Monday, 30 April 2012

A religious childhood - then and now

My anscestor Samuel A. Cravath – writing about his early childhood in Oberlin Ohio in the 1840s:

There was still considerable wild game in the woods, such as squirrel and turkeys, partridges, quail and some deer, which helped out the family larder materially, but food and dress were frugal and plain in the whole Oberlin colony as part of its religion and covenant.

One of the articles of the Covenant read: “That we may have time and health for the Lord's service, we will eat only plain and wholesome food, renouncing all bad habits, and especially the smoking and chewing of tobacco, and deny ourselves all strong and unnecesarry drinks, even tea and coffee, as far as practicable, and everything expensive, that is simply calculated to gratify the palate.” - “We will also renounce all the World's expensive and unwholesome fashions of dress, particularly tight dressing and ornamental attire.”

This plainness and frugality of living soon became a bone of contention in the colony and of fervent prayer even in the meetings. All a man's property except for this frugal fare was supposed to be dedicated to the Lord and many a colonist began to feel that perhaps his neighbour was using a part of what belonged to the lord upon himself and his family. The general poverty, however, made plain living easy.

Economies were practised to raise money for missionary purposes, that came very near privations. Think of a parent hiring his child to go without butter on his bread for a whole week, and week after week, in order to give five cents for the missionary box on Sundays. And the bread was quite often corn bread. Yet this was not an uncommon method of 'earning' money for missionary purposes, tho' I confess it never was a favourite with me in my early childhood.

I was taught that there was speical merit in such methods of raising money for it was genuine altruism – the denial of selfish appetites for the good of others. I could deny myself one or two meals a day on one or two days, but when there was no meat, nor gravey, nor milk, and I had to dine on dry bread and potato, my love for the heathen was overome by love of butter, and the heathen had to go without the five cents unless I could find some other way of earning it.

Oberlin was founded as a manual labour college and colony. It was expected that every teacher and student would perform about four hours of manual labor each day and that this would be sufficient to feed and clothe him and pay for his expenses in college. The education was thoroughly Christian. It was not long before it had assembled a community in which questions – moral, religious, social, political, dietary and phrenological were discussed with eagerness and enthusiasm. Every crank in the country seemed to bring his grist to Oberlin where it was ground and sifted for him with thoroughness and dispatch not always satisfactory to hime. But there are always some in every community who are caught by such things and Oberlin in its earlier years became a hotbed of 'isms.'

Some thought it wrong to eat meat. Some thought themselves perfect, but it was observed that few thought their neighbours so. Some thought it wrong to laugh and joke or attend places of amusement. I recall an old man who used to make long prayers and speeches about the sinfulness of children playing. His arguement was simple: “Waste is sinful. Play is a waste of time, hence sinful.” My elders used to tell a story over me apropos of one of the prayer-meeting speeches. I had fallen fast asleep, while the speaker was droning along about the sinfulness of play. Suddenly I spoke out saying: “I'll play anyway Mary, Here's the sled.” I do not remember making the speech, but I do remember a vigorous punch in the side and a vigorous shaking, until I was awake.

As I look back upon those years (1841 to 1848) they seem to me to have been years of tremendous religious stress. Religion was the real, serious, business of the whole community, while ordinary employments occupied subordinate places. Planting and harvest could wait, but the Lord's work and worship could not. I do not say this was the actual fact, but it is the impress that was made upon my mind in childhood. Sabbath could could hardly be called a day of rest from a child's point of view. Immediately after breakfast came morning prayers - “prayers” I say because it was expected that not the parents only, but other members of the family should follow with a brief petition. The reading of the Bible was also participated in by every member of the family down to the smallest child who could read. Then came the Sabbath school lesson which must be “learned by heart,” then the Sabbath School in town, a mile and a half away from 9 o'clock in the morning until the time of the forenoon service; there a sermon two or more hours long; then a noon prayer-meeting for those who did not go home for dinner; then the afternoon service corresponding in length to the forenoon; than and afternoon or evening prayer-meeting in the school house near home and evening prayers. There were also numerous midweek meetings. Religion was the “strenous life” and “woe unto those who are at ease in Zion.”

What do I make of what my ancestor wrote about his own childhood?

It is now over a century and a half later – and I am have already spent a decade with Sheba and the family here in Thane, India. It would seem that there would be nothing in common between SA Cravath us us. But reading these words that Samuel Cravath wrote near the end of his life resonate in a number of ways.

