Athens, Ga. April 8. -- (Special.) -- "Oh, Lord, I besceech Thee, send Thy most blasting corse against this offspring of iniquity!"
These were the words that proceeded from the lips of Rev. Pridgeon as he stood among the pines surrounded by hundreds of hearers. He is an old man. More than eighty winters had furrowed and bleached his flowing locks, but a multitude of people, young and old, bent their heads to catch his slightest whisper. Dr. Pridgeon was preaching his funeral sermon, and people from far and near had gathered to witness the novel sight.
The first rays of the morning sun, as it shone between the trees, lighted the way for myriads conveyances that filed in slow procession along the public highways. There were luxurious landaus, capacious carriages, briskly moving buggies and well laden wagons, all full of chattering, animated people, loudly discussing the probability of the day. From 7 to 11, a steady stream of citizens poured into the country from Athens, on foot, horseback and in conveyances. All these pilgrims were bound for the same Mecca, an opening in the woods where benches had been built and an impromptu pulpit constructed.
In this pulpit stood a slight round-shouldered man, who bent beneath the weight of years. This was Dr. Nathaniel W. Pridgeon, who occupied the pulpit, to execute the last rights over his own living body. Before him on the ground, rested a cofin, made to contain all that was mortal of the doctor when his days on earth shall have been done. The doctor's determination to deliver his own funeral sermon had been widely advertised, and it was no wonder that so large a crowd had congregated. All Athens seemed present, and there were large delegations from the surrounding counties. The day dawned beautiful and bright, and nature seemed to smile upon the doctor's efforts. Ten Constitution reporters interrogated over a hundred gentlemen in regard to the crowd in attendance, and the average estimate aggregated over twenty-three hundred people, and all had come to hear the novel sermon of an old Oconee preacher.
The idea was no recent one with him, but is the results of years of earnest thought. Since Christmas of 1886, the old minister has lived in Oconee County, seven miles from Athens, and some weeeks ago he intimated to his family that he would soon deliver his own funeral sermon regardless of opposition. His novel determination was the general topic of conversation in Athens for quite awhile. Some days ago I drove out to interview the doctor, and secured the sketches with which this report is illustrated, and as I approached his house, I saw the old man sitting in an antique chair before his door. In his hands were a greasy and evidently much used copy of the Holy Bible and a dilapadited little memorandum book, which ever and anon he would open to consult. The secrets of this little book he carefully guards, for not withstanding frequent attempts no one has been able to look into it. It is his dictionary, his oracle, his friend and constant companion, and he is never without it. In it he carries all the facts that his failing memory is unable to retain. As I entered the rickety gate he slowly and painfully arose and with a faint smile on his face, extended his hand to me. I handed him my card, which he scrutinized carefully and then added it to the mysterious stores in his book.
"The Constitution. I used to take the weekly once, but am too poor now. Sit down, sir," he added with a suddenness that was perhaps caused by an elderly female poking him in the back with a chair, which was passed through a half open door.
"I am glad, sir" said I, in most proitiating tones, "to find that we brothers. You are, I understand, a Campbellite."
"No, sir!" said he, with vehemence, "not a Campbellite," and his watery blue eyes seemed to borrow new fire. "They cal us that, but the name is not correct, a Christian, sir, a Christian!" and by his dubious glance at his mysterious book, I half suspected that the old man doubted the truth of my fraternal claim. I had been studying his face, and found it a curious and interesting one. His eyes were pale-blue, and deep set in his head, his hair was iron gray, and fell carelessly about his face, his nose was given greater prominence from the fact that his teeth were gone, and his cheeks sunken and hollow. His skin was furrowed and mottled and showed evidence of the eighty odd winters that had passed over his head. His limbs were small and shrunken, and he stooped greatly as he walked. His wearing apparel was of the plainest goods and patched in many places. No mustache adorned his lips, but he wore a grayish beard which he stroked in a-way that at once reminded me of Georgia's great senator. The doctor's second wife presided over his household, and seemed much interested in the sketches that I made. She evinced a deep fondness for the old man, and his comfort semed to be her highest interest.
"Well, I felt that God called me to new fields and new pastures, and I obeyed His call. I disobeyed Him once, though, and that was when I went over to Alabamy," with a nasal drawl, as he pronounced the name of our sister state.
"And why," asked I, "did you disobey Him then?"
"It was the spirit of self, the spirit of unrighteousness in me,"
answered the old minister, in a tone of tremulous piety that seemed to come from deep down in his bosom.
