The Autobiography of Charles R. Harding, 1807-1869
A Methodist Circuit-Riding Minister

E Pluribus Unum

When Charles Harding was a young boy, his aging father gave the family farm to the eldest son, leaving Harding without any prospects for the future. At a very early age, Harding set out to make his own living by working as a farm hand for another man. Incapable of living up to the kind of physically demanding work that taxed the abilities of mature, robust men, Harding awoke one morning and found himself coughing up blood and unable to get out of bed. During his convalescence, the young man met a minister who inspired in Harding a profound religious experience. Harding decided then to become a minister, but because he had no formal education (having worked at manual labor all his life) he had no hope of being accepted into a Congregationalist theological seminary. The Methodists, however, welcomed unlettered ministers at that time. Methodist ministers regarded themselves as evangelists to all the people, and usually began their careers by doing circuit-riding, moving from town to town to preach the word of God. This is how Harding began his ministerial life.

In the later years of his life, Harding sat before a notebook and wrote the story of his life. After telling his personal story, he concluded by penning several chapters describing the changes he had witnessed in America during his lifetime. Those chapters are transcribed below. Although Harding never became a celebrity in is own time and has never made it onto the pages of a history text, his unpublished autobiography offers a frank look into a period of remarkable change. Although largely pleased by the ways in which "progress" improved the quality of life in that time, even Harding himself felt compelled to ask: "How much has been hurried into these brief years, and what does it all mean? To what is the world hurrying?"

Harding's autobiography has never been published. The manuscript is part of the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, and the excerpts below are cited with the permission of the AAS.


A Lively Lyceum


We had a Lyceum for our young men, the members of our church, I was president and decided all questions. The boys as we called them, discussed one evening, this question, "Is Universalism Infidelity?" It was known through the village, what the topic for the evening was to be. We had a crowd to hear, and watch the discussion. Many Universalist, and among them their minister, were present, the disputents drove away for a while, pro and con,. they then referred the question to me for decision (sic), Perhaps I felt a little roguish. I saw my man, and arranged my thoughts, to come down on him. I took up the question, and consumed some forty minutes in giving my decision (sic), among other things I took up the sermon I heard, not telling, who was its author, or where I heard it, but made the thing as biting as I was ale. My decision was, there is no more distinction, than there is in two peas which are just alike--Mr. Balon sprung to his feet, in great confusion, "I am the man that preached the sermon," said he, I was provokingly cool, for although I intended to excite him, to the highest pitch possible, I had disciplined myself to be perfectly cool. My reply was there is where you right sir. You are the man, We met toe to toe, the crowd looking on, and for more than an hour we faced each other. All I did, or attempted to do, was to hold him to his sermon, and all he tried to do was escape, he fairly begged, I told him I would strike this truce with him, if he would keep me, and my people out of his paper, and treat me like a neighbor, I would him. On this we parted, and no man could treat any other with more politeness, than he ever after did me. Several years after, when preaching at a Camp meeting, to illustrate my subject, I referred to that sermon, somewhat in detail, and created a stir in the camp, a Universalist minister, rushed forward and demanded the name of the author, I gave it, and he wrote Baton, stating what I had said, But like a gentleman, he came out in his paper, and stated, I had given a right version of it.


[Below Harding is talking about the impossibility of getting attention for religious issues in his small congregation in Methuen during the first year of the Civil War.]


But the year wore away, as all years do, and will, while the sun rises, and sets. I do not know of a soul's being converted, and perhaps no good was done. It may be my fault, if so I hope it will not be laid to my account, in the last day, but attributed to ignorance. I had fallen upon times I knew not how to manage, I was beset with difficulties new, and strange, and so were the people.

 


Chapter XXXVII
Achievements, in the cause of Temperance, in my day

 

