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The Scotch-Irish in America
Chapter 9


During each year there were several occasions of special interest and solemnity in these old congregations. Next to nothing was made of Christmas, and nothing whatever of Easter. Rome had made much of these, and so our forbears would have nothing to do with them. But the Harvest Thanksgiving, the Annual Fast, and the Holy Communion at stated intervals, they held to be strictly scriptural, and so they observed these occasions with great interest and sympathy. The Harvest Thanksgiving was held in the latter part of August, and no doubt was based on the Feast of Tabernacles in the Jewish Church. The services in the church were full of joyousness, while the afternoon was given to elaborate dinners and visits among neighbors. It was a holy day inasmuch as it was warranted by scripture, but it was not a solemn holy day, since while it brought entire surcease from daily toil, it was a day of gladness, thanksgiving and merry-making.

This shows that our fathers were by no means the sour, morose and gloomy people they are so often said to have been. They observed such an annual thanksgiving for the blessings of the year long before anything of the kind was proposed by either state or national authority. It was their Feast of Tabernacles.

The Annual Fast-Day was no make-believe ordinance. It was the real thing. The divine ordinance of fasting has been pretty much dropped out of our modern church life. If, however, we follow the biblical teachings and example, and no less that of historic Christianity, there is no doubt that fasting is just as authentically and as peremptorily a divine ordinance as is prayer or praise, or any other means of grace. The teaching and example of our Lord and His Apostles, are perfectly clear on this point. No doubt it was practised by the early Church, and always in its more consecrated days. Somehow this easy-going age has let go of it almost entirely except as it is kept up in a qualified form, and at stated seasons, by papal and prelatical communions. The majority of Christians give no attention to it except when brought into some sore distress, or when some dire calamity falls upon them. During our great Revolutionary struggle, more than once or twice, the whole country at call of the authorities, fell on its knees before God. Many times during our great Civil War, when the whole Nation was wallowing in a sea of tears and blood, our great martyred President summoned the whole people to their knees in a day of fasting and prayer. Perhaps we shall not think of it again until some calamity befalls us. But our fathers believed it to be a divinely appointed ordinance to be statedly and religiously observed. That day had all the quiet and solemnity of the Sabbath, plus an added sombreness and abstinence from food. As a rule, there was not entire abstinence, but a very pinching diminution of the usual ample supply.

Some, however, scarcely tasted food during the entire day. One of the sons of the Rev. David French writes me that his father would ride on horseback twelve miles to reach his appointments, hold two long services, preaching two long sermons, without tasting food of any kind till he was ready to retire for the night, when he would nibble a cracker and drink a glass of milk. I can myself remember how it was in my grandfather's time. We always had a scant breakfast early in the morning, and then went to the very long and awfully solemn service in the church. Everybody wore a long face, and looked as if there had been a funeral in the house yesterday. I can recall sitting through that long and trying service with hand in pocket fumbling with a big red apple, which somehow I had smuggled in, and fairly aching to get it out and bury my jaws in it. But there was no chance for that kind of thing.

