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Experiences of a Backwoods Preacher
Chapter IV. Going to Conference

EVERY institution has some set phrases peculiar to itself. Navigation has its wharves, its quays, and its docks; railways, banks, etc., have their presidents, their managers and their agents. The Churches have their synods, their assemblies, and their conferences. Among the Methodists the phrase “Going to Conference” is a very suggestive one. It means a great deal more than the majority of people imagine. There are those who fancy that going to Conference is very much like going to a picnic or a ten days’ pleasure party; but to a Methodist minister it is the very opposite to that. To him it means the review of the past, the scrutiny of the present, and the forecast of the future; to him it means a week or ten days of close attention to the details of business, intense thought, earnest discussion, and sometimes harrowing opposition and distasteful decisions; to him it often means the severing of cords that have been strengthening for three years past, and the breaking up of associations that have been widening and deepening month after month during a whole ministerial term according to discipline. It means to him the loss of the sight of well-known faces and of hearing the sound of familiar names.

There was a time when to me the very thought of going to Conference would almost make me shudder. In the M. E. Church, at the time that 1 joined the ranks of the itinerancy, it was the custom to give every man in the Conference a thorough overhauling in open Conference. The Bishop would ask all the questions that the discipline required, and some that it did not; then he would hand the unfortunate subject of brotherly dissection over to the tender mercies of conferential anatomists to be dealt with according to the whim or caprice of any and every member who might wish to show his ability as an inquisitor, or his ingenuity as a self-constituted detective. No man could, at that time, go to Conference feeling safe, no matter how careful or faithful he had been in his work. He did not know but that the ghost of some duty, overlooked or forgotten, would arise and confront him in the presence of all; he could not tell but that the echo of some unguarded word might come ringing to his ears, and make more noise in Conference than all his prayers and sermons and songs of praise could do. A man was once charged with crime and taken into court; the indictment was read and the crown lawyer made his charge in very strong language, as is usual. The judge asked the prisoner if he was “guilty or not guilty.” He said: “When I came into court I really thought that I was innocent of the crime charged against me; but since I have heard the reading of that document, and the speech of that lawyer, I do not know what to think about it.” Just so; a man might go to Conference thinking that his record was not a bad one, and that he might be considered a pretty fair average among reasonably good men; but by the time that Doctor Rake-him-up and some others were done with him, he might doubt if there was a mite of honesty, or a particle of piety in his whole composition. But those days passed away years ago, and the Methodism of this country will never allow them to return. We now have a better way to reach the same results. No man should throw out an insinuation that may cast a slur on a brother’s good name unless he is prepared to formulate specific charges.

The greatest tongue-lashing that I ever gave a minister was for a matter of this kind. A young man had been his colleague, and was recommended for admission on trial in the Conference; his superintendent was called upon to give information respecting the young man. He went on to say that the young man was a fair preacher, and that he stood pretty well among the people, “but,” said he, “I have good reason to believe that he is in the habit of receiving letters from a married woman, and I do not know what they are all about.” On enquiry it was found that his statement was entirely correct, but when explanations were given, it came out the letters were from the young man’s married sister. Some of them were on business, and others such as any sister might write to a brother. I concluded that a man like that deserved a talking to, and he got it.

In going to Conference the mode of travel is mostly-determined by circumstances. When the Conference is one of very extended boundaries, it becomes a matter of considerable importance to those who live at a distance from the place where its sessions are to be held. The present mode of travel is by railway mostly; but in the past it was not so. I have gone to Conference on the boat, on the cars, on wheels, on horseback, and on foot. The last mentioned is the most independent way of going; then there are no fees to pay, no horse to feed, no wheels to grease, and no one to be thanked ; but still I would not advise that way of going, as it is a little wearisome. And I have gone to Conference when it took me three full days’ travel to reach it; and I have gone when a few minutes’ walk would take me to it.

I have met with interesting episodes before now when on my way to Conference. I propose to relate a few of them. Once I was going from Teeswater to Ingersoll. The country was new and the roads anything but good. I had no horse ; I shouldered my carpet-bag and started otf on foot. I did not know whether I should have to walk all the way or not. The nearest railroad to me was the Grand Trunk at Guelph or Stratford, and the Grand Trunk did not go to Ingersoll at that time. When I got as far as Listowel I found that the preacher there, Peter Hicks, was going to Conference with a horse and buggy. He kindly offered me a chance to ride with him, which offer I thankfully accepted. We started early in the morning and reached the village of Mitchell by noon.

