Jacksonian Miscellanies, #41

December 9, 1997

Memoir of S.J.M. Eaton, 2: A Frontier Preacher & the Early Education of his Son

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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This is the second part of the excerpt from Memoir of S. J. M. Eaton by Rev. A. H. Caughey (Erie, PA 1890). It gives a sketch of his father, who preached in a log church in a frontier community near the Pennsylvania shoreline of Lake Erie, and of his mother's hard life.

It then follows Eaton through his early education, providing an example of how a poor youth, in those days, worked his way to college by getting a little education, then teaching younger pupils; getting some more education, then teaching at a higher level, arriving at college in his early twenties, to attend classes with boys in their early teens, whose parents had the means to put them through a steady course of education (see Issue #4)

The reader may, like the editor, puzzle over the "amusing episode" of the "awful 'best room'" and the goose. Perhaps Eaton's biographer remembers it as a funny story, but can't remember why, nor realize that he has left out the crucial detail? Am I missing something?

[Regarding Mills Eaton's minister father:]

Continual fruits had attended his ministry from the first. During the twenty­one years from 1810 to 1831, over one hundred persons were added to the church, nearly all on profession of their faith in Christ.

It fell to the lot of the writer and compiler of this Memoir to bear a part in the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the founding of Fairview Church, and to present a paper on that occasion on "The First Pastor, Early Elders, and Members of the Church." A few extracts from that address, giving some of the characteristics of the father of Dr. Eaton, and some account of his labors as a minister, with an incidental sketch of his old home, may be appropriately given.

"'Father Eaton" was not the man to shirk duty in his sacred calling, or to spare labor and personal exposure in the service of his people. Many a ride through mud and storm he took on his good horse Jolly, or in his heavy­topped carriage after the same slow but patient beast, urging him pleasantly with his c'up Jolly, c'up Jolly,' to visit a sick or infirm parishoner, or to reach one of his distant preaching points. One who had deliberately given himself when a young man to the work of the Gospel Ministry on the frontier, was not likely to become indolent, or to yield to ease and self­indulgence when he grew older.

"As I remember 'Father Eaton,' he was a small man, slight in form, and of a very serious east of countenance. He was always close­shaved, with thin brown hair streaked with gray, and mild blue eyes. His voice had a peculiar tone-not clear and full, but rather rasping and thin. As a speaker he was unimpassioned, but spoke right on in a monotonous and uniform tone. He attempted no flights of oratory and used no gesticulation. He never read his sermons, but spoke from brief notes, holding a small Bible or Testament in his left hand, and looking straight forward. His spectacles generally rested at the top of his wrinkled forehead, except when he would occasionally adjust them to read a passage of Scripture or glance at his notes.

"Mr. Eaton's sermons were what would now be called strongly doctrinal. But the great theme of his preaching, as it was his main comfort in life and his only hope in the hour of death, was salvation through Christ alone . . . . . But he did not rest merely in sound doctrine. He illustrated his faith by his works, and proved himself a child of God by his holy living. He fearlessly rebuked sin, and preached God's law as the rule of life. While he told men, therefore, that it was only by God's mercy and through the infinite merits of Christ that they could be saved, he made it plain to them that it was not in their sins, but from their sins that they were to be saved, and made heirs of eternal life.

"But while he taught sound doctrine, and rebuked sin, and openly opposed and battled against Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, and every kind of vice, he was not indifferent to those great questions, partly moral and partly political, that began, even in his day, to be widely and earnestly agitated. One of these was Slavery, another was Temperance. On the latter question he stood early in the front ranks of those who pledged themselves, and endeavored to persuade others to pledge themselves, against the use as a beverage of any kind of spirituous liquors. As to wine, beer and cider-this apparently innocent trio had not then been put under ban as the sly and sure tempters and betrayers of men into the paths of drunkenness that they really were. But before his death he was ready, with the great mass of Christians everywhere, to put these also on the list of intoxicating drinks that were to be totally abstained from.

But this earnest and devoted pastor was not always solemn and serious, nor was he always occupied in meditating upon or discussing theological and moral subjects. He had a fine social nature, and enjoyed good company and good living, as I believe "' the cloth' generally do. He made purely social as well as pastoral visits, and was never so happy as when entertaining his elders, or other intimate friends in the congregation, at his own board.

"It was often my good fortune as a boy to visit my cousins of the old brown parsonage, and to see the minister, their father, in the midst of his every day life. In the family sitting­room, at the dinner­table, or about the farm in homely garb, he seemed quite like other folks-pleasant and talkative, taking an interest in ordinary affairs.

