Saturday, March 24, 2007

J. K. Ingalls, Reminiscences, Chapter 1

Joshua King Ingalls, Reminiscences of an octogenarian in the fields of industrial and social reform. New York : M.L. Holbrook ; London : L.N. Fowler, 1897.




In a secluded spot of the town of Swansea, Bristol Co., in the State of Massachusetts, on the 21st day of July 1816, the writer first saw the light. His birth stands thus recorded in the town clerk's office.

Between the towns of Dighton and Rehoboth, extends a district a mile wide and two miles long; at one time known as "the two mile purchase" which had been awarded to Swansea, under circumstances which are variously stated in colonial tradition. Nearly in the centre of this tract, remote from any public road, and partly surrounded by marshy forests, were two farms. At the beginning of this century, one was owned by Elkanah Ingalls, the father of the writer, and the other by Joseph Lewis, our only near neighbor. Our next neighbors were a half mile away through the woods, and only two other families within a mile. Our school-house, where, outside of home-teaching, I received my principal early education, was about a mile away, and adjoined the Dighton line. Our school was made up in nearly equal proportions from the parts of the districts of two towns, which held separate school-meetings, and agreed upon the hiring a common teacher, and other matters of detail for the school. My recollection goes back for more than seventy-five years, to the time when my father was yet living, but who died when I was four years of age. The first impression I remember, that things needed reforming occurred when I was about five years of age. It was the second season of going to school. I had not yet learned my letters, mainly because I could see no use in trying to repeat from memory the names given to certain characters contained in the alphabet. I [4] remember with great distinctness of my mother's visit to the school one day, and of my mortification when the teacher told her that I was a very backward child, and she had begun to despair of ever being able to teach me my letters. Then my mother quietly asked her if she would not begin to teach me words, and the use and sound of letters in them? At first, this was strenuously objected to. "It would be quite unusual," the teacher said. But my mother still urged it, and intimated that the teacher need not spend more time than she usually gave in teaching the letters. She began to show me the relation of letters to words, and words to each other. To her astonishment I manifested an immediate interest in identifying the letters, and in two weeks time I was reading readily, and correctly short sentences in one and two syllables. In a few years I was only second in spelling, and at nine years of age took the coveted certificate at close of school, for being at the head of the spelling-class, although there were several scholars grown to manhood, and womanhood in the class. In this manner at the early age of five years, I had practical illustration, that authority and established methods of teaching were subject to question, and my mind was thus early directed to original thinking, and the investigation by myself, of any and all questions which became subjects of discussion. In a matter of similar character, I was greatly put back by faults in my early instruction. As soon as a slate was allowed me in school, as in other children, the desire to draw was awakened. This was strictly prohibited by the rules of the school, and many a scene between teacher and scholar, is remembered, when delinquency was discovered in that respect. No teaching would ever have made me an artist, probably; but in maturer life, a little knowledge of drawing would have been of vast benefit to me, saving an immense amount of tiresome labor and mortification when the necessities of my business as inventor, and constructor required it.

Our neighborhood was not an educated one, nor refined in the popular sense; but much kind feeling, and friendly service were exercised. There was a marked toleration of thought among the different religious societies and political parties, for those times, as compared with other localities. Amid these peaceful and quiet scenes I lived till in my fifteenth year, the necessity of doing something for self-support [5] led me to seek employment in what is now, the City of Providence, and which about half a century since, abandoned the primitive town-meeting, for a Mayor, Aldermen and Council. To those days of childhood and youth, my mind is ever drawn with mingled emotions of pleasure and sadness. In imagination I see again the green fields, the dim woods, the streams and ponds, and even the swamps impassable to pedestrians except in winter frost and summer growth, the immense boulders, which to my childish imagination seemed mountains, but which at an early age I learned to climb, and so enjoy the wilder scene given from the elevation. I hear again, the singing of the sparrow, the thrush, and bobolink, and see the white birches, we children climbed so oft, to enjoy the sensation of the descent, bending them with our weight till we could reach the ground. This was often at the peril of being suspended too high in mid air to safely let go. All these things seem fresh in my memory, as the occurrences of yesterday, though more than three score years have flown, since these enjoyments were experienced in the simple and healthful sport.

It was our custom to climb the tree as near the top as possible, and clutch it with both hands, then throw the body clear to one side, and then, if we were not able to descend near enough to the, ground to reach it safely, run one hand over the other, until the flexibility of the extreme end would secure a sufficient depression. In eases of unusual resistance a comrade would climb upon the same tree and by his additional weight bring the suspended one safely to earth.

Running, wrestling, playing various games, requiring speed and shrewdness, gave us all the advantages of the modern gymnasium, to say nothing of chopping wood and engaging in the work of the farm and such handicrafts as were common in the country.

