The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

New Preacher In Town - Part 5 of 12

By Ernest Markwood Pritchard © 1986
Edited By Emily P. Cary

Issue: September, 1986

In Parsons, as in other moves, empty, dreary-looking rooms were quickly made livable with our furniture, pictures, and favorite knickknacks. The parsonage contained eight large rooms - in addition to a large hall, or reception room - and two good-sized porches. It was situated on a large lot adjoining the church. On one corner stood a large barn (forerunner of the garage). To one side of the house were open fields, giving us children plenty of room to "spread out."

Our first Sunday at the new church went off well, as our first appearances in a community usually did. Everyone came out to see the new preacher's family occupy the spotlight for that day. As usual, Mother was nervous, but we children rather enjoyed the attention showered upon us thinking that maybe, in some manner, we deserved it.

Despite his constant optimism, Father was always careful to be cautious for the first few weeks. From experience, he knew that among each new congregation were a few men and woman who had been childishly pouting with the former and the board members. They were now coming back to get whatever attention, favors, or authority they could inveigle from the new minister.

People like this usually had long stories to tell about their many grievances toward church policy (and the former minister). Of course, they blamed everybody - except themselves. During the first critical weeks at a new appointment, a pastor could easily "get off on the wrong foot," should he unwittingly take up the cudgel of the wrong factions of the congregation.

To some extent, this pattern existed at all churches my father ever served or learned about from other ministers. The church at Parsons was no worse - or better - in that manner than any other, but it was the first place where I paid attention while my parents were discussing the problem. Father always prided himself in being less troubled by these "social" problems than were his fellow clergymen. He declared that most of his membership were loyal and sincere, and he thought it remarkable that so few in his many churches were complainers.

The first "donation" I remember took place at Parsons, but one was given at nearly all the appointments where Father served, occurring at least once during his first year. Sometimes the congregation held a "donation" each year, as at Richwood, one of Father's later charges, where they "surprised" us with a "donation," not just once but four times.

The purpose of these "donations" was to assemble as many church members and families as could be secured at one time, so that when we were least expecting it, they could dash into our house like a small "Coxey Army" with whatever contributions it pleased them to bring. Theses "donations" provided us with cans of vegetables, potatoes, melons, apples, chickens, coffee, whole hams, sacks of flour, and even dress material - in fact, almost anything that a family could use.

At other times, we might receive larger offerings which were financed by several combined families, but these were not included in the "donations," the general idea of which was to bewilder us by sheer numbers and confusion. Many small articles scattered all around the room (in the eyes of the congregation) tended to emphasize the enormity of the project.

On the night they invaded our Parsons home, Enoch and I were in the kitchen, where most of the packages had been left, examining each bundle. In the other two rooms, the donators reveled in the "surprise" they had perpetrated upon my father and mother. While making our inspection, we had just about what had been anticipated until we were astounded by the sudden cackling of two hens in a market basket under the kitchen table.

We children knew that Father and Mother were great actors to carry out their required parts, for - of all the "donations" - there was only one which they had not predicted beforehand to the very day and - usually - to the hour. We thought that the church members took us for a bunch of "goofs" when, before a "donation" they would gather around after a prayer meeting or a Sunday service talking excitedly in low voices and whispers. Although the clues were not always identical, our parents became experts at "donation" detection through experience.

Mother always was nervous waiting for the "donation" party's arrival, for she didn't feel that she should "dress up." That would look as though they were not surprising us. However, like any woman, she didn't want to appear at her worst, either. To choose her mode of attire and the degree of careless dressing she should achieve were problems she always found difficult to solve.

While we children were small, we were usually not notified to expect visitors, for fear we would "give away the surprise." However, we were made as presentable as feasible, under the circumstances.

Although our needs were great and Mother would sacrifice much to make her family's lot better, she said that sometimes she would almost rather do without all the gifts than to undergo the nervous strain that the "donations" entailed. The "unexpected" visitors always wanted Father and Mother to make a speech, or at least to say a few words to the group. Father invariably expressed his appreciation with some appropriate anecdote and a few "wisecracks" to liven up the occasion, but Mother's worry was to express her sincere gratitude without misrepresenting the facts.