For one, I actually went to a graduation at Oberlin College. I think it was one of my brothers' school-mates in the mid-1990s. The contrast could not have been starker. There was not a shred of religiosity to be seen. One of the graduates dressed up as a roman soldier and did not wear a shirt. The college president at the time was roundly disliked by the students - and a goodly number of the graduates took small stones along with them as they got on the stage. Each one of them, then gave their stone to the college president as he shook their hands and gave them their diplomas – leading him it seems to have to fill his pockets with their stones.

I remember the high-light of the college president's speech was a plea for greater mutual understanding. As his centrepiece he talked about a Chinese picture which some said was a bird – and others a fish. But in reality it was both. The picture frame had a corrogated middle in which the image of the fish was painted on one set of faces, while the image of the bird was painted on the faces which were at a 90 degree angle to the fish image. The soppy president then triumphantly brought out this contraption and proudly showed what a wonderful insight this had made to the task of getting along together.

The fact that this was actually two different images that had been cleverly place near each other – and hence is of no use at all to the challenges of coming to understandings about basic truth issues - seems to have escaped the keen eye of the unloved president.

But reading the other parts of Samuel's childhood resonates with us in a number of ways. For one, I have grown up in a pattern not too far different from Samuel's. We were in a commune setting (at least in some of the early days of OM) where having private property was considered wrongish – since we had left everything to serve the Lord. Most of our clothes were second-hand – so living the simple, frugal life does not ring too odd to me.

The severity of privation that Samuel remembers is of course quite foreign to me – as is what clearly is a state of religious fervor that left very few opportunities for young Samuel to follow Christ on his own accord. However, the filling up of all hours with meetings is not only familiar, but rings eerily true of our lives right now. We worship on Sunday mornings from 10 am to 1 pm in one of the homes we regularly meet in, then from 6-7 pm we have a gospel meeting. On Tuesday nights we go as a family to lead a Bible study in the home of one of our staff. On Wednesday nights a few men come over from 9.30-10.30 pm for prayer at our place. On Friday nights we have a Bible study from 9-11.30. In addition we are now preparing for the Vacation Bible School so have been holding Thursday night meetings to gear up and pray for that. Sheba has a Lady's fellowship that normally meets on one Saturday a month – I meet with fellow Elders normally once a month too. And then we have 30 mins of morning prayers at 9 am every day at JSK and often are part of a small ward prayer at 5.30 pm with those who are admitted JSK and their relatives.

So where does that place us on the religiousity scale. Obviously pretty high. Do we see echoes of the life that little Samuel Cravath faced? Yes we do.

But here is the biggest difference. It was the difference for me when as a boy I would attend church and yearn for the hymns to end – especially those which had 7 or 8 verses in them (and were sung lustily and often off-tune by the grown-ups). The difference boils down to how real Jesus is to me. In my own childhood I had believed in Him, but beyond that He was not the central to who I was – and was hardly the Lord of my life.

Coming to a quickening in my faith in High School – especially two pivotal years at Woodstock School – started a process of spiritual formation where God has increasingly become the focus of my life (and since we married 12 years ago – of our lives).

Would a casual observer see any difference between our spirituality and that which Samuel Cravath describes of his early years in Oberlin? I would hope so – but would not be surprised to be tarred with the same brush of being some kind of wacko holy-roller.

Can all of these meetings become an end in itself? Yes, it certainly can. We can become people who are just trying to do religious things – and be so 'good' at being 'busy for God' that we forget the actual worship of the Lord in the first place. Jesus Himself faced a family situation where Martha bustling away in the kitchen, preparing food for Jesus and his merry men – was angry with her sister Mary who chose to sit at Jesus' feet and listen to Him. How easy it is to be so busy that we actually miss out on enjoying our Lord.

Reading the words that were typed out 111 years ago, which speak of a boyhood time over 60 years prior – I am surprised at how much I can identify with this well-written anscestor of ours. Samuel Cravath's story rings true – my only sadness is that he seems unable to clearly state what he believes himself. Perhaps it is natural for a person who owned and edited a newspaper in the Iowa town of Grinnel (another small college town) to hold his own beliefs to his chest – while describing 'the facts' in as neutral a voice as possible.

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