The New Minister's Great Opportunity
by Heman White Chaplin
THE NEW MINISTER'S GREAT OPPORTUNITY.
By Heman White Chaplin
First published in the Century Magazine.
The minister's got a job, said Mr. Snell.
Mr. Snell had been driven in by a shower from the painting of a
barn, and was now sitting, with one bedaubed overall leg crossed over
the other, in Mr. Hamblin's shop.
Half-a-dozen other men, who had likewise found in the rain a call to
leisure, looked up at him inquiringly.
How do you mean? said Mr. Noyes, who sat beside him, girt with a
nail-pocket. 'The minister 's got a job'? How do you mean? And Mr.
Noyes assumed a listener's air, and stroked his thin yellow beard.
Mr. Snell smiled, with half-shut, knowing eyes, but made no answer.
How do you mean? repeated Mr. Noyes; 'The minister's got a
job'of course he hasgot a stiddy job. We knew that before.
Very well, said Mr. Snell, with a placid face; seeing's you know
so much about it, enough said. Let it rest right there.
But, said Mr. Noyes, nervously blowing his nose; you lay down
this proposition: 'The minister's got a job.' Now I ask, what is it?
Mr. Snell uncrossed his legs, and stooped to pick up a last, which
he proceeded to scan with a shrewd, critical eye.
Narrer foot, he said to Mr. Hamblin.
Private lastDr. Hunter's, said Mr. Hamblin, laying down a boot
upon which he was stitching an outer-sole, and rising to make a
ponderous, elephantine excursion across the quaking shop to the earthen
water-pitcher, from which he took a generous draught.
Well, Brother Snell, said Mr. Noyes,they were members together
of a secret organization, of which Mr. Snell was P. G. W. T.
F.,ain't you going to tell us? Whatis this job? That is to say,
Brother Snell set his thumbs firmly in the armholes of his
waistcoat, surveyed the smoke-stained pictures pasted on the wall,
looked keen, and softly whistled.
At last he condescended to explain.
Preaching Uncle Capen's funeral sermon.
There was a subdued general laugh. Even Mr. Hamblin's leathern apron
Mr. Noyes, however, painfully looking down upon his beard to draw
out a white hair, maintained his serious expression.
I don't see much 'job' in that, he said; a minister's supposed to
preach a hundred and four sermons in each and every year, and there's
plenty more where they come from. What's one sermon more or less, when
stock costs nothing? It's like wheeling gravel from the pit.
O.K., said Mr. Snell; if 't aint no trouble, then 't ain't But
seeing's you know, suppose you specify the materials for this
Mr. Noyes looked a little disconcerted.
Well, he said; of course, I can't set here and compose a funereal
discourse, off-hand, without no writing-desk; but there's stock enough
to make a sermon of, any time.
Oh, come, said Mr. Snell, don't sneak out: particularize.
Why, said Mr. Noyes, you 've only to open the leds of your Bible,
and choose a text, and then: When did this happen? Why did this happen?
To who did this happen? and so forth and so on; and there's your
sermon. I 've heard 'em so a hunderd times.
All right, said Mr. Snell; I don't doubt you know; but as for me,
I for one never happened to hear of anything that Uncle Capen did but
whitewash and saw wood. Now what sort of an autobiographical sermon
could you make out of sawing wood?
Whereat Leander Buffum proceeded, by that harsh, guttural noise well
known to country boys, to imitate the sound of sawing through a log.
His sally was warmly greeted.
The minister might narrate, said Mr. Blood, what Uncle Capen said
to Issachar, when Issachar told him that he charged high for sawing
wood. 'See here,' says Uncle Capen, 's'pos'n I do. My arms are
shorter'n other folks's, and it takes me just so much longer to do
Well, said Mr. Noyes, I'm a fair man; always do exactly right is
the rule I go by; and I will frankly admit, now and here, that if it's
a biographical discourse they want, they 'll have to cut corners.
Pre-cise-ly said Mr. Snell; and that's just what they do
Well, well, said Mr. Hamblin, laboriously rising and putting his
spectacles into their silver case,for it was supper-time,joking
one side, if Uncle Capen never did set the pond afire, we 'd all rather
take his chances to-day, I guess, than those of some smarter men.
At which Mr. Snell turned red; for he was a very smart man and had
just failed,to everybody's surprise, since there was no reason in the
world why he should fail,and had created more merriment for the
public than joy among his creditors, by paying a cent and a half on the
Come in; sit down, said Dr. Hunter, as the young minister appeared
at his office door; and he tipped back in his chair, and put his feet
upon a table. What's the news?
