The Damascus Road – Introduction

The Life and Times of the Preachers

Life in Devon and Cornwall was pretty bad in the 1830’s, conditions were appalling in nearly every corner of these two places, and poverty was rampaging across the country, devouring families in its merciless wake. But, compared to life in Upper Canada at that time, it was the lap of luxury!

Nothing could prepare people for what they found in Ontario. Roads were no more than pathways covered with large stumps; housing that was of the merest subsistence level, often no more than shanties; few mills; fewer merchantiles; no doctors; few schools; no churches. If you wanted a house you didn’t shop around those that were vacant, you built your own. There were no vacancies, except for the occasional abandon cabin in the woods. Few places of any degree of settlement were found, usually one town per township – in other words 6 to 9 towns per county if the whole county was settled, which many were not in those early days.

When John Hicks Eynon and his wife, Elizabeth Dart arrived at Cobourg to begin their missionary work in Upper Canada, this is what they met. They chose Cobourg as their home base because it was from that area that a plea had gone out for someone to come and bring the Bible Christians to the wilderness. And wilderness it was, all around Cobourg in those days. At that time the nick name for Cobourg was Hardscrabble, because that’s what it was like trying to make a living.

A number of years ago, Cobourg resident, Percy Climo, gathered together the documentation on the development and growth of Cobourg and wrote a wonderful history of the place, entitled, Early Cobourg. From the material he gathered from letters and diaries, we get a pretty good picture of what the whole of the province was like in the days just before and just after the War of 1812-14.

From the memoirs of Mrs. White of White’s Mills ………
“I was married to Mr. Josiah White in 1812, and came to Cobourg in 1813. It was quite a wilderness, but a few small clearings, and only three houses in the place, a rough corduroy road led to the lake.”

Mr. Climo also includes this from the memories of a Mrs. Wells ……
“The first school was held in an old stable, which had been fitted up for the purpose by nailing slabs over the cracks to keep out the rain….”

This was the story everywhere, and things did not change much by the time the Bible Christian missionaries arrived in 1833, except perhaps, there were a few more buildings in the towns. The rest of the country was pretty much as described.

Edwin C. Guillet, at one time Ontario’s historiographer, also wrote extensively about those early years. In his book, Pioneer Days in Upper Canada, he said ……

“One of the most notable characteristics of pioneer life in Canada was the spirit of co-operation. Remarkable generosity both in time and money is exemplified by the rebuilding of settlers’ homes when destroyed by fire, the loss usually being entirely made up by the voluntary work and subscription of neighbours. One example out of many is noted in the Cobourg Star of January 25, 1831, where a fire is described which destroyed the cedar log home of one of the citizens. The account continues: ‘The loss of Mr. Hart, including upwards of $60 cash, must at least amount to £150. We cannot express in too strong language the praiseworthy liberality that has been evinced by the inhabitants of our village upon this occasion. A subscription already amounting to upwards of £70 has been raised, and we have no doubt the entire loss of Mr. Hart will be made up to him.’”

Adam Shortt, writing about the early days says this about the ‘bees’ that were held where the neighbours got together to help one another out ……

“After the specific duties of the bee were ended, the young men indulged in trials of strength, while their elders discussed the crops, prices, local politics and the prospects of the ensuing year. The elderly women extended the circuilation of the personal gossip of the neighbourhood, while the younger ones, after disposing of the rude accompaniements of the feast, were ready for the dance, the round of country games and the repartee of flirtation.”

So it wasn’t all work and no play. And for John Hicks Eynon it wasn’t all preaching, either. From an early history of Dummer Township near Peterborough written by Rev. H.B. Herrington in about 1925, we find this information …..

“Eynon was an enthusiastic proselytizer [converter], and was known to join potential followers at logging bees, doffing his coat and helping with the work. When they paused to rest he would stand upon a stump and preach to them. By nightfall his conscience was clean, but his shirt was soiled. Eanon’s host on these occasions was often George Payne Sr., and it is said that after Eynon had gone to bed, Mrs. Payne would wash his shirt.”

It was at this particular settlement in Dummer where one of the earliest log chapels was erected within the first two or three years of Eynon’s arrival.

A settler’s life was an unending brainstorming session – without money, and without a farm supply dealer down the road, the settler had to find ways to do all his chores. Canniff Haight wrote, Country Life in Canada, in 1885. He had been born in a log cabin in the woods in 1830. In part, this is what he had to say….

“One of my first recollections is in connection with the small log barn my father had built. He carried me out one day in his arms and put me in a barrel in the middle of the floor. This was covered with loosened sheaves of wheat which he kept turning over with a wooden fork, while the oxen and horse were driven round and round me. I did not know what it all meant then, but I afterward learned he was threshing.”

We sit here now, 175 years later, in our snug houses, some of which are on those original homesteads, and we really have no idea how people felt and lived in those days. Thank goodness for diaries, letters and in many cases obituaries. These help us understand our ancestors. The Bible Christians were known for their lengthy obituaries, which in actual fact were short biographies of the deceased people. The writing of the obituaries was usually the duty of the ‘young man’ on the circuit, the young man being the preacher in training. But every now and then a more senior preacher would take the task, especially if they had known the person well, or if the person had been a very important person in that circuit.

