“THE CALF PASTURE OF THE CONFERENCE”
By M. H. Moore
That is what the preachers of my conference called my first circuit. It was by no means an insignificant field, judged by the area it embraced or by the numerical strength of the membership. There were seven congregations to be served, and the territory to be covered extended perhaps thirty miles along Onslow Bay and half as far back into the interior. But the circuit had been supplied for years and years by young preachers in their first year in the itinerancy, and from this fact came the sobriquet. It had manifested a marvelous capacity for maintaining a certain standard of its own from year to year in open defiance of the spirit of progress in other parts of the world, and in positive contradiction of the oft-repeated saying of the preachers that “there is no such thing as standing in religion.” Perhaps, too, its name was against it; it was so easy to translate “Onslow” into “on slow.” Certain it is that the minutes of the conference bore testimony to arrested development in that field, whatever the cause. For the year preceding my acquaintance with it they reported the sum of $199.70 as having been paid the pastor as salary. Considering the fact that Methodism had been planted there for more than a hundred years and that such heroic spirits as Pilmoor, Asbury, McKendree, and others of the pioneer days had proclaimed the gospel there, this was by no means an encouraging report. That good old presiding elder, Dr. William Closs, said to me, when I had been commissioned to go there: “I have known Onslow circuit for forty years, and it is just the same now that it was when I first knew it. It has not lost a thing, and it has not gained a thing.”
The idea—now too entirely obsolete to be called old-fashioned—that it was good for a young man to bear the yoke in his youth was strictly in vogue in the North Carolina Conference in 1879. One of the first and most important lessons a young preacher had to learn was “how to stand trials.” Social qualities and educational equipment were desirable, but no school was allowed to take place of the training school of hard service any more than a diploma from Vanderbilt was allowed to excuse a young preacher from appearing before the committee to be examined on the “ordinary branches of an English education.” A young preacher, vain of his college diploma, had ventured to ask of Dr. Closs, “Where were you educated?” and the withering reply became a standing joke in the conference: “At the plow handles—an institution with which I suppose you are not acquainted.”
A young preacher's two years’ probation in the conference was mainly for the purpose of testing his mettle and ascertaining if his capacity for endurance justified the faith of his friends that he had the making of a preacher in him.” Onslow circuit had long been a favorite field for such experiments that it may be said to have won its sobriquet fairly. It was understood that if a young preacher “made good” there, his presiding elder would say of him at the next session of conference: “He has done a faithful year's work, Bishop, in a hard field, and is entitled to a better appointment.” It was an open secret, however, that many of the pastors sent to this circuit had not depended altogether on the proverbial insight of presiding elders into ministerial mettle, but had shown a decided inclination to find wives among the daughters of Onslow, and to come to the next session of conference with a married man's claim on the appointing power—a claim which in those chivalric days was sometimes thought to secure promotion as surely and as promptly as mettle and merit.
When my appointment was announced many of the preachers began to twit me good-naturedly about my calf pasture, and to tell all manner of stories of the life of the people there. One wanted to know if I had ever hunted bears, another if I had ever had any experience with panthers, another if I could ride a banker pony. All sorts of fun they made of the prospects before me. Of course I understood the spirit of this teasing, and did not take seriously the pictures they drew of my future hardships in the calf pasture. Indeed, I was so full of the thought of preaching the gospel, so well assured of the high honor of being permitted to preach it anywhere, that I really did not give myself a moment's concern about any inconvenience to which I might be subjected. My predecessor, having been duly promoted to a station, gave me the “plan” of the circuit made out in due and ancient form, and soon after the adjournment of conference I was mounted on a good horse and starting out on the one-hundred-and-sixty-mile ride to my first appointment.
