More Travels: 1854 to 1859
To keep the records of this phase of the activities of Dr. Thomas together, other journeys undertaken for the proclamation of the gospel will be narrated in this chapter.
In 1854, having in the meantime removed to New York, he left home to tour the South-west. The first place visited was Newark in New Jersey, of which the Doctor remarked that had he been accompanied by
A fiddling Greek,
And a learned pig,
Who Dutch could speak
As easy as’t could squeak,
he would “doubtless have rejoiced in a full house of the enlightened and discerning citizens of Newark”; but “having only the predictions and doctrines of the Jewish old prophets and apostles to present before them,” he spoke to “more empty seats than full ones.” From Newark he went by train to Baltimore, and thence by express to Kentucky. After travelling some 580 miles he says, “expedition made a low bow and disappeared,” for he travelled by a small and overcrowded river boat. “For fifty-six hours,” he says, “was I doomed to exist in this floating sepulchre; for we were all that time paddling 400 miles, with the stream in our favour!”
The tedium of the journey was broken by a conversation between a Presbyterian minister and a Lutheran, who were discussing the remission of sins through faith. At last the Doctor “ventured to make a sort of know-nothing enquiry” as to what faith was. The Lutheran replied that “faith was belief of what we did not understand.” “Then we have remission of sins by belief of what we don’t understand?” “Yes.” A series of questions on the gospel, the kingdom of God, heaven and hell, caused the Lutheran to show his ignorance on all these topics. Later in the conversation, however, he stated that in his opinion the War (i.e. the Crimean) which was in progress would end in the triumph of Russia, and would lead to the advent of Christ. His ideas were not based on the Scriptures, but on his own observations of the trend of events. When he had indicated his mind in this way the Doctor showed him a copy of Anatolia, in which he was obviously interested, so much so that he bought the book. It was, as Dr. Thomas remarks, the first copy of Anatolia that had been seen in the West. The incident served to promote a line of thought in the mind of Dr. Thomas relieving the monotony of an uncomfortable journey.
Changing at Cincinnati into another boat which was, by comparison a “floating palace,” he travelled a further 150 miles to Louisville, a city of which he said that if cleanliness is next to godliness, then godliness must be far removed. “A clean heart, a clean city, and a clean person are especially demanded in the Divine law; generally they are neglected by mankind, and the consequence is obvious—God and they are far apart.”
The journey thence was through the Louisville and Portland Canal, which is three miles long. While waiting for departure, a man died on board, and a deck-hand fell overboard and was drowned, neither incident causing much concern. The Doctor comments: “A stranger on the river is a fare—a pigeon to be plucked even while alive; who then is likely to care for the bird when dead?”
The record continues: “There was just about enough liquid mud to float the steamer, which was nearly as broad as the canal itself. The paddles threw the liquid under the boat astern, leaving her aground but for the inrush from ahead, which carried her backwards instead of forwards. The current from behind, however, would after awhile turn back the liquid and mud thrown astern, which, flowing under the boat, would raise her and float her on a few yards, until checked by the inrush from ahead. In this way the vessel edged along to and fro, gaining a little at every return of the slush until after five hours we arrived at the end of this precious canal.” The fee paid by the owners of the steamer for the use of the canal was 170 dollars! “When the world is governed righteously,” writes the Doctor, “such abominations will not be permitted for the benefit of the stock-holders and the State of Kentucky.” The experiences of the journey called from him the comment: “The true philosophy is to endure patiently what you cannot cure, for in doing so evil will be less. If a man find himself ensnared, let him get out as best he can, and be more vigilant for the future.”
Thirty-two more hours’ steaming brought him to Henderson, Ky., and completed a journey of 1,342 miles, during which he had not once had his clothes off since leaving Newark. That was what travel in the service of the Truth meant in those days.
In Henderson county his time was occupied in “addressing large promiscuous congregations, and in talking replies to innumerable questions from house to house, concerning the things of the Kingdom of God.” In public he spoke for about eighteen hours, from which he hoped much good might result, for “the Scriptures are able to make wise,” and “to lead them into all truth.”
Dr. Thomas intended to return home direct from Henderson county, but decided to go to Iowa. He left by steamer for St. Louis, where he arrived after a journey that was performed at an average speed of eight knots and a half. The heat, he says, he says, was excessive, and his “state-room” was over the boiler, so that the temperature was insufferably high.
Changing to a packet for Dubuque, he found himself “doomed to stew in perspiration for fifty-seven hours on board a steamboat jammed in by others at the landing, under a blazing sun reflected from the paved levee, clouds of dust, and at a place where the people were dying two hundred a day of cholera.” “The drain of moisture from the system,” he writes, “was enfeebling. Mental lassitude, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness resulted from the heat.” Finally he arrived home about the middle of July after an absence of six weeks, having travelled some 3,500 miles.
