October 2020

Johnny Cordell

History Leaves of the Methodist Tree

Compiled by Johnny Cordell

October 2020

While Methodist circuits were very prevalent on the western frontier, I found this article about an Episcopal preacher Ethelbert Talbot who built a church in Murray, Idaho, right next door to the local saloon. Both buildings were quite flimsy and very close together, so the prospect loomed of noisy barroom activity disrupting services. Fortunately, the Rev. Talbot got along very well with the publican next door, and soon had worked out an arrangement: At the time of services, on Sunday morning, the saloonkeeper would close up shop for two hours. “That’s all for now, gents” he holler, “Let’s all stop over and hear the Reverend talk!” Out the door and around the corner would go the crowd of day-drinkers to sit down in the pews next door and soak up some religion, before returning to resume their celebration. “Many of the fellows fresh from their drinks were hardly able to realize where they were,” Talbot recalled. On one particular occasion, Talbot selected a sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican – a gracious nod to his saloonkeeper friend next door. “I proceeded to condemn the pride and selfcomplacency of the Pharisee, and, in corresponding strong language, to praise the publican for his humility and selfabasement,” Talbot said. But it soon became clear that one of his audience members – one of the saloon patrons who’d come next door when the bar closed – was not having any of it. As the sermon continued, he glared fiercely, then started muttering angrily to himself as his fellow congregants eyed him nervously. Finally, he leaped to his feet, apparently unable to take no more. “Tha’sh all wrong” he yelled resentfully, and would have continued, but the other bar patrons – perhaps pleased to have an opportunity to leave the church without offending the keeper of the only saloon in town – leaped to their feet and hustled him out, still incoherently protesting out the door. Back in the saloon, everything became clear. The disruptive day-drinker was a hardcore Democrat, and all the praise of the “Publican Party” without as so much a nod to the Democrats had simply been more than he could stand. Of course, it was all well and good for an Episcopal pastor to make friends with the saloonkeeper. For preachers of denominations with less worldly attitudes toward Demon Rum, that sort of thing would have been unthinkable. Legendary Methodist circuit rider James W. Wilbur rather set the tone for his denomination’s attitude in the Umpqua gold fields in the 1850’s during the California gold rush. Wilber was leading a team of Methodist ministers holding a week-long revival for nearby miners, and had attracted a considerable crowd. The crowd, had, in turn, attracted the attention of a duo of itinerant liquor peddlers. These two gentlemen had a wagon loaded with distilled spirits and a big tent they’d pitched beside it forming a portable saloon; the wagon sides would serve as a bar. Like modern “tailgaters” partying in the parking lot at a football game, they now came and set up this booze wagon as near to the revival tent as they dared, ready to stake the miners’ always prodigious thirst. You can imagine how this went over with the Methodists. The men of cloth tolerated the interlopers for several days, putting up with the nearby whoops and howls of drunken revelry during services in hopes that the booze-wagon soon would move on; but finally, several days into the revival, things came to a head. The event that set it off was a gang of drunken miners, fresh off the wagon, who decided to attend services. At the back of the congregation, they started laughing and disrupting the meeting. Finally, Wilbur could take no more. “Sing something,” he muttered to the other preachers, I’ll be right back.” Slipping out of the back of the meeting, Wilbur stealthy made his way to the booze wagon. He caught its two proprietors alone and completely unawares. Fired up with righteous wrath, the good pastor seized a bottle of whiskey and, using it as a club, set about getting the local earthworms drunk as skunks. Shards of glass flew; cheap whisky and rum spattered everywhere. The two liquor peddlers, belatedly realizing they were under attack, leaped upon Wilbur; but Wilbur was a very large and a powerful man, and more than a match for two half-drunk liquor men even when he was not animated with a spirit of crusading fury. They didn’t have a chance. Wilbur didn’t stop swinging until he saw that every bottle had been broken. Then, bleeding from several cuts inflicted by flying glass, he ordered the two liquor men to pack and move on (which they meekly did, on the spot) and returned nonchalantly to his congregation – where, his face and shirt smeared with blood and his entire person doubtless reeking of cheap rotgut, he finished his sermon as if nothing had happened.

Source: John D. Finn “The Circuit Preacher Chronicles” March 2016

Last month’s question: During times of disaster, what organization is usually the first to respond with resources and volunteers? UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief)

Next month’s question? What minister had the first ordination ceremony conducted at Chapel Hill UMC?