If I had any serious misgivings as to my well-being in the calf pasture, they would surely have been dispelled by the kindnesses showered upon me by the good people of Tabernacle church, where I preached my first sermon. I knew that the people had asked that an elderly man be sent them as pastor that year. I knew that they had come to believe that the long succession of boy pastors had seriously interfered with the proper development of the charge, and I knew full well that the beardless boy in the pulpit that day was antipodal to all that they had deemed necessary for the progress of the Work; but I would never have known their views by their greetings. Their church loyalty buried all their previous objections. I was appointed by the bishop; I was their preacher. Nothing more was said about the need of an elderly man. Every home was thrown wide open to me with a cordiality that was too transparent to be misunderstood; and when I inquired about a boarding place, George Mattocks and David Aman insisted on my making their houses my home with such genuine sincerity that the only way out of the matter was for me to divide my time between the two; nor would either ever accept one cent in compensation for the preacher's board. I may anticipate my story a little; but I will say just here that the simple truth is that, small as the salary seemed, I had more clear money at the end of that year in that calf pasture than I have ever had from city station or large district in all the thirty years of my ministry.
Tabernacle had shown me the bright side of the calf pasture, but there was another side. I was yet to see Swansboro. My first appointment there was on a Sunday evening and a throng of curious people came to hear the new preacher. When the service was over I waited for some one to approach and welcome me, as at Tabernacle, but in vain. All made their exit without a word except one young man, who remained to extinguish the lights. As he came to the pulpit lights he introduced himself and asked me where I was going to spend the night? I told him that that was a debatable question and one that I was particularly interested in at that moment. He said that he had no home himself (My! how my newly kindled hopes fell at that word!), but that he boarded with his married sister, and would be glad to share his room with me. This invitation I accepted with an alacrity sufficient to silence any suspicion of indifference, and so shelter was provided. The next morning I took occasion to thank my hostess for her hospitality, when she utterly discomfited me by remarking that she had hoped that she would never see another Methodist preacher. On my inquiring the cause of her special aversion, she said my predecessor had made her husband very angry by reproving him for his sins, and that it had been very unpleasant since that time to have a preacher in the house. As I had learned something of the drunkenness and gambling and licentiousness of the little town, I could not help delivering my soul to this poor woman, who, while claiming to be a follower of Christ, had so easily yielded to her godless husband.
I rode off toward Queen's Creek in a depressed mood. The Swansboro reception had dampened my ardor. At good old Brother Costen's I stopped over for dinner, and while waiting for the meal took down a volume of Asbury's Journal from the little library. As I opened it my eyes fell on this entry “I think I shall have no more appointments between Wilmington -and Newbern. The people of Onslow resemble the ancient Jews; they fear not God, and are contrary to all men.” I think I have quoted it correctly. I have not read it from that day to this, but the words were burned on my brain in the mood that I was in that day. They resounded in my ears as I rode along the lonely, sandy road and looked at the stunted pines by the wayside and listened to the monotonous song of the sea. I had not then learned that even America's great pioneer bishop sometimes had the blues, and that his judgment was not infallible.
Two weeks later I had an afternoon appointment at Swansboro. How glad I was that I was to be there in the afternoon instead of at the evening hour! It afforded me an opportunity of seeking in the country the hospitality which I had found so scant in the little town. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, but I found no one at the church. Was this place to be utterly closed against me: As I wandered a small boy came up and handed me the key to the church, saying: “Here's your key, sir; Mr. Ward's gone off, and he told me to give it to you when you come.”
“Is anybody coming out to preaching?” I asked.
“I dunno, sir.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Goin’ fishin’, sir.”
I went into the church, and taking the Bible from the pulpit, began to read. Then I got down on my knees at the altar and if ever a poor, discouraged boy preacher poured out the agony of his soul into the ear of God, I did it then and there. And the God of Bethel answered me as surely as to Jacob. When I arose from my knees the street was filled with people coming to church. The house was filled. The peace of God was in the boy preacher's heart and the unction of the Spirit was on his lips. Never can I forget the services which followed. Tears rolled down cheeks unused to weeping; “amens” came from lips that had not uttered them for many a day. My courage was so revived that the depression I had experienced seemed a thing of the long ago. My faith reached out for the salvation of Swansboro. And then a thought came to me as an inspiration. My quarterly meeting was advertised for a month hence, but by some oversight the place had not been selected for the meeting. Why not ask Swansboro to invite the body? I put the question to the congregation and every hand went up. When the benediction was pronounced, the people thronged to the pulpit to invite the young preacher home and to assure him that the latchstring was always on the outside of the door. Never again did I dread going to Swansboro.