One such obituary was written by Rev. George Smith, about his mother when she passed away. It is as full a description as any about pioneer life. This portion describes a common situation in which any settler family could find themselves, and the part played in their lives by the Bible Christian Missionary …..

“Their first crop in this new land must have been very encouraging. A small piece of potato yielded a full peck to the yard. These, with an unlimited number of fish from the neighbouring brook would do much to supply them with food during that first year in the bush. But not always were they equally fortunate. Their land, though good, lay rather low, and until the wood was cleared from the neighbouring hills the wheat, their chief dependance, was apt to rust. When, too, during the summer months, it was necessary for the cattle to range the woods for a livelihood, not far away was a swampy, miry land, into which the cattle would be tempted on account of the grass that grew there, and sometimes they had not the strength to get out and so lost their lives. One day the Smith’s had lost their last cow in this way, and Mrs. Smith, who could never learn to take things easily, was in great distress, when once more Rev. Eynon appeared upon the scene.

“Never mind, Sister,” he says. “I have a few buttons left yet.” And sufficient funds were loaned with which to buy a new cow.”

Every now and then it was not the preacher who came to the aid of the settler, but the other way around, as this excerpt from the same obituary explains ……
“Others had their difficulties, the missionary among the rest. Late one evening Rev. Eynon arrived at the Smith’s door.
‘Sister,’ he says. ‘I am hungry. I’ve been riding all day with nothing to eat.’
‘How’s that?’ she asked.
‘The people were too poor,’ he said. ‘It was like taking food out the childrens mouths. I could not do it.’

The Bible Christian preachers also wrote about one another, sometimes as a tribute to a living colleague, and sometimes as a tribute to a deceased friend. At the funeral of Jacob Gale, colleague, Jesse Whitlock had this to say ……
“The ministerial life in those days was not like it is today. Then he had to travel a great many miles and on horse back a great deal of the time. Roads were bad, and the accommodations were not as they are now, and taken in all, the preachers had to labour under many disadvantages. Instead of enjoying a comfortable study in which to prepare his sermons, he had to take his books in his saddlebags and read as he went along making the best of his opportunities as regards pulpit preparations.”

Of other hardships faced by the early missionaries and preachers, we find a reference in a speech given by Brother George Webber to the Methodist Historical Society sometime after Union of 1884 (the speech is not dated, unfortunately) ……
“They preached in the open air, in the woods, in houses, barns, workshops, shanties and schoolhouses. ……. Mr. Eynon’s circuit extended over 200 miles. One time a young woman came 70 miles through the woods to urge Mr. Eynon to preach in the township where she lived! Privations and dangers amid the wild beasts of the forest were not of small account. Once, Mr. Eynon missed his way, and was all night in the woods. After kindling a fire he lay down to sleep, but was soon aroused by the rustling leaves and a prowling bear, he began to sing, How happy is the pilgrim’s lot!….” (Note: Apparently Rev. Eynon sat up for the rest of the night feeding his fire and singing every hymn he knew at the top of his lungs in order to keep the wild beasts at bay!)

So too, the missionaries and preachers at Prince Edward Island had their share of burdens and hardships. Oddly enough, knowing that Prince Edward Island was early settled by French, then Acadian, then English, then United Empire Loyalists, I assumed that the Island was well established and a comfortable place by 1831 when Francis Metherall, the first Bible Christian Missionary arrived there. Not so. The land was held by absentee owners and improvements were most often non-existent, as were roads between the settlements. Because most of the land was held this way, there was little inducement for the population to improve the land, or the accommodation, which was primitive, even to the standards of those days. Francis Metherall and those who followed in succeeding years faced many difficulties.

The Rev. George Webber seems to have become the historian of the Bible Christian Connection, for his writings extended to Prince Edward Island. He had this to say about the early days there ….

“It was no easy work fifty years ago [1833] to pass from one neighbourhood to another, to say nothing of travelling from Vernon river to West Cape. With a few exceptions, the roads were only blazed tracks through the woods, and in many cases the only way to travel was to follow the shore when the tide was out. Frequently the tide would catch the missionary, when he would be under the necessity of waiting for the next ebb. In addition to these difficulties there are all around the Island numerous rivers or inlets of the sea. These had to be constantly crossed. Bridges and ferry boats for horses were few, the preacher therefore had to travel many miles and cross the head of the tide water or get a boat to carry themselves across, while their horses, if they had any, swam for themselves.”

Francis Metherall had no horse for the first three years he was on the Island, and from his memoirs is this passage …..
“I travelled wholly on foot the first three years I was on the Island, but found it very great slavery. I often suffered much and once nearly lost my life in a storm.”

The diaries of missionaries and preachers also give us insight into the hardships in those early days, and the preachers who went out to Upper Michigan and Wisconsin from Ontario had some harrowing experiences.

To read other stories from the Preachers, please read, The Damascus Road.

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