"Polly's Religion." The Congregationalist, 29 May 1884.

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"Polly's Religion." The Congregationalist, 29 May 1884.




Polly’s Religion

By Rebecca Harding Davis 

There can be little doubt that if the people of Ball’s Ferry had been asked to decide which was the most pious family in their midst, they would unanimously have named the Demmings. They had long ago been the nucleus about which the Presbyterian church had gathered. Now, Squire Demming’s pew faced that of the pastor and no matter how stormy the weather there was his venerable white head in its place, and Mother Demming’s placid old face beside it. Grace and Isabella, the unmarried sisters, and Joe, filled the pew. Young Mr. Floyd (who was radical in his views), or any visiting clergymen, might preach what they chose, the Demmings listened with the same calm devout pleasure. It never occurred to them to dispute any opinion promulgated by a minister of their church. It was “all good” like the Bible. There was no room for choice in either. The squire would be just as likely to read a chapter in Numbers to a penitent sinner as one in St. John. The effect on his own mind was very much the same. Both had the soothing effect of a repeated charm which set him safely apart from other men. You would always find on the Demmings’ center-table all the papers and magazines published by the denomination. Their house was the headquarters for clergymen and colporteur.[1] The girls could tell you at a moment’s notice where such or such minister was now, how long Dr. D. of St. Louis had stayed in Europe and how much money had been given to Mr. J by his flock in Chicago to visit the Holy Land. They were exceedingly fond, too, of religious poems, and could repeat whole pages of Henry Kirk White and Miss Havergal.[2] They took an eager interest in all foreign missionary work; the story of these heroic men in African jungles or Indian bungalows had all the dramatic power of a novel for them. Grace declared she had a positive affection for that lovely Miss W., who was at work on Ceylon, and considered young Mrs. S., who was in Hong Kong, one of the apostolic[3] type of Christians, although she had never seen either of them. Isabella took more interest in the ascetic[4] doctrines coming into notice. She professed a delight in symbolism, filled her room with religious emblems and pictures, wore black on Good Friday and lilies on Easter, and fasted as rigorously as any Episcopalian. Every week she noted down in her diary the changes in her spiritual condition. The whole family were fluent in the use of theological terms and talked garrulously of the doctrines of their denomination: indeed, works of controversy on this subject filled their book shelves.

This familiarity with the outer garments of religion made them appear devout in the eyes of others, and in their own. They were a well-to-do family, and hence had felt none of the temptations of poverty. They were naturally gentle, unpretending, amiable folk, and hence were not likely to yield to the temptations of wealth. Their pleasant, mild harmlessness, which was in fact due to temperament, was set down by their friends as the effect of piety.

Life to the Demmings was like a long summer day until Joe brought his wife home. None of the family had ever seen her. They knew she was one of the Anstruthers of Kentucky.

“There are Anstruthers in the United Presbyterian Church,” said Grace. “I hope Mary belongs to our membership.”

“Oh, yes, certainly,” said Joe, eagerly. He was just starting to be married and he was very anxious that they all should love Polly in advance.

“Does she sing in the choir?” asked Isabella.

“I think not. But she has one of the sweetest voices—a low contralto. And you ought to hear her laugh, Belle! The merriest ring—oh, she’ll bring new life into this house!”

The girls smiled. They were fond of Joe and ready to welcome his wife.

“But I hope she is ready to take a leading place in the church,” said Grace, after he had gone.

“Joe will some day fill father’s place, and his description of her does not give me the idea of an energetically religious woman.”

“Well, hope for the best,” said Isabella. She was very busy making an imitation stained glass window for the Sunday school room, and was anxious to finish it before Mary arrived.

“Uncle Ben must be kept in his own room when she comes, and Tom can be sent to the country for a month’s visit,” Grace said, her delicate check flushing painfully.

For there will be two skeletons in the Demming household. The squire’s brother Ben, who was a paralytic old soldier and a most cross-grained, profane old fellow, occupied one wing of the mansion. He had a man to nurse and read to him for his oaths were intolerable to his nieces. Tom was their brother, younger than Joe. Tom Demming had disappeared for three years after he left college, and came back a haggard, dissipated loafer. Nobody in Ball’s Ferry knew what he had done in that gap of time, but it was certain that the was under the ban—a marked man. The family treated him with gloomy patience? They had taken up their cross and bore it;[5] but it was heavy, and he knew that they found it heavy. Tom was never seen by visitors at the table or in the parlor. At dusk he would skulk out to join some of his comrades at the village grog shops and occasionally, but not often, was brought home brutally intoxicated. 

