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THE NAME OF THE LORD
BY MILTON O. NELSON
My earliest memories go back to the time when I was the youngest of a family of six in an unbroken row of boys on a southern Wisconsin farm a mile and a half long. Father was a man of long plans and wide vision; and in that vision was a group of six farms occupied by thrifty farmers, all bearing his surname, all members of the Methodist Church, all honoring their father and their mother, each an honor to his church and a blessing to the land which the Lord their God had given them. This vision accounts in part for the size of the farm on which I was born. The family was later increased by the addition of three daughters, and these in their measure increased the size of the vision.
Father was of the Pilgrim Father type as nearly as American conditions permitted in the period covered by his life1817 to 1898. At the age of eighteen he had persuaded his father to move from the ancestral farm in the Highlands of the Hudson out into the new West. This migration was only as far as Brockport, New York, a region then considered quite westerly by people of the lower Hudson. But seven years later father gathered together the portion of the family goods that fell to him, and took his journey into the land of his own great dreams, staking out a government claim in the big timber near the little town of Milwaukee. This event was four years before Wisconsin was admitted to the Union.
Two years later, to his cabin and clearing in the big woods he brought as his bride a Rochester schoolmistress twenty-one years of age, the child of Methodist parents. Nine years later, finding themselves in a community uncongenial and irreligious, they, with their accumulated substance and four little sons, migrated again - this time to the farm where I was born. Their settling here was largely determined by the fact that not far away, and just across the Illinois line, was a Methodist society, which had given the name of Christian Hollow' to the section about it.
This church being too far away for our convenient attendance, Methodist preaching service was set up in father's cabin. Here, also, the first public school in our neighborhood was opened, with mother as teacher. When the public schoolhouse was built, a year or two later, it was made larger by a few square feet than the community thought necessary, because of father's offer to give $100 for such an enlargement, on condition that religious meetings be permitted in the building.
Wherever father halted in his pilgrimages, 'there builded he an altar unto the Lord'; and wherever mother spread the table, thither came presently the Methodist circuit-rider. In both of father's Wisconsin homes his house was the first Methodist preaching-place in the community; and on both farms Methodist camp-meetings were held, to
which both father and mother devoted unstinted time and provision.
Of the Methodist society in our neighborhood, father was made class leader, which office in those days carried with it the authority and responsibility of vice-pastor. He also was superintendent of the Sunday School. These being the days before Sunday-School helps, the exercises consisted chiefly of committing to memory Scripture and the Methodist catechism. I have but the faintest memory of father's method of officiating; but his way of drilling the Ten Commandments into the mind of a child could hardly be excelled. It ran like this:
"Thou shalt not take the name, thou shalt not take the name, of the Lord thy God in vain, of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his name in vain, that taketh his name in vain.'
The commandment given for the day's advance lesson was repeated by the school in concert, and the drill was made cumulative, the school reviewing each Sunday, in this double-barreled fashion, all the commandments previously committed. This solemn drumming, drumming in the ears of the children added not a little, I suppose, to the weight and authority of the Scriptures: But the children of our family were more impressed, I think, by the morning and evening worship in the home. To us small folk on this large farm, the greatest item in the business of farming was family prayers. At least, this was the only portion of the day's programme that might not be omitted, or at least shifted about to suit circumstances.
This service consisted of a chapter from the Bible read by father, two verses of a hymn, led by mother, followed by a prayer by father. Evening worship consisted of a hymn led by mother and a prayer by mother. We all
knelt in prayer. No meal was ever begun without a blessing being asked. So, according to this programme, the whole family came together formally into the presence of the Almighty five times a day. Besides this, there were the individual morning and evening prayers at the bedside.
Morning worship immediately preceded breakfast. The salt pork fried, the gravy made, the potatoes drained, and all set back on the stove to keep warm; the big stack of buckwheat cakes on the hearth covered to prevent their cooling off- these are a well-defined memory of the morning programme. Then father sat down with the big Bible in his lap, and mother with the baby in her lap; the circle of children came to order, and worship wholly occupied the next ten or fifteen minutes. It was never hurried and never perfunctorily done. Though father's prayers were much the same from day to day, they were not seldom varied to cover the spiritual needs of some of us delinquent children, particularly the youngest pair of boys - the 'little boys,' as father designated us.
The chastening rod was an estab'lished institution in our home. It was not a vulgar gad, but a sprout of that ancient and honorable rod spoken of in the Scriptures as being so wholesome and necessary to the spiritual upbringing of the children of Israel. It was rarely applied without a preparatory lecture, in which father's eyes would usually fill with tears, or threaten to. But whipping was not so dreaded by us two small offenders as the process of being 'carried to a throne of grace' on the wings of father's petitions. In these pleadings father's voice would often tremble, his throat choke, and pauses in the prayer, painful beyond telling, would occur. It did sometimes seem to me that a big man like father ought not to take advantage like that of a little
fellow, right in the presence of the whole family quite an audience in quite an audience in our home. Our whippings, however, were always mercifully private; except that brother Willett and myself, commonly committing our sins by two and two, answered for them in pairs. But these devotional floggings did have their designed and desired effect on our daily behavior. One would go pretty steadily for a few days on the strength of such a holy grilling.
The section in which our farm lay was then a region of oak openings,' about equally divided between woods, scrub brush, and prairie land—a little too rolling for the best farming, but reasonably fertile. Our section faced toward the south on the beautiful rolling prairies of northern Illinois; and to the east and north undulated away in scrub-covered hills, which we called 'barrens,' down to the heavy hardwood timber that spread eastward from the valley of the Pecatonica River muddy, twisting, sluggish stream. Much of this region, being not yet under plough, offered good pasturage in the grazing season to the settlers' small herds of cattle.
After the morning milking, the farmers turned their herds into the fenced highway, gave them a run in the desired direction by the aid of dogs or boys, and left them to find their way to the 'commons,' as we called these unfenced lands. There the cattle kept together fairly well in the lead of the bell cow, as they grazed and roamed throughout the day, sometimes joining with one or more of the neighbor herds. In the evening, children from each household were sent to find and fetch them home.
These children usually fell in with each other and hunted in groups, searching this way or that, as the habitual movement of the herds at the time might determine. We would thus trail
the cattle through groves and brushland, looking for fresh marks in the cowpaths, stopping to listen for the bells, and determining by their tone which was Crosby's, which La Due's, which Nelson's, which Beedy's, and which Ballinger's. Sometimes the herd would shift their feeding-grounds for the day by the space of a mile or more. Sometimes the cows, well fed, and not being such heavy milkers as to feel an urge toward the milking-yard, would be found in the high brush, standing stockstill, with mute bells. On occasions like these the children would often wander till nightfall, coming home tired and sleepy, to tired, sleepy men-folk, forced to sit up late and add the work of milking to an already overworked day.
Among these little cow-hunters were girls of nine or ten years and boys of four or five. Rarely did children above the age of twelve go after the cows, if there were younger ones to send. A child old enough to wear shoes in summer was considered rather mature to send for the cows.
These herds commonly consisted of not more than a dozen cattle, young and old; and, fortunately for us, each herd separated easily from the flock on the way home, as they passed the cowyards where they belonged. But should an animal stray, and fail to come up with the herd at night, it was a serious matter. Not seldom it happened that it was never seen again. It was therefore one of our greatest cares to know that the herd we brought home was intact.
Our schoolhouse stood at the junction of two roads, in an acre plot set off from the corner of a cultivated field. Here, a highway running east and west was joined by one running south. A half-mile south on this road father had built, in the spring of 1865, a temporary cow-pen to serve as a milking-yard. Here our cattle were penned at night,
and from here driven, after the morning milking, to the schoolhouse corner and sent running east. The country to the west was more difficult ground for cowhunting, and so long as pasture was good to the east, we were careful to keep our cows from 'going west.'
It was about three o'clock of a July afternoon, I being then aged 'five, going on six,' that, sitting at my desk in the schoolhouse, I saw through the open door, a red-roan steer come trotting down the east road and into the schoolhouse yard. It was our big threeyear-old. My hand shot up.
"Teacher,' I said, 'it's our steer. He's strayed. Can me and Orill be excused to drive him home?'
At her prompt assent, we seized our straw hats and tin lunch-pails, and ran out. I rushed to block the west road, while Orill ran to the east. It was comparatively easy to head the animal into the lane going south, for he seemed himself to have chosen to travel that way.
Now, impounding in a roadside pen on the prairie a three-year-old steer of the type prevailing in Wisconsin in the year 1865, gone astray from his herd and nervous with nostalgia, was a problem serious enough for a cowboy much beyond five years of age; though at the time I was not aware of the fact. My plan of campaign was based on the presumption that, reaching the yard, the steer would go directly into it. Then I would rush up behind him and put up the bars, and there he would be caught and safely held till we should bring the rest of the herd from the commons in the evening. In the event that the steer ran past the bars, I would duck under the fence, run through the field on the east of the road, and head him off, while Orill, with lifted club and
voice, would bar his retreat to the north. Seeing himself thus outwitted, and fairly trapped, the steer would lower his horns and tail and enter the yard.
Now, though I must at this time have been a fairly well-seasoned cowboy, with a year or more of cow-punching to my credit, this was the first major operation in cowboy strategy of which I had had immediate command. I knew enough of the functioning of a steer's brain to know that the chances of yarding the brute were at least not all in my favor. By this time the steer was trotting down the south road, and we had much ado to keep up with his swift gait.
Hot, excited, and blown, we reached the cow-pen, the bars of which were invitingly down. But the steer did not see the yard at all. He ran beyond it, then slowed his speed a little. I ducked into the cornfield to the east of the road, and, by hard running, overhauled and headed him back. Back he ran, again past the bars, but Orill's club and cries turned him.
Now thoroughly flustered by his predicament, the steer headed at me on the run, while I, dancing, yelling, and swinging my dinner-pail, halted him again. But instead of charging back upon Orill, he wheeled to the west and, rising, vaulted the old rail-fence, and coming down with a crash, bounded off into a forty-acre field of green and waving wheat.
As he came down on the broken fence, I, bursting with hot and baffled rage, shouted, 'God damn you!'
All I remember further as to that steer is how he looked as he triumphantly headed westward, trailing down the slope through the waving wheat, spoiling valuable grain.
I was dazed, terrified at what I had done. I had said the very wickedest possible swear-word. I had taken the name of God in vain. I had never be
fore used such words, or even entertained them for use. No one of our family had in their lives done so wicked a thing. And to add woe to wickedness, I had said this in the presence of Orill Huntley, son of godless parents. I remember putting my head down on a rail of the fence and crying, and Orill's coming up to comfort me.
'It ain't bad to say it just once,' he said. 'It's when you say it all the time that's wicked.'
But I refused to be comforted by such sophistry. Father's theology contained no such modifying clause. It could not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. I believed myself to be the chief of sinners, all unaware that this untaught lad was telling me a great life-truth.
When, finally, I had dried my eyes, I solemnly charged Orill never to tell on me, and he as solemnly promised. Thus temporarily calmed, I went about the day's business with a leaden lump beneath the bosom of my little hickory shirt. I remember no more of the week's occurrences except that I kept my secret well.
But Sunday brought torment. I rode in the farm wagon with the family to the Sunday service, as a condemned criminal rides on his coffin to the gallows. I had pictured to myself the scene that would occur in Sunday School. We would repeat the Third Commandment in concert: 'Thou shalt not take the name, thou shalt not take the name, of the Lord thy God in vain, of the Lord thy God in vain'—and at the close father would turn to me and say, 'Did you ever take the name of the Lord thy God in vain?' and I had fully determined within myself to answer up with what promptness and firmness I could muster, 'No, sir.'
What else could one do? Could one say, to his own confusion, before the assembled congregation, 'Yes, sir, I swore
VOL. 128-NO. 2
at the steer when he jumped over the fence'? Such a thing was unthinkable. There was but one way of escape from the dilemma, and that was boldly to lie my way out. Nor would this have been the first time I had found a lie a very present help in trouble.
Before the exercises began, as I was sitting in fear and trembling, down the east road came a wagon with the whole Huntley family in it. They were coming to Sunday School. Orill would be with them, of course, and when father would put his awful question, 'Did you ever take the name of the Lord thy God in vain?' and I answered, 'No, sir,' Orill would rise and in a loud voice would say, 'Yes, you did! You swore at the steer when he jumped over the fence!'
For about the space of one mortal, interminable minute, 'the fear of death encompassed me and the pains of hell gat hold upon me.' I had never before, nor have I since, experienced such refinement of terror as I suffered then. Punishment of that quality after death would be sufficient penalty for any mortal sin in the category.
But the wagon passed. It was not the Huntleys' wagon at all. The Huntleys had never attended our Sunday School. Father did not ask us to repeat any of the commandments that day; nor, of course, was the awful question asked. It did not occur to me then that there was not the remotest possibility that father would ask such a question. I went home relieved and reprieved, but not pardoned. I carried my dark secret safely but heavily for what seem to me to have been long years, during which period I entertained for a time the fear that I had committed the 'unpardonable sin.'
It never occurred to me then that my determination to add bold and willful lying to profanity was the only really wicked act of the whole sad affair. But