I will now take a brief survey of my publick life, and notice more in detail, some things which I have seen, and some of the changes that have come under my observation. First,. When I commenced my publick career, Intemperance was at a fearful height. The multitude with few exceptions, drank run. Ministers drank, churchmen drank, men drank, women drank; and children too, Every merchant sold it. It was a leading article of trade. It was the stimulant of the husbandsman, his crops could not be gotten in, or out, or off the field without it. It was as necessary for mechanical business, as water power, or tools. No marriage vowes were complete without it. and no funeral party could mourn if it were wanting, it was necessary to buy the dead, as a coffin, or a shroud. No favored parent, could rejoice over a new born babe e, without plenty to drink. No building could be raised but by rum. It was an absolute necessity at huskings, at quiltings, at bees, at dances, and at parties of all kinds, It was the sweetener of social intercourse, and always stood upon the social board. Such was publick sentiment, and who had the temerity to to oppose it? The hardihood to withstand it, No man was considered intemperate or intoxicated, if he could get home by holding on to the fence, and if not, his condition was a matter of merriment rather than regret. He who could drink the most, and the longest, was the hero, and if a man, a young man even, declined, for fear of being drunk, he was held up to publick scorn. This was an alarming state of things, beggary, pauperism, waste, dilapidation, misery, and wretchedness were on every hand. Whole neighborhoods, with few exceptions, were give up to this fell demon. You could tell a new rum region in passing through it, chimneys as though ashamed to show their heads, had drawn them in.. Fences down, gates demolished, barn doors had given place to a few broken b bars, and windows looked as though all the beggars in christendom had met and left their rags. Many saw the picture, and trembled, but how to stop the flood, was the question, entire abstinence was not to be thought of, and how to put checks upon it, pusled the wisest heads, Ministers were becoming drunkards, church members, deacons, leaders, and stewards even, were becoming drunkards. lawyers and statesmen, and finally the rich as well as the poor, the high as well as the low, were becoming drunkards. What shall be done , was the anxious enquiry. Efforts were put forth to throw restraints around the evil, and moderation was urged, a few societies were formed pledging their members not to get drunk, total abstinence, none thought of. A convention of Ministers was called, somewhere in Conn., to devise some remedy, and after the mornings deliberations, they retired to the house of the resident Clergyman, for dinner--their host bringing on his decanters,says "we have worked hard, now let us take a drink." But it was soon found that pledges to moderation, and all restraints imposed, as long as it was used at all, were like ropes of sand. This picture though startling, has not been overdrawn, it was a time of great darkness--so great was it that many professedly pious christians, urged its use "It helped them to enjoy their minds so much better," At this stage of things, a standard was lifted up, Dr. Beecher, Dr. Fisk, and a few others had solved the question, and an important one it was; the remedy was simple, "Stop drinking, abstain entirely." They sent out their appeals. They speak in eloquence that burns, in logick that withers. The clergy first in every good work, are the first to move in this, now the wind begins to blow from a healthy quarter. Some ministers to be sure were dismissed and others greatly troubled for preaching, "Temperance." I think it was in the town of Hadley, the aged and venerable clergymen opened his battery on this evil, but was soon waited upon by a committee, assuring him if he did not cease speaking upon this subject, they should be obliged to dismiss him, his quiet, but heroick reply was "Well dismiss me if you will, I will go away and tell the world, old Hadley has got drunk, and spewed up its minister."

 


Chapter XXXIX
Commercial and Agricultural Changes

 

Thirdly. I have witnessed great changes in the way of trade and transportation, producing a complete revolution in the Agricultural, and Commercial world. When I entered into active life, there was not a rod of railroad in all the land. All travel, was either on foot, by private teams, or by the plodding stage coach. All transportation, excepting what was done on the streams by rafts, flat bottom boats, and other craft, was by teams. In most of the county towns, there were from one to three merchants, according to the amount of trade. They usually went to market only twice in the year,--in the spring, and in the fall, they would be gone from six to fifteen days, according to distance and amount of trade. Many farmers living from twenty five, to one hundred and fifty miles from the city, would go themselves once in the year. They usually went in the winter, drove two horses, and went in companies, of from two to a half dozen. They took their pork, butter and cheese, and perhaps some of their neighbors, they took their food for the journey, in the shape of baked beans, roast or boiled meat, brown bread, cheese, etc. etc. usually enough to supply them till nearly, if not quite home again. They also took grain for their horses. They would be gone from five to fifteen days, as the distance, and travling (sic) were.