The Lord's Supper was celebrated in Seceder churches but twice a year, while in ours, it was observed three times a year, February, June and October. This ordinance was always called "The Sacrament," not because baptism was undervalued, as it was not, but simply in the way of emphasis. These sacramental sessions were always great occasions, especially the June and October communions, when the weather was likely to be fine. There was always a neighboring minister to assist, and often more than one, and quite often near-by congregations would omit their services for the day and attend in full force. The services really began the Sabbath preceding, and were specially ordered to lead up to the communion. The services immediately connected with the communion, however, began on the Thursday preceding, which was always announced as a "day of fasting, humiliation and prayer." Some minister other than the pastor usually preached on that day, and the sermon with the accompanying services were exceedingly solemn and searching. The sins and shortcomings of the people were dwelt upon with great plainness, faithfulness, and often with unsparing severity. This plan of bringing in an outside minister for the occasion was a rather skillful one, as he could castigate the people as probably their own pastor could not without giving offence. It was a time for the use of the rod of God, for putting on of sackcloth and ashes, for humble confession and deep penitence. Then came the meeting of the Session for the examination of candidates for admission to the church. This examination was no perfunctory and quickly-done ordeal. It was thorough and searching, and not merely experimental, but theological as well. It was a good time for one to know his catechism. It was like being examined for admission to West Point, and when one had passed successfully he felt sure that he had really joined something. Usually there was a service on the Friday similar to that of the Thursday, but there was always such a service on the Saturday, when the minister who was to assist appeared. The people were not apprised beforehand whom they were to expect, and as some neighboring ministers were popular favorites and some were not, there was no little curiosity as to whom they were to expect. This Sunday service was strictly perparatory to the communion, and the attention of the people was strongly fixed on the great truths which cluster round the cross of Christ. It was expected that all the services, and especially the sermon would be peculiarly tender, and fitted to move the deepest spiritual feelings of the people. At the close of this service, the elders stood in a row in front of the pulpit to hand out "tokens" to intending communicants, who were expected to come forward and receive them from the elder's hand. The origin of this custom I do not certainly know. Dr. W. H. French, of the U. P. Church, thinks it had its origin in the close communion rules of the Seceder bodies. His opinion is entitled to great respect, but my own judgment, after some study of the question, is that the custom originated in times of persecution when only those certainly known to be trustworthy could be informed of the time and place of such a service. Informers and spies were abroad, and only such as were known to elders to be faithful were advised of the time and place of these gatherings which must be in secret places. When the dragoons of Alva in Holland, and the Rough-Riders of Claverhouse in Scotland were scouring the country in search of worshipping Presbyterians and Protestants, to imprison and slay them, it was necessary to have some sort of secret symbol or pass-word to be given to faithful men and women by those who knew them, and the token was such symbol. The custom, like many other such customs, continued long after the need of it had passed. These tokens were bits of pewter about the size of a nickle, and stamped with the initials of the congregation.

On common Sabbath the people assembled early and in large numbers, and the grove round the church was filled with vehicles and horses tied to the trees. Sometimes the crowds were so great that the service had to be held in the open air, but usually they were held in the large church. Tables were placed across the entire width of the building, and often down the wide centre aisle. These tables were simply made of poplar boards, unpainted, about the height of the ordinary dining table, and fifteen inches wide. They were covered with spotless linen. Along each side were placed lower benches for the people to sit upon. In front of the pulpit stood a small table on which were placed the holy vessels with their contents of unleavened bread and port wine. The wine was always port, the purest that could be found, and the bread utterly unleavened, in thin layers, devoutly made for the purpose. What was left of it after the service was devoutly eaten by the elders, or other pious people. The morning sermon was called the "action sermon," and was always an earnest and elaborate setting-forth of the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, and usually took a full hour. This, with the accompanying services, required at least two full hours before the celebration proper began. Then, after a hymn, and the reading from scripture of the warrant for the service, came what was called the "fencing of the tables." This was a lengthy address stating with great minuteness, the tests by which people must decide whether they were entitled to come to the Lord's Table, and barring those who were not entitled to come. This was the opportunity for the visiting minister to bear down on the sins, or supposed sins of the people. He would descend to particulars, specifying sins or alleged sins, and declaring that those who were living in them, coming to the Lord's Table, could only eat and drink damnation to themselves. By the time he was done it would seem that there could hardly be one in the place who would dare approach the holy table. He had set an angel with a drawn sword to guard the holy place. But he was careful always to assure those who sincerely repented of their sins that they were welcome. After this a hymn or psalm was sung. If a hymn, it was usually that tender, melting, utterly unpoetic one beginning, '"Twas on that dark and doleful night," sung to that quaint old, wailing tune in the minor key, Windham. If a psalm, it was the one in the version of Rouse beginning, I'll of salvation take the cup," sung to that still more wierd old tune, Coles-hill. Poets laugh at these lyrics, and musicians at these tunes, but there are thousands of men and women all over the world in whose memories these old hymns and psalms mated to these old tunes have a singular pathos and power. These ancient lyrics, singing which thousands of Christian martyrs have marched to the stake, and thousands of heroes have laid down their lives for Christ and the rights of man, cannot be laughed out of the sacred appreciation of high-minded men and women by any mockery of connoiseurs. They will live and be loved long after the mockers are dead and utterly forgotten.