"You know I was a doctgor then - a reg'lar medicine doctor - and I cured folks all over Laurens county. I made up my mind I would go to farmin', and quit a practisen altogether, but do you know them folks jes' wouldn't let me do it. I would be a plowin' in the fields, and here would come somebody a runnin' to fetch me to see some allin body, and of course I had to go."
The doctor paused and wiped his brow as if ever the memory of the dismastful calls was too much for him. He then pulled out his well worn memorandum book, consulted it, seemed to suddenly remember my presence, and resumed his narrative:
"Yes," said he, "they jes'kep' a comin' and I could not make "em sop. It was doctor this, and doctor that, doctor mornin', even' and night. I knowed if a stayed in old Laurins, I never could quit practisin', so I jes' pulled up stakes and lit out for Alabamy. No," he continued regretfully, as he slowly shok his gray head from side to side, "I know it wasn't right. It wasn't Christian like. I oughter a stayed and physiced them people, cause it seemed like God's will. That worried me for four years, and at last I couldn't stand it, and I jest left thar and come right back to Georgy."
I modestly inquired if patients continued to thrust themselves upon him, but he said that when he came back to Georgia he settled in a different county, Morgan, and his skill as a practitioner was unknown. While in Oconee country, at the age of twenty years, he went to hear a sermon preached by a then famous preacher in the Church of Crist, at Antioch, and was converted and baptized. He has since been a sincere Christian, and has adhered closely to the doctrines of his denomination. He was ordained minister in 1845, and has, at irregular intervals, filled the pulpit of different churches. That the old man is sincere and pious was illustrated by a remark he made in the course of our conversation. He had been speaking of his different congregations when I touched on the subject of remuneration.
"The Lord has cared for me well," he said. "Sometimes too well almost. You wouldn't think it to see me now, but I was right rich once," and at the thought of his lost wealthy his wrinkled face saddened, and his thin hands seemed to tremble somewhat more perceptibly.
"I was preachin' in Oconee county then, and I had a pretty good little flock, no great number but they were all earnest. I didn't say nothin' about pay, and they didn't neither till the end of the month come round, and they brought me five dollars - five silver dollars, mind you, bright round dollars. I didn't want to take all that, but they made me do it, and I tell you, I was rich. My livin' costs me mighty little, and I tried mighty hard to spen' that my money every month, but I jest couldn't do it, though bein' tempted by frivolousness, so I jes' told Brother Higgins that I couldn't take that much money any more, and I didn't. Yes," repeated the old man, as his hand plucked at the patch on his right knee, "I was rich in them days, but I'm porely now; mighty porely now, save in the spirit of the Hold Ghost."
There was something so sad in the old minister's demeanor, and something so touching in his faith and piety, that the ludicrous side of his statement was entirely unnoticed at the time.
When I had finished my interview, I left the doctor's residence, an humble afair, with a cordial God speed from its occupants, and when I caught the last glimpse of the old man, through the trees, he was still gazing fondly into the mysterious folds of his memorandum book.
Today, when I came upon the ground he recognized me instantly, and kindly asigned me to a seat upon his coffin, a position shared by no one, but a position as uncomfortable as it was convenient. The meeting ground was situated upon an open road, and the pulpit and seats were rudely constructed. Within four feet in front of the pulpit lay the coffin, and upon this gloomy casket sat The Constitution correspondent. Just behind him were seated the choir, lead by Dr. Lowery, of Athens, who was selected by Dr. Pridgeon to raise the hymns.
Promptly as the trained eye of the former read eleven o'clock in the heavens, the services began. The text of the doctor was selected from the ninth verse, second chapter of Corinthians, and as a parallel text from eighth and ninth verses of the second chapter of Ephesians. The exercises were opened with singing by the choir of the hymns, "Why should we start in for it to die," after which the doctor offered up the following prayer:
"Oh Lord our Heavenly Father, creator and preserver of all things visible and invisible in Thy presence, we present ourselves as creatures of Thy amazing grace. Lord, we pray Thee to forgive us our sins and brighten our pathway to the grave. Guide us, O Lord, we pray Thee! Direct the heart of the old man to speak words of truth and holiness. Finally, when we are done with earth, and have served out our term, receive us to Thy arms, O Lord, for Christ's sake. Amen.
The old man delivered his prayer in a manner that carried with it the conviction of earnestness, and when he arose his eyes were filled with tears. He cast a hasty glance upon the throng before him, and entered at once without preliminary upon his discourse.
