Being the Church in 1838 and Today

There weren’t ghosts but there were often echoes. Most of my babies learned to walk in that old house. Small bare feet padded across wide floor boards; pine holding the curves of settled ground and over two-hundred years of footsteps. In the kitchen, I washed dishes and looked out the window, surveying the hayfield, wondering how many other mothers had stood in this spot, with their feet planted and their eyes rising to the same blue sky. There were other babies, other children. I could close my eyes and hear generations of life that grew up in the shelter of the walls around me.

And, sometimes, the walls held more than echoes. Upstairs, in a bedroom that faced the faded barn, my husband was replacing one of the old windows. Behind a plaster wall, his hands found papers that had not been touched for nearly one hundred-eighty years. He came down the stairs, calling for me, his arms full of history. Carefully, afraid they would crumble in our hands, we started unrolling and smoothing newspapers from the 1830s. At the tops of front pages in beautiful cursive handwriting was signed the name Joseph Comings. There were papers with local news and ads for tonics to cure diseases with names I didn’t recognize. There was a handwritten account of expenses for the Baptist church down the road; the name of a pastor and his salary. A pamphlet published by the New-York Female Moral Reform Society in 1838; “‘A Plea For Moral Reform’, by a lady”.  On the cover we read, “As prejudice is an unexamined opinion, so the mind can only be freed from its influence, by carefully weighing in the balance of truth, every subject presented to its contemplation.”

And then, with a weight of significance pressing on my heart, I ran my hand gently over another pamphlet.

PROCEEDINGS

OF THE

ESSEX COUNTY ANTI-SLAVERY

CONVENTION,

HELD AT DANVERS, OCTOBER, 24, 1838

WITH AN

ADDRESS TO THE VOTERS,

ON THEIR
DUTIES TO THE ENSLAVED.

It was with sobering awe that I thought of my home standing in the days before the civil war, the air filled with conversations about duties to the enslaved. Suddenly 1838 didn’t seem so long ago. Not when day had just followed day and these papers had rested in our walls. History was no longer far away but instead leaning over me as I poured over these papers.

I pulled out my History of Cornish, New Hampshire [1] and inside I found a picture of Joseph B. Comings. His parents, David and Phoebe, along with their six children, moved to Cornish in 1806 and settled in our little farmhouse.  Then, Joseph was only a year old and his feet may have padded out their first steps on those same pine boards. It was surreal to read about the family that once filled my house. Three more babies were added and I imagined again the echoes of laughter and mealtimes and hard work. And, I could almost hear their prayers.

The Baptist church was erected just a stone’s throw away to the South. Sadly, the very year it was finished, in the early spring, David Comings and his nineteen year old daughter Phoebe both passed away. The History of Cornish said, “It is noteworthy that the father, with a loved daughter, were the first two whose remains were carried into the new Baptist church on Cornish Flat, after it’s erection in the spring of 1819, and that 27 years later, in 1846, the mother with a devoted son were the first two whose remains were borne into the same house after a complete remodeling of the same.”

On a walk to the post office, I took a moment to look for their stones in the graveyard. There, the family names were in a row, with dates to say when they were born and died. And, time seemed so thick and so vaporous all at once. On the father’s stone were the words, “Within this sacred bed of rest, a tender father lies, But he shall live among the just, when Christ shall bid him rise.”

And that night, as I washed dishes in the Comings’ home, and my home, I sang, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest…”, and I looked forward to the day when I’d meet these people whose steps I crossed in place but not in time.

When I lived in Cornish, the Baptist church was still standing but empty. Every other Saturday, my husband would take his turn to climb a set of rickety stairs and wind the clock. In a tower above a small green filled with war memorials, the hands still kept time, and a bell would ring out the hours.

But, when those newspapers were first stuffed in the walls around the old window in my upstairs bedroom, the church was still a place where Christians gathered. They came to worship God and they struggled through what it meant to follow him faithfully. Reverend David Burroughs became the pastor of the church in 1837 at only twenty-seven years of age. During this time the anti-slavery movement was growing and ripening in the north.

In school, I felt a little northern pride over the fact that we were opposed to the enslavement of human beings. I imagined a line separating the north from the south, not just physically, but in our deepest sentiments as well. But, as I learned more about the church in my front yard, I realized that lines in geography and in human hearts are never that clear and easy. The Reverend Burroughs had a battle to fight in Cornish, New Hampshire, of all places.