During the singing, people rose all over the house filing down the aisles, and taking their places at the tables, till all were filled. All others remained quietly in their pews. A prayer of consecration followed, after which the minister made an address, during which the elders passed along behind the benches collecting the tokens from the communicants, who sat with bowed heads over the tables. The bread was then distributed, followed by another address, after which the cup was passed. Then came a hymn during the singing of which those at the tables retired, and others coming forward took their places, when the same order was observed. Often this order had to be passed through several times before all communicants were served. The closing address was always an earnest, and often a very powerful appeal to non-communicants. This service would take up a large part of the holy day, and towards evening, the people would quietly and silently scatter to their homes. With all its simplicity and quaintness there was something exceedingly impressive and affecting in this method of celebrating the Holy Supper. Very impressive was the spectacle of people rising from their seats all over the church and going forward to the sacred table, many of them weeping, while others, members of their families, were left behind as deniers of the Lord. Especially, when some great preacher in eloquent words and with tearful emphasis, pictured the coming judgment and its eternal separations, and asked if this now seen here was a prophecy of what would be seen there, the effect was often very great. I can distinctly recall how profoundly moved I was as a boy, with mingled shame and terror, as my parents and others of my family went to the holy table with the people of God, leaving me behind, I felt that I was a sort of culprit and outcast, an enemy of Christ and under the curse of God, and that surely I was in imminent danger of being on the left hand in the dreadful day of judgment. I know that a great many other boys, companions of my childhood, some of them in the high places of the earth, felt just as I did, and to this day, so far as they are alive, carry sacred and tender memories of these old-time communion Sabbaths. In our present hasty, and sometimes irreverent, method of celebrating the Lord's Supper, we have lost much of its solemnity not only, but much of its tenderness and power. In the evening another service was held, with an earnest sermon addressed specially to those who had that day denied their Lord.

The Monday forenoon closed the services of the great commemoration. The services of that day, the hymns, prayers, sermon, and all else, were always bright, hopeful and joyous. It was the last, the great day of the feast, and always a day of thanksgiving, praise and gladness. The entire mood and aspect of the people were changed. There was a warmth, a glow, almost a levity, in the very faces of the people in striking contrast with the sombreness and solemnity of the preceding days. It was the day for the presentation of infants for baptism, and as great importance was attached to this ordinance, the number brought forward was often quite large. The people were taught that, by the provisions of the covenant, the children of believers had a birthright, a veritable citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and that baptism was the public and official recognition and seal of that birthright. Our fathers, our standards and our scriptures give far greater importance to the seals of the covenant and to the validity of the sacraments than do most of our people, and even our ministers, in these days. We too often think of them as merely more or less beautiful, touching and suitable ceremonies. Our fathers believed, as the scriptures teach, that they are most solemn seals of the covenant of grace, and that they certify a most vital and valid transaction between God and His people. Hence they brought their young children to the altar that their birthright might be openly claimed, recognized and certified. Sometimes there would be probably a dozen pairs of parents standing in a row before the pulpit, each pair with a babe in arms. Sometimes, a little motherless babe, made motherless at its birth, would be brought forward by the father to be given to the Lord in this holy ordinance, and this spectacle always deeply moved the people. The pastor made quite a lengthy address, during which the mothers were seated on chairs considerately placed for the purpose, while the fathers meekly stood. If a baby was fretful, some motherly woman near-by would whisk out of her seat, bustle forward, take the little thing out under the trees, there soothing it, until called for, which would probably be in half an hour.

After the service ended, the people lingered about for some time in pleasant greetings and harmless gossip, and at last separated. So ended the great occasion. Those who were used to such sacramental seasons in their childhood and youth, no matter how far they may have wandered from the old place and the old faith; no matter how aged or how eminent they may have become, never lose the sacred memory of them, nor can they ever escape their sweet and holy influences. Thomas Carlyle never wrote anything more pathetic, nor anything which more clearly revealed what was deepest in his nature, than his reminiscences of what he calls "the plain old temple of his childhood, with its old-fashioned minister, the truest priest I have ever found, its rustic people and its simple and solemn services." He had wandered far from the faith of his fathers and had become one of the most famous men of his time, but in his old age and great celebrity, he recalls with tearful emotion, the memories that clustered round that sacred spot, and he confesses that their influence had rested like a holy benediction on all the years of his life. He was offered sepulchre in Westminster Abbey, among the tombs of England's mighty dead, but he expressly declared his wish that his body should be laid close by the walls of the plain old sanctuary of his childhood and of his fathers, and that his dust should mingle with the ashes of his rustic people in the churchyard of Ecclefechan.


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