Joe’s wife disappointed them all. She was a plum, merry little girl, nothing more. “A very pleasant little heathen!” sighed Grace, after two days had passed. “I named some of the best books of religious fiction, but she never had heard of them and she did not know of a single one of our foreign missions.”

Good Mrs. Demming was uneasy at this and that evening turned the conversation on doctrinal subjects. Polly grew red.

“I am afraid,” she said, “I am not clear in my ideas concerning those difficult points. The truth is, after mother’s death I had the charge of my four brothers, and I had so little time”— 

“You will have more time now,” said Isabella. “I will mark out a course of doctrinal reading for you.” 

But Mary made slow progress with the course of reading. As time passed and she settled down into her place in the household, she proved to be a very busy little woman. She had a positive talent for finding work; took her share of the family mending, tossed up dainty little desserts, helped Joe, with his accounts. When Joe had gone to his office she took tremendous walks, advised Mother Demming about her fancy work, or copied the squire’s papers for him. 

“What a clerkly hand you write!” said Grace, one day. “I often wish mine were not so delicate, when father worries over those papers. But as for mother’s embroidery, women of her age ought to give up that useless work when their eyes are falling.” 

“It does not seem useless to me,” said Polly, gently. “She thinks you all value it.”

“Where can Mary go on those interminable walks?” said Isabella, one morning to her father.

“You should warn her about Black Lane. She might wander into it, and bring home typhoid fever.”

“You ought to report that lane as a nuisance, father,” said his wife. “It is a perfect sink of filth and of vice.”

“It is a disgrace to Ball’s Ferry that such wretches can find harbor in it!” added Isabella. “They ought to be driven beyond the borough limits!”

“Well, well, my dear! It doesn’t do to be energetic,” said the squire. “They are poor creatures—runaway slaves before the War. They never had a chance.”

He was roused, however, to mention Black Lane at a meeting of the town burgesses. That day.

“Something ought to be done, or we will have typhus among us,” he said.

“Something has been done,” said Judge Pause. “I came through the lane this morning, and hardly knew it. There has been a general draining and cleaning, the dung hills are gone, the cabins are white washed, the women—some of them—had actually washed their faces.”

“What has happened?” asked the squire.

“I heard the sound of children’s voices singing in one of the cabins, and the men told me it was ‘Miss Mary’s class.’ Some good woman has been at work, I suspect.”

“Miss Mary?”—The squire’s face grew red, his eyes flashed, but he said nothing more.

Going home, he met Polly coming to meet him. He looked at her with the eye of a judge. “Are you the good Samaritan?[6] Have you been in Black Lane, my dear?”

She blushed, laughed, and stammered, “Oh, that was the most natural thing in the world, father. You know I was brought up among colored people. I know how to manage them. It was only a ditch dug here and there, a few panes of glass and bushels of lime. They are good, affectionate creatures, and so anxious to learn.” 

The matter was driven out of the squire’s mind before he reached the house, for he saw Tom skulking round the stable door. He had returned that day, and a dull weight of misery fell at the sight on his father’s heart. Tom did not enter the house until late in the evening, when the family were gathered about the lamp. He came into the room with a swagger, unshaven, his boots reeking of the stable. “On purpose to mortify us,” thought Grace, bitterly.

“I came in to see Joe’s fine lady wife,” he said, in a loud voice. “Unless he’s ashamed to introduce his scapegrace brother.”[7]

“Mary is not here,” said Mother Demming. “Where is she, Grace?”

“In Uncle Ben’s room. She reads the New York papers to him every day now. They play backgammon together, and they have one of those silly books of Artemus Ward’s.[8] I heard him laughing and swearing harder than ever, so he must be pleased. I wonder she can stand it.”

“It is hard to understand her,” said Isabella, dryly. “Mary is not as careful as to her associations as we should be.”

Tom had been listening eagerly. “Enough said,” he broke out, with a thump of his fist on the table. “If Joe’s wife can take thought of that lonely old man up there, there’s better stuff in her than I expected. I’ll go up and make her acquaintance.”

