Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Strange and Ungenial": Missionaries and Immigrants in 1847

Since the Fall conference season starts up next weekend with the Friends of NARA – Pittsfield’s annual “Life in the Past Lane” conference at which we’re exhibiting, this weekend has been given over to many of those routine housekeeping tasks that booksellers take on from time to time.

Incoming books get sorted, priced and catalogued; books get moved from one case to another so that topics can stay together; boxes that have been stashed in corners and closets get opened and inventoried.

In this labor-intensive process, all kinds of things come to light. 

Tonight, I’m paging through a pamphlet entitled “The Twenty First Report of the American Home Missionary Society, Presented To the Executive Committee At The Annual Meeting, May 12, 1847; With An Appendix”, printed by “William Osborn, Spruce-Street, corner of Nassau”,  in New York City in 1847.

Chances are, it’s a reference most genealogists (even seasoned professionals) have never seen or even heard of.  Frankly, I haven't seen this particular copy for ten years or more, even though it's been on the shelves ( since it's been hiding (mis-shelved) in the "bibliography" section...)

Yet, where else might we learn that Rev E. P. Noel, of Plum Grove, Ray County, Missouri was, for the past year, “…tried by severe illness in his own family.”  Or that Rev. William K. Platt, of the Presbyterian Church of Milton, NY had five conversions in his congregation during the year. Or that the wife of Rev. J. W. Smith of Benton, Windsor and Eaton Rapids, Michigan died during the year.

The report summarizes, in tabular form and in one or two lines of tiny 6-point type, the activities of 972 ministers around the country. Most of the reports are mundane, describing the state of religion and the cash contributions received.  However, every now and then, the reports contain a gem of information, unobtainable elsewhere.

For example, the Rev. William D. Williams of the Welsh Congregation in Holland Patent, NY reported that his church was “exceedingly poor” and had “…no library but the Bible.” The Rev. Addison Lyman, who divided his time between congregations in Geneseo and Sharon, Illinois, reported that he had been “…deeply afflicted by the death of Mrs. L.”  The Rev. Alfred Hawes, who pastored the Presbyterian Church in Marion, Grant County, Indiana, reported that the “…sound of the 'church-going bell' was first heard this year” in his church.

Tiny bits of historical information, but each unique in its own right.

For genealogists with a minister-ancestor, these kinds of reports may help to locate his whereabouts in a particular year.  Since the reports were published annually, their utility in documenting ministers’ migratory patterns cannot be underestimated.

Of particular interest in this report are the Society’s views on its own future and that of the United States.  In 1846 – 1847, the issue of immigration loomed large. In the “Future Enlargement” section, we find the following observation:

The destroying angel is abroad, scourging hitherward the oppressed and starving of the older nations.  Through Canada, by every Atlantic port, and up the Mississippi they are coming – Irish, Germans, French , Swedes, Norwegians – not merely to occupy our soil – to that they are welcome – but to infuse into the very lifeblood of our social existence, strange and ungenial elements.  Shall year after year pass on, and nothing more be done than we are now doing, to meet this emergency?”

I suspect that there are a large number of Irish-Americans, German-Americans, French-Americans, Swedish-Americans, and Norwegian-Americans (most of whom think of themselves simply as “Americans” today) who would find it passing strange that their ancestors a bit more than a century and a half ago were viewed by mainstream (Anglo-Saxon) Americans as an object of great fear - as an “emergency”, in fact, bringing “strange and ungenial elements” into the United States.

What was there to fear?

As the report pointed out, "Jesuitism will lay its plots and weave its toils..." and "youth [will be] seduced into the paths of frivolity and licentiousness."

The more things change…

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