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The Scotch-Irish in America
Chapter 10


These Scotch-Irish were strictly and stubbornly conservative in all matters of religion, as they were, in fact, in regard to all things. They gave heed to the apostolic counsel to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. They had no welcome for new doctrines in theology, new forms of worship, or new institutions and agencies in the Church. They believed that the Lord knew what He was doing when he appointed the ordinances and agencies of the Church, and that there was no call for amending them by human additions. They spoke much of the pattern prescribed in the Mount, and every new proposal they instantly met with the peremptory challenge, "Where is your warrant in holy scripture? Show us that if you can; if you cannot, then begone." Hence, in the earliest days, not only woman's societies, young people's societies, and the like, but even sabbath-schools and stated prayer-meetings, were unknown. It was not because the people had not thought of these things; it was because they did not believe in them. They found no warrant in holy scripture for such special agencies. They asked, "Where has the Lord authorized these as among the stated means of grace?" In our time we attach great importance to these and the like agencies, and very properly, but it is worthy of remark that for nine-tenths of its history Christianity has made no use of these agencies, and that the greatest revivals in the history of the Christian Church, and the epochs of its greatest power were in times when the greater part of the machinery of the modern Church was unknown.

Our fathers laid most urgent and insistent emphasis on the religious training of the household, on the strict and searching care of the pastor, and on the prescribed ordinances of the Church. These they regarded as divinely warranted and all-sufficient, and all further ordinances as merely human innovations, worldly amendments, and cunningly contrived schemes to improve on God's plan. Undoubtedly this was good for the time, but whether it is best for our time, is another question. Many of our wisest pastors and people are now inquiring whether this prodigious multiplication of all sorts of agencies and societies in the Church is, upon the whole, a blessing and a help in the advancement of the kingdom of God? Whether it may not be true that too much of the interest, enthusiasm, activity and money of the Church is expended in the mere running of machinery? Whether all these agencies are provided for in the constitution of the Church as prepared by her Divine Head, as they certainly are not provided for in any of the standards or liturgies of any of the great Reformed Communions? Whether the modern Church is wiser than the fathers, and wiser than the scriptures, and whether all these multiform agencies are not the product of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of this world invading the kingdom of God? This is not a foolish inquiry. This modern mill doubtless turns out a larger grist; it may be a question whether the grist is of equal quality and value. No doubt our fathers erred in one direction: perhaps we err in the other. Sabbath-schools were very grudgingly introduced in southwestern Pennsylvania, and elsewhere among the genuine Scotch-Irish people.

They were looked upon at first as simply a device for turning over to the Church the responsibility which God had placed on the home, and on the head of it as the priest of his household. They thought it was a scheme to realize in the Church Plato's theory, that all children should be considered children of the state, and that no mother should know her own child as specially her own, and for whose training she was specially responsible. Perhaps these Sabbath-schools among the Scotch-Irish were introduced in southwestern Pennsylvania as early as anywhere, and in Upper Buffalo as early as anywhere in that region. So far as can be ascertained, the first Sabbath-school in that congregation was set up in 1815. By degrees, these Sabbath-schools grew in favor, and now for a great many years, no part of the country has exceeded that part in zeal for Sabbath-schools. As soon as these were fairly introduced, the old-fashioned "catechisings" began to dwindle. These "catechisings" were a rather peculiar institution, but one in great vogue for many years. The extended rural congregation was divided into definite districts. In addition to diligent pastoral visitation from house to house throughout the entire congregation, which visitation did not mean a modern fashionable call, but a calling together of the whole family, when the pastor talked face to face with every member of the family, including hired people, accompanied with solemn prayer and exhortation, in addition to this, in each district there was held at stated intervals, as often as once a year, "catechisings," when the people of the district assembled in some designated house, where the pastor held a religious service, included in which was a thorough examination of all present in the Shorter Catechism. Now, the Sabbath-school gradually superseded this wholesome custom, and the catechising, and much else, was turned over to the Sabbath-school. The gain on the one hand, and the loss on the other, presents a question on which wise and good people may differ.

