Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Reluctant Reverend, Part II

This is the second and final installment about Bovina Pastor John Graham, taken from my presentation on Saturday evening, October 10 at the Bovina UP Church as part of its Bicentennial celebrations.

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Graham accepted his fate and was received warmly by the congregation. He soon became accustomed to the rocks, the stumps, and the rough and narrow roads. He received a salary of three hundred dollars (worth about $7,000 today), along with the use of a dwelling-house and barn and Sixty acres of land. The house was erected by the congregation on Coulter Brook. This was likely located about where Jill LaFever Craver lives, though I am not sure if it is the same house.

Graham’s 21 years in Bovina were an eventful time for the Associate Presbyterian Church and the community. During this period, he joined in marriage about two hundred couples. Graham himself was married in June 1834 to Mary Small. He also baptized some four hundred children, likely including some or all of his nine children, all born while he was in Bovina. And it was during Graham’s tenure that the current church was built.

What was Graham like as a pastor? He was a product of the strict Scottish Presbyterian Church. He saw himself as the Lord’s tool in reproving in public or in private when he thought that people were acting inconsistently with their Christian character and profession. People were criticized for sleep¬ing in church, coming without their Bibles, and per¬mitting their dogs to follow them into the Meeting-house. There were numerous cases of members brought before the session to answer for inappropriate conduct, whether it be swearing, drinking, working on the Sabbath, or other behaviors not really unmentionable. Some members had to confess in front of the whole congregation to get back into the good graces of the session.

Dancing, or promiscuous dancing, as it was always referred to in the session minutes, was another example of inappropriate conduct. Graham was appalled to discover a young man trying to start up a dancing school in the hamlet. He was particularly galled that the young man was going around during Sabbath intermission trying to get people to subscribe to the school. Though not by name, Graham very publicly from his pulpit reproved the young man -- “There is a certain spruce young man who worships with us pretty regularly … I am informed on good authority he was busily engaged last Sabbath during intermission soliciting subscriptions with a view to start a dancing-school in the village. I hope he will see his sin and turn from it, and no more be found acting as one of the devil’s recruiting sergeants.” The dancing school was not attempted. There are numerous references in the session minutes during Graham’s tenure concerning people accused of dancing. There was a group that ultimately refused to give up dancing, citing scriptures to back up their case. But Graham did not yield and they were expelled.

Reverend Graham was not ecumenical. He particularly railed against the Bovina Methodist Church in 1849 when he and the congregation were invited to the opening and consecration of its new edifice (where Gert Hall’s house is now). He read the invitation to his congregation, but then reminded them that the consecrating of churches, grave-yards and other things was heathenish and popish in its origin. He then said “As for the invitation for me to go, and request you to follow, and give countenance to such popish mummeries, [I’d] rather … let this right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

For a man who was quite lame, Graham was a very active pastor. Not only was he preaching in Bovina, but also he worked with several other local congregations. This work beyond Bovina may explain why the Bovina session minutes, so detailed in the 1830s, are rather sketchy in the 1840s.

Another reason the minutes were sketchy may have been that Graham also was a farmer. In 1841, he bought a farm, with help from members of his congregation, about a quarter of a mile from the original church. He wanted the farm because he wasn’t comfortable totally relying on the congregation for his housing. With his growing family, he was worried that if he became ill or died, there would be no livelihood for his wife and children.

And Graham’s health did break down in 1851 when he had a stroke at the age of 58. He blamed this in part on all the time he had to spend indoors writing his two sermons for each Sunday – sermons that could each last an hour or more. He struggled for two more years, paying to have supply ministers for the pulpit from his own pocket, but determined that a minister should be healthy enough to carry out all of his duties. Graham resigned in 1853. It wasn’t until 1856 that Reverend James B. Lee was installed as pastor. By then, Graham had left Bovina and was settling down in Iowa.

Graham and his family had spent three years debating what they should do. With nine children, they determined there would be more opportunities for each son to have a farm if they went west. Graham was concerned that his health wasn’t really up to the task. He felt he “was too old and too weak a tree to be pulled up and to be transplanted in a new soil.” Was he ready to face bears, wolves, rattlesnakes, and Indians? But he decided to give it a try, so in March 1856, Graham and his family left Bovina, crossing the Mississippi a month later. Graham and his family finally settled near Winterset, Iowa. The family found themselves homesick, but that soon passed and, contrary to expectations, Graham’s health improved considerably in Iowa.

Though he no longer had a pastorate, he was often called upon to preach to tide the congregation over between pastors. Graham was active in the Underground railroad in which he was a “share-holder and office-bearer.” Three of his sons and a son-in-law enlisted in the Civil War. It was an uncomfortable time for the Graham family remaining in Iowa, since they were surrounded by, in Graham’s words, ‘northern rebels.’ Graham was much relieved that his sons and son-in-law all came back from the war unharmed. He also rejoiced in the emancipation of the slaves.

In 1869, Graham wrote his autobiography, its full title being Autobiography and reminiscences of Rev. John Graham, late pastor of the Associate, now the United Presbyterian congregation of Bovina, Delaware co., N.Y. With an appendix containing some interesting and important letters to the author from Rev. Dr. McCrie...and other eminent ministers of Scotland of a former day. To which are added a few of his sermons. It was published in 1870. Graham died April 22, 1870 and is buried in the Winterset Cemetery. His wife, Mary, survived him over 30 years, dying in 1903.

It is because of Graham’s autobiography that I can tell you so much about him. And his book is an invaluable source of information about Bovina in its early days.

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