Going to Church in 1845
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Going To Church in 1845

A Sabbath morning in the Brokenstraw Valley in June of the year 1845. Young meadow larks are trying their wings in the stumpy pasture lands along the creek, bobolinks balance and swing in the blackberry bushes at the edge of Benjamin Upton's rye field. Catbirds, goldfinches, field sparrows, orioles and the silvery voiced larks make all the soft summer air melodious. Between its grassy banks the gentle waters of the Brokenstraw move placidly, mirroring the dense, overhanging willows and the blue sky with its puffs of white cloud. It is a lovely land of sunshine and birdsong, bees clambering in the pink and blue morning glories which grow wild everywhere in the fields and the balmiest of June breezes bringing from the northwest the sweet breath of great forests.

In the very midst 'of the valley, surrounded by green fields, and not far from the bank of the creek stands the little church wherein worships the first religious organization formed in Warren County. It has already been a number of years since the congregation first gathered at the home of James White and organized the Broken-straw Presbyterian Church. During the interim the congregation has met regularly for worship at the homes of its members, in barns, on the bank of the creek.

The little church stands in the corner of the small cemetery with its few white stones, evergreens and blue-blossoming myrtle creeping in the corners. Two doors give entrance to the church, the one on the right for the women, the other for the men. It is half past nine o'clock, preaching is at ten-thirty, the doors are already open, waiting the congregation.

There is no one inside the church, its sexton has come and opened door and window to let in the warm June air, for the little building has been shut up all week and it would be much chillier indoors than out if the building had not been aired. There is no carpet on the floor, just smooth pine boards. The pews are straight and high and hard, eight steps lead up to a high pulpit where the preacher has ample vantage to look down upon his flock and discern, perchance, any who are nodding or inattentive. And should the good man observe any levity among the boys, seated down front, he has only to nod to one of his elders, two of whom are equipped with long rods for reminding irreverent youth that this is the Lord's house.

There is smooth, white plaster on the walls, only a year old. The church, built in 1840 has been only partially finished for nearly four years, but services have been held nevertheless. The windows have small panes of plain glass. There are iron sconces with tallow candles on the walls, but the church is seldom used at night. A pile of hymn books is on the pulpit floor, a large bible, with embroidered ribbon marker lies on the pulpit itself. The little church, with the warm June sunshine streaming in at its doors, stands in the midst of its green fields, awaiting the coming of its Sabbath morning congregation.

A horse was still a rich man's luxury in Warren County in the year 1845. Lumber dealers, riding down to Pittsburgh on their rafts were beginning to come home on horseback, having invested perhaps two hundred dollars in their first horse. Oxen were much less expensive, they were better than horses in many respects in the woods, they were slow, but not much behind a team of horses at the end of a day. And then, oxen required no expensive harness and George Gregg, living on the Brokenstraw just above Youngsville would make a fine ox yoke with green hickory bows and a good staple and ring for eight dollars.

At ten o'clock the first wagonful of church goers appeared, two entire families seated on boards laid across a wagon bed, the vehicle drawn by a pair of large red steers which swayed their long horns in perfect unison as they plodded along. There were fourteen in the wagon, husbands and wives, children in all stages of growth and an old, white-haired grandmother who sat, for safety and comfort, in the exact center of the wagon where there was a little springiness, and no danger of falling out. When the passengers had alighted at the church door the driver, a broad shouldered young man who had walked beside the team, unyoked his oxen and put them in a small field across the lane, there to graze and rest. For there were to be two church services, one at ten-thirty which lasted till about half past twelve, a second service at two-thirty lasting till well past four, to round out the day's preaching. So it was as well to turn out the oxen, for how could the good Reverend John McMaster, standing in his high pulpit which commanded a view of the ox pasture, look across the lane and announce as his text, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light" if he saw there the poor oxen standing for six hours under their heavy yokes.

Two church services within a few hours were not such a hardship when one considered the dinner that came between. Above the sides of the wagon box handles of huge baskets protruded. The regular Sabbath picnic dinner, eaten on the lawn at the church was a weekly event looked forward to for days. Each family brought its bountiful hamper, extra bountiful perhaps because of the custom of presenting to the preacher's family the pies, cookies, rolls of fresh butter, jars of jam, loaves of bread, the chicken that came in oversupply.