From a very early date, probably from the beginning of the settlements, neighbors were accustomed to meet together for prayer at stated times. These meetings were purely voluntary, and were not thought of as ordinances of the Church. Such meetings were held in Buffalo certainly as early as 1794, as I have heard my grandfather say that when his father moved into that community in that year, he attended a meeting of neighbors for prayer, and that it was there that his prejudice against Watts hymns was removed. These hymns were used, and he said, "If this is not worship acceptable to God, I do not know what is." These neighborhood meetings were continued once a week, or once in two weeks for many years before stated prayer-meetings became an institution of the Church. Doctor Francis Herron, so long pastor of the First Church of Pittsburgh, had a great battle with his elders when he proposed to set up a weekly prayer-meeting. These elders resisted the proposal as an innovation and an impertinence, and refused to have anything to do with them. For a long time these weekly meetings were regarded as social gatherings for prayer and conference, and in no sense as an integral part of the authorized services of the Church. Hence they were always called "societies." The voice of no woman was ever heard in either remark or prayer in any such meeting. Any attempt of any woman, however pious, to speak or pray would have been instantly and sternly suppressed. Very rarely did any layman open his mouth to speak or exhort except in the Sabbath-school. Our fathers were, in fact, very high churchmen, and had very strict ideas concerning ordinances and the authorized ministry of the Church. Everything must be strictly canonical, and according to the prescribed order. The supervision of the people by the pastor and session was vigilant, and discipline was strictly enforced. Compared with our modern laxity, the old-time discipline seems often to have been needlessly severe, harsh, and sometimes even cruel. People were hauled up and "sessioned" for offences which now are not even seriously thought of. I have myself heard the names of ladies of the first standing in the congregation, read out from the pulpit, and the bearers of them suspended from the communion of the Church, until they gave satisfactory evidence of repentance, for the sin of "promiscuous dancing;" such dancing being in its most rudimentary form, some sort of awkward jig in a private parlor with a few neighbors.

And this was no idle form. It meant not only religious, but a sort of social ostracism. A playing card was regarded with horror, and the use, or even the possession of such a thing, was a serious offence. I have known my own father, one of the gentlest of men, seize a pack of cards found in the hands of a hired man, and forthwith fling it into the flames. And yet, in those early days there were some remarkable twists in their ethical ideas. The use of liquor was almost universal, and they seem to have been utterly blind to the evil of lotteries. The people of the old First Church of Pittsburgh, while they resisted the setting up of a weekly prayer-meeting, organized and carried through a lottery to raise revenue for their church.

Divorce was practically unknown. If husband and wife had a quarrel, however bitter, it never occurred to them to seek relief in the divorce court. They fought it out and made up again, and went on as before. But such quarrels were extremely rare, and family loyalty was a marked characteristic of the race. All the same, the women had hard lives. And this, not from any intentional neglect or unkindness of their husbands; but simply from the hard conditions under which their lives were passed. They had not only the ordinary duties of the housewife, including the care of their children, but they had to prepare the fabrics and make the clothing, the bedding, the table-linen and all like supplies for their households. They took care of the gardens, milked the cows, tended the poultry, dried the fruits for winter use, made all the jams, pickles, preserves, butters and the like for the entire family. Then they had no modern conveniences in their houses, their utensils and all facilities for doing their work being of the crudest and clumsiest description. There were no cook-stoves, laundries, running water in the house, or other such conveniences. Everything was awkward, heavy and hard. Then they had the care of the sick in their own homes and among their neighbors, there being no nurses and very few physicians. Their toil and drudgery were early and late, heavy and unremitting, and in addition to all this they were environed by many and great dangers. Yet, they accepted their lot with unshaken fortitude and uncomplaining patience, and did their hard duties with a brave, cheerful, and utterly self-sacrificing spirit. Blessings on the memory of our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers! They were genuine heroines if such ever lived on the earth.