When I got back to George Mattocks’, he told me of a great occasion that was to transpire in a few days. A bridge had been built across White Oak river, a stream which divides Onslow from Jones county, and which was little else than a wide arm of the sea at that point. The building of the bridge had been a costly enterprise for the two counties and its completion was to be celebrated with great ceremony. An infidel phrenologist of great local influence was to make the address, and a great crowd was expected to be present. Mattocks assured me that I “could get acquainted with everybody by attending” and I determined to do so.
The crowd proved to be all that Mattocks had promised. Dr. Barker made the address, as announced, and took occasion to inject into it not a little of his skepticism. I was pained to hear the applause that was given to his sneers at religion, yet I was impressed with the fact that he was a man of far more than ordinary ability and of large information. After the address I was introduced to him as the new pastor of Onslow circuit. His greeting was friendly, and I ventured to say: “Dr. Barker, I wish you were a Christian.”
“So do I, Mr. Moore, so do I; but God made me deficient of faith, sir. My credulity is small, sir. Can't believe, can't believe.”
His answer came rapidly, unconcernedly, and not unmingled with a certain pity rather than contempt for the poor little preacher who had made such a silly remark to him. Then he proceeded: “Now, you say that your religion changes people—makes them new creatures, takes away evil inclinations, and imparts pure and good desires and aspirations. You say that old things pass away, and that the man who stole, steals no more, and the man who lied, lies no more; that there is a new birth—a birth to righteousness by the power of the Spirit in answer to prayer. Now, sir, how many members have you?”
When I told him, he continued:
“Yes, and how many of them do you suppose could borrow a hundred dollars without executing a mortgage to get it? How many of them can equal in integrity my friend, Dr. Koonce, on my side of the river, who has no religion and knows nothing of any supernatural work of the Spirit, but who is every inch a man and a gentleman, whose word is his bond? You haven't a single one, Mr. Moore; and until your religion can produce men like Dr. Koonce I can not believe in it.”
Now, the trouble about my situation was that there was too much truth in Barker's charge we did have a large number of nominal members whose lives would not measure up to any correct standard; and Dr. Koonce, while not a professing Christian, had in his forty years’ practice in that community built up a reputation for sweetness of disposition for high integrity of character, which any Christian might well covet. And I parted with Dr. Barker that day with the feeling that he had had the best of that little debate.
But “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” It was not to be the end of my relations with Dr. Barker. The very next Sabbath Dr. Koonce attended the Jones circuit quarterly meeting and heard a sermon from Dr. Closs which sent him home to read his Bible and pray for personal salvation as he had never done before. On the following Wednesday, at his home, Dr. Koonce was “glorious converted.” He fairly “rode on the sky” in his new joy, and was anxious to be baptized and join the church as soon as possible.
Puckett, the boy preacher on the Jones circuit, was, like myself, unordained; so the result was that Dr. Koonce determined to come to Swansboro to my quarterly meeting, be baptized by my presiding elder, Dr. Burkhead, and go back to his home church. Of course Dr. Barker came along to see his old friend take his new vows. And as I saw them drive over the bridge which Barker had dedicated, Dr. Koonce full of peace and joy and Barker looking as I imagined Cornwallis looked at Yorktown, I began to feel that evil is not so triumphant in the world after all.
Lingurn S. Burkhead was the greatest presiding elder I ever knew. At that time he was about fifty-five years old, straight as an arrow, conscious of the irresistible power of the Truth, and with a directness and execution that I never knew in another, he delivered the gospel he had been commissioned to preach to men of high and low estate alike. After preaching on Saturday morning, he called on Dr. Koonce to make a statement of his religious experience before taking his baptismal vows. The scene that followed was a memorable one. There was not a dry eye in the house. I can see Barker now as he sat there with the great tears trickling like rain down his cheeks. The invitation was given for penitents to come to the altar. One of the greatest sinners in Swansboro came forward under mighty conviction. The announcement was made that the services would be protracted indefinitely.
