"From Door to Door." Congregationalist, 13 Oct. 1877, p. 2.

Dublin Core

Title

"From Door to Door." Congregationalist, 13 Oct. 1877, p. 2.

Subject

Religion; hypocrisy; reform

Description

FROM DOOR TO DOOR

BY REBECCA HARDING DAVIS

During last winter there was an earnest movement among all the Protestant denominations in Philadelphia to unite in a great Evangelical work. The churches were open for daily service, and the public was urged, entreated, almost driven, into them. Committees were appointed in each church to visit from door to door, and to bring the subject of salvation before the inmates of each house. The undertaking was thoroughly systematized, so that there might not be a dwelling, a garret, or a prison cell, in the city in which the summons to the cross was not heard.

Theoretically every Christian joined in the work, but practically their manner of working was alarmingly different. A great many scents arise from a garden, and we are too apt to forget that the perfume of the jimson weed[1] is as well meant and natural on the part of that plant as that of the rose.

When, for example, some of the committees from different denominations met in the basement of St. Joseph’s they eyed each other askance. The Misses Pyne, delicate, fastidious-looking women of forty, dressed in mourning, with snowy ruching at neck and throat, carrying their prayer books and hymnals in gold-clasped cases, looked about them with gentle dismay.

“That is the wife of our grocer, Anna,” said the elder. “She is a Methodist class leader; and that stout woman is a Baptist, and a Daughter of Rebecca.[2] St. Joseph’s is low enough, but surely it should not bring such allies as these to the Church!”

Miss Anna laughed.

“Banks, the butcher, told me yesterday that he and his wife were Second Adventists.[3] I suppose they will be here presently. Really, Mr. Quantrell,” as the rector came up, “I am afraid we cannot help you here. The Church was her own appointed methods of fighting Satan, sanctified by ages of use. We cannot see the propriety of this guerrilla warfare.”

And with most courteous bows and smiles on every side, the Misses Pyne retired.

Mrs. Loper sniffed with scorn as the door closed behind them.

“There is no vital religion in that church,” she whispered to her neighbor. “I fail to see why the Episcopalians were asked to join at all in this work.”

“Why, the rector of St. Luke’s is one of the leaders of the movement.” Mrs. Loper gave a clucking note of contempt and doubt.

“We’ll see! At any rate, we ought to set them an example of zeal.”

She drew herself up and marched over to the group of clergymen in the corner. She was a stout, swarthy woman, with an aquiline nose and a well-defined mustache. Her dress, black and glittering with beads, suggested a close suit of armor, an idea which the stiff pompons in her hat emphasized. There was a cowardly tremor among the ministers as she bore down upon them. Her own pastor, Dr. Haight, was left to face her.

“I think you can safely leave this work in the hands of the ladies, doctor,” she said in her most magisterial tone. “We can approach the lower classes with more propriety than men. They expect to find virtue and piety in a woman. Leave it to the ladies. I shall myself undertake to visit ninety-eight families.”

“I am very glad”—began the doctor.

But his middle treble was quenched in her heavy bass. She was used to presiding at women’s meetings, and was quite ready to give the strange clergymen a taste of her quality as a public speaker.

“I do not propose to confine my labors to the dangerous classes. There is an alarming spiritual coldness in our very best families. Prayer meetings are poorly attended, and the contributions to missions fall far below those of last year. I shall gladly sound the alarm from house to house to call them to their duty.”

“I am sure, Mrs. Loper”—

“One moment, doctor,” raising her hand. “Just at this point I have a suggestion to offer to these good gentlemen here.”

She seated herself, the steel fringe clashing. We shall not follow her farther. She kept the floor until the time for conference was over.

“Never mind, Haight,” whispered the little Methodist minister to his jaded confrère.[4] “We all have a Mrs. Loper in our flocks.”