These earnest and sober-minded Scotch-Irish were not without their amusements. While to them life was not play, yet there was no little play in their lives, else they never could have been the brave, enduring and worthy lives they were. For the most part of course, their amusements were extremely simple and inexpensive. It must be confessed that sometimes they were not too refined, in fact, rather coarse and rough, but generally they were hearty, honest and wholesome. The interchange of visits among neighbors and relatives in the intervals of hard work was very common. The people in general were extremely hospitable. Relatives and friends were welcome to come and spend the day and night too, at any time without warning. Any decent person on a journey was welcome to draw bridle at the door of any ample house, and have provision for himself and his horse over night, without money and without price. In the long winter evenings, one family would go over to a neighboring one and "sit up till bedtime;" bed-time being rather an early hour. But there was plenty of time for ginger-bread, doughnuts, hickory nuts, sweet cider, and the like simple refreshments. Then often a family would specially invite a lot of their neighbors to "make a visit." This meant spending the entire day, and sometimes the night, during which there would be much feasting. It was very common for people "to neighbor" as they called it; that is, if a barn was to be raised, or a job of threshing to be done, or anything requiring a number of men, all the men in the neighborhood would be invited to attend and help. Along with these gatherings of men there would often be a similar gathering of the women in the afternoon, for a quilting or some such work, and then after a big supper, the evening would be spent in rustic jollity. There were corn-huskings also, not very popular among the better class, as they were apt to be rough and to take on some of the features of rowdyism. Singing-schools, spelling-schools, debating societies, and the like were very common in the winter months, and at such assemblies the whole neighborhood would gather and greatly enjoy themselves. Their customs in respect of weddings were extremely simple and practical. When a young farmer reached the point when he contemplated marriage he paid his addresses to the daughter of some neighboring farmer. In the early days the people had but limited contact with the world at large, and had almost no acquaintance beyond the immediate neighborhood. Hence the young fellows seldom went far from home for their wives. When things had progressed far enough to warrant the fixing of the marriage day, everything was made ready with great deliberation and thoroughness. The bride-to-be, or her mother rather, had been getting ready for that day ever since she was born. The feathers, linens, woolens, and other furnishings for her house, as also for her person, had been steadily accumulating through all the years of her girlhood. As the time drew near, the father had ready a fine horse and a fine cow, as an indispensable part of her dowry. On two successive Sabbaths preceding the wedding, after the benediction was pronounced in the church one of the clerks would "publish the bans between John Doe and Jane Roe." The marriage was celebrated at the home of the bride, and always during the day, and never at night. The special friends of that family, together with the family of the groom were sure to be there. There was much feasting and merry-making, and there the parties passed the night. The next day, usually on horseback, the bridal party proceeded to the home of the groom's family, for the "infare." There were gathered the relatives and friends of the groom, together with the family of the bride. Here the day was spent in more feasting and merry-making. This closed the wedding festivities. But the next Sabbath, "they made their appearance." This custom was invariable in the early days, and continued long after my childhood. The bride and groom, together with their special attendants, arrayed in all their wedding finery, came together to the church, waited till the services were just about to begin when everybody was supposed to be in place, when they would enter arm in arm, and march down the main aisle, to their place in the pew. No matter in which aisle their pew might be, that day they must sweep down the main aisle. Until this "appearance" was duly made, the wedding ceremonies were not regarded as complete. After that, they settled down to the serious business of life. Of theatrical, operatic, and other such pretentious and expensive exhibitions, there were absolutely none. If a young fellow wished to take his sweetheart to an entertainment, he did not need to pay a month's salary for carriage, tickets, gloves and flowers, to say nothing of fashionable clothes. He simply called for her at her home, and walked across the fields to the school-house, if it was not too far, and if it was too far to walk, he would take her up behind him on horseback and ride away, the girl clinging tightly, particularly if the horse was a little frisky, as in that case he was very apt to be. The young fellow commonly had sense enough to have a spur or other irritant secreted about his person.