Most of the congregation believed in the abolition of slavery, but there were some individuals in the church who did not. As the Reverend Burroughs became more outspoken about things, some in the community joined in protesting his views. One Sunday, according to The History of Cornish, “the pastor ascended the high pulpit stairs and found the pulpit already occupied by a black ram. He retraced his steps down the stairs and occupied the deacons’ station as a pulpit for that forenoon. He made no allusion to the matter in his discourse, but the black occupant above, occasionally responded during the service, beside occasionally rising and standing on his hind legs, looking over the pulpit at the audience and causing much amusement for the children and the less seriously disposed part of the congregation.”

One Sunday, in protest of the denunciation of slavery, the white doors of the church were marked up with black paint. As the parishioners walked through the entrance to worship, the anger of the world outside, and the pain of the suffering, would follow them in their thoughts and make their way into prayers. And, they were a praying people. Reverend Burroughs started out with two faithful attenders of the weekly prayer meetings but it grew to over a hundred saints gathered together.

When history comes close, and leans over me, breathing into me the realness of people and makes time feel like an illusion, it quiets me.

I feel like I’m living in especially confusing, contentious days. But, as the war memorials on the green in front of the Cornish church display, most generations have lived in confusing and contentious days.

But in the past and today and until it’s finished, a house is being built on a foundation of people. And, we are growing into the frame and walls and floors. The empty building in Cornish isn’t the church; this house being constructed is the church. And, our foundation has a solid cornerstone.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

When days feel confusing, my eyes are to be fixed like plumb lines to the cornerstone of Jesus. To build well, every word, thought and action is to be measured and made to align with his example. This house is board upon board of truth and service, heartfelt prayer and mercy. And, when days feel contentious, I’m to listen to the echoing voices of the apostles and prophets, the saints at rest, remembering that the church isn’t built on political victories but through long-suffering and in bringing hope to the enslaved and captives. (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

I’m writing these words from my new house in the woods. It doesn’t have any echoes. It’s walls are filled with store-bought insulation. But seven little ones are sleeping peacefully as I sit here in the early morning hours. Like all mothers, I think about their futures. But more than what the world will be like, as they grow up, I think about what kind of echoes they’ll leave behind. This life is a breath. We’re here for a moment. If we choose to build on the cornerstone of Jesus, we’ll have to use whatever time we have to bend low and wash feet. We’ll listen to pain and suffering and be moved to compassion. Often, when we hold to truth, we’ll encounter black paint on white church doors. But, we can pass through them into worship and open wide the windows of the church so that this hurting world can hear our songs of hope and restoration and welcome. May the gospel be what echoes from us, his church, his dwelling place.

~Lara

church-in-cornish

Church in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire, image taken from waymarking.com

[1] Child, William Henry, History of Cornish, New Hampshire with Genealogical Record, 1763-1918,  (Concord, NH, Rumford Press, 1911), 124

5 thoughts on “Being the Church in 1838 and Today

  1. Love…always return to Love… thank you for this piece, Lara… spoken from your beautiful heart… I thought you might be interested to know of the history of the KKK in Maine… we northerners are not as pure as we think we are, for sure, with all the darkness hiding in the corners… KKK flyers were tossed in driveways in our area a couple of weeks ago… so sad… may the strength of Love permeate all… http://maineanencyclopedia.com/ku-klux-klan/

  2. This brings back precious memories of wonderful days spent with your family in the Cornish home. I remember when you bought the home, the previous owner called it a “sweet house in which to raise children” and I certainly always experienced the truth in that. I loved sitting on the hanging swing on the porch with a grandchild on my lap and listening to the bell in the church tower proclaim the appointed hour. Lovely, lovely memories of a very sweet home. It is so special to think that the house holds so much history and that it was surely a place where neighbors congregated to process the events of their times and to formulate plans to cope with whatever major situation presented itself. And yet time marches on and the sweet house prevails with generations of children continuing to grow up and thrive in its environs.

  3. So beautiful! Love all the images, love the history, love hearing your ‘voice.’
    Thank you for sharing your peaceful contemplation.

  4. Just spent three weeks in Cornish Flat helping out my daughter , Emily. We got to visit the historical society as it was open on Saturday. That’s when Emily told me about your blog entry. This was quite moving. I blog too at birds, blooms, books, etc at blogspot.com.

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