Doctor, said Mr. Holt, laughing, as he laid down his hat and took
an arm-chair; you told me to come to you for any information. Now I
want materials for a sermon on old Mr. Capen.
The Doctor looked at him with a half-amused expression, and then
sending out a curl of blue smoke, he watched it as it rose melting into
the general air.
You don't smoke, I believe? he said to the minister.
Holt smiled and shook his head.
The Doctor put his cigar back into his mouth, clasped one knee in
his hands, and fixed his eyes in meditation on a one-eared Hippocrates
looking down with a dirty face from the top of a bookcase. Perhaps the
Doctor was thinking of the two or three hundred complimentary visits he
had been permitted to make upon Uncle Capen within ten years.
Presently a smile broke over his face.
I must tell you, before I forget it, he said, how Uncle Capen
nursed one of my patients. Years and years ago, I had John Ellis, our
postmaster now, down with a fever. One night Uncle Capen watchedyou
know he was spry and active till he was ninety. Every hour he was to
give Ellis a little ice-water; and when the first time came, he took a
table-spoonfulthere was only a dim light in the roomand poured the
ice-water down Ellis's neck. Well, Ellis jumped, as much as so sick a
man could, and then lifted his finger to his lips: 'Here 's my mouth,'
said he. 'Why, why,' said Uncle Capen, 'is that your mouth? I took that
for a wrinkle in your forehead.
The minister laughed.
I have heard a score of such stories to-day, he said; there seem
to be enough of them; but I can't find anything adapted to a sermon,
and yet they seem to expect a detailed biography.
Ah, that's just the trouble, said the Doctor. But let us go into
the house; my wife remembers everything that ever happens, and she can
post you up on Uncle Capen, if anybody can.
So they crossed the door-yard into the house.
Mrs. Hunter was sewing; a neighbor, come to tea, was crocheting
wristers for her grandson.
They were both talking at once as the Doctor opened the sitting-room
Since neither of you appears to be listening, he said, as they
started up, I shall not apologize for interrupting. Mr. Holt is
collecting facts about Uncle Capen for his funeral sermon, and I
thought that my good wife could help him out, if anybody could. So I
will leave him.
And the Doctor, nodding, went into the hall for his coat and
driving-gloves, and, going out, disappeared about the corner of the
You will really oblige me very much, Mrs. Hunter, said the
minister, or Mrs. French,if you can give me any particulars about
old Mr. Capen's life. His family seem to be rather sensitive, and they
depend on a long, old-fashioned funeral sermon; and here I am utterly
bare of facts.
Why, yes, said Mrs. Hunter; of course, now
Why, yes; everybody knows all about him, said Mrs. French.
And then they laid their work down and relapsed into meditation.
Oh! said Mrs. Hunter, in a moment. No, though
Why, you know, said Mrs. French,noI guess, on the whole
You remember, said the Doctor's wife to Mrs. French, with a faint
smile, the time he papered my east chamberdon't youhow he made the
And then they both laughed gently for a moment.
Well, I have always known him, said Mrs. French. But really,
being asked so suddenly, it seems to drive everything out of my head.
Yes, said Mrs. Hunter, and it's odd that I can't think of exactly
the thing, just at this min-ute; but if I do, I will run over to the
parsonage this evening.
Yes, so will I, said Mrs. French; I know that I shall think of
oceans of things just as soon as you are gone.
Won't you stay to tea? said Mrs. Hunter, as Holt rose to go. The
Doctor has gone; but we never count on him.
No, I thank you, said Mr. Holt. If I am to invent a biography, I
may as well be at it.
Mrs. Hunter went with him to the door.
I must just tell you, she said, one of Uncle Capen's sayings. It
was long ago, at the time I was married and first came here. I had a
young men's Bible-class in Sunday-school, and Uncle Capen came into it.
He always wore a cap, and sat at meetings with the boys. So, one
Sunday, we had in the lesson that verse,you know,that if all these
things should be written, even the world itself could not contain the
books that should be written; and there Uncle Capen stopped me, and
said he, 'I suppose that means the world as known to the ancients?'
Holt put on his hat, and with a smile turned and went on his way
toward the parsonage; but he remembered that he had promised to call at
what the local paper termed the late residence of the deceased,
where, on the one hundredth birthday of the centenarian, according to
the poet's corner,
Friends, neighbors, and visitors he did receive
From early in the morning till dewy eve.
So he turned his steps in that direction. He opened the clicking
latch of the gate and rattled the knocker on the front door of the
little cottage; and a tall, motherly woman of the neighborhood appeared
and ushered him in.
