Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Green Pastures and Still Waters of the Sanctuary Below

I'm going to be away the next week and so I'm bringing up an item I wrote for the Bovina UP Church Bicentennial celebration and presented on October 10 at the site of the original Bovina Associate Presbyterian Church. I used Bovina Pastor John Graham's autobiography for quite a bit of this presentation.

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You are standing on the site that for 34 years, the Associate Presbyterian Church of Bovina, the predecessor to the UP Church, called home. The meeting house was built on May 10, 1815 and was 36 feet by 30 feet. It was a pretty simple building, with no steeple and, for about a decade, without any kind of pews, making do with rough boards and blocks. Where it stood is somewhat of a guess, but it obviously was somewhere in this area where there are no graves. And since Rev Laing, who is buried right over there, was buried within feet of his old pulpit, I would hazard a guess that the church stood back some ways, allowing for a large front lawn. That lawn would be important – for dealing with the crowds that came to church and as a place, at least in mild weather, to eat between services.

Bovina’s second pastor, John Graham, has left us vivid descriptions of Bovina in the 1830s and this site. He noted that “Our old Meeting-house was built on the top of a bank, along whose bottom murmured, over its smooth pebble bed, the pure, sparkling, and never-failing waters of the Little Delaware.”

Graham noted the challenges of getting to church, as the mountains were steep and covered with timber. People had to go far round to get down to the Meeting-house. Many elected to go on foot rather than a horse or wagon. And for many, the only option was foot, since there were few horses or wagons. He went on to note that “In the summer time you would have seen them coming down the sides of the mountain in groups of men, women, and children; the men carrying their coats over their arms, (some having left them behind,) and the women their shoes and stockings in their hands, tramping along and conversing together, then wading the Little Delaware, and sitting down on the other side putting on their stockings and shoes and otherwise fixing themselves up, and afterwards climbing the bank, and appearing in the house of God, clean, healthy, and happy…”

During the summer, at least in Graham’s time, there would be an intermission between the morning and afternoon services. The men would gather under the hemlocks tending to horses, talking, smoking and eating bread and cheese. The women sat in groups on the grass with the children around them eating from a basket they prepared. He said that “once-in-a-while you would have seen puffs of smoke rising from among them, indicating that they were taking a whiff of the pipe.”

Graham vividly recalled the challenges in the wintertime, with two stoves trying to keep things warm. People would sometimes huddle around the stoves to keep from freezing. He remembered one day that the stove pipe came down “with a crash, and out poured the smoke and filled the house.” He noted that no one was hurt except one gentleman who had his hat driven over his eyes (on cold days, except during prayer, they wore their hats). Graham sat and waited for the confusion to subside, then said “I make no doubt most of you are expecting I am going to say something about the conduct of the trustees, in not attending to their duty so as to prevent such unpleasant occurrences during the time of public worship. But I am determined not to say one word about it…” Graham then resumed his sermon.

As the 1840s progressed, the meeting house continued to cause problems, requiring frequent repairs. On windy days, it would shake and crack. It was uncomfortably hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. This fact, and the fact that the Methodists had just built a meeting house in the hamlet, led the congregation to build a new church in the hamlet in 1849.

But however ramshackle the old meeting house was, the congregation and pastor did not find leaving it to be an easy task. As Graham noted, “There are associations connected with old friends and old places.” He himself had been preaching for nearly 20 years. He noted that the old church had been “where we had held sweet fellowship and communion with God; where parents had devoted themselves and their offspring to His service…” He also noted that the grave-yard was much fuller than when he first arrived – so much so that a few years later, a new cemetery was established.

Graham had “strange indescribable feelings when for the last time I came down from that high old-fashioned pulpit, which when I first entered in December 1831 I was vigorous and in the prime of life, and newly come from my native land; but now my hair was becoming silver-gray, and my strength was beginning to fail me, both in body and mind. Such are some of the changes to which we are subjected in this transitory world.”

A few years later, the old meeting house was dismantled and the frame was donated to the Hamden Presbyterian Church. It is not clear what is meant by the frame – did the whole building go or just the structural insides. However much of it went to Hamden, it still stands today behind the current Presbyterian church there, used as the church’s community center.

The cemetery continued to be used sporadically until the last burials in 1893. For many years, its condition was poor. In the 1880 Munsell’s history of Delaware County, it was noted that while the new cemetery was tended to, the old ones showed “evidences of shocking neglect, the briars and weeds growing on the sunken graves where, ‘Each in his narrow cell forever laid, the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.’"

Today the old cemetery is the responsibility of the town and is in much better condition than what I can remember as a child.

I close these remarks by going back to Reverend Graham, our authority from the early days of the church, with his memory, written 15 years after he left Bovina and 1000 miles away about the stream that ran below the site: “Glide along, thou pleasant stream! on whose banks I spent many happy days, and where rests the dust of those with whom, in former years, I walked in company by the green pastures and still waters of the sanctuary below…”

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