When the congregation had been dismissed for the morning, Dr. Burkhead walked down the aisle of the church to where Barker was standing, and, taking him by the hand, said simply: “Barker, why didn't you come to the altar this morning?”
One boy preacher was looking on in amazement and asking himself: “Is this the way to treat infidels? Is this the way to deal with learned skepticism, and to remove the unbelief of mighty minds—simply to ask a man why he didn't go to the altar?”
But Barker's answer astonished me no less than Burkhead's directness and courage: “I knew I should have done so, Doctor; but ‘conscience makes cowards of us all.’ I can't be here tomorrow; but I am coming Monday, and shall bring my wife and we will both seek conversion.”
Now, at the risk of being accounted a “doubting Thomas,” I am going to make a confession. I did not believe that Barker would be seen at that meeting. I was sure as I was of my existence that he would sleep of his conviction and hide out of reach of Burkhead's bullets. “O, ye of little faith!” Not so. The meeting went on with increasing interest and power. The altar was thronged. On Monday morning sure enough, there was Dr. Barker with his wife. And when the invitation to penitents was given, they were the first to arise and go to the altar. It was but an instant before he arose with a new light shining on his face. “Let us pray,” said Dr. Burkhead. “Dr. Barker, lead us in prayer.”
So soon had the arms of rebellion been grounded and the new recruit been commissioned for warfare for Christ. And the first sentence of Dr. Barker's prayer was: “Lord, help me to undo the evil that I have done.” It was the keynote of the life that he was to live, the battle he was to wage from that hour until that day, a few years later, when he dropped dead suddenly and went to meet his ascended Lord.
After that the revival grew like fire in dry grass. The news of Dr. Barker's conversion was like the surrender of Napoleon at Waterloo. The doubting Thomases would not believe it at first; the thing was inconceivable; but this new Saul of Tarsus spoke for himself. He went with me from one meeting to another, and Onslow circuit was in a blaze of glory from one end to the other. I shall never forget his first appearance at Tabernacle as a witness for Christ. His opening remarks were after this fashion: “My friends, I appear before you in a new role today. You have known me as a skeptic, and an infidel, as a drinking man, and as a profane man; you have never thought of me as a Christian man. Let me tell you one side of my life that you never knew. Back of all that you knew of me there was a good old father who in my boyhood prayed morning, noon and night that God would bless his boy and lead him to Christ. That was a long time ago, but I realized this morning that those prayers of that old father have been like bread cast on the waters that returns after many days.”
The effect was electrical. Strong men broke down and surrendered as Barker had surrendered, and I found myself leading one victorious charge after another until, broken down by continuous labor, I became the victim of that malarious section and was prostrated by a long spell of fever. And through that sickness the angels of mercy were many. The good Doctor came twenty miles to visit me and would not have a cent in compensation. Sister Aman was like a mother. I could not have been more tenderly cared for in my father's house.
At the following session of conference my presiding elder said of me when my name was called: “Bishop, he has had the greatest revival known in that section since the war, and there is no reason why he should not be returned except that he deserves a better appointment,” and, as the conference counted such things, I was promoted. But I have never ceased to thank God for the calf pasture. The experience there has been worth more to me than any other training I have had. And in the thirty years that have passed I have had occasion to explain certain deficiencies in great preachers by the fact that they had escaped, to their hurt, one year at least in the calf pasture of the conference.
—Nashville Christian Advocate
Matthew Henry Moore 1857-1932 was the son of John Robert Moore and Lucy Elizabeth Burges. In the 1880 census, the 22-year-old “minister of the gospel” was at home with his parents and siblings in Brinkleyville, Halifax County, North Carolina. He and Eugenia Thomas were married in 1884. He was the author of the 1884 book Sketches of the Pioneers of Methodism in NC & VA.