People who lived in Warren County in 1845 thought nothing of walking four or five miles to church. Some of the younger folk preferred walking to the slow-moving ox team, even an old man could walk faster than oxen moved. So fully half of the country congregation that, assembling this bright June morning is coming on foot, the men with baskets over their arms.

At a quarter past ten there are nine span of oxen that have brought nine wagon loads of people to the church, the perfect day has brought everybody out, it is going to be a big congregation. And now, the sound of horses' hoofs on the wooden bridge spanning the Brokenstraw. Everyone knows who is coming. Daniel Horn owns the first two seated carriage in the region, and a team of fat bay horses which can plough a field, skid logs or trot off to church with their master and his family. The Daniel Horns are social leaders in the community, their large house with its ten rooms and great stone fireplace, three miles up the creek is the scene of many sociables and much entertaining. The third sheriff of Warren County, a commissioner for two terms, Daniel Horn is a prominent man. And he is proud of his fine family.


The boys and girls, standing about with their fathers and mothers near the church door, take a great interest in Daniel Horn's horses, the bright buckles of the harness, the high wheeled, two seated carriage, built in Pittsburgh and brought with great care over the stage coach roads to the Brokenstraw Valley. Daniel has his daughters, Martha and Ellen with him, his wife and son Clinton. The young ladies are very pretty in flowered chintz dresses, light poke bonnets lined with pink. They are holding little parasols on their knees. As the girls alight from the high carriage, putting first a slim foot on the iron step, then gaining the ground they reveal low shoes fastened with black silk bows, and white-stockinged ankles.

Moses Andrews and his brother Robert appear. They are both members of the choir, Moses singing in a deep bass voice, Robert in soprano. Benjamin Upton has come to church cross-lots from his farm up Hosmer Run. Jacob Young, James White and his boy William, Robert Prather, the McCrays, the Mandavilles, Harniltons, Browns have arrived. The small, square church building, with its narrow eaves and no spire nor bell, looks scarcely large enough to hold the congregation as it files in, the men and large boys at one door, women, girls and smaller children at the other. As they pass the threshold conversation ceases, a reverential hush falls on the congregation. Men and women bow their heads a moment in silent prayer.

The Reverend McMaster, who wears nicely polished boots in the pulpit, a long skirted coat, wide-winged collar and white cravat, rises from his straight-backed chair, advances to the pulpit and announces the Doxology. The choir, seated in the balcony at the rear, sings it heartily; "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below, praise him above ye Heavenly Host, Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."

There is no organ, just the voices. Robert Andrews, the leader was proud of his choir. It met regularly for practice and sang well.

In the brief hush that followed the singing of the doxology, songs of nearby birds cane through the open windows, a swamp blackbird whistling in a wild cherry tree, the hillside cooing of a dove. The opening prayer, a hymn, "Safely through another week God has brought us on our way ;"the scripture reading, the long prayer, a very long one, another hymn. Moses Andrews' heavy bass thunders from the choir loft. Beside him stands his brother Robert, son of the first settler on the Broken-straw. Robert's little six year old son, Hiram, is sitting with his mother in the congregation. The boy is destined to become a staunch pillar of this same church and serve as elder till well past his eightieth year.

The sermon, the long, long, deadly serious sermon, much more concerned with punishments than rewards now begins. The congregation settles itself for the long stretch. Miss Eliza Jane Upton, destined to be cited by the church session a few years later for attending a "social dance" looks bewitchingly pretty in her pink poke bonnet. Her eyes sparkle and she has very red lips. It is not easy for a girl like this to keep her mind on the sermon, hard for her to think much about Paul's journey "over against Pisgah." It is difficult to believe in hell when there's a catbird singing. Did you think Eliza Jane glanced, ever so slightly, toward the men's side of the church just then? Well, possibly,-poke bonnets are very obscuring. There's a fine looking lad sitting in the third pew, just back of Daniel Horn. Eliza couldn't have been glancing his way, in church meeting!

It is a custom to make the "first sermon" of the day the longer of the two, for a full hour and a half the Reverend McMaster dwells on the frailties of the flesh, the proneness to sin, the terrible punishments thereof. His voice drones on in dreary detail within the little church, rising sometimes suddenly in bursts of vehemence while outside the noonday sun is full of chirruping birds and dancing butterflies. Nature is unimpressed by the fall of man this lovely June day and everything out of doors tempts to enjoyment of the senses.

On and on goes the sermon. Little girls lay their curly heads on mothers' plump laps and fall asleep. Small boys in long trousers and broad white collars shift in their seats and are glanced at severely by the elders.

