1778 — 1850.
WHEN the population of the United States was sparse and widelyscattered, the public services of religion could not have been maintained at all if the Lord had not raised up a race of zealous itinerants, who passed rapidly from one hamlet or homestead to another, and by their intense earnestness kept alive the sacred fire. We allude to a period ranging from one hundred years back to within half-a-century of the present date. The men of that time were necessarily strong physically, or they could not have borne the hardships of their wandering mission, and they were also sturdy mentally, and needed to be so, for they met with people who required vigorous handling. Of course they were rough and unrefined — what could they have effected had they been other-wine? Of what use would a razor be in clearing a forest? Very frequently they were wildly humorous as well as vehemently zealous; but probably this play of their spirits was needful to keep them from sinking down under the burdens of their uncomfortable and trying circumstances. At any rate, they did the work which God gave them to do, and left America a Christian instead of a heathen country, which last it might readily have become had it not been for their efforts.
We do not commend all that they did, much less hold them up for imitation; but we think it profitable to see how others did their work, and therefore we would describe Jacob Gruber, of whom his contemporaries said, “He is a character, and copies no man.” We shall do little more than give extracts from a biography written by W. P. Strickland, which has not been published in this country. We shall make a long chapter of this, because we shall regard Gruber as a sort of spacimen American evangelist of the backwoods’ order. “At the beginning of the present century there appeared at the seat of the Philadelphia Conference a young man who was impressed with the conviction that it was his duty to preach. His parents were of German descent, and had been brought up in the faith of the great leader of the Reformation. The German Reformed Church for many years had the exclusive control of the religious interests of the neighborhood. The time, however, came when this quiet was broken. Two itinerant Methodist preachers had divided up the country into circuits, and, claiming to be successors of the apostles, thought it no robbery to imitate them in traversing the country, and preaching the gospel wherever they found an open door. The strangeness of their manner, and the wonderful earnestness of their preaching, attracted the attention of the people, particularly the younger portion, and the cabins and barns where they held forth were crowded. “Young Gruber listened to these circuit preachers with amazement; and though they were denounced by the staid and sober Reformers as wild and fanatical, he nevertheless felt strangely drawn to their meetings. There was such a fervor in their prayers, such a zeal and earnestness in their preaching, and such a power in their songs, that he was entirely fascinated, and soon became convinced of the need of conversion. His prayers for a change of heart were soon answered, and with gladness he went with his parents to the place of meeting, and with them joined the Methodist church. “That the reader may have a correct description of the religious condition of this particular neighborhood, we give an account prepared by Gruber himself. He says: ‘The Methodist preachers came into the neighborhood, and held several meetings. As the result of their labors a revival commenced, and quite a number of persons were converted, and professed a knowledge of sins forgiven.’ Some of the members of the German minister’s church went to the old gentleman, expressing a desire to know something about this new doctrine. In reply to their inquiries about the knowledge of forgiveness, he said: ‘ I have been a preacher more than twenty years, and I do not know my sins forgiven, and indeed it is impossible that anyone should know it.’ It was not considered very wonderful by some that this preacher should be in darkness on that subject, as he frequently became intoxicated. An aged woman, a member of the German church, at one of the revival meetings where some were praising God for having pardoned their sins, stood thoughtfully shaking her head and said, ‘ It could not be, for if they had to answer a hundred and sixty questions, as she had before she got religion, they would learn that it could not be obtained in such quick time.’ “Among the early itinerants who visited Pennsylvania about this time was the eccentric Valentine Cook. He was fresh from the halls of Cokesbury College, and perhaps the first native college-bred preacher that had appeared in the American Methodist church. When Cook made his appearance, and it was rumored that he was a graduate of a college, he attracted general attention. The German Reformed, like several other churches we could name, entertained the idea that no man could possibly be qualified to preach who had not received a classical education; and hence vastly more respect was paid to Cook than to any of his colleagues in the ministry. His learning, however, did not always avail to insure him respect, as the following incident will show : — After travelling a whole day without refreshment in a region where he was not known, he halted in the evening