I have little doubt that my own development of muscle in the arms and chest was due in a considerable degree to those early sports and outdoor exercises which were always for "the fun of the thing" and never for a pecuniary reward or the wining of a prize. That prize money or gate money is necessary in any healthful sport, is the mere subterfuge of greed and the gambling habit. There is no more necessity for it as an inducement to the attainment of perfectibility in action than there is justification for the brutal maiming [6] of a fellow being, to prove which of two well trained men can strike the hardest blow, or sustain the greatest and longest continual fatigue. Blows can be measured accurately to an ounce as to their effectiveness, and endurance can be as accurately determined, by proper contrivances; whereas, pugilism often turns, as contended by many in the late prize fights, on a mere chance hit or "scratch shot." The gambling mania debauches every subject to which it attaches. Some one has said that the worst use you can put a man to is to hang him but much depends on the worth of the individual. To take so much pains to train a man and bring him into an excellent physical condition and then batter him to pieces, is as devoid of economic as of ethical justification.

Then there was the district school, (which I, myself taught at eighteen), the emulation in the spelling-school contests, the noonings and recesses, With mornings before and evenings after school; sliding on the ice—for the luxury of skates was scarcely known to us—the ice bending when thaws occurred, not really perilous, the ponds being shallow, but in which many of us were often thoroughly wet, eliciting a stern rebuke from our teacher and parents, when discovered. Later came the singing-school, the husking frolic, the rural parties of the young, with such plays as were tolerated but never dancing, as this with cards was strictly prohibited.

The religious meetings must not be forgotten. The Baptist "meeting house," the only one within several miles of us, was under a cloud, through division, and the falling away of the pastor, who after many years of service succumbed at last to the bottle. We were early visited by the Methodists, and preachers of other sects; our school house being our place of worship, our meetings being usually held on week-day evenings, and only occasionally upon Sunday.

At an early age, I became deeply interested in religious questions; hut when I manifested a desire to identify myself with the religious revival proceeding when I was nine years of age, I was told I was too young. Thus early my eyes began to open to the inconsistencies, not to say the insincerity of professors of religion. But I kept on thinking nevertheless and when the excitement passed away, and the converts many of them became back-sliders, as they used to be called, [7] I drew the conclusion that if their religion made them as happy as was claimed, it was strange that they did not hold on to it longer. The discussion of doctrines next drew my attention, and I began to speculate as to the reasonableness of the doctrine of the trinity, vicarious atonement and so forth, which I concluded should be made to appear reasonable, if true.

It was but a short time before, that the believers calling themselves Christians, but who were called by their opposers "Smithites," began to disturb the orthodoxy of the time, and to create division, particularly among the Baptists. A number had left the church to which my father had belonged, and of which my mother, and an elder brother remained members, long after his decease. Among the seceders, was a cousin of my mother, Elder George Kelton, whose son, George N. Kelton, became a preacher of the new denomination, and whose ministry extended through a full half century, mainly I think in New York; in Columbia, Yates and other counties in the western part of the State.

Thus early in life I was brought face to face with the fact that sectarian profession had little to do with real character and that the best people could widely differ in their religious faith. Later, I learned that true merit depended in no way upon profession of any kind, but upon the growth of the inherited and attained principle of wisdom in the individual. Comparing the professors of the never faith with those of the old, I came to the conclusion that individual character, far oftener affects religious opinions than opinions affect character, for the piety and religious observances are often determined by the results of inheritance or early instruction. In New England the extension of the more liberal faith was largely due to the preaching and writings of Elias Smith, a self-taught man of limited acquirements, but of much vigor, and originality of thought. In the early part of this century, he started their first denominational newspaper "The Watchman," which is still published, I believe. He had already made a success of it, when at a Convention of the "Elders," it was requested that he should make it the organ of their order, subject to their supervision and control. This, he peremptorily refused to do, or submit in any way to a censorship. He offered however to sell his plant and good will on terms, [8] which they accepted. His name is now seldom mentioned by their preachers, and to ministers, as well as laymen seems a name unknown.

They wished to make their movement embrace all the "reason of Harvard, with all the fire of Andover," and did not want anything uttered which would imperil their relation with either side. This attitude they have apparently maintained to the present time, working with the orthodox in evangelical revival measures, while rejecting the doctrine of vicarious atonement, the main justification of such work, and while affiliating in more liberal things With the Unitarians and Universalists.

Mr. Smith afterwards became a physician, a "steam doctor," or "Thomsonian," as these practitioners were afterwards called, and did much by his ever ready wit, and versatile pen to make "blood letting" and "calomel" unpopular.[1] He was the father of Matthew Hale Smith, a very eccentric but talented preacher, who changed many times from his parent's faith, to Universalism,—then to Orthodoxy, making at each change a telling point of the renunciation of the one, for the other. I last knew of him, as a brusque lawyer in the city of New York.[2]

[1] After Samuel Thompson (1769-1843), originator of a system of "botanic medicine."

[2] Smith was a prolific writer, a critic of Universalism and commentator on New York life and finance. He was, in the 1840s, involved in a debate with Horace Mann on religious education.

No comments: