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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Meeting-House of 1830

By Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860)

[Born in Ridgefield, Conn., 1793. Died in New York, N. Y., 1860. From Recollections of a Lifetime. 1857.]

ONE thing strikes me now with wonder, and that is, the general indifference, in those days, to the intensity of winter. No doubt, as I have said before, the climate was then more severe; but be that as it may, people seemed to suffer less from it than at the present day. Nobody thought of staying at home from church because of the extremity of the weather. We had no thermometers, it is true, to frighten us with the revelation that it was twenty-five degrees below zero. The habits of the people were simple and hardy, and there were few defences against the assaults of the seasons. The houses were not tight; we had no stoves, no Lehigh or Lackawanna coal; yet we lived, and comfortably too; nay we even changed burly winter into a season of enjoyment.

Let me tell you a story, by the way, upon the meeting-houses of those days. They were of wood, and slenderly built, of course admitting somewhat freely the blasts of the seasons. In the severe winter days, we only mitigated the temperature by foot-stoves; but these were deemed effeminate luxuries, suited to women and children. What would have been thought of Deacon Olmstead and Granther Baldwin, had they yielded to the weakness of a foot-stove!

The age of comfortable meeting-houses and churches, in county towns, was subsequent to this, some twenty or thirty years. All improvement is gradual, and frequently advances only by conflict with prejudice, and victory over opposition. In a certain county town within my knowledge, the introduction of stoves into the meeting-house, about the year 1830, threatened to overturn society. The incident may be worth detailing, for trifles often throw light upon important subjects.

In this case, the metropolis, which we will call H., had adopted stoves in the churches, and naturally enough some people of the neighboring town of E. set about introducing this custom into the meeting-house in their own village. Now, the two master-spirits of society—the Demon of Progress and the Angel of Conservatism—somehow or other had got into the place, and as soon as this reform was suggested, they began to wrestle with the people, until at last the church and society were divided into two violent factions—the Stove Party and the Anti-stove Party. At the head of the first was Mrs. Deacon K. and at the head of the latter was Mrs. Deacon P. The battle raged portentously, very much like the renowned tempest in a teapot. Society was indeed lashed into a foam. The minister, between the contending factions, scarcely dared to say his soul was his own. He could scarcely find a text from “Genesis to Jude,” that might not commit him on one side or the other. The strife—of course—ran into politics, and the representative to the assembly got in by a happy knack at dodging the question in such wise as to be claimed by both parties.

Finally, the progressionists prevailed—the stove party triumphed, and the stoves were accordingly installed. Great was the humiliation of the anti-stoveites; nevertheless, they concluded to be submissive to the dispensations of Providence. On the Sabbath succeeding the installation of the stoves, Mrs. Deacon P., instead of staying away, did as she ought, and went to church. As she moved up the broad aisle, it was remarked that she looked pale but calm, as a martyr should, conscious of injury, yet struggling to forgive. Nevertheless, when the minister named his text—Romans xii. 20—and spoke about heaping coals of fire on the head—she slid from her seat, and subsided gently upon the floor. The train of ideas suggested was, in fact, too much for her heated brain and shattered nerves. Suddenly there was a rush to the pew, and the fainting lady was taken out. When she came to the air, she slightly revived.

“Pray what is the matter?” said Mrs. Deacon K., who bent over her, holding a smelling-bottle to her nose.

“Oh, it is the heat of those awful stoves,” said Mrs. Deacon P.

“No, no my dear,” said Mrs. Deacon K.; that can’t be: it’s a warm day, you know, and there’s no fire in them.”

“No fire in the stoves?” said Mrs. Deacon P.

“Not a particle,” said Mrs. Deacon K.

“Well, I feel better now,” said the poor lady; and so bidding her friends good-bye, she went home, in a manner suited to the occasion.