They would stop at night, with hotel keepers, who provided for this kind of travel. After their teams were cared for they would carry in their pails, call for a mug of cider, and take their supper. Then they would sit around the fire,. spin their yarns, and drink hot sling and then retire. Ion the morning take their bitters, call for cider, and eat their breakfast, as they did their supper. Then settle their b ills, get ready, and go on their way. One day is an illustration of every day. At market they would sell thier (sic) load and purchase thier (sic) years stock of groceries, molasses, sugar, tea, coffee spices, salt, cod fish, etc. etc., always taking good care to fill their keg with new rum, and then turn toward home in the same manner thy cam. They were usually a jolly set of fellows, and their Boston trip was the only pastime they had for the yr. The trade of the merchant, was almost entirely barter, farmers who did not go to market, disposed of their produce to him, which mostly consisted in pork, butter, cheese, beans, and grain, in exchange for such articles as they needed out of his store. To transport this to market and bring back the goods needed, required another class of men, called teamsters, who usually drove from four to eight horses, and would be gone from two to four weeks, according to distance and traveling, never driving faster than a walk. When at market they discharged their load, where, the merchant, for whome (sic) they tamed, had arranged, and loaded up with molasses, sugar, salt, tea, coffee, etc. putting on a few boxes of dry goods, and a crait (sic) of crockery, and then wend their way home. They recieved (sic) in money enough to meet their expenses on the road. The rest due them, in orders on the store. With these orders they met their mechanical bills, and supported their families, and indeed barter was the currency (sic) of the times. So one hand washed the other, and each labored to support the other. These teamsters were usually a very philosophical class of men. They took things easy, rain or shine, snow, or mud, were all alike to them. If they broke down, they righted up again and went on. They were very friendly, often doubling their teams to help over bad places. Lumber was also an article of trade, this was drawn to rivers, and rafted down to market, by a class called raft-men. The rivers were also navigated, by flat boats, which were urged up the current, hundreds of miles by oarsmen, keeping near the shore, with long poles. There were certain places of rapid water, some of them several miles long, at these places a class lived called swift water men, whose only business was to help by these places. Slow and tedious, was the journey and hard the work, but no body thought, of being discouraged, or of complaining.

There was another class of great service, called drovers, who went through the community, and purchased all the fat cattle the people had to dispose of, promising to pay when they returned from market. They would be weeks in collecting a drove, then two or three men, with a boy, would start it on toward Brighton market,. It would take days to reach there, and much of the fat of the herd would [be] wasted in traveling. When there, they would dispose of their cattle, and returning by stage, would pay up. So the farmer got a little money. This would be acted over, and over, the history of one year was the history of many. Another feature of the times, The habits of the people were very domestick. I can recollect when there was not a factory in all the country. Women spun and wove their own cloth, and a class called cloth dressers fitted it for use. There was no cotton, linen made from flax, by womens hands, was the shirting, and sheating of the day. The wants of the people were few, and usually well supplied, luxuries they did not need, and of course did not pine for them. Take one thing more, the manner of communication, between businessmen and friends. A mail twice a week was a luxury, most towns had but one, and the cost of postage, a letter under thirty miles, six cents, over thirty, and under one hundred, ten cents, and so on up to twenty vie, and as communication was slow, and expensive, and money hard to be obtained, there was but little correspondence between friends. A friend only fifty miles away might die, and be buried some days before we would et the news. This would look cruel now, but no one thought of complaining then. Intelligence was slow in getting along, no daily papers, and but few weeklies, the results of an election in a state, would not be ascertained for weeks, and the transactions of Congress, would not reach the people until they were almost an old affair. But I must say, I think that generation were as contented with that state of things, as this is, with the present. It is about forty years since the idea of railroads began to be talked, but it was treated by the great mass of the people with merriment. "A railroad over these mountains." "A railroad to the moon, as soon." But they were a success in England, and men would talk about them, yet sneers and contempt were the only response from forty nine out of every fifty. But the talking went on, and by and by the books were opened, money was subscribed, and a charter obtained from the Legislature, yet it was still regarded by many as a chimera of a disordered brain. But the experiment was tried, it worked well, and it began to look as though they might be pushed in every direction. Now the farmers of our country, especially, were terribly excited, it would bring nothing but ruin, it would displace coaching, and teaming, horses would be worth nothing, no demand, no use for them, hay and grain, would be unsalable, produce a drug, and disaster the sure result. So they croaked on, but the enterprise went forward, they were extended farther, and farther, no mountain too high, no valley too deep, no river too broad. They pushed back into the interior, they came nearer and nearer our doors. They connect states, and friends long separated were almost in handshaking distance. But the strangest feature of the whole picture was ruin did not come, all the predictions of croakers had failed. Horses instead of depreciating in value went up in price, hay and grain instead of being a drug, were higher than ever known before, and farmers found that whatever they had to spare, was ready cash, a prices higher than they ever dreamed of asking. Everything went to the rail, and reached reached market before it decayed, all was fresh and ready for sail. The merchant could go to market as often as he pleased, and he away from his business, but a short time, and his goods reach their destination before thy were antiquated by delay, or soiled by age. Thus has the railroad completely revolutionized the Agricultural, and the commercial world. It has brought friends into almost the same neighborhood, and by the rapidity with which the mails are carried we are kept familiar with each other and as the rate of postage, has been reduced next to nothing, we are enabled to live in the sympathy, and embrace of each other. I have lived to see what the stagecoach did, what the teamster did, what the farmer did for himself, what the raftsman did, and what the drover did, done, to a very great extent, by the rail road, quicker--easier, cheaper, and safer than ever before done,--