We fed the horse and got dinner at a hotel. We went on to Stratford and fed the horse. There we inquired the road, and after getting what information we could we started on, intending to go to the home of Mr. T. B. Brown, a local preacher with whom I was acquainted. We got on the wrong road; night came on us and found us in the midst of a settlement of Irish Catholics. At length we came to a little wayside tavern. It hardly could be called a hotel. We drove up to the door and went in. About a dozen men were drinking in the bar-room. We looked around and saw the condition of things, and then went out for a consultation, after inquiring the distance to St. Mary’s. We talked the matter over a little, when Hicks said, “I will go in and see if any Orangemen are there.” He came out shortly and said, “They are Papists, every one of them, and the landlord is the biggest dogan of the lot.” This was not very reassuring intelligence. However, we concluded to stay, as there seemed no help for it.  We went in again and asked the landlord if he could accommodate us with supper and bed, and the horse with hay and oats. He said, “You must see the missus about the supper, as it is after hours, but I can promise you the rest.” I said to Hicks, “You look after the horse, and I will see about the supper.” I hunted up the landlady, whom I found putting away the newly washed dishes. I explained the reason of our coming in so late. I told her that we were very hungry, and asked her to let us have some supper. She very good naturedly set about it, and in a few minutes she had a very respectable meal ready for us. Meanwhile the noise in the bar-room became more boisterous and loud. We ate our supper and then went out to fix up the horse for the night. That being done, we went to our room for the night. We fastened the door and then considered the situation. We could hear from the barroom every now and then angry words and oaths and imprecations. We could not tell who were the subjects of these anathemas, but we had no doubt they suspected that we were Protestant ministers by the glances that would pass between them as we went out and in through the room.

We did not get into bed until long after midnight, and after the noisy rabble had gone ofl and the house became quiet. In the morning we did not wait for breakfast, but we went on a few miles and called at a farmhouse and got breakfast. They told us there that we had done well to get away without trouble, as the place was a very rough one. We did not stop there when we came back. The action of the lady on that occasion harmonizes with a statement made by the late Dr. Livingstone in respect to the women in Africa. He says that he never asked a woman a question and did not receive a civil answer, and he never asked a favour that was not courteously granted if in her power to do so.

The first man I met that I knew, as we drove into Ingersoll, was one who was a very popular preacher when I was working as a mechanic. He had been my pastor for two years, and I loved him as my own brother; but he had been expelled for drunkenness some time before. When he saw me, he ran across the street to meet me: with tears in his eyes, and sobbing like a home-sick child, he said, “Oh, Brother Hilts, what would I not give to-day, if I had it, to be as I was when you first met me.’' My heart ached for that man. He had been one of the most genial and affable men that I had ever known; but the love of drink was his bane through life. He had inherited alcoholism from his parents, and had not sufficient self-government nor grace to control it. I have been told that he died under the shadow of a tree, on the Pacific coast, as he was trying to make his way to the gold fields of Cariboo.

An Uncircumcised Ishmaelite.

Before the extension of the Northern Railway to Meaford, people had to go to Collingwood before they could take the cars. I was on my way to Conference, which was to meet in Port Perry. While waiting at the Collingwood station an elderly gentleman came up to me and said, “Mister, did you not preach in the M. E. Church in Meaford last night?” I said, “Yes, sir; or at least I tried to do so.” “Well,” said he, “my name is Blank; I have been from home a while, and I have not been as good as I might have been, so I thought that I would go to church last night. My wife is a member of that church, and she is a good woman, and I think she will be pleased when I tell her that I have gone to church while I have been from home.” We went into the car and Mr. B. sat in the seat with me. Presently he said, “Look here, mister, you men like to find a good table to sit down to and a good stable to put your horse in. I have got both of these at home.” “Well,” said I, “the preachers call on you sometimes, I hope,” “Yes,” he said, “they do often, and I am glad to have them come. They call me the kind-hearted and good-natured “uncircumcised Ishmaelite.” I told him that I was glad that the preachers liked him, and that I hoped they would do him good. “ Well,” he replied, “I like them well enough, but either they can’t or they won’t answer questions.” I said, “Perhaps more questions are unanswerable.” He then said, “Will you tell me how many folks Abraham and his wife took with them when they went to Egypt?” I said, “Sir, I can’t tell; I never studied that question, and I don’t think it is found in any of the arithmetics that I have seen.” He asked me a number of questions on different subjects, but I played shy of all of them until he seemed to get a little nettled. At last I said to him, “Mr. B., I am too old to think that I know a great deal, but I can tell you how to get your questions all answered.” “How?” said he. “The first young man you meet with who has plenty of conceit, with no beard on his face and but little brains in his head, ask him and he will tell you all about it.”