"But if I came upon him in his study,-and I chanced sometimes to blunder into that sacred place, supposing him to have stepped out-a spirit of awe seized me; and if he spoke to me, or asked me any question, I was speechless. But generally, at such a time, being absorbed in thought, meditating his Sunday's sermon perhaps, he would pay no heed to me, but with finger to forehead and eyes closed, or fixed on a passage of Scripture lying before him, he would remain undisturbed, and I would escape as quietly as I could.

"Doubtless this awe of him in his study-a darkened little room, with Bibles, and Missionary Heralds, and ancient­looking volumes of divinity lying around -was owing more to my imagination than to anything stern, or severe, or catechetical in this little man whom people called reverend. In other and proper places he enjoyed a laugh and was as jolly as the youngest of us. Nevertheless I was not able to get rid of the awe that that quiet study and its darkcoated occupant inspired.

"Rev. Johnston Eaton was not a man possessing those qualities that attract the admiration and secure the noisy applause of men. He was quite without worldly ambition. Modest and unpretending, he was yet a bold advocate of the truth, and fearless in defence of what he believed to be right. By his high personal character, his purity of life, his open condemnation of all laxity of principle, and all forms of immorality and whatever tended thereto, as well as by his preaching the pure Gospel of the grace of God, he exerted a vast influence for good upon a wide­spread community-an influence that still continues to be felt in many churches and in a thousand homes: So that in truth, 'he being dead, yet speaketh."'

The mother of Dr. Eaton was entirely worthy of such a husband. Her father had died when she was a child, and with four other children, three sisters and one brother, she being the eldest of the family, her training and education had fallen to the care of a faithful and God­fearing mother. She was the first to marry and leave the quiet and pleasant farm­house In Fayette County, Pennsylvania, that had been her only home-resolutely saying like Rebekah, when asked by Isaac's messenger if she would go to the far off country and be the wife of his master, "I will go"-though it involved hardship and self­denial, beginning with a journey on horseback of many days through a wild region of country, and ending in making her home in a log cabin with a poorly paid minister and among people who had just begun to cut out for themselves little farms and make for themselves rude homes in the woods. A few years afterwards her sister Martha, ten years her junior, came with her to the Lake Shore region when she had been back to the old home at the foot of the Laurel Hills on a visit; and thereafter remained with her till, in 1818, she married Andrew Caughey, whose father was one of the earliest settlers in Erie County (1803)-the young couple establishing their home seven miles nearer the town of Erie than the minister's house was. Thereafter the sisters were a great comfort to one another, and regrets for the old home grew less and less as the years passed on and family cares and pleasures increased.

Mrs. Eaton was of a cheerful disposition, full of charity and good deeds. She looked well to the ways of her household. But she was not of the kind that worry and fret. Her trust in God was strong and unfailing. If at any time the larder was almost empty, and the meat barrel reduced to nothing but brine, the Lake, swarming with excellent fish, was not far off, and the forest just at the door was full of the finest game, which even the minister could bring down with his old flint­lock fowling­piece. There was always some resource; and "The Lord will provide" was a text seldom absent from the hearts of these faithful servants of God.

While the mistress of the humble parsonage was not anxious, she was careful and thoughtful; and not only provided for the physical wants of her growing family, but was even more careful to look after their spiritual interests, and practically to follow St. Paul's rule, and " bring up her children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." She was also a woman of refined taste. She made her home attractive with flowers, of which she was exceedingly fond, and with pictures and such articles of decoration as with her slender means she could command. She believed in the power of home influence, and acted on the principle that "Home makes the man and woman makes the home."

Of her it could be said with entire truth, as of every true home­making woman:

Under the care of such a father and mother, and in a home-primitive and plain indeed, but made attractive and helpful with the purest and best things-did Mills Eaton grow up to manhood, watched and taught and cared for, and supplied with all the elements of training and influence that serve to form the noblest and best character in a Christian man.



Mills Eaton was intellectually bright and quick as a child. He had learned to read before he was three years old. Although active and playful like most children-taking delight in out­door sports; wandering through the thick woods that were not far from his father's door; racing over the fields among the half burnt stumps and logs, chasing the red squirrels along the fences, or setting cage­traps for the wild pigeons; he was yet for the most part a sedate and thoughtful child.

He soon knew why he had been baptized Samuel John Mills; and the fact that he bore the name of that brilliant and devoted young Missionary, who had been called to his high reward at so early an age, made a deep impression on him. Like Timothy, "from a child" he had "known the Holy Scriptures, which," as in the case of that young minister, St. Paul's "own son in the faith," were not only "able to" but, as we have reason to believe, actually did, even in his childhood, "make him wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."

