Tales from the (Methodist) Crypt

Unearthing a trove of stories in hundred-year-old letters and diaries.

This summer I hit the jackpot. For my doctoral research into 19th-century preaching and rhetoric, the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church agreed to fund my travels from my home in steamy, soy-bound Urbana, IL, to the spectacularly cool and humidity-free Madison, NJ. There, in the main archives of the United Methodist Church on Drew University‘s campus, I plunkered down in box after box of archival documents, reading diaries, dream journals, correspondence, Sunday school guides, and 19th century pamphlets.

I was in dork heaven, stepping in to what often seemed like a 19th-century soap opera, as the complexities of forming a new denomination unfolded: American Methodism was in its infancy in the early 19th century, growing by leaps and bounds as poorly paid but incredibly dedicated men (and women) preached, exhorted, and ministered to the states of new American Republic.

I can’t help but love the sloppy, messy humanity that emerges through archival research — the reality that things were entirely different back then and yet so much the same. Down in the archives, I feel a little like I’m sitting in the front room of someone’s house watching them sew and talk to the children or write a letter, or, even better, have a fight. Everyone is real, and I’m besotted by them.

Take Catherine Garrettson, the wife of the late 18th and early 19th century circuit-riding Methodist preacher Freeborn Garrettson. She may be my new personal hero:

  1. She likes a good cup of tea.
  2. She interprets dreams (a proto-Freud?)
  3. She defied her well-to-do and highly influential family to marry her decidedly not-so-well-off and workaholic preacher husband, Freeborn.
  4. She and her husband were in a long-distance relationship, with her holding down the farm and the family in Rhinebeck, NY, while he canvassed New England making new converts. In one letter she encourages him to go after the eminent Philadelphian physician Dr. Rush, as such a well-known convert will certainly get some butts in the seats [my paraphrase].

There are other things about Catherine I don’t like, of course. Her continuous and superfluous use of the term “melted my heart” in reference to preachers and sermons, for example, grates on my nerves after many an hour reading her tiny script. She’s also pretty tight-lipped when it comes to juicy stories about friends and family, in contrast to her more lively and loose-lipped friends.

In real life, I’m not sure I would have liked her daughter, Mary: Pious, intellectually curious, and irritatingly active in her organization of infant Sunday schools, I probably would have hated having her in my class meeting (a small congregation, somewhat like a study group) if only because she’d be continually showing me up.

“I’ve heard from Richard Reece, of the English Methodists,” she’d say, wearing one of those well-cut but dour-colored dresses that our founder, John Wesley, described as appropriate for women. “He’s sending me Richard Watson’s Theological Institutes. I thought we could focus on the chapter on Christian perfection.” She’d smile demurely. “Let’s prayerfully consider it.”

Oh goody, I’d think, more pious reading. That will go swell with the deathbed confessions of yet another pre-adolescent girl dying from mysterious causes who is miraculously converted to Methodism in the last five minutes of her life. (Aside: The Happy Death of Mary Ann Clap is a personal favorite.) And then I’d finger the bright blue ribbon I’d sewn secretly into my modest sleeve, right before wondering if her mother was around with the tea yet — and how about her mother’s friends? Yes, the gossipy ones with the terrible handwriting who always had a good story to tell about someone’s embarrassing fall from grace.

Archival research upends our assumptions about the past: No matter what we may imagine, people back then were completely different and entirely the same. My mother may bemoan the death of penmanship as a modern phenomenon, but I can honestly say that penmanship never was, at least not in the 19th century. Case in point: I spent an entire day figuring out that one recurring word in Catherine Garrettson’s letters was “bless.”

Likewise, the preacher brother of the Addison family of missionaries lectured his brother about his terrible handwriting, saying that last time he checked, Isaac had four fingers and a thumb and knew how to hold a pen correctly. Their other brother George was a terrible speller who spent many a letter contemplating marriage versus blissful bachelorhood.

Thus, my transcriptions of documents often look something like Swiss cheese:

- – [abrogate? abdigate? abdicate?] – - – [??] – - – - [Really, really unreadable] – - [GAH! Have some pity and invent the typewriter already!]

Earlier transcribers had similar problems, often dotting the word “[torn]” throughout type-written versions of documents. I’ve decided that this is code for bad handwriting.

Relationships were pretty much the same back then, too. While I subscribe to the Feminist notion that true love can’t exist except for between two people who have equal power in the relationship (e.g., finances — and, oh, legal rights), I nonetheless mightily enjoyed a testy exchange between Catherine and Freeborn Garrettson in which Catherine reported that she would do as he wished and give him the list of groceries to buy as he so insisted. Maybe he was just trying to lessen her already heavy load of raising children, ministering to the sick and dying, and holding down the family farm, but I imagine that he more likely felt that she was a spendthrift, and that he needed to curtail how much cinnamon she was buying.

Still, it was a happy marriage. When Freeborn died decades later, Catherine was devastated.

Methodists were often referred to in the 18th and early 19th century as “enthusiasts.” This wasn’t a compliment. Gathered in vast conversion camp meetings, they prayed and preached and exhorted on passages from the Bible, and scared the bejeezes out of cows, farmers, and quieter denominations down the road. In my head, I imagine it a lot like a the Methodist youth group retreats I used to go to — a group of young and old standing around a bonfire, some scraggly looking guy playing the guitar, everyone shaking a tambourine or thumping a jug, singing loudly and incompetently to the Lord, with s’mores for later (or whatever the 19th century equivalent of s’mores would be).

I know I am being too simplistic, and that these people were complex individuals that no amount of archival work can recreate. But I like the characters I have created in my head — of Catherine and Mary Garrettson, the Addison brothers, or Mary Ann Clap; I respect them, and how they counted as blessings things that I would find impossible, like sitting up all night with a dying child before writing that child’s funeral speech the next day. They give me the enthusiasm that I think John Wesley intended Methodists to have when he asked us to strive towards a Christian perfection that wasn’t a one-time calling, but an active, willful daily devotion to the Christian life.

This enthusiasm gives me hope. Religion can’t replace the fact that human beings can be immoral, mean, petty, and sometimes outright cruel, or change what happened in the past. But sometimes, religion can help us transcend these things, to help us in small, miraculous ways.

In the archives, I paused for awhile at one of Catherine Garrettson’s funeral speeches. Children often died at young ages back then, and it was Catherine who would stay up with the family, comforting them as their child passed, then extolling the child’s virtues the next day at the funeral. How did she do it? How did her many friends that lost young children make it through? And how did they remain so miraculously upbeat and faithful to God, like Chloe Aurelia Clarke Wilson did after giving birth to a stillborn child in the Oregon backcountry? Maybe her journal writings about how her love for God continued weren’t quite genuine — but even then, I still hear that Methodist “enthusiasm” lurking in her words. Did this enthusiasm help her, just a little, to transcend, heal, and go on?

John Wesley had an idea that each individual could choose to strive for Christian perfection, and that this striving wasn’t something you did once or a few times. Each and every day you had to choose to be Christian. I’d like to think that this is what Catherine Garrettson and Chloe Aurelia Clarke Wilson would tell me — that, yes, things were not so good, and things were sometimes outright terrible, but they kept making the choice to go on. And then, they’d shake their tambourines at me, along with the Addison brothers and Mary Ann Clap, from the wonderful and enthusiastic camp meeting of heaven. And maybe, just maybe, there’d be s’mores later.

Article © 2010 by Heather Blain