at the house of a German, and asked if he could obtain feed for his horse and something for himself to eat. Being a tall, rough-looking specimen of humanity, the good woman, who was engaged in spinning, took him to be an Irishman. She was not at all favorably impressed with his appearance, but at her husband’s request she procured a lunch for him and returned to her wheel, saying to her husband somewhat petulantly in German, she hoped the Irishman would choke in eating. After Cook had finished his repast he asked the privilege to pray, which being granted he knelt down and offered up a fervent petition in German. In his prayer he besought the Lord to bless the kind woman at the wheel and give her a new heart, that she might be better disposed towards strangers. Such a personal reflection was more than the good woman could stand, and she left her wheel and ran from the house overwhelmed with chagrin at her wicked wish. “We mention these incidents for the propose of giving the reader some idea of the times in which young Gruber commenced his religious career. Being a sprightly lad, he was soon called out to exercise his gifts in public prayer and exhortation. As usual in such cases, a storm of persecution arose, not only from those who were outside the church and the family, but from his own household. Father, mother, brothers, and sisters, as if by one consent, rose up against the young exhorter, and he was obliged to leave home and seek more congenial quarters elsewhere. Some of the more zealous Methodists interpreted this differently from what young Jacob had imagined, and persuaded him that it was a clear indication of Providence that it was his duty to abandon everything for the exclusive work of the ministry. This interpretation of Providence was soon after verified. As he went on his way afoot and alone to the town of Lancaster he met one of the itinerants, who in a short conversation convinced him of the duty of entering upon the ministry, and sent him to an adjoining circuit to fill a vacancy. He accordingly procured a horse and went to the appointment. “As the conference embraced sickly regions in its territory, he knew not but he might be sent by the intrepid Bishop Asbury to some one of these localities, if for no other propose than to try his mettle. Many a young man has finished his course in one year’s service; but it was not to be so with Gruber. He had a powerful constitution, an iron frame capable of enduring an amount of hardship, labor, and fatigue which made him the wonder of all his ministerial companions. “The second year of our young itinerant’s ministry was spent where vast tracts of wilderness interposed between the appointments, and new hardships were to be endured. Nothing daunted, he scaled the mountains, penetrated the woods, and sought the cabins nestling among them, that he might preach the gospel to their inmates. Here he labored with the most unremitting zeal and diligence. Through his fervent appeals many were awakened and converted. “At a certain place on this circuit there lived a man who had been in great distress of mind, bordering on despair. He wept much and prayed almost constantly, but found no relief. He was visited by Gruber, who conversed with him for a considerable length of time, quoting such passages of the Bible as were applicable to his case. He could not, however, be persuaded that any promise was for him, as he believed his day of mercy and hope was gone for ever. The following colloquy then ensued between Gruber and the despairing man: “‘What will become of you?’ ‘ I shall be lost.’ ‘Where will you go?’ ‘To hell.’ ‘ But if you go there you will have it all to yourself.’ ‘ What do you mean?’ ‘I mean just what I say: if you go to hell weeping and praying, you will scare all the devils away, for I never heard or read of one going to hell weeping and praying.’ At this a smile came over his face like sunshine on a cloud; his despair was gone, and hope full and joyous sprang up in his soul. “At the next conference Gruber was sent to the Winchester circuit, having for a colleague a young man by the name of Richards. This young itinerant in a great measure destroyed his usefulness by getting the crotchet into his head that, to maintain ministerial dignity, he must put on extra airs of reserve and sanctity. A’ sad countenance,’ as our old English version has it, in the description of the Pharisees in the days of the Savior, is not a true index of spirituality. One of the old preachers who had outlived his day, and was constantly harping upon one string — ‘Ye are fallen! ye are fallen!’ remarked on a certain occasion that he wished some of the old preachers were as solemn as that young man. Bishop Asbury, who was present when this remark was made, smilingly said: ‘Do you make any allowance for solids and fluids?’ We recollect a reply once made by a lighthearted, joyous, talented young preacher to a pious lady, who reprovingly said to him,’ I wish you would be as serious as Brother C.’ ‘ Ah!’ said the young brother, laughingly, ‘when I get the dyspepsia as bad as he has it, I will, no doubt, be equally serious.’ “He had now been six years in the work of the ministry, and had exhibited such good proof of his fidelity and success that the good Bishop Asbury deemed him qualified for the more responsible post of presiding elder, and accordingly, in the year 1807, he was appointed to the presidency of Greenbrier district. It embraced a wild region of country in Virginia, said to be the roughest in the bounds of the Baltimore Conference. To use his own language, he had ‘hard work, rough fare, and bad roads ;’ but by way of offset to these disadvantages he had ‘great meetings.’ Towards the close of the year camp-meetings were held on every circuit, and hundreds were converted. Indeed, a camp-meeting in those days without numerous conversions and large accessions to the church would have been a great wonder. “At that time even a quarterly meeting was considered dull and profitless unless souls were converted and added to the church, and a revival inaugurated for the coming quarter. In describing these camp-meetings, Gruber said: ‘ Some complained about too much wildfire, and called the preachers the fire company; but we wanted fire that would warm and melt, not tame-fire, fox-fire, and the like.” During the three years on this district he experienced many hardships. In describing his labors he says: ‘ One very cold night in the winter I took a path for a near way to my stopping-place, but got out of my course, wandered about among the hills and mountains, and went to the top of one of them to see clearings, or hear dogs bark, or roosters crow, but all in vain. After midnight the moon arose; I could then see my track. The snow was knee-deep, and I went back till I got into the right course, and reached my lodgings between four and five o’clock in the morning. The family was alarmed, and said I was late, but I called it early.
After lying down and sleeping a little I arose, and getting breakfast departed on my day’s journey, filling two appointments.’ “At the end of his first year on the district he had a line of appointments reaching to Baltimore. On his route he passed through a wild, mountainous region, traversed by a dim path. Not a single cabin was to be found in a distance of twenty miles. He struck for the path on the mountain about ten o’clock, but, had not proceeded many miles before he found it covered up knee-deep in snow, and not a single track to be seen. He picked his way, however, as best he could, and traveled on. During the day it began to rain, which rendered his journey still more uncomfortable. At length he reached Cheat River, and found it considerably swollen, with ice in the middle.
When he reached the ice it was with difficulty he dismounted, and then making his horse leap upon it he again mounted. The ice did not break, and he was enabled to reach the other shore. He traveled on in the woods until night overlook him, when he lost his path and became entangled in the forest. The rain, which had been pouring down, now changed into snow, and the wind blew furiously. Besides all this, it was becoming increasingly cold. What to do he knew not, except to pray. The night was spent sitting on his horse. Above the roar of the storm he could hear the scream of the panther and the howl of the wolf. It was a dreadful night; but morning came, and with it he found the path, and in a short time found himself at the house of a friend. The family were alarmed at seeing him, and expressed their surprise at his undertaking so perilous a journey, as no person had been known to pass through that portion of the wilderness before in winter. Neither himself nor horse had tasted a morsel of food since they started, but riley were both inured to hardships, and suffered but little in consequence. After obtaining some refreshment, he started to his appointment, thankful for his escape from the dangers through which he had passed. “Gruber gives several incidents that occurred at camp-meetings. ‘In one camp,’ he says, ‘some bold sinners came to fight for their master, the devil; but our captain, Immanuel, made prisoners of them, and then made them “free indeed.” One fine, strong, good-looking young man among the mourners was in great distress, and found no relief until he drew a large pistol out of his pocket, with which he intended to defend himself if any one should offer to speak to him on the subject of religion. When he laid it on the bench beside him the Lord blessed him, and gave him a great victory over his foes.’” Gruber was dreadfully severe upon all worldliness, and especially upon foppishness in dress, which he denounced and ridiculed. A little of his healthy banter might be useful in these dressy days. “While preaching in a certain place on one occasion an unusually tall lady entered. On seeing her he stopped preaching and said: ‘ Make room for that lady; one might have thought she was tall enough to be seen without the plumage of that pird in her ponnet.’ Some days afterward the lady met Gruber and complained that he had treated her rudely. ‘ 0 sister,’ he replied, ‘ was that you? Well, I did not know it was you; I thought you had more sense.’ “At a camp-meeting on a certain occasion, where considerable difficulty was experienced in getting the people to observe order, from the number of young persons who were walking about, collecting in groups, and engaged in conversation, the presiding eider, in the most respectful and courteous terms, requested them to be seated. Not seeming to understand, or not caring to comply with the request, the young people paid no attention whatever to what was said, but kept up their walking and talking.