Uncle Capen's unmarried daughter, a woman of sixty, her two brothers
and their wives, and half-a-dozen neighbors were sitting in the tidy
kitchen, where a crackling wood-fire in the stove was suggesting a
hospitable cup of tea.
The ministers appearance, breaking the formal gloom, was welcomed.
Well, said Miss Maria, I suppose the sermon is all writ by this
time. I think likely you 've come down to read it to us.
No, said Holt, I have left the actual writing of it till I get
all my facts. I thought perhaps you might have thought of something
No; I told you everything there was about father yesterday, she
said. I 'm sure you can't lack of things to put in; why, father lived
a hundred yearsand longer, too, for he was a hundred years and six
days, you remember.
You know, said Holt, there are a great many things that are very
interesting to a man's immediate friends that don't interest the
public. And he looked to Mr. Small for confirmation.
Yes, that 's so, said Mr. Small, nodding wisely.
But, you see, father was a centenarian, said Maria, and so that
makes everything about him interesting. It's a lesson to the young, you
Oh, yes, that's so, said Mr. Small, if a man lives to be a
Well, you all knew our good friend, said Mr. Holt. If any of you
will suggest anything, I shall be very glad to put it in.
Nobody spoke for a moment.
There's one interesting thing, said one of the sons, a little old
man much like his father; that is, that none of his children have ever
gone meandering off; we've all remainedhe might almost have said
remained seatedall our lives, right about him.
I will allude to that, said Mr. Holt. I hope you have something
else, for I am afraid of running short of material: you see I am a
Why, I hope there won't be any trouble about it, said Maria, in
sudden consternation. I was a little afraid to give it out to so young
a man as you, and I thought some of giving the preference to Father
Cobb, but I did n't quite like to have it go out of the village, nor to
deprive you of the opportunity; and they all assured me that you was
smart. But if you 're feeling nervous, perhaps we 'd better have him
still; he 's always ready.
Just as you like, said Holt, modestly; if he would be willing to
preach the sermon, we might leave it that way, and I will add a few
remarks. But Maria's zeal for Father Cobb was a flash in the pan. He
was a sickly farmer, a licensed preacher, who, when he was called upon
occasionally to meet a sudden exigency, usually preached on the
beheading of John the Baptist.
I guess you 've got things enough to write, said Maria,
consolingly; you know how awfully a thing doos drag out when you come
to write it down on paper. Remember to tell how we 've all stayed right
When Holt went out, he saw Mr. Small beckoning him to come to where
his green wagon stood under a tree.
I must tell you, he said, with an awkwardly repressed smile,
about a trade of Uncle Capen's. He had a little lot up our way that
they wanted for a schoolhouse, and he agreed to sell it for what it
cost him, and the selectmen, knowing what it cost him,fifty
dollars,agreed with him that way. But come to sign the deed, he
called for a hundred dollars. 'How 's that,' says they; 'you bought it
of Captain Sam Bowen for fifty dollars.' 'Yes, but see here,' says
Uncle Capen, 'it's cost me on an average five dollars a year, for the
ten year I 've had it, for manure and ploughing and seed, and that's
fifty dollars more.' But you 've sold the garden stuff off it, and had
the money,' says they. 'Yes,' says Uncle Capen, 'but that money 's
spent and eat up long ago!'
The minister smiled, shook hands with Mr. Small, and went home.
The church was crowded. Horses filled the sheds, horses were tied to
the fences all up and down the street. Funerals are always popular in
the country, and this one had a double element of attractiveness. The
whole population of the town, having watched with a lively interest,
for years back, Uncle Capen's progress to his hundredth birthday,
expected now some electrical effect, analogous to an apotheosis.
In the front pews were the chief mourners, filled with the sweet
intoxication of pre-eminence.
The opening exercises were finished, a hymn was sung,
Life is a span,
and Father Cobb arose to make his introductory remarks.
He began with some reminiscences of the first time he saw Uncle
Capen, some thirty years before, and spoke of having viewed him even
then as an aged man, and of having remarked to him that he was walking
down the valley of life with one foot in the grave. He called attention
to Uncle Capen's virtues, and pointed out their connection with his
longevity. He had not smoked for some forty years; therefore, if the
youth who were present desired to attain his age, let them not smoke.
He had been a total abstainer, moreover, from his seventieth year; let
them, if they would rival his longevity, follow his example. The good
man closed with a feeling allusion to the relatives, in the front pew,
mourning like the disciples of John the Baptist after his beheadment
Another hymn was sung,
A vapor brief and swiftly gone.
Then there was deep silence as the minister rose and gave out his
text: I have been young, and now I am old.
