During the first couple of years after responding to God’s call to ministry as a 19-year-old kid, my favorite reading was journals and memoirs of great preachers from the past, people God has used to lead times of spiritual awakening.
After arriving at Centre Grove UMC in July 2008, I spent a little time in the church library looking for any historical information I could find about the church. I came across a book written by one of my predecessors, Rev. Wilson Lee Spottswood, who served the Clearfield Circuit from 1858 to 1860.
Spottswood published his memoirs, “Brief Annals,” in 1888. The full text is available online at Google Books. Chapter 12 is about his time as a presiding elder (i.e., district superintendent) and Chapter 13 is about his service as president of Dickinson Seminary (now Lycoming College). And, chapter 8 is about his two-year stint in Clearfield (pages 168-194).
On the last page of chapter 7, Spottswood recounts a conversation between his wife and the Presiding Elder …
“Where do you want to go, sister Spottswood,” asked the Presiding Elder, of my wife. She emphatically answered: “Any where but to Clearfield and Curwensville.” (167)
Spottswood opens the chapter on his Clearfield experience by relating their expectations and first impressions of the town …
We fancied that it was on the verge of civilization, and I will tell you the reason why. As already seen, we lived in Milesburg, and in the spring we saw the “watermen” of Clearfield county as they were called, hardy, unshaven and unshorn, roughlooking and bronzed with their peculiar toil on the river. They sometimes came to our house, not to beg, but to buy bread; and my wife was afraid of them. We thought that we were going among a rough people and to a hard appointment. But we were young and brave … we did not think of backing down. (168)
Spottswood describes their journey to, and arrival in, Clearfield …
We started on our journey, spent the night at Tyrone, left in the morning on the plank road—then in a most wretched condition, running through the Bald Eagle valley. When we arrived at Bald Eagle furnace, the end of the plank road for us, a fellow came to the door of the coach, opened it and shouted: “Hip! hip! hoora! I’m one of your drinkin’, swearin’ kind.”
“See here, stranger,” said a passenger inside, “we’ve got a preacher in here, and there’s to be no swearing in this coach; if you swear, we’ll pitch you out head-foremost.” There was no swearing on the entire trip.
It was drug, drag, drag, on the dirt road—the mud up to the hub the most of the way. About four o’clock in the afternoon we reached Philipsburg, and dined. In the gloom and chill of a drizzling rain I thought that this town was a most forlorn-looking and God-forsaken place. Far on in the watches of the night we gained the top of the high hill overlooking Clearfield town, and a gentleman exclaimed: “There’s ‘Old Town.'” My wife asked: “How far is it to Clearfield?” The gentleman replied: “‘Old Town’ is Clearfield.” (168-69)
On getting to know and love the people of Clearfield, as well as the importance of the river and rafting in Clearfield, Spottswood writes …
Our first agreeable revelation was that the Clearfielders were not rough, but civilized people; and in all likelihood the rough-looking “watermen” clad in their coarse garments, and tanned by the wind and sun—some of them anyhow—were merchants, doctors, lawyers and even preachers, for everybody went down the river on a raft. The most of the people lived and dressed well, for lumbermen are remarkable for their liberal, sometimes extravagant outlay of money. It comes in a pile and goes in a pile; and many a home was elegant in all its appointments.
He continues …
The minds of the very children were imbued with the idea of rafting; it was their play in its season. My wife had charge of the infant class in Sunday school, and taught the children every Sabbath a text of scripture. One Sabbath this was the text: “Let not the sun go down on your wrath.” A little one with a bright face and a sweet voice said to her mother: “Mamma, I know what the text was to-day.” “Well, what was it, my dear?” “Why, it was: ‘Don’t let your son go down on a raft.’ (172-73)
One of the spiritual events that Spottswood shares is a story about the conversion and subsequent faith struggle of a man who became a friend …
Dr. Thompson, of Curwensville, was present. He often went to church simply because it was the fashion, and when there, as he himself said to me, “heard nothing, but spent the time thinking and planning how to make five dollars.” The oddity of this sermon arrested his attention; he listened to it carefully from beginning to end; it awakened and convicted him of sin. He was soon afterwards converted, and received into the Methodist Episcopal Church. Religion produced in him a great and wonderful change—felt by himself and seen by all. He became a rapid learner in Christian experience, was made a class-leader, managed with great skill and success the subscriptions for the new church, and superintended with constancy and good judgment its building from its foundation to cap-stone.
I was with him on the first fierce assault of Satan after his conversion—summoned at midnight to his side by his wife. My wife followed me. I found him kneeling in the middle of the room, and pleading piteously with God; “Oh! Lord God, have mercy on me.” “Stop, Dr.,” I said, “and let us see what is the matter.” “Oh! Mr. Spottswood, I have doubted; Lord Jesus, have mercy on my soul.”
It was a sad hour—a dreadful conflict! I explained the situation to him as best I could. I prayed for him. And when we arose from our knees, I asked him: “How do you feel now?” He answered: “A little better.” We talked again. I prayed once more. And Dr. Thompson gained a signal victory. That night’s terrific conflict taught him that the Christian life is a battle, and that night’s hard-won victory showed him how in future assaults to foil the mighty foe. (177-78)
On the spiritual awakening that took place in town, at one point during his ministry here, he writes …
We had a glorious camp-meeting, and many of the chief citizens were converted. Brother G., of Clearfield town, where there had been a long, religious dearth, went around the camp-ground, crying: “Oo, oo! I do believe the Lord is going to do something for Clearfield.” (180)
Spottswood obviously enjoyed his time in Clearfield. His departure from Clearfield was pretty dramatic …
The time came to leave one of the pleasantest charges we ever had, where God crowned our labors with signal success; but we staid a week after our goods were packed up in the interest of the revival. At last we left with regret, and three hundred dollars saved from our salary. We were driven in a two-horse sleigh to Clearfield town, and thence to the bank of Clearfield creek, then to take the stage, waiting for us.
A flood had swept away the bridge, and to reach the stage we had to cross a foot-log. My wife slipped. One foot was off the log. She pressed her side against an upright, seized the slender railing above her with one hand, and drew herself up with a super-human effort. She was saved from falling into the stream beneath her, either to be swept away in its angry waters, or to be dashed to pieces upon its jagged rocks. How true it is, as David said to Jonathan, in a time of danger: “There is but a step between me and death.” (187)
It’s encouraging and challenging to read about ministry that took place here 150 years ago. No doubt, there were seasons of renewal as well as seasons of dryness. My hope and prayer is that we experience another season of awakening in the near future!
(Note: You may be interested in a follow-up post I wrote about the rest of Spottswood’s ministry.)