The next morning was stormy, but Mrs. Loper, undaunted, girded herself in waterproof and galoches, and set forth as one who goes down into the battle. She felt that she was about to fight Satan and worst him. She had been taught from her cradle to assent to a certain form of dogma and of church government. She did it without thought or feeling, as a matter of course, just as she wore shoes, or kept her visiting list within a fashionable class. It was the respectable thing to do in the set in which she was born. It was proper, too, to be in your pew every Sunday, and to pay your subscriptions to church works. Mrs. Loper was satisfied that she understood religion in its deepest and highest sense, and was the fittest missionary to the dangerous classes. As she turned into Nadain Street and looked at the miserable tenement houses on either side, her broad bosom swelled with a fervent gratitude to herself that she had kept her path so clean. She had been a poor visiting governess, but she had managed to marry a rich widower and to secure his property for herself and her children. She smiled as she remembered how cleverly she had rid the house of that ne’er-do-well boy of his by his first wife. Those Clennams were a poor, ungenteel set! Thank heaven, her children had never been allowed to know any but the best society! She heard a voice within her. “Well done, good and faithful!”[5] it said. She heard that voice perpetually, but had never recognized it as her own.

In this glow of self-approbation, she knocked at the first door. It was a little house. Mrs. Loper quite filled the neat, tiny parlor with her heavy step, and the steam from her wet clothes, and her drill-sergeant voice.

“Good morning, ma’am,” she began as a scared little white-faced woman appeared, a baby in her arms.

“Pardon me, your name, now?”

“Meen. Mrs. Samuel Meen.”

“Well, Mrs. Meen,” affably, “I called to talk to you about some serious matters.”

“Is it Peter, ma’am?” the woman cried starting up. “You’ve heard some bad news about Peter. Tell me! Tell me the worst at once!”

“Good gracious! Who’s Peter? I never heard of him.”

“Oh-h.” She sank down with a shiver of relief. “You must excuse me,” giving a nervous laugh,” but Peter’s my big son. He’s gone to Idaho, to the mines. I think of him all the time, expectin’ a letter. I haven’t heard for six months, an’ I’ve lost all holt on him, except”—

“Except what? If you do not keep up a correspondence with your boy, how can you have any hold on him? You should not have let him go, especially if his habits are bad.”

“Habits? Peter’s!” The mother’s pale cheeks burned angrily. “There never was a better boy left Philadelphia! He never swore nor drank, and he said his prayers reg’lar every night, just as when he was little. ‘Mother,” says he, ‘the good Man can hear me in Idaho as well as here.’ That’s all the hold I have on him. That’s enough.”

“Well, I am sure I hope you mayn’t be disappointed. I’m glad, too, to see you have vague ideas of religion. Here is a card with the times and places of services to be held in different churches. Is your husband a pew-holder?”

“Not unless his bed is a pew. He has held to that for four years, poor Sammy!” she answered with a feeble laugh.

“In bed for four years? And how many children have you?”

“Six. All living, thank God. Jacob is a cripple, but the others are all hearty, and able for a good meal.”

“How do you buy their meals?” demanded Mrs. Loper, with authority, for it was her habit to take the affairs of all her neighbors into her own hands.

“Jane and I take in sewing, and Bob is in the Baldwin Works.[6] And my husband makes brushes though he is bed-ridden. Oh, we get on nicely,” said the little woman, holding her head very erect.

“Well, Mrs. Meen, God has sent you much misery. You know best why you have needed this discipline. Whatever may have been your sins and shortcomings, repent, and amend your ways. Come to church, and contribute to the work of the Lord.”

Mrs. Meen stared at her, shifting the baby to the other arm in her bewilderment.

“We’re not miserable, ma’am. Sammys quite cheerful though he’s abed. We all pull together, and keep busy. Baby’s a great comfort. Sammy’s a minister’s son. He reads out of the Book to the children every day. When I get time, I go to church—Methodist or ‘Piscopal or Presbyterian, it don’t matter which, so’s I hear of the good Man. That helps one along through the week. What with the savin’ and workin’ an nursin’ Sammy, I’m kept pretty busy. But, as Peter said, ‘He’ll help you in one place as well as another.’”

Mrs. Loper did not answer promptly. She herself had no acquaintance with this good Man who was as near you in a mine in Idaho or in the kitchen, as in the church.

“Well, my good woman,” she said rising, “there is the card, and I would recommend you to attend the services. You have some very lax ideas of religion, rather heterodox,[7] I should say, of which you had better rid yourself.”

She retreated hurriedly. She was afraid Mrs. Meen might ask for pecuniary assistance,[8] and all Mrs. Loper’s charities were conducted through the Organization for Repressing Mendicancy.[9]

The house she entered was a tenement filled with Irish.