At the time of the grand review in Washington, he said, that
mighty pageant that fittingly closed the drama of the war, I was a
spectator, crippled then by a gun-shot wound, and unable to march. From
an upper window I saw that host file by, about to record its greatest
triumph by melting quietly into the general citizenship,a mighty,
resistless army about to fade and leave no trace, except here and there
a one-armed man, or a blue flannel jacket behind a plough. Often now,
when I close my eyes, that picture rises: that gallant host, those
tattered flags; and I hear the shouts that rose when my brigade, with
their flaming scarfs, went trooping by. Little as I may have done, as a
humble member of that army, no earthly treasure could buy from me the
thought of my fellowship with it, or even the memory of that great
But that display was mere tinsel show compared with the great
pageant that has moved before those few men who have lived through the
whole length of the past hundred years.
Before me lies the form of a man who, though he has passed his days
with no distinction but that of an honest man, has lived through some
of the most remarkable events of all the ages. For a hundred years a
mighty pageant has been passing before him. I would rather have lived
that hundred years than any other. I am deeply touched to reflect that
he who lately inhabited this cold tenement of clay connects our
generation with that of Washington. And it is impossible to speak of
one whose great age draws together this assembly, without recalling
events through which he lived.
Our friend was born in this village. This town then included the
adjoining towns to the north and south. The region was then more
sparsely settled, although many houses standing then have disappeared.
While he was sleeping peacefully in the cradle, while he was opening on
the world childhood's wide, wondering eyes, those great men whose names
are our perpetual benediction were planning for freedom from a foreign
yoke. While he was passing through the happy years of early-childhood,
the fierce clash of arms resounded through the little strip of
territory which then made up the United States. I can hardly realize
that, as a child, he heard as a fresh, new, real story, of the deeds of
Lexington, from the lips of men then young who had been in the fight,
or listened as one of an eager group gathered about the fireside, or in
the old, now deserted tavern on the turnpike, to the story of Bunker
And when, the yoke of tyranny thrown off, in our country and in
France, Lafayette, the mere mention of whose name brings tears to the
eyes of every true American, came to see the America that he loved and
that loved him, he on whose cold, rigid face I now look down, joined in
one of those enthusiastic throngs that made the visit like a Roman
But turn to the world of Nature, and think of the panoramic scenes
that have passed before those now impassive eyes. In our friend's
boyhood there was no practical mode of swift communication of news. In
great emergencies, to be sure, some patriot hand might flash the
beacon-light from a lofty tower; but news crept slowly over our
hand-breath nation, and it was months after a presidential election
before the result was generally known. He lived to see the telegraph
flashing swiftly about the globe, annihilating time and space and
bringing the scattered nations into greater unity.
And think, my hearers, for one moment, of the wonders of
electricity. Here is a power which we name but do not know; which
flashes through the sky, shatters great trees, burns buildings, strikes
men dead in the fields; and we have learned to lead it, all unseen,
from our house-tops to the earth; we tame this mighty, secret, unknown
power into serving us as a a daily messenger; and no man sets the
limits now to the servitude that we shall yet bind it down to.
Again, my hearers, when our friend was well advanced in life, there
was still no better mode of travel between distant points than the
slow, rumbling stage-coach; many who are here remember well its delays
and discomforts. He saw the first tentative efforts of that mighty
factor steam to transport more swiftly. He saw the first railroad built
in the country; he lived to see the land covered with the iron
And what a transition is this! Pause for a moment to consider it.
How much does this imply. With the late improvements in agricultural
machinery, with the cheapening of steel rails, the boundless prairie
farms of the West are now brought into competition with the fields of
Great Britain in supplying the Englishman's table, and seem not
unlikely, within this generation, to break down the aristocratic
holding of land, and so perhaps to undermine aristocracy itself.
So the preacher continued, speaking of different improvements, and
lastly of the invention of daguerreotypes and photographs. He called
the attention of his hearers to this almost miraculous art of indelibly
fixing the expression of a countenance, and drew a lesson as to the
permanent effect of our daily looks and expression on those among whom
we live. He considered at length the vast amount of happiness which had
been caused by bringing pictures of loved ones within the reach of all;
the increase of family affection and general good feeling which must
have resulted from the invention; he suggested a possible change in the
civilization of the older nations through the constant sending home, by
prosperous adopted citizens, of photographs of themselves and of their
homes, and alluded to the effect which this must have had upon
Finally he adverted to the fact that the sons of the deceased, who
sat before him, had not yielded to the restless spirit of adventure,
but had found no place like home.