Another thing I have witnessed. Startling changes in the mechanical and manufacturing market.--Factories have sprung up in multitudes, both Cotton and Woolen, home and domestick manufacture have given place to the Cotton and Woolen mill. Great improvement has been made in tools and implements of husbandry, the mowing, the raking, the reaping--the spreading--the pilching--and the threshing machine--have all come into use, to aid the farmer in his heavy toil. Stoves have been invented, in my day, of every conceivable (sic) pattern--for cooking, for warming houses, and churches, the old fireplace has been exchanged for something cheaper, and far more comfortable and convenient, and instead of shivering, while we worshiped (sic), in houses colder than barns, we now have warm, and delightful places of prayer. Thus are the burdens, and expense of living, greatly lessened, by mechanical ingenuity--
The Telegraph has also come into existence, strengthening itself in a network over all the civilised (sic) world, connecting nations, and countries, and like a living messenger waiting to speak, to every inhabitant, so wherever you stand you are in speaking distance e of every civilized nation under the sun. All, All, these changes, and many, of which I shall speak, have been wrought since I have looked out upon the world.

 


Chapter XL
Changes in the geographical boundaries of the community.

 

Fourthly, I have seen the geographical boundries of the domain extended, and its numerical strength greatly increased, new territories organized, new states added the union, and a sweeping population hurry out to develop their wealth by exhuming their mineral substancies, and the cultivation of their soil. Forty years ago, what was regarded as the West, is now regarded as the East, Chicago that mighty City (not of the West, but of the East) was a mud hole, with only one or two houses. On, On has swept the star of destiny, toward the setting sun. The Rocky Mountains have been no obstruction, the tide has rolled down her slopes to the Pacifick coast. The introduction of civilization in to Oregon is of so singular a character, I will pause to detail it. Less than thirty eight years since, the church and Nation were startled by a communication through the papers, that a delegation of Indians had reached St. Louis asking for Missionaries. It appeared there was a Pat. Clark, a fur trader, residing there, who had been several times over the mountains, with a company, and traded with the natives. There was a tribe called the flat head, tribe, from the practice they followed of lashing boards to the forehead of their infants, until the front of the head, assumed an even surface,--This tribe it seemed had sent three of their number, to Capt. Clark, with whome they had traded, asking for some one to teach them the true way to worship God. Capt Clark knew but little of God or his worship,--but would not disregard their prayer, and assured them, some one should be sent, and very judiciously transferred the appeal to the christian church. Dr. Fisk of the Wesleyan University, seeing the appeal, corresponded with Clark, and found it authentick, called upon the church for volunteers. There were two young men by the name of Lee, Jason and Daniel, an Uncle and Nephew, just entering the ministry. Strong, hard, and athletic, with hearts burning to do and dare for Christ. They readily volunteered to go, and were joined by a young man, by the name of Shepherd, not a preacher, but a teacher. Arrangements were speedily made, and a Mission formed called the "Rocky Mountain Mission" Jason became a member of the N. England Conference, and was put in charge of the work, Daniel joined the W. H. with him I was acquainted. They provided wearing apparel to last them two or three years, they also took a few simple, mechanical and farming tools, also packed with their clothing, various seeds, and potato eyes, in small quantities, and bid farewell to friends and civilization, and plunged into pagan darkness for their Lord and Master. They joined Capt. Clark at St. Louis, as their protector and guide, and with him and his company wended their way over the Mountains, and coming down to the Columbia river, they pause. *** (Deletion here by Harding.) They were now in a great country, almost unknown, and untrodden by civilized men. The mighty Pacifick stretched out on one side, and the towring Mountains on the other, how sublime the picture, They found natives in abundance, and found them friendly. They erected a hut, and lied as the Indians did, and cultivated a familiarity with their neighbors. They put their seed into the ground, and took care of it, they gathered native children, and taught them, science and religion. Soon Shepherd sickened died, and the two dauntless Lees, were left to carry on their work alone. Communications soon came from them, by the fur traders, calling for help, and a company was raised, organized and sent forward. Among them is David Lesley of the N. England conference, who spent his after life there, and at an advanced age died and sleeps there; his obituary appeared in the Herald a few months since. Another was an unmarried lady, who soon after reaching, became the wife of the elder Lee. This company did not attempt to cross the Rocky Mountains, but sailed around the cape, and landed at the mouth of the Columbia river, after a six or eight months voyage. This was the nucleus around which gathered civilization from the States. After two or three years, Jason Lee started with a company of traders over the mountain to the stats, to lay his mission before the church, and enlist recruits. He had been on his way some seven or eight days, when he was overtaken in his camp one night by an Indian, one of his family, and informed that his wife was dead, died soon after his leaving. He came forward, however, laid his work before the people, and called for volunteers, and quite a company rallied under his banner. And after marrying another wife, he with his company turn their faces to the scene of conflict. The labors of the Mission were somewhat successful among the natives, but not extensively so, many of them were converted to christianity, but somehow, like the race everywhere else, they cannot be domesticated, the fate of extermination seems to hang over them. They fade before civilization. Daniel Lee stopped then years, and then returned to N. England, he is still living, but does not preach, his ten years of toil in that dark region, seems to have unfitted him to preach, in civilized life. He is however a good man, and will not fail of a rich reward. Jason Lee stopped several years longer, stopped until he saw Colleges and Seminaries and common schools rise up all around him, a teeming population,a prosperous people, a State, and the church in her beauty and strength, an Annual Conference organized, where unbroken her darkness reigned, when he first put his foot upon the soil, he beheld civil liberty, and religious institutions, in all their glory- a happy, and a prosperous people. He must have beheld with wonder, and cried out what hath God wrought? He then returned to N. England, worn and wasted, in force and strength, to lie down and die, and no doubt said "Now letest thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation." Years after the Lee's went to Oregon, California was a waste, and a wilderness, so far as civil and religious institutions were concerned. Untold gold lay there, and had for ages undisturbed by enterprise; and one of the richest agricultural regions on the continent, uncultivated by industry. No Cities no towns, no civilized society--naught but wandering, poweling, half demented Indians, and barbarous savages held possession of the soil. But in the settlement of the war between Mexico and this country, California fell into our hands, Yankee eyes soon saw the gold, and Yankee industry, and cupidity would not allow it to sleep longer, it must come forth. Where no habitations were found, cities have gone p, of might and power, business, enterprise, and a great State added to the Union. In my day that great Pacifick coast, stretching from San Francisco to the Columbia river, has arisen from the darkness of barbarism to civilization, noted all over, with cities, towns and villages,--churches, schools, and all the institutions of a great, and a free people. Yet the rail road system has not only commenced its career, but has been carried to such an extent that the Pacifick coast is its terminus at one end, and the Atlantick the other, and so perfected in its arrangements that travelers eat, sleep, and perform their toilet, from San Francisco to Portland, and never once find it a necessity to touch their feet to the ground. All these great western States have been settled, and so tied to the mast, that commerce, and trafick are an every day business, between all parts of this great Union. The West are readily supplied with the manufacture of the Eat, yes we cloth them, we carpet their floors, we give them chairs to sit upon, we send them all sorts of farming implements and all sorts of musical instruments, finally every thing that mechanical ingenuity can produce. In return they feed us. They give us pork, beef, flour, grain, etc. Well do I recollect when not one barrell of flour came from the West. Noting was either, imported or exported. To be sure when I entered upon active lie steam had been attached to boats, but none had ever crossed the Atlantick. They were only, used on rivers, and in harbors, but how is now, Steam plows every ocean, and eery sea, on the globe, then it was a voyage of six to eight weeks to England, now, from eight to ten days is all required. From this stand point, as I remarked in another chapter it seems I have lived an age, yes as long as Methusala of bible record. How much has been hurried into these brief years, and what does it all mean? To what is the world hurrying?



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