bowed;

His ragged old mouth became his shroud

'Ere the midnight watch was o'er.

Do you think what a heavenly look, mama,

Beamed forth from his glistening eye

As he told how he came to a baron's stronghold

Saying "O let me in for the night is cold."

The rich man said "Go sleep in the fold

For we shield no beggars here."

Do you think what a weight of woe, mama,

Made heavy each long, drawn sigh

As the old man sat in papa's old chair

And the rain drops fell from his thin grey hair

And then the tear of speechless care

Ran down from his sorrowed eye?

Well, he was in glory, too, mama,

As safe as the blest could be

He needed no alms I that land of light

For he walked with the patriarchs clothed in white

And no seraph there wore a crown more bright

Or a costlier robe than he.

Let me again to that land, mama,

While slumbering on your knee

I would live in that land where forms divine

And kingdoms of glory eternally shine

And this world I'd give, if this world were mine

Again that land to see.



North Country