But I fear, he said at last, that the interest of my subject has
made me transgress upon your patience; and with a word or two more I
When we remember what hard, trying things often arise within a
single day, let us rightly estimate the patient well-doing of a man who
has lived a blameless life for a hundred years. When we remember what
harm, what sin, can be crowded into a single moment, let us rightly
estimate the principle that kept him so close to the Golden Rule, not
for a day, not for a decade or a generation, but for a hundred years.
And now, as we are about to lay his deserted body in the earth, let
not our perceptions be dulled by the constant repetition in this world
of death and burial. At this hour our friend is no longer aged;
wrinkles and furrows, trembling limbs and snowy locks he has left
behind him, and he knows, we believe, to-day, more than the wisest
philosopher on earth. We may study and argue, all our lives, to
discover the nature of life, or the form it takes beyond the grave; but
in one moment of swift transition the righteous man may learn it all.
We differ widely one from another, here, in mental power. A slight
hardening of some tissue of the brain might have left a Shakspeare an
attorney's clerk. But, in the brighter world, no such impediments
prevent, I believe, clear vision and clear expression; and differences
of mind that seem world-wide here, may vanish there. When the spirit
breaks its earthly prison and flies away, who can tell how bright and
free the humblest of us may come to be! There may be a more varied
truth than we commonly think, in the words,'The last shall be first.'
Let this day be remembered. Let us think of the vast display of
Nature's forces which was made within the long period of our old
neighbor's life; but let us also reflect upon the bright pageant that
is now unrolling itself before him in a better world.
That evening Miss Maria and her brothers, sitting in state in the
little old house, received many a caller; and the conversation was
chiefly upon one theme,not the funeral sermon, although that was
commended as a frank and simple biographical discourse, but the great
events which had accompanied Uncle Capen's progress through this world,
almost like those which Horace records in his Ode to Augustus.
That's trew, every word, said Apollos Carver; when Uncle Capen
was a boy there wasn't not one railroad in the hull breadth of the
United States, and just think: why now you can go in a Pullerman car
clear'n acrost to San Francisco. My daughter lives in Oakland, just
acrost a ferry from there.
Well, then, there 's photographing, said Captain Abel. It doos
seem amazing, as the minister said: you set down, and square yourself,
and slick your hair, and stare stiddy into a funnel, and a man ducks
his head under a covering, and pop! there you be, as natural as
life,if not more so. And when Uncle Capen was a young man, there
wasn't nothing but portraits and minnytures, and these
black-paper-and-scissors portraits,what do they call 'em? Yes, sir,
all that come in under his observation.
Yes, said one of the sons, 'tis wonderful; my wife and me was
took setting on a settee in the Garding of Eden,lions and tigers and
other scriptural objects in the background.
And don't forget the telegrapht, said Maria; don't forget that.
Trew, said Apollos, that's another thing. I hed a message come
once-t from my son that lives to Taunton. We was all so sca't and faint
when we see it, that we did n't none of us dast to open it, and finally
the feller that druv over with it hed to open it fur us.
What was there in it? said Mr. Small; sickness?death?
No, he wanted his thick coat expressed up. But my wife didn't get
over the shock for some time. Wonderful thing, that telegraphhere's a
man standing a hundred miles off, like enough, and harpooning an idea
chock right into your mind.
Then that was a beautiful truth, said Maria: that father and
Shakspeare would like enough be changed right round, in Heaven; I
always said father wasn't appreciated here.
Well, said Apollos, 'tis always so; we don't begin to realize the
value of a thing tell we lose it. Now that we sort o' stand and gaze at
Uncle Capen at a fair distance, as it were, he looms. Ef he only hed
n't kep' so quiet, always, about them 'ere wonders. A man really ought,
in justice to himself, to blow his own hornjest a little. But that
was a grand discourse, wa'n't it, now?
Oh, yes, said Maria, though I did feel nervous for the young man.
Still, when you come to think what materials he had to make a sermon
out of,why, how could he help it! And yet, I doubt not he takes all
the credit to himself.
I should really have liked to have heard Father Cobb treat the
subject, said Mrs. Small, rising to go, and nodding to her husband.
'T was a grand theme. But 't was a real chance for the new minister.
Such an opportunity doesn't happen not once in a lifetime.
The next morning, after breakfast, on his way home from the
post-office, the minister stopped in at Dr. Hunter's office. The Doctor
was reading a newspaper.
Mr. Holt took a chair in silence.
The Doctor laid down the paper and eyed him quizzically, and then
slowly shook his head.
I don't know about you ministers, he said. I attended the
funeral; I heard the biographical discourse; I understand it gave great
satisfaction; I have reflected on it over night; and now, what I want
to know is, what on earth 'there was in it about Uncle Capen.
The minister smiled.
I think, he replied, that all that I said about Uncle Capen was