Gruber, who was present, felt greatly aggrieved, and rising in the stand he roared out, ‘Mr. Presiding Elder, you called those young folks gentlemen and ladies, and they did not know what you meant!’ He then added, ‘ Boys, come right along and take seats here,’ pointing to the right; ‘ and you, gals, come up and take your seats here on the left.’ Earnest and peremptory as he was, yet so comical was his manner that their attention was at once arrested, and they came smilingly forward and took their seats.”
To us this mode of address would have seemed rude and irritating, and very unlikely to secure the desired end, but Jacob knew the people he had to deal with, and how to handle them. To some persons a polite address sounds like affectation, and, taking it to mean nothing, they let it go in at one ear and out at the other; a plain, blunt, commanding mode of speech they see to be earnestly intended, and yield to it. Very much depends upon the character of the persons to whom we speak, and something also upon our own age and position: it would never do for a young minister fresh from college to address those of his own age as girls and boys, neither would such a style of admonition be acceptable to our educated young people even if the oldest divine so accosted them. The practical lesson is to have the thing done somehow, if it is right, and to use just such a method of speaking as will be best calculated to secure it. The dread of sinning against etiquette is as much to be avoided as the vulgarity which causes needless offense. The case in which Gruber acted so oddly will perhaps never occur to us, and, if it does, we must use our best judgment, and hope to succeed as he did. “At a camp-meeting near Baltimore, after the trumpet had been blown announcing the time for closing the exercises in the praying circles, one of them, unwilling to stop, kept on singing and praying. Gruber, somewhat impatient, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘That’s right, brothers, blow all the fire out.’” Often has the same thought occurred to our mind when we have seen unwise brethren ranting on long after the “spirit of supplication” has been fully exhausted. Long prayers and long addresses blow out the fire which they are intended to increase.
Gruber’s later years were more calm and quiet, but they were not quite devoid of stirring incident. The sinners of his day were as eccentric as the preachers who sought to win them. If they were assailed from the pulpit with rough weapons, they knew how to be vigorously offensive in return.
Gruber says — “! was sent a second year to Dauphin circuit. Nothing extraordinary took place, only some fellows of the baser sort made an attempt to blow up our meeting-house in Harrisburg. On a Sunday night after preaching they got in at a window, put something under the pulpit with powder in it and a match.
It made a report like a cannon,, tore up the pulpit, and broke the glass out of some of the windows. We soon, however, had all repaired, and pursued our course. My colleague this year was a poor thing hunting a fortune. He found out who was rich; but the girls found out that he was lazy, so he had little success in winning souls, and none in getting a wife. Some young men think if they can only get married (the sooner the better) they will be at once in paradise; and some young women have an idea that if they can only get a preacher they will have an angel for certain; but more than one has been disappointed very much. “While in attendance at conference in Philadelphia, in 1830, he was appointed to preach in his old charge, St. George’s. He took for his text Psalm 84:4: ‘Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, they will be still praising thee.’ Retaining a keen sense of the unkind manner in which he was treated by some of the members of that charge, which resulted in his removal at the end of the first year, he felt disposed to let his hearers know it by witty and cutting allusions. Under the head of “The Character of those who dwell in the House of the Lord,” he mentioned three characteristics, “‘ 1. They were a humble people, willing to occupy a humble place in the church; indeed, any place so that they might be permitted to abide in the church; but there were some people who were so proud and ambitious that, unless they could be like the first king of Israel, from the shoulders up higher than everybody else, they wouldn’t come into the house at all, but hang about the doors. “‘ 2. They were a contented people. If everything did not exactly suit them, they made the best of it, and tried to get along as well as they could; but there are many who are so uneasy and fidgety that they can’t dwell in the church, but are continually running in and out, disturbing themselves and everybody else. “‘ 3. They were a satisfied people, always finding something good, and thankful for it. Let who would be their preacher they could always get something that would give them instruction and encouragement. But some people are never satisfied, but are always finding fault with their preacher; some preach too loud, and some too long, and some say so many