By this time we had reached Newmarket. I stopped over till the next day. When I came to the station in the morning I found Mr. Blank, along with a number of others, waiting for the train. As soon as I got on the platform he came to me and said, “Mister, you dodged all my questions yesterday; now I have one that I really wish to have answered. It is this: “Has a negro a soul?” I said, “1 think he has; he is a man, and every man has a soul.” “Well, how does he come to be black?” I answered that probably climatic influences and habits of life had a good deal to do with making him black. “Hot climates make people dark, and cold climates make them fair.” I said. He said, “I don’t believe that; for there are darkies in the Southern States whose ancestors came there two hundred years ago, and they are just as black as their forefathers were the day they left Africa.” “That may be all true,” I answered; “but then the hot climate of the Southern States is not the most favourable surroundings for a negro if you want to bleach him. Have you never seen one in a transition state?” I asked him. “No,” said he, “I never have. Have you?” I said, “I think so; at any rate, I have seen men that, for the life of me, I could not tell whether they were faded negroes or tanned white men.” Mr. Blank was a very dark-complexioned man. He looked at me for a minute, and then said, “Did you mean that for me?” “By no means sir,” I said; “I had nothing personal in my intention. I simply stated a fact in replying to your question, if I had seen a negro in a transition state.” The train came up and we parted, and I have never met him since; but after all I could not help liking the man, and I hope he may do well.

A Southern Blasphemer Silenced.

The civil war in America produced a large crop of “bounty-jumpers” and “skedaddlers.” The former came from the North as a general thing, and the latter mostly came from the South. Many of these were the sons of Southern gentlemen who thought too much of slavery to let it die an easy death, and too much of themselves to take a soldier’s chances in the field of battle to keep it alive.

When the negro was about to he carried to freedom on a wave of blood, these chivalrous defenders of this peculiar institution betook themselves to a land where the bondsman’s footprints are never seen, a land where the black man is entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as well as his white neighbour.

On a sunny day in the spring, one of the Grand Trunk ears going east from Toronto was partly filled with Methodist ministers on their way to Conference. In a seat near the centre of the car there sat a man of striking appearance: he was tall, and straight, and rawboned. His complexion had that peculiar blending of shades of colour that made it hard to tell to what branch of the human race he claimed affinity; his features, too, were a puzzle; his black eye had a look that might indicate cruelty and stoicism; his forehead gave proof of a strong intellect; his mouth and chin were those of a man of an unbending will, while his nose gave the lie to all the rest, and unmistakably proclaimed him a coward.

A number of miles had been passed over without anything to disturb the people or attract attention, when there came a volley of oaths from the man in the centre seat, that made the men look up with astonishment, and the women fairly wilt like a scorched leaf. The terrible words came from the Southerner. Just behind him there sat a minister by the name of D. Carscaden. He was a slender man and not at all strong; but he could not tolerate such outrageous blasphemy. He very gently and kindly informed the swearer that his language was painful to him and many others in the car. This only made matters worse ; the man got angry at this. The string of terrible oaths that he rolled out beat everything that I had ever heard, and the look of contempt that he cast upon poor Carscaden was enough to drive a stronger man than he was into hysterics. Just in the midst of the volcanic eruptions of dreadful words that one might imagine came right from the brimstone regions, a hand was laid on the swearer’s shoulder; he looked up to see to whom the hand belonged; he saw standing in the aisle beside him a man of grand muscular development and fearless aspect. He said to the blasphemer, “Sir, you must stop this at once, or this train will be slackened up and you will be put out of the car. When you are in your own country, you can do as you please, if people will let you; but in this country you must behave yourself if you expect to travel in the cars. Now, not another word of that sort, or the conductor will be called and you will go out.”

This was another minister, O. G. Collamore; I know he will excuse my naming him; he is too much of a man to be ashamed of a manly action.

When Collamore sat down, the Southerner came out of his seat and walked up and down the aisle for a few times scanning his new opponent closely, as if to take the measure of the man. What his conclusions were can only be inferred from his action. He went back into his seat. This episode created quite a sensation in the ear and everybody felt that the matter was not yet ended.

After a little, the man spoke to the following effect, as nearly as I can recall his words to mind: “Ladies and gentlemen, I owe an apology to you all for the language that I have been using. Whatever you may think of me, don’t lay the blame upon my parents; they taught me better than to speak such words, especially in the presence of ladies. I am sorry for what I did, and I will not do it again.”

Every one felt a relief at the turn the affair took, and I think the Southerner had more respect for Canadians than he would if he had been allowed to go on unchecked.

Meeting a Man of Mark.

I was not going to Conference at the time that the incident occurred that I am about to relate, but still I was travelling on the cars. The Great Western Railway had but recently been opened for traffic. One morning in the early spring, I was, along with others, sitting in a car at Hamilton station, waiting for the train to start west. An old woman came into the car selling apples. As she passed along the aisle, she came to an elderly gentleman, whose father!}" appearance and kindly look seemed to give the old woman confidence, so that she continued to press him to buy, after he had told her that he did not need any of her fruit. Presently he said to her:

"Madam, have you any children?”