For several days afterwards Tom’s voice was heard joining in the jokes and laughter that came out of Uncle Ben’s room.

"Mary seems to have enchanted them both,” said Grace. “Tom is clean and shaven today, and looks like a human being.”

“Perhaps she treats him like a human being,” said Joe. 

But even he was startled when Mary came down that evening dressed for a walk, and, nodding brightly to Tom, asked him to go with her. “Finish your book, Joe. Brother Tom will be my escort.” 

Tom followed her slouching to the gate. He stopped there. Shame, defiance, misery looked out of his eyes. “See here, Mrs. Demming! I reckon you don’t know who I am, or you wouldn’t have asked me to go with you.”

Polly’s tender, steady eyes met his. “Yes, I know.”

“D’ye know I’m a thief? I was in jail in Pittsburg for a year.”

Polly drew her breath hard. A prayer to God for help, help went up from her heart in that second of time. She held out both her hands. “Yes, Joe told me. But that is all over now—all over. You have begun new again, Brother Tom. Come!”

She put her hand in his arms as they walked down the street. He did not speak to her until they came back. Then he stopped her again at the gate. “My sisters never have been seen with me in public since I came back. I’ll never forget this to you, Mary, never!”

A month later the squire said to his wife, “Did you know Mary was going over his mathematics with Tom? Regularly coaching him. That little girl has the clearest head for figures I ever knew. But what can be her object?”

Mrs. Demming cleared her voice before she could speak. “She has applied to some friends of hers in Kentucky to give Tom a situation. Father, I think there may be a chance for a boy. He wants to begin his life all over again among strangers.”

“God help him,” muttered the squire. He surprised Polly when he met her the next time by taking her in his arms, and kissing her with the tears in his eyes.

In the spring Tom went to Kentucky and began his new life. He has not broken down in it yet.

It was in the spring, too, that Uncle Ben began to fail. The old man was so fond of Polly that she gave up most of her time to him; so much of it, indeed, that Joe complained.

“Don’t say a word, dear,” she said, “he has such a little while to stay. Let me know what I can.”

“I say, Polly. Was that the Bible you were reading to him today?”

“Yes. He asks for it often.” 

Joe began to whistle and choked it down into a sign. Uncle Ben had been such a godless reprobate in his youth that it never had occurred to any of the Demmings that there was a way to reach his soul. He lived until late in the summer. The Sunday before his death he sent for Mr. Floyd and talked to him for a long time.

When the young minister came out of the dying man’s room he was pale. He had been much moved.

“I will give him the sacrament[9] tomorrow,” he said to Squire Demming.

“You think he is worth of it?”

“If sincere repentance and trust in Christ can make any of us worthy, he is. He asked that ‘little Polly’ should take it with him. ‘She has done this for me,’ he said. ‘It’s her work.’”

The girls overheard the conversation. They sat gravely silent after the minister was gone.

“I do not understand Polly,” said Grace, at last. “She never seemed to me to be a religious person.” 

“Perhaps,” said the squire, “we have not clearly understood what religion is. We took too much for granted. If we would waken up and look into the truth of the matter”—

[1]Someone who distributes Bibles and other religious tracts.

[2] Henry Kirke White (1785-1806) is an English poet who died at 21. Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879 is an English religious poet and hymnwriter. Her hymns include “Take My Life and Let it Be” and “I Gave My Life for Thee.”

[3] Usually refers to a type of missionary sent by commission from the Pope.

[4] Religious practice involving severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence

[5] See Matthew 16:24-26. The phrase “taking up your cross” usually means making some sort of sacrifice.

[6] See Luke 10: 25-37. A “good Samaritan” usually refers to a charitable or helpful person.

[7] Scapegrace usually refers to a mischievous or wayward person, especially a young person or child.

[8] Artemus Ward is the pen name for Charles Farrar Browne (1834-1867), 19th century humorist.

[9] In a Protestant context, sacrament usually refers to consecrated elements of the Eucharist, such as the bread as the body of Christ, and to baptism.


Laney Jolley Smith


Updated May 13, 2020


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Laney Jolley Smith, “"Polly's Religion." The Congregationalist, 29 May 1884.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/212.

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