A month later he again left home for a tour through Virginia. His first stopping place was Lunenburg, where, he records, he arrived in due course, “Which in these days of wholesale destruction by steam power is a ground of congratulation and thankfulness to God.” During this tour he addressed a number of well attended meetings, and found the gospel of the kingdom to be gaining ground; indeed an “enemy” publication stated that in one of the towns “Thomasism has performed its greatest achievements . . . some respectable and influential men have become so much enamoured with his talents, and so blind to his delinquencies that, notwithstanding the absurd notions he has so recklessly poured forth, they continue to cling to him.” Although much opposition was manifested at some places the tour as a whole was successful and pleasant. Summing up the year’s activity, Dr. Thomas wrote, “When I arrived in New York (I) concluded my journeyings for the year, having travelled since the 1st June a distance of 5,500 miles.”
To Americans of the mid-Twentieth Century the mileage may seem small, but not only were means of travel poor and conditions arduous, but these journeys were performed while writing and editorial work were carried on.
These travels for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom became a regular feature of the Doctor’s activities. In 1855 and 1856 Kentucky was visited again. Perhaps remembering his experiences on his previous visit to this area, he wrote of the latter journey, “Modern travel presents few incidents worthy of note, in the absence of a concussion and smash of trains, and dashing over an embankment into an abyss.” On this occasion he left home on May 27th and arrived back on June 20th after a journey of 2,000 miles. This was followed in July by a visit to Canada, where he spoke in Hamilton, Toronto, and various other towns. On the outward route Niagara formed the place of entrance to Canada, but the return journey was made via Windsor and Detroit. He arrived in New York after a journey of nearly 2,500 miles, which occupied a period of six weeks.
The next year, 1857, saw another journey, undertaken to “open a new furrow” with “the plough of the Kingdom of God” at the request of a few believers in Massachusetts, and including that State and Rhode Island. This journey was comparatively short, but it had its interesting experiences. The first place visited was Lawrence, where the brethren had placarded the town with a hundred posters inviting their neighbours to attend a course of lectures. An interesting incident took place at one of them revealing Dr. Thomas in a somewhat unusual mood. An educated young man was at the lecture; he had been a Roman Catholic, but was then a “Secularist,” i.e. a sceptic. After one of the lectures he admitted that the Doctor had proved his points from the Scriptures, but as he, the young man, rejected the authority of the Bible, he rejected the points proved from its sayings.
The Doctor listened with patience until he had “emptied his vessel” (as Dr. Thomas puts it). Then he replied, “Allow me very respectfully to enquire if you understand the Bible you have so unmeasuredly condemned?” Somewhat taken aback the young man retorted “Do you understand it?” In reply he was told that was not the question; to answer it would not settle the matter. The question was, Did he understand it? If he did not he was condemning what he did not understand, a practice that was very reprehensible in one who avowed himself a disciple of reason and philosophy. He finished with the words, “I should advise you to study the Bible without prejudice, and you will find that the better you understand it, if sincere, the more you will admire and truly appreciate it.” It was an example of the tactful answer that discomposes questioners.
Within twelve days of his return home, the Doctor was off again on a tour that took in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. This involved a journey of 3,000 miles, and was accomplished in three weeks, during which the Doctor spoke twenty-six times. He arrived home suffering from a severe headache and a disordered stomach, to face another journey in Virginia three weeks later. On this seven weeks were occupied, during which he spoke for a total of eighty-four hours.
The year 1858 saw another tour in Canada, commencing on July 9th and lasting for a month. From this Dr. Thomas returned, as he expressed it, with weariness that affected his physique. In the month he spoke twenty-four times, and then, weary as he was, he had to prepare for a journey to Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky, which occupied five weeks, covering a distance of nearly 3,000 miles. Next year, 1859, saw visits to Kentucky and Virginia.
In recording some of these missionary journeys, Dr. Thomas sometimes exhibited an aspect of his character that is likely to be overlooked. In his theological arguments in opposition to contemporary religious views he was generally incisive and hard-hitting, and these occupied so large a space in his records that it is possible to form an entirely mistaken estimate of his character. In the account of his 1859 tour two preachers travelled with him to a certain spot, where one of them left to reach another place. The one who remained invited the Doctor to accompany him, and although it added some sixty miles to the journey, he agreed to do so. The man who invited him was much older and was rather infirm. He was known to fellow passengers as Father Woodbridge. Dr. Thomas allowed him to do most of the talking, and bore with him until they parted. It was a kindly act, and is recalled for that reason.
At another place which he visited on the same journey the brethren were in possession of a hall which was unfinished, though, as he playfully remarked with “all the grave and elaborate expedition of the renowned Circumlocution Office.” He thought it might be ready for use “the morning before resurrection.” He could mix humour with reproof.
These two incidents are recorded to enable readers to see something of the character of the man in contradistinction to the theological disputant.
The time was approaching when such journeys had to cease. America was on the verge of civil war, to which attention must be given in a later chapter. A large proportion of those who read these pages reside in Britain in the middle of the Twentieth Century, where it is a simple matter to travel from city to city to proclaim the Truth. It was otherwise in America a hundred years ago. It meant uncomfortable travel, long absences from the amenities of home. Sympathisers were few, and the enmity of other religionists was strong. To carry on the work year after year was a heavy burden. It meant much weariness, lack of rest, and physical suffering. It is well to bear this in mind as thoughts go back to the early days.
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