"Daniel Ponge's Success." The Congregationalist, 28 Feb. 1884, p. 2.
DANIEL PONGE’S SUCCESS
BY REBECCA HARDING DAVIS
Of all the members of the Third Church, Mrs. Clarkson Tate was the one whose religion took the most practical turn. Neither prayers nor music ever brought the tears to her cool gray eyes, and she invariably criticized the sermon pretty sharply when we reached the church porch. But her pew was crowded every Sunday with young men, medical and law students, clerks, college lads; her cousins, or her cousins’ friends, or friends of her cousins’ friends. Any pretense of a title to her hospitality was enough, provided they were strangers in the great city, with no home open to them but their cheap boarding houses. Her house was a large, beautiful dwelling in West Philadelphia, surrounded by a lawn and shaded by forest trees. It was open to them on Sundays. The lads filled her pew, went home with her to a dinner which she took care should be plentiful and delicious, and then she retired to spend her Sunday in her own way. They were free of the house; they could read in the quiet library, or play with the children, or look at engravings, or sleep, if they chose, under the trees until tea-time—in a word, for one day of the week, they were at home in the family of a good woman, who treated them as sons. Mrs. Tate had her own ideas of Christian work, and this was one of them; but we have no time now to discuss it.
One day John Waldo brought a young man with him, by the name of Daniel Ponge; a raw-boned, gaunt, coarsely clad lad, with large and peculiarly luminous eyes that looked out of their bony sockets at Mrs. Tate with a disturbing power. After dinner, she drew Waldo aside.
“Who is your friend?” she asked. “He has that unmistakable pallor that comes from hunger, but he looks as if he thought life was too short for eating or talking or frivolity of any sort. What does he mean to do in it?”
“Serve God, I suppose,” Waldo said, with an uneasy laugh. “Dan always seemed to me to have some of the spirit of the old prophets. He is a farmer’s son from Berks County; he has educated himself and is now almost ready for ordination. He has supported himself for two years by copying, and, as he hasn’t much time to give to it, his receipts average eighty cents a week. He lives on that in a little room on Kater Street, and cooks for himself—what he does cook.”
“No wonder his skin is yellow over his bones!” cried plump Mrs. Tate, with a shudder. “Eighty cents! But that is entirely unnecessary! There is a fund in the church for the education and support of just such poor young theological students.”
“Yes. But Dan has a prejudice about accepting help. He says what is not worth working for is not worth having, and he sees no reason why your clergyman should be pauperized at the outset, more than your doctor or lawyer. It is very absurd in him, I suppose.”
“Absurd! I should think so!” said Mrs. Tate, indignantly. But after that she was particularly kind to the young man, who was utterly alone in the city, and much needed the kindness and care of a shrewd, practical woman.
After his ordination, Daniel Ponge was given his own request mission work in the part of the city where he lived. Kater Street could hardly be called in a field white unto the harvest. It is a narrow, scrupulously clean little avenue, with small, comfortable houses on either side, into which by a kind of natural gravitation thrifty workmen of all kinds have tended; Scotch-Irish, German, black and white Americans. Ponge knew all the tidy women sitting at their door-steps in the evening, and every child in the street was his friend. These people, however, as a rule, belonged to some church. But near to Kater Street were large outlying quarters of laziness, want and vice, from the courts out of which drunken Irish women were hauled to the police station, to magnificent brown stone mansions, in which dwelt bosses who could not write and who kept up their sway over their subjects, principally by barrels of whisky kept on tap in the cellar. Mr. Ponge went to work among these people. He took them all in. The boss was as much a child of God in his opinion as Mrs. MacGurk or Wah Lee. He set them to work to help each other. He brought them first into reading and coffee rooms, into clubs, beneficial societies and industrial schools, and then turn into prayer meetings and church. He had, it is probable, a good deal of executive ability, but the secret of his power lay in his single-minded, fiery zeal. He had been sent into the world to save souls, and he had not a breath of time to give to any other work. His face was familiar in the prisons, in the almshouse Gehenna, out of which the dead foundlings were carried yearly by hundreds, and in every hospital and asylum. His salary certainly amounted to more than eighty cents a week, but he gave it away so fast that he was more hungry and shabbier than before.
Doctor Roach, the pastor of the Third Church, met him at Mrs. Tate’s, and asked him once or twice to fill his pulpit while he was absent. The people came out silent and awed after listening to him. It seemed to them that they had heard a note of that trumpet which shall summon the dead and the living to Judgement.
“How did our young friend succeed?” said Doctor Roach, on his return, to Mrs. Tate. “He must have been a little nervous at preaching before such a congregation as ours.”
“I suppose,” she said, quietly, “if Daniel Ponge were preaching to the Apostles and martyrs, he would only see in them fellow sinners in need of a Savoir. He has but one idea, ‘Jesus and Him crucified.’”
The doctor went on his round of pastoral visits a little ruffled. Mrs. Tate really permitted her tongue a license akin to blasphemy. Ponge preaching to the Apostles, indeed!