hard and queer things, and some are so prosy and dull that they can’t be fed at all and are never satisfied. If the multitude that were fed by the Savior had been like these people they never would have been fed. If one had cried out, “John, you shan’t feed me, Peter shall “; and another had said, “Andrew shall feed me, but James shan’t “; and another, “I want all bread and no fish “; and others, “I want all fish and no bread,” how could they have been fed? Such dissatisfied people cannot dwell in the house of the Lord. If they are not turned out they will soon die out: they can’t live.’” “Though he was sometimes severe in his criticisms on young preachers, he always entertained for them a fatherly affection, and sought only to correct their errors: but we cannot think he was justified in publicly rebuking a foolish stripling who had attacked Methodism, by asking the Lord, ‘to make his heart as soft as his head, for then he might do good.’ “A young preacher, desirous of improving his style as a pulpit orator, and having great confidence in Father Gruber, wrote to him for advice. The young man had contracted the habit of prolonging his words, especially when under the influence of great excitement. Deeming this the most important defect in his elocution, Gruber sent him the following laconic reply : — “‘Dear Ah! Brother Ah! — When-ah you-ah go-ah to-ah preach-ah, takeah care ah you-ah don’t-ah say-ah Ah-ah! Yours-ah, “JACOB-AH GRUBER-AH.’ “But one of the oddest reproofs I ever knew him to administer was on a larger scale, and proved not less effectual. In a certain church the congregation had an unseemly practice of turning their backs on the pulpit during a certain portion of the singing. One Sabbath Mr. Gruber conducted the service, and, as usual, the whole congregation simultaneously turned round, presenting their backs to the preacher. Instantly the preacher, to be even with them, turned round also, presenting his back to the congregation. When the time for prayer came, at the close of the hymn, the congregation were astonished to find the preacher turned from them and gazing at the wall. The hint was enough; they did not repeat the objectionable practice.”
Mr. Martin thus describes the closing scene of Gruber’s life : — “He was taken suddenly worse on the evening of the twenty-third of May, having several attacks of fainting or swooning. He gradually grew weaker and weaker, until forty-eight hours afterwards the scene closed. He was conscious that his end was rapidly approaching, and sighed for the happy release. He requested brother Blake, if it could be ascertained when he was about to die, to collect a few brethren and sisters around him, that they might (to use his own words) ‘See me safe off; and as I am going, all join in full chorus and sing : — “On Jordan ’s stormy banks I stand. ”’ A few hours before he died he asked Brother Blake whether he could stand it another night, and was answered that in his judgment he could not. ‘Then,’ said he, ‘to-morrow I shall spend my first Sabbath in heaven! Last Sabbath in the church on earth, next Sabbath in the church above!’ and with evident emotion added, — ‘“Where congregations ne ’er break up, And Sabbaths have no end. ” Brother Blake, perceiving that he was fast sinking, in accordance with his request, the hymn he had selected was sung; but ere it was concluded his consciousness was gone. The singing ceased, a deathlike stillness reigned, only broken by his occasional respiration. An overwhelming sense of the presence of God melted every heart. A minute more and his happy spirit winged its way to its long-sought rest. He died in the seventy-second year of his age.”
If any judge too severely the personal peculiarities of such a man, we would urge them to do better; but to us it seems more than probable that were preachers more in earnest we should see more of what are called eccentricities, which are often only the ensigns of real zeal, and the tokens that a man is both natural and intense. If a fisherman can catch fish with silk lines and artificial bait, let him be thankful; but if with a superior tackle he is unsuccessful, it shows a very proud spirit if he indulges in harsh criticisms of the style and manner of brethren who succeed better than himself in the gospel .fishery. “Every man in his own order” is a good rule.
Apollos may be polished and Cephas blunt, but so far as they are honest, prayerful, and true to the Gospel, God will bless them both, and it ill becomes them to pick holes in each other’s coats. We would never say to a man, “Be eccentric”; but if he cannot help being’ so, we would not have him otherwise. The leaning tower of Pisa owes much of its celebrity to its leaning, and although it certainly is not a safe model for architects, we would by no means advise the taking of it down. Ten to one any builder who tried to erect another would create a huge ruin, and therefore it would not be a safe precedent; but there it is, and who wishes it were other than it is? Serve the Lord, brother, with your very best, and seek to do still better, and whatever your peculiarities, the grace of God will be glorified in you.