A quiet philosopher looking at these simple and inexpensive amusements might well ask, if they were not quite as rational, as wholesome, and as satisfying as whist parties, wine parties, and the showy functions of modern life? There was here much less of style and dress, of pomp and parade, of show and splendor; and there was also less of hollow pretence and bitter envy, of luxurious vice and destroying dissipation; of disgust, despair and suicide.

They were very forward in helping one another in case of need. If there was sickness or death in a family, everybody in the community would offer his or her service, and do it heartily. If by reason of illness or other misfortune, one got behind with his seeding or harvesting, the neighbors would gather in force with their teams and hired men and help him through. Particularly, if a widow needed help on her farm it was sure to be promptly forthcoming. Men would leave their own fields to gather her harvest. In the early days physicians were very rare, and dentists unknown. When one fell ill, the mother of the house, or some other woman of the neighborhood usually did the doctoring. When certain interesting and important occasions came in the family, there were sure to be two or three motherly women in the community who could do the office of midwife and nurse both in one. Meanwhile, the man in the case would take to the tall timber. Bleeding, ipecac, calomel and above all, boneset, were relied upon chiefly. In every community there was some elderly man who kept a thumb-lance, which he used alike to bleed men and horses, and which he was accustomed to jab into the arm of any sick one whom he could make hold still long enough. My grandfather was such a man. He firmly believed that each spring, everybody about the place should let blood, take a stiff dose of castor oil, and follow it up for a week or so with copious draughts of a strong tea made of boneset. This "cleaned out" the system of the winter gorge, and put things in good shape for the summer. There may have been something in this, for certainly he never laid down on his bed with illness during the nearly eighty years of his life. At the same time, when any really dangerous disease got into the settlement, nearly everybody who took it died. When one got a severe toothache, there was but one remedy, and that was to have the tooth jerked out. There were no dentists to do this, but other men here and there had the necessary tool and nerve to do it. Here again my grandfather was useful. Commonly the same man who had the "thumb-lance" had the "pullikens" as they called it. This cruel instrument was a short rod of steel with savage claws annexed, and when once this terrific apparatus got well clinched on a tooth, and in the hands of a muscular and determined man, something had to give way. The instrument never broke, and the man seldom let go his hold. No matter about the shrieks and yells of the tortured victim, and his writhings round the room, out must come the tooth. These neighborly services, of course, were always entirely gratuitous.

With all their Calvinism there was a vein of superstition in our forbears. Two classes of men are specially prone to superstition, the one is the ignorant and debased, and the other is the highly gifted and sober-minded. The one class cowers and grovels in stupid dread of the mysterious unknown by which they feel themselves surrounded and oppressed: while the other class is overborne by the mystery of existence and the immanence and awfulness of the unseen world. Those who live on the dead levels, and have a humdrum existence, are the freest from the influence of the invisible and the mysterious. At opposite poles, the devil-worshipper of South Africa and Doctor Samuel Johnson, the poor unlettered slave and Abraham Lincoln, were more or less under the influence of what we call superstition. Hence, in our strong, forceful, serious, pious forefathers, whose minds dwelt much on the spiritual and the unseen, there was the intermixture of certain superstitious notions and ideas. They always denied it in words, but their imagination was always more or less overshadowed by these occult influences. They said, we do not believe in ghosts, or apparitions, or omens or signs, and yet they did. Certain signs boded evil, and certain others boded good. They considered the phases of the moon when they planted their corn and potatoes, and even when they killed their pigs. Many of them would not sit down to a table with thirteen, nor would they begin any important undertaking on a Friday. Their ministers denounced these conceits, and debarred from the communion all who cherished them, and yet their fireside tales, their common talk, many of their customs and usages clearly showed that their imagination was filled with spectres and invisible agencies swarming in the world around them. This, however, was really a vague impression rather than a matter of definite belief. It never in the least weakened or intimidated them, nor touched their stalwart faith in the absolute and sovereign authority of the holy oracles. It was a feeling rather than a conviction. It would be easy to give many amusing illustrations of the practical working of this sentiment in the former days.


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