It was in the fall of this year that Mr. Ponge broke down, and lay ill in Kater Street with malarial fever. His physician (young Waldo, by the way) went to Mrs. Tate. “Insufficient diet and overwork have brought him to this pass,” he said. “I suppose he thinks the souls of those laundry men and thieves are worth the sacrifice. I don’t; but I’m outside the pale. You are inside, Mrs. Tate, and I wish you would think the matter over and see if anything can be done.”
Mrs. Tate thought the matter over. Just at that time, an assistant was needed in the Third Church. The people remembered the remarkable young preacher who had so startled them with his fervid zeal. A word here and a word there, and the thing was done. The call was given.
“But I shall shirk my work,” said Mr. Ponge to his kind friend. She had removed him to her house when he began to recover, and he lay on a pallet under the trees, like the ghost of his old lean self.
“Can you take it up again now?” was her only answer.
He knew he could not. He had scarcely strength to breathe.
“The mission is a sheer impossibility,” she resumed. “The work in our church is light. You will have time to rest. And, indeed, you have deserved this success. I am glad it is coming to you. I know four ministers who are ambitious to step into this place.”
He was very tired; even his mind moved feebly. When he was strong again he would assuredly take up his work in Kater Street again. In the meantime—what was it she said about deserving success? He wondered, while faint color came to his cheeks who were the four ministers that had tried for this place.
Mrs. Tate’s phrase expressed the feeling of the Third Church. Mr. Ponge, as he gained strength, was “a great success, and he deserved his promotion.” Dr. Roach was a moral scholarly man, fond of the fine-drawn argument on abstruse points. He wrote an elaborate sermon once a week on some such subject; but out of the pulpit he was a zealous entomologist. Everybody knew that his heart for years had been in his bugs and beetles. This pale young fellow, with his fiery eloquence, pleading with each man the cause of his own soul against his frivolous, sensual, vicious body, drew eager, admiring throngs. Every sitting in the church was taken, and chairs filled the aisles when it was known that he would preach.
The next spring Doctor Roach died suddenly. Mrs. Tate came home from a church meeting and hurried in to her niece’s room.
“There can be no doubt, Evaline, that Mr. Ponge will be offered the dear old doctor’s place at once. It is a great step in one year. That miserable mission, and now the Third Church! But he certainly deserves it.”
Miss Plumer asked what the salary would be, and whether the parsonage was included.
“Yes. It will be a lovely home for you, dear. You ought to be a happy woman.”
Miss Plumer’s cheek, which was of the tint of a wild rose, did not deepen in hue. “It will need refurnishing,” she said, gently. “I hope Daniel will put it in Barber’s hand. They are the most stylish upholsterers in town.”
All the world, in a few months, agreed with Mrs. Tate. Daniel Ponge’s life was successful. He had a high position, a large salary, a wife whom he loved passionately. There was a change in him. There were a few poor people in his church. The members all seemed to be good moral people jogging on leisurely to heaven. There was no need of the appeals and fervor, which he now began to think, with Evaline, were probably too pronounced to be in good taste. He began, now, too, to be anxious that his church should keep up its yearly subscriptions to the great organized charities. He was appointed to deliver certain important discourse, too, in other cities, and he had to be careful that he did not disappoint the expectation which his fame had provoked. These things occupied his mind, and left no space for other matters.
In ten years Daniel Ponge had grown fat, dull-eyed, quiet of speech, and a conservative in opinion.
I lost sight of him for many years. On my return, I found a stranger in the Third Church Pulpit.
“Poor Dr. Ponge!” Mrs. Tate said. “He had the worst luck! His only son died, and then his throat became so affected that he was totally unable to preach, so he resigned. Poor Evaline never held up her head after that. Altered social position was too heavy a cross for Eva. His salary went with the position, of course. They went up to a little village in Center County, and there Eva died. I have heard that her death broke him down completely. He certainly was a most devoted husband. Why such a good man should be so afflicted is more than I can understand.”
The next summer, among the iron miners in Center County I happened to meet Daniel Ponge. He was teaching a little school in the woods. He was an old, gray, bent man, but the passionate fervor of his youth had returned to him. Not only to the children, but to the miners’ huts, to farm-houses, to the lonely cabins of the charcoal burners on the mountains, he went with the same urgent errand—the story of Jesus and His love. He had lost all interest in the world; he talked of nothing else, cared for nothing else. To every human soul he met came with this one message.
“The time is so short, “he said. “The time given me was short and much of it was—lost.”
The rough people in the hills called him the “crazy gospeller,” but they listened to him as they did not to other preachers; they respected and loved him. They had an odd feeling that the half-starved, suffering life had reached a great height of success in its self-sacrifice. But that was not Mrs. Tate’s view.
Some one who had known him in the other days once spoke to him of his church and his wife. He was silent; a contortion of pain passed over his face. “The Lord gave,” he said, at last. “And the Lord hath taken away. He knew.”
See John 4:35. Refers to a proverb likening a field time at harvest to people ready to hear the gospel.