She answered him, Indade, sir, I have six of them and so I have, and I their mother, am a poor widdy, and so I am. And it’s to they and get a crumb for the little dears that I am here selling apples the day, and so it is.”

“Well,” he said, “how much will you take for all that you have in your basket?”

She counted them all over and fixed the price. He then gave her the money for them, and said to her:

“Now these apples are mine, to do with them as I please.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “You do what you please wid ’em, only give me back my basket?”

“Now,” said the man, “I am going to trust you to do with those apples as I tell you.”

“And what do you want me to do wid them, sir. I must have me basket anyway.”

“I want you to take the apples home and divide them among your children,” said he. “Will you do it?”

I will not try to give the number, or describe the quality of the blessings that the old woman invoked upon the body and soul of the kind stranger. After she left the train, he said to me:

“Likely she will sell them before she gets home, but if she does, that is her business and not mine. I gave them to her in good faith for her children, and if she deceives me, and robs them, she alone will be responsible.”

The train started, and nothing more was said about

the old woman or her apples. When we got to Paris, the engine ran off the track, and we were detained for about sixteen hours before we could proceed. During the time I got into conversation with the man who bought the apples. Among other tilings he said to tne :

“I try to get into conversation with all classes of people that I meet with. So much can be learned by taking people on their own ground. You are always safe in speaking to people about what they feel a great deal of interest in. You may at any time or in any place speak to a mother about her children. See how quick that woman was drawn out this morning when her children were mentioned. Just so you may speak to a man about his trade or calling. You may speak to an invalid about his sufferings, or to a penitent sinner about salvation, and be sure of a willing listener.” Before parting from this interesting stranger, I said to him:

“Sir, I have been much interested and highly pleased during the time that we have been together. Will you permit me to ask you, where do you live, and what is your name?”

He answered, with a pleasant smile upon his face: “As to where 1 live, it is not easy to say. My home is anywhere within the limits of the British Empire, or within the hospitalities of the English-speaking race. But as to my name, it is not so hard to answer Have you ever heard of Alexander Duff? ”

I said I had read in the papers about a man of that name, who is a Presbyterian missionary to India.”

He said, “I am he.”

“Well, sir,” [ answered, “I am not a Scotchman, nor a Presbyterian, but as a Briton, a Canadian, and a Christian, I must, before leaving you, have a shake of your hand, and bid you God-speed, and I pray that the Lord may guide you on your way and help you in your work.”

He thanked me cordially for my good wishes, and we shook hands and parted. I was highly gratified by having seen and conversed with a man who, at that time, was looming up before the Christian world as a star of the first magnitude. I find in his description of his visit to this country a reference to the accident at Paris, but he says nothing about the apple woman and her children.

Bad News at Conference.

On my way to Conference I often met with things that interested me. But at the Conference I sometimes heard things that made me sad. It may seem strange that, although I have lost many friends and relatives during the fifty years that have elapsed since the death of my mother, I have only been permitted to attend the funeral of three of them—two children and one grandchild. That is all. The Lord gave us five sons and three daughters. The latter are all dead and are buried in different counties, far apart. One lies beside its maternal grandfather in Lincoln county; the other two sleep among strangers in the counties of Grey and Bruce.

There are times when itinerants are lost to their friends. This is caused by removals from place to place, and from neglect in giving information as to present location. There is really no necessity for this in a country with post-offices in every little village. But sometimes people do not communicate with their distant friends, because of the unpleasant truths that they would tell if they sent to inform their friends of the circumstances in which they were placed. Some people will suffer in silence rather than annoy others with a recitation of their troubles. Sickness comes and goes and nothing is said about it. Death takes place in sundered families and no intelligence is given until long afterwards. In my own case the Conference has been a sort of sad medium of communication between the living and the dead. At one Conference I was told of a sisters departure from this life. At another I heard that my brother had died and was buried. At Conference I first heard of the death of my father, my stepmother, my wife’s mother and stepfather, besides other relatives.

Ministers are always willing to enlighten each other and to help each other, and to sympathize with and help each other’s friends as far as they can. At least, that has been my experience with them. While every person is supposed to have a place in the affectionate regards of the Methodist minister, I think I am not overstating the case when I say that, other things being equal, there is a peculiar drawing on his part to the family and friends of his brother ministers. I am free to confess that it is the case with regard to myself, and I have often heard others say the same.

I have not missed a Conference in thirty years. I have been a member of twenty-eight Annual Conferences, and I have been in my seat at every session from first to last, with the exception of one day. I have been a member of four General Conferences. From one of these I was kept by sickness. I started to go, but I had to return home too sick to go on. But after all, I like very much to go to Conference, and I shall be very sorry if the time ever comes that I am not able to do so, until the time comes for me to answer to my name at the great roll-call of Conference above.

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