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A Yankee Notebook

August 22, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – The affairs of the world, brought to us in living color 24 hours a day – wars and insurrections; crises financial, political, and moral; and environmental degradation, to name a few – must seem to many people increasingly complex and insusceptible to management. As if to prove it, ever more organizations have lately emerged from the woodwork with purported solutions that, when considered rationally, usually reveal themselves to be simplistic, and satisfactory to only those who cling to them.

Thus we now have, in the political realm, the noisy Tea Party, whose mantra of crippling the power of the federal government ignores a few thousand critical services that couldn’t be performed as efficiently by any other agent. And, while mainline denominations of Western churches slowly dwindle into penury, evangelical megachurches blossom, and tens of thousands of the faithful await the day of Rapture, when they’ll be lifted into everlasting (and uncomplicated) bliss. Personally, the thought of singing hosannas for eternity in the company of Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell gives me the willies, and I’ve decided to cast my lot with the left-behind sinners. It’s a safer bet: Nobody’s going anywhere, anyway; and sinners are, if not more interesting, at least mostly rational.

What got me going on this was a folk-music concert on Sunday afternoon, August 21, at The Old West Church in Calais, Vermont. On the National Register of Historic Places, the building itself is a large part of the charm of any event that takes place there. A classic early 19th-century New England meeting house, it stands alone in a grassy plot beside what’s now Old West Church Road in Calais. It’s not hard to find if you know how to get there; but significantly, if you ask for directions, you get a hand-drawn map instead of an oral description.

A project of the early community, the meeting house first opened for business in 1825. It must have been built right, because it’s still in pretty good shape, considering its age and the limited funds likely available for its upkeep and repairs. Inside, it’s divided into box stalls with pews around two sides – fine for listening to sermons, when, if your back is to the preacher, he can’t tell if you’re snoozing unless your head nods – but not so hot for concerts and other performances, where it’s preferable to be able to see what’s going on up there. The room is fronted by a raised pulpit about five feet above the floor of the nave. It used to be higher; but I can attest from having spoken from and listened to other people speaking from typical raised meetinghouse pulpits with the invariable clear window above, nobody in the audience can see the speaker because of the light shining from behind him.

Above the pulpit on the wall is a large rainbow-shaped legend: Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set. It’s an admonition from Proverbs that must have seemed somehow appropriate at the time to whoever pushed for it. But I don’t think he was a Biblical scholar. The various commentaries refer to it as a rule governing the destruction or moving of boundary markers, enabling powerful people to appropriate land from “the fatherless.” In any case, he had a kindred spirit in the man who named a granite-quarrying village a few miles south. Sodom, it was called, which can only make you wonder. Its residents later petitioned to change the name to Adamant – which still intrigues, but is no doubt easier to explain.

But back to the complexities of the world and simplistic solutions. Nearly everybody in New England has heard of the Millerites, an apocalyptic group made up of folks eager to trade Heaven-on-Earth (the eastern United States) for Paradise. They rose to prominence during what’s called the Second Great Awakening, between 1820 and 1860, when church membership in America rose sharply and new sects sprang up like dandelions in May. Their prophet was William Miller, a farmer and Baptist layman who, after a profound conversion experience, parsed the Biblical testimony regarding the Second Coming, and calculated that it would occur no later than 1843.

Miller, apparently a sincere man with little of the mountebank about him, was initially discouraged by the public’s tepid response to his prophecies. But after the 1832 publication of 16 articles by him in The Vermont Telegraph, he soon boasted a huge following of devout believers yearning for divine deliverance from this mortal coil. Even Calais, Vermont – the pronunciation of whose name helped to confound the carpetbagging Jack McMullen in 1998 – had its share of faithful followers of Miller.

The prophet never did give an exact date for the Second Coming, though it was generally supposed it would occur near the end of 1843. Thus, on the eve of 1844 the Millerites of Calais, who had already largely disposed of their earthly property, gathered in the meeting house to await its arrival. A large clock at the front of the room clicked its way toward midnight. Robed in white sheets for the ascent, and surrounded by another group of their neighbors (some of whom hoped to profit by their recent purchases of the faithfuls’ property) who’d come to view the spectacle.

The clock struck midnight. Some people screamed; a few women fainted. And that was it. Within ten minutes the building was all but deserted, and many of the faithful were discovering that their recent transactions were irrevocable. There’s little subsequent mention of them. Many became Seventh-Day Adventists; others joined the Shakers, who believed that Christ had indeed returned, but in their individual sanctified persons. Others, perhaps – I like to think that human beings can learn from disappointments, even as great as that one – went back to farming, carpentry, teaching, town meetings, fighting for the Union, and facing the complexities of their everyday lives.

Photo by Willem Lange