“We’ve our own church,” said one old woman with extreme politeness.

“It’s very good in you, mem, to come savin’ our sowls. If you’ll keep on to the garret, you’ll find a man just out of prison that’s a Protestant, I’m thinkin’, for he’ll not last the night out, an’ he won’t see the praste.”

Mrs. Loper toiled up three flights of the stairs hearing fresh details of the dying man from all the eager inmates. He had been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.

“For murdher it was, but the lawyers called it manslaughter.” He had been discharged but a week ago, and was now dying of consumption. The half-starved creatures who filled the house had a fed and cared for him.

Mrs. Loper’s complacency and courage returned. An ignorant, dying murderer on one side and an intelligent Christian lady on the other; what doubt could there be of the result?

A half-grown girl in a filthy gown followed her up to the door of the garret. “You’ll get him to see Father Reilly, ma’am? The docthor said he’ll not last till the mornin’, an’ the oaths of him ‘ud make you sick.”

“I’ll attend to it.” Mrs. Loper waved her aside.

“I was goin’ for Mrs. Meen,” persisted Katey. She’s a good woman”—

Mrs. Loper went in and shut the door, and Katey, her eyes full of pity and horror as the moans from within reached her, sat down on the stairway.

The garret was dark and bare but for a decent bed which the poor souls down stairs had supplied. Mrs. Loper dimly saw on it in the figure of a man in red flannel, gaunt as a skeleton, propped up, struggling for breath. He cried out once, cursing, between the racking coughs.

“Stop!” she said authoritatively. “You are near death; do not be profane.”

“Death? death?” he muttered, “no such luck.”

She had a woman’s nerves after all. As she stood beside him, death was so close it seemed to touch herself. The man’s hands were like claws, the life blood oozed from his mouth, his whole body panted with each breath. In an hour, in a moment, he might be before God. A murderer, with obscene oaths yet on his lips. She was frightened; she began to cry. She ought to teach him something, to make him ready to go—but what? What?

“You ought to—to think of God,” she said.

Her voice startled him. He turned and looked at her steadily.

She shrieked aloud: “George! George Clennam!”

He said nothing, but lay looking at her. The shock had given him strength. He groped for the towel and wiped his mouth.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I’m George. And you are the woman I was taught to call mother.”

“You’ve come to this! Murder? You were always a bad boy.”

A queer smile came over the pinched gray face.

“I was a bad boy. But you were a Christian and my mother. You drove me from my father’s house to find friends among gamblers and thieves. You robbed me. And now you come to talk to me of God!”

He fell back coughing, strangling for breath, but when she would have touched him he thrust her back. The Irish women from below crowded in at the sound, and lifted him in their arms. Mrs. Loper stood silent and stunned awhile; then she crept out.

“Go for Mrs. Meen,” she said to Katey. “She is a good woman. She can help him.”

Mrs. Loper made no more visits. There was something, she dully felt, which these human souls needed that she had never learned. There was a mother’s meeting that night, but she did not lead in it as usual. She sat silent in a back seat, scarcely hearing what was said. But there were tears on her cheeks, the first in many years, and like the publican, she cried in her hear: “God be merciful to me a sinner!”

[1] Datura stramonium, also known as “devil’s snare” is a plant in the nightshade family. It is a hallucinogen and can be severely toxic.

[2]Branch of the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, a fraternity and non-secretarian group promoting charity, the Rebekahs being named as a reference to Genesis and the female side of the group.

[3] Branch of protestant Christianity that believes that the second coming of Christ is imminent.

[4] French for a fellow member of a profession; a colleague.

[5] See Matthew 25:21.

[6] American railroad locomotive manufacturer from 1825-1956.

[7] Not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.

[8] Financial assistance

[9] Probably in reference to or based on an organization called the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charitable Relief and Reducing Mendicancy, mendicancy meaning begging or solicitation by poor and homeless persons.

Creator

Laney Jolley Smith

Date

Updated June 16, 2020

Contributor

Alicia Mischa Renfroe

Collection

Citation

Laney Jolley Smith, “"From Door to Door." Congregationalist, 13 Oct. 1877, p. 2.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed October 1, 2020, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/215.

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