Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Brothers-in-Law, Part I

Andrew Thomson, a native of Scotland, died in Bovina on 12 May 1866, aged 87 years.  He had been a widower for more than 7 years, living with his daughter Eliza Miller and her husband, Thomas.   His death led to a family squabble that turned into one couple’s battle with the Bovina United Presbyterian Church. 

Andrew had ten children, including daughters Elizabeth or Eliza and Nancy and son William.  Elizabeth and Nancy got into a disagreement over their father’s estate after his death and their husbands joined in the dispute.  James Coulter, the husband of Nancy Thomson, instigated a suit against Thomas Miller, the husband of Elizabeth.  James claimed “my wife got the silver but did not get the gold that Grandfather told was up at Thomas’s.  My wife asked Thomas’s wife about it and Eliza told her she had got all the gold she should get now [so] what could I do.”

The Bovina U.P. Church got involved in the case because it was contrary to the rules of the church for one member to take another to court.  It first reached the ears of the church Session on October 9, 1866.  It was reported at a meeting of the Session “that a suit at law has been instigated against Mr. Thomas Miller a member of this congregation, and whereas it is reported that Mr. James Coulter who is also a member of this church has been active in having said suit instituted.”  It was pointed out that Mr. Coulter should have come to the Session for resolution of the issue.  The case was further complicated by the fact that Thomas Miller was a church elder and also on Session was his brother-in-law, William Thomson. 

James appeared before the Session on October 19.  He was asked “Are you willing to comply with the rules of the church and withdraw the suit you have been instrumental in bringing against Thomas Miller?”  He replied “I admit I did not take the scriptural mode of settlement, but I cannot withdraw the matter now.  I will withdraw the suit if Mr. Miller will pay us what we ask.”

Over the course of the next two years the Session made repeated attempts to get Mr. Coulter to withdraw his suit.  After his appearance before the Session in October, he declined several requests to make further appearances until February 1867. 

Intertwined with this was the fact that Coulter’s brother-in-law, William Thomson had not been attending Session meetings and tending to other duties as an Elder, likely because of the lawsuit.  On January 27, 1867, Thomson appeared before the Session and said he was incompetent to carry out his duties and wished to resign.  His brother-in-law, Thomas Miller, requested that the session not accept the resignation.  He “said he believed Mr. T’s reasons were personal to him (Miller).”  He said he would resign in Thomson’s place and that “perhaps never would again act as an elder in this congregation.”  Thomson said he had no feeling against Miller, and had “offered his resignation irrespective of all feeling or prejudices.”  Thomson said that since he did not uphold either party in the suit that he might bring his two brothers-in-law together to settle thing.   After a long discussion, Thomson agreed to withdraw his resignation. 

This did not resolve the suit between Miller and Coulter however.  Coulter appeared before the Session on February 4 and again on the 8th to argue his case.  Coulter thought he had been misused and that he always wanted to settle with Miller, but Miller had refused.  Coulter said "I spoke to some members of Session to speak to Miller, and try to get him to settle, and it seems they did not do it.”  He had asked Mr. Lee, the pastor, to speak to Miller.  He says that Lee said Session had no authority to make Miller settle with him.  Coulter “did not think he was doing wrong in trying to get his pay for keeping Grandfather” and that he was willing to let Miller have $3000 and he would take the balance.  The Session asked Mr. Coulter to use his influence to withdraw the suit but he made no reply.

When the session reconvened on February 8, Coulter was again asked to withdraw the suit.  Coulter responded at length:

I have had a great deal of trouble out this matter.  I feel as though there was a feeling against me.  I know I am a very poor unworthy man.  You can put me out of the Church if you want, I cannot feel like coming to church knowing there is a feeling against. When a member of Session says it was preposterous for me to ask 500 dollars for keeping Grandfather, I can’t feel right.  This matter has caused me the loss of many a nights sleep. I have prayed over it.  I wish to do right.  You can put me out of the church, but many an hour I have spent in prayer by myself.  In the woods alone I have an altar where I can pray.  I go to a big rock and over the rock are long red vines hanging, just like Jesus’ blood shed for me.  I think so, at least it appears so to me, and there I pray. 

The Session Moderator tried to convince Coulter “that there was no desire to put him out of the church, but rather as a contrary one, to have his difficulties settled.”  Coulter did not wish to be asked to appear before Session anymore. 

At the March 5, 1867 meeting, the Moderator reported on a meeting he had with Mr. and Mrs. Coulter.  It became obvious that Coulter’s wife, Nancy, was no passive player in this suit.  She explained to the Moderator that “I have the entire control of that suit and [that James] cannot settle it if he would, that if the Session wants to do anything they can proceed against her.”  The couple was “offended that [the] Session had noticed this matter.” 

After reporting this unsuccessful meeting, a motion was passed by the session: 

Whereas Mr. and Mrs. James Coulter have been instrumental in instituting a suit at law as they themselves admitted and whereas Mr. C has admitted before this Session that he acted contrary to the word of God in refusing to arbitrate said case and whereas Mrs. Coulter admits that she has the control of said difficulty so far as to prevent her husband from arbitrating said case and whereas Mr. James Coulter has informed the Moderator of this Session that he has applied to have an arbitrator grated by the court and this application is still pending, Therefore Resolved That Mr. and Mrs. James Coulter be suspended until the first Tuesday of June, when said court meets.

Subsequent actions taken by James and Nancy Coulter did not help increase their chances of having the suspension removed.  More of this story will appear in this blog on May 17.

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