"When I was a boy," he began, "we had no Sunday schools, but the theological societies used to distribute tracts among the people, and these tracts were catechisms. I remember well the questions on those pages. The first was: 'Who made you?' Answer, 'God'. The second: 'What did He make you of?' Answer, 'Dust.' Then, what was the world made of, and the answer was, 'nothing.' What said I to my mother was, 'this great world made of nothing? 'Yes,' said she, 'for learned men say so.' This answer did not satisfy my childish curiosity, and it never has. How can something be made of nothing? I didn't believe it then, and don't believe it to this day. I made it a rule never to make apologies, and when I am in a learned crowd I know that I am not of their class. I was never in school but nine months, and anything else I may know I learned myself. On this occasion I will state my reason for taking this step. I could give these reasons in one word, but the people want truth instead of positive expressions. This thing called funeral preaching is not in the Bible. It is all an invention, all a fiction, all a getting up from some source of which I am ignorant. I would like for some one present, some of you learned folks, to give me the definition of funeral." Here the old minister raised his memorandum book with a confident air and gazed upon the faces of the crowd. No one responded to his request, and he continued. "Well, I will give it myself. A long time ago I got hold of a piece of writin' that said that funeral is derived from a Latin word, and means an ancient custom of the Roman pagans to beat bells and cymbals in worship of a pagan goddess. We ring the church bells to call together worshippers of idols, stone images, insults to God's sovereignty. Paul in his last letter to Timothy charged him before God and the Lord Jesus Christ to speak the word strictly, and foretells that changes will be made in religious observances.
The fulfillment of that prophecy is seen today. In the last chapter of the Book of Revelations angels are sent to tell John that if any man shall add unto these things God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. What a solemn thing this is to be adding to the word, or to the worship of the living God. There is only one church that is faultless. I think God that he keeps me humble while I might be reckless. He looks into all hearts and knows the thoughts and interest of all of us.
Here the doctor threw back his head and burst in a tremulous song that echoed weirdly through the woods.
"My friends, I am striving to get to heaven. This is my last opportunity to do good for Christ. Come with me to God, my hearers, come with me to Christ. Today we are here, tomorrow we are not. Fight with the sirit. Serve God. We are to encounter the world, the flesh, the devil. I am toiling some day to get to God, where Christ and his angels are, but if I do it'll be a desperate struggle.
The old minister closed his eyes as if in prayer, then stroked his beard, consulted his memorandum and the sermon was ended.
"Beulah Land" was sung by the choir, and during its rendition, The Constitution reporter, assisted by two gentlemen, passed hats among the throng and solicited contributions for the old preacher. A neat sum was raised, and never was man more grateful than Dr. Pridgeon, as he stored the money away in his capacious pockets.
"These hands have toiled or over seventy years for myself and family, and have never gone back on me till now," he said. "This fortune saves me from want. God feeds his sparrows, and I knew he would feed me. Oh, I have prayed so hard that my wife may not know want, and God has answered my prayer. I know he would. God is always merciful, always merciful."
The old man turned away to confide in the leaves of his faithful book, the story of his fortunes. None doubts that he is earnest and sincee, for he has carried his philosophy into his life.
When his first wife died, six years ago, no words were said, no dirge was sung over her dead body. Like the inanimate clay it was, the corpse was returned without song or sentiment into the earth from which it sprang. One month later he married his present wife. By his first wife the doctor has seven living children, five sons and two daughters, and all were present at the funeral services, except the second son, who is a paralytic.
The doctor, while not absolutely illiterate, is entirely uneducated, and his speech abounds in provincialisms. In my report I have not endeavored to give his peculiar pronounciations, nor even his characteristics, but the words themselves are quoted just as they fell from his lips.
At the conclusion of the services, the coffin was taken to the residence of a neighbor, for Mrs. Pridgeon strennously objected to its presence at her house. The doctor parted with it regretfully, for it had evidently taken a strong hold upon his fancy. He was still watching it sadly, as I called on him to say goodby. He grasped my hand firmly, as he expressed his satisfaction with the day's proceedings, and his gratitude to the people.
"Goodbye, sir," said he, and his thin pale face looked pitiably sorrowful. "Goodbye to all my good friends, may God bless you!"
I had started away when his weak voice called me back. "Tell your paper to warn the people," he whispered, "against this child of Babylon, this accursed custom of the devil; it is iniquitous, iniquitous."
I left him standing so with the parting words still on his trembling lips, and his dull eyes still on the sombre casket. When I turned to look again he was yet standing alone, but in his hands he held his cherished book, and he was whispering between its pages the story of his sermon. Another moment and I had left the weird old preacher, his mysterious cojmpanion and his dark and gruesome forever.