It would have been "lying" to say that she was surprised, and yet she wanted them to think she was. Mom never knowingly told even a "white lie." If, on a sight-seeing trip, some friend should ask Mother if a certain scenic spot were not the most beautiful sight she had ever seen, Mom would stop to think back over other scenes of grandeur she had previously witnessed before expressing her opinion. She didn't want to carelessly give an answer that might be less than one hundred percent true. Hampered by such honesty, Mother's "impromptu" speech expressing her surprise at the "donation" was never very long, but it was exceedingly difficult for her to make. In her earlier years as a minister's wife, it sounded something like this:

"I never expected to get so many presents - that is, not quite so many. I wasn't even sure you would come - that is, not tonight, or at least not just at the time you came. Of course, I expected you to visit us sometime, but maybe not so many people at once..," finally trailing off in a lower voice and sitting down in apparent confusion, while the group applauded heartily, not having exactly understood it all, but sure that Mom was overcome with surprise and joyful appreciation.

Mother actually grew to like "donations" after they were over, but she often said that she wished they would learn to really surprise us - so she could act more natural.

A short time after the Parsons "donation," while Father and Mother were at prayer meeting and only Helen and Mildred and I were at home, two mysterious-looking visitors, a man and a woman, knocked at our door. It was quite dark outside so that when we answered their knock, we could scarcely make out the two forms standing on the unlighted porch. The man asked to see Father, and when we told him that our parents were at church, he promptly remarked that he and his lady friend would wait. Helen politely asked them to come in.

"We'll put our grip in the hall, and wait out here, the main replied.

We watched them from the window of the parlor, which formed an ell adjoining the porch. The parlor was darker than the porch, since we had not yet lit the light in that room, and a bright moonlight allowed us to watch the pair of visitors without our being seen. They talked in low tones, and once or twice nodded in the direction of the hall. At times, they seemed to be whispering in each other's ear. The man then walked nervously around the porch for awhile and, at one point, even started in the direction of the hall door.

Helen and I became very worried then, for we were not used to having strangers prowling around our porch at night while our parents were away. Pulling me away from the window, Helen whispered that she didn't like the looks of them one bit!

Suddenly the man entered the hallway! We nearly stopped breathing when we heard him open his grip. "Maybe he's getting a gun to kill Father, gasped Helen. Let's slip out the back way and warn Father before the man sees him!

Out the back door we went, and when prayer meeting adjourned a few minutes later, we were waiting for Father in the church vestibule as white as sheets. Excitedly, we told him of our suspicions, but Father only laughed at our fears.

"Why, that's the couple that I'm to marry tonight," he said. "I told them to be at the parsonage at nine o'clock, and they arrived a little early."

Father was right. The suspicious couple looked quite homespun as my father stood before them in our parlor pronouncing them, "man and wife."

That was the first of many weddings I saw in our various homes. Couples usually came rather timidly, always looking quite silly to me, but Father was able to put them at ease - that is, until after the ceremony, when the man asked, "What is the wedding fee?"

"Just pay me whatever you think she's worth," Father would invariably answer, in a solemn voice. The man would then grin sheepishly, fumble around in his pockets, and hand Father a dollar, or two.

"I would never be able to pay what she's worth," he would usually say, "but here's a little something for your trouble."

Father and Mother would then always congratulate the groom and wish the bride "much happiness." Frequently, my father astonished the bride by calling her by her new married name.. At this greeting, she sometimes jumped and looked around, as if expecting to see her new mother-in-law standing behind her.

Mother always enjoyed weddings, for it was customary among the preachers to give all wedding fees to their wives. After the young married couple had departed, Mother was always quick to learn the amount of her new gift, which most often amounted to from one to three dollars - in a few cases, five. However, in several instances during Father's many years as a minister, well-to-do grooms presented him with a ten dollar bill, and one gave a gold coin. That was the great exception, and - as far as I can remember - the limit. In a few cases, the newly-created benedict told Father that he had no money with him, but he would send the fee later. I believe that such promised fees arrived twice, to Mother's ultimate satisfaction.