"Heavenly Call." The Congregationalist, 5 May 1887.

Dublin Core


"Heavenly Call." The Congregationalist, 5 May 1887.


ministry; professions




The McCall farm lies at the head of Ninegemoose Creek, in one of the hill counties of Pennsylvania. Old Stenifer McCall, a sturdy blacksmith, headed a party of Scotch emigrants who found their way into the wilderness in 1772.

Stenifer, unfortunately, knew more about his forge than farming. He chose a tract of land poorer in quality than any other in Ningemoose valley. It remains in his family until this day. It is useless to ask how much of the life—the strength, bodily and mental—of the long line of McCalls has gone down into the rocky hills and thin fields from which they wrenched their support, which might have been spent in the nobler work, if the blacksmith had only tomahawked his claim in the fat river bottoms. Most of us have some such inherited difficulty to fight, which, if we do not conquer, conquers us. The McCalls were helped by fighting their hereditary enemy so far that they became the most thrifty, hard-working, sober family on the Ninegemoose. No drunkard or sluggard could make a living out of those clayey meadows. But their brains and souls were narrowed down to this fight. There is where it worsted them. The great problem to every McCall was how to make a living, not how to live, which is quite a different question. Very different men, too, are made by the slow answering of these questions, day after day and year after year.

The family of Abraham McCall, who owned the farm in 1840, were fair specimens of the stock; Abraham was a round-shouldered, red-haired man, with the eyes and jowl of a mastiff. His wife, tall, lean and yellow, looked oddly like a hungry greyhound beside him. As each of their children came into the world, they had but one idea about him—how they were to find enough potatoes, bacon and jeans to feed and clothe him, and how they could push on to some standing place where he could earn a larger supply of potatoes and jeans for his children. Ezra, the eldest son, according to the old Scotch custom, would inherit the homestead farm; Joseph and Isaac, having served out their time with their father, hired out as farm laborers, to earn money to take them to Texas; the two daughters, having failed to marry at the usual age, were considered to be no longer entitled to their board at home, and made their living as tailoresses. There was assuredly no room for sentiment or emotion in the bare McCall household. Even the relations between father and daughter, so apt to be beautiful and tender, were here based on dollars and cents. There was one ambition, however, common to Ninegemoose farmers, which the McCalls shared. It was a poor family which could not boast of one professional man. The professional man in the [illegible] of these people, is the gentlemen; all others are of lower caste. “Joshua,” often said old Abraham to his neighbors in their Sunday gossips in the churchyard, “Joshua is the boy I design fur a purfession. He takes to his books, ‘n’ he’s got the gift of gab.” Joshua, therefore, was sent to school in winter, and by dint of teaching, harvesting, etc., paid his way through a little country college. Then came the momentous question, Which profession should he enter?

“Ef you take to physic, Josh,” said his father, “you could get in a year at Dr. Wall’s by mindin’ his office ‘n’ horse. But thar’s the lecters afterwards, ‘n’ the waitin’ fur patients. Same objection to the law. Onless you go in politics. “N’ I reckon our county offices is fixed fur some elections to come.”

“I’ve been thinkin’ of the ministry, father.”

“Ef you’d made up your mind to that four year ago,” said Abraham, sharply, “you might hev hed your edication gratis. Ther’s a fund in the church fur bringin’ up deservin’ youth fur the service of the Lord.”

“But I didn’t make up my mind,” replied Joshua, curtly.

He had only “joined church” last week. Most of the respectable young fellows in the neighborhood were members. Josh had no taste for rum, like Ezra, nor for cards, like Isaac; but he held back because he did not want to give up the dancing at the apple butter parings, which was also “carnality.” He had, however, brought himself to do it.

“I could do my duty as a preacher as well as the next man,” he said now, complacently.

“O Joshua! To think of a son of mine in the pulpit at Ningemoose!” cried his mother, her hands trembling as she began to “spaddle”[1] the butter which she had just churned.

There was a little emotion or feeling of any sort in the religion of the McCalls. Joshua’s mother was no Monica[2] to rejoice that her son was saved from sin, and brought near to the Lord. But the preacher in those days was the head of all business and social life in Ningemoose. His robe of authority was the more imposing in the eyes of such people as the McCalls, because he dealt in serious matters, which they viewed afar off, only on Sunday mornings, or when on their deathbeds.

“Josh is fixed for life ef he goes to preachin’,” old Abraham said to his wife. “The church’ll edicate him; he’s sure of a place ‘n’ salary as soon as he’s licensed. Wherever he goes, a preacher’s sure of his livin’, ‘n’ is respectable. No settin’ waitin’ for work, coolin’ his heels, like a doctor or lawyer.”

How far these motives influenced Joshua, even he did not know. He always said that he had a heavenly call to preach, and probably believed it. For thirty years he filled the pulpit at Ningemoose. His flock were proud of his logical sermons, his hard sense his success in managing the financial affairs of the church. He was a shrewd bargainer, and had laid by a snug sum by the time he was fifty. He had a clear sense of what was due to his position from himself, and was a more honest, unselfish, grave man than he would have been as a lawyer or farmer. It is true that no mother ever cared to ask his prayers for her child, and no dying man turned to him for help. His religion was flinty as the rocky fields of his forefathers.

People hinted that this was the reason why his boy Jack turned out such a scapegrace. He took to drink, to gambling, plunged into every depth of vice, and at last ran away from home. Jack was a hot-blooded, affectionate lad, his father’s favorite of all his children. But his name was never spoken now in the house. When, years later, letters came from him, they were burned unread. But the boy repented, was, in the old meaning of the phrase, converted, and became a minister, preaching directly to drunkards, prostitutes, and others still in the pit from which he had escaped.

Now comes the singular part of the story. Joshua McCall, when an old man, was in Philadelphia, and by chance went one Sunday to Moyamensing Prison,[3] where his son was preaching to the convicts. There was no display of logic or literary merit in the sermon. It was an appeal to dying men, from a man who had been near death. “This way! To the cross! The cross!” he cried. “Here is life!” He did not preach because it was expedient for him to be salaried minister. He preached because God sent him. He, too, had been tempted, and had fallen; his heart was full of love and pity; there was help in his hands.

The old gray-haired man in the gallery was shaken with sobs. It seemed to him that he was the only sinner there. It was he whose sole was the stony ground that had brought forth no fruit. He went out alone and unrecognized. A few days afterwards he sent for his son.

“It is you, my boy, who have heard the heavenly call,” he said. “I am an old man of seventy, but, for the first time in my life, I am now a Christian.”

[1] Obsolete word for a little spade. It could also mean a butter paddle which is used to shape and press homemade butter.

[2] The mother of St. Augustine said to have prayed for decades for her son to convert to Christianity.

[3] Actual prison in Philadelphia, PA. Opened in 1835 and closed in 1963


Laney Jolley Smith


Updated May 27, 2020


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Laney Jolley Smith, “"Heavenly Call." The Congregationalist, 5 May 1887.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/214.

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