Daniel Horn, stern visaged pioneer, sits immovable in his pew. Perhaps he is thinking of his soul, perhaps of his dealings with the Holland Land Company, perhaps he is wondering how many straight, sound ship's masts he will be able to cut off the hillside above his home. Grandmother Upton nods a bit. Her nearly ninety years excuse her. The dear old soul is so close to the better world after a long and useful life spent in this one, she has little need of admonitions.

"Sixthly,-and in conclusion," begins the Reverend McMaster and the wives, despite their strict piety, begin thinking of the dinner that will soon be spread in the church yard, begin wondering if the maple icing on the cake has become soft, and will the butter be entirely melted this warm June day!

At length, at very great length, the preacher slowly closes the big bible, a movement every boy and girl in the church, and perhaps more than one older boy and girl, has been watching for intently.

The last hymn, the congregation rise and bow their heads for the benediction. Meeting is over, the people fill the aisle, flow out onto the grassy churchyard. Baskets and hampers are brought out of the wagons, white table cloths are spread on the grass. Disturbing thoughts of eternal punishment are dispelled by pleasant ones concerning boiled ham and roasted chicken and homemade cheese, pies, cakes, cookies, red raspberry jam, yellow June butter fresh from yesterday's churn, stewed dried berries, pickles, hearty brown bread baked in the hot ashes of the hearth, or an outside "Dutch oven," cold tea, brought in brown jugs stoppered with whittled pine plugs.

The tediousness of the long sermon was soon forgotten. After all, there is nothing in the world like a long sermon to produce an appetite. The girls spread blankets on the grass to avoid staining their white skirts. It was really a picnic dinner, howbeit with a certain restraint because this was the Sabbath day, and the preacher, the tails of his frock coat spread apart to prevent wrinkling, sat in their midst, he and his good wife having dinner with the family of the charter elder, James White.

Dinner was a leisurely affair, with a great deal of talk across the spread table cloths. Even the minister discussed worldly affairs, flavoring his conversation with a few well chosen texts. The price of lumber, the value of land, the rapid development of the county and the great, expanding country outside furnished topics enough for conversation. Robert Prather prophesied that some day a railroad with steam engines would come through the valley, and cars would travel as fast as fifteen or even twenty miles an hour. Benjamin Upton thought such a thing might happen some day, but if they were going to race through the country at such terrible speed it would be safe for no one.

Daniel Horn said he believed Glenni Scofield would be appointed the county's next district attorney. The intention of the German Lutherans in Warren to build a church was discussed, and thought a fine thing. Proposed new stages, which would leave Warren in the evening and deliver passengers in Buffalo the following evening in time for the Eastern cars were talked over,-considered a little improbable. Phoebe Davis wanted to know why Mary Patton never came to see her and Mary replied she would be glad enough to come, if someone would only invent a machine that would do sewing, because she was kept so busy with her needle she just never got anywhere.

It was the natural, whole hearted talk of good people gathered together, enjoying each other's company; the talk of honest folk, hard working, who still struggled to expand their homes in the wilderness, to clear more land and build more houses, to have more roads and farm tools and schools to send their children to. And when the hour of two-thirty approached the fragments of the feast had been gathered up, the white table cloths folded and replaced in the baskets, the whole paraphernalia of the dinner put back in the wagons, ready for the trip home. Then the people filed once more into the church and heard another doxology, more hymns, and another lengthy sermon, not so long, however, as that of the morning.

At four o'clock the congregation came filing out again, talk was a little livelier, the long tension was over. There was a great deal of handshaking, even a little well modulated laughter as the Garland Presbyterians took leave of one another. The men lifted the heavy yokes on the oxen's necks, fastened the bow-pins, fetched their spans to the wagon tongues and ran the chain back to its hook.

"Gee-haw Buck,-Berry,--gee-haw-haw--" and off the long wagons rolled, moving less than three miles an hour. Daniel Horn's proud horses trotted on ahead, with their owner driving, sitting erect in his wide winged Henry Clay collar, one of his pretty daughters at his side. As was said before, Daniel Horn was a social leader, his big house up the creek had many rooms and many guests. Lemuel Hoffman, the sexton, closed the two doors of the little church and locked them with a big brass key. There would be no more meetings till the next Sabbath day. But all good Presbyterians would certainly be expected to study their catechisms.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 83-92: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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