He soon began to read the Bible in course; for we find him noting, while a student in College, that at a certain date (May 14th, 1843), he had "finished reading the Bible in course for the fifth time" adding devoutly to the record, "O how love I thy law!"

From infancy, even from the time when the drops of baptismal water fell upon his forehead, he had evidently been dedicated to God by his parents as a minister of the Gospel. As one of his older brothers says of him: "I cannot tell at what age his religious experience commenced; but it seems to me he was always a Christian." He was conscientious and truthful, and by his personal character and conduct more than by his words he was influential for good- it might almost be said, "a means of grace"- to other members of the family. And one of them, turning her thoughts back to these early days at home, says: "When a little girl I feared to do anything that was not just right before him more than before my father. Not that he would reprove me more severely; but the sad, or rather the sorrowful look that he would give me, went to my heart at once."

While quiet and serious, and much given to reading, he was by no means a recluse. He was a pleasant­tempered boy, and members of his family do not remember his ever using a harsh word to his father or mother, or to his brothers and sisters. If sometimes crossed in his desires or plans, or nettled by word or deed of others, as must have happened now and then in so numerous a family of active and healthy boys and girls, he must have early learned to repress resentment and curb his tongue. Though not given to frivolity, he was often witty and humorous. He was quick to see the ludicrous side of a thing, and enjoyed a laugh as much as his less sober­minded brothers and sisters; and this trait remained with him throughout life. He knew from childhood that he was to be a preacher; but this did not lead him to set himself up as Sir Oracle, or incline him to play the pharisee, or to put on any I­am­holier­than thou airs.

He was ingenius in mechanism, and in carving figures in wood of men and animals. He had a talent for drawing which served him in good stead in after life. He had also his mother's taste for flowers and gardening; and altho' never much inclined towards work or bodily exercise, he was skillful in devising and in making plans for others. In matters of proportion and artistic form he was seldom at fault.

He acquired the rudiments of education at his mother's knee, learning to read quickly. But when still a child he went to school, with his bigger brothers and sisters, in the school­house that stood for many years on the Ridge Road near what is now Fairview village. It was a walk of nearly two miles from his father's house to this small unpainted wooden building; and here he would sit for six mortal hours, divided into two equal sections by an extra hour at noon for play and lunch, his little feet and legs dangling from a bench placed in front of one of the desks assigned to the larger scholars; and then trudge back over the two miles of mud or snow or dust to his mother's much­loved sitting­room. This primitive way of acquiring an education was gone on with day after day for five or six years, and the "three R's," with geography and grammar, and a dip into algebra, were pretty thoroughly mastered.

An incident of his early school­going days, which shows the beginning, or out­cropping, of that which became the master passion of his life, the study of the Bible, is related by his younger sister Elizabeth, the wife of Rev James W. Dickey: "He was attending school (at the school­house already mentioned), and had advanced far enough to be able to read the Bible; and he wanted father's small Bible to take to school to read in. As father had only one small Bible, which he used himself, he was unwilling to let him have it. But Mills would not go without the Bible, and could not be turned from his purpose either by persuasion or punishment, but lingered by the way until he got the book. And I often heard mother say it was ever after his guide and companion."

He began to teach a country school when but a stripling-well furnished so far as a knowledge of the branches to be taught was concerned, but with little or no training calculated to make him "apt to teach." The public school was at that time in its most primitive condition, especially in country districts. The "big boys" were generally a pretty rough set, and the well dressed and quiet young "school­master" who was placed over them and their equally rude but perhaps not quite as "rough" sisters and sweet­hearts, must employ great tact and patience and self­control if he escaped the not uncommon fate of being "barred out" by these ruffians, and compelled to purchase his entrance by a bushel or two of apples and the corresponding quantity of cider; or even carried out into the woods and compelled to abandon his school.

Young Mills Eaton met with no such dire experiences as these in his first school at "Neff­ town," Erie county; but his three months' term of teaching, at $12 a month, in that back­woods neighborhood, was by no means a happy period in his life. He could "mend" quill pens; sit down beside a stupid boy or a pretty girl and "do" the hard "sums" in Arithmetic for them; "hear" great blundering fellows read in the "English Reader;" teach "Kirkham's Grammar" and "Olney's Geography" and "Daboll's Arithmetic." Yes, and he could hold "Spelling­Schools." This was a style of instruction in the difficult accomplishment of learning to spell English words, in high vogue in those days. For the school­boys and schoolgirls of half a century ago were-at least many of them were-accustomed to receive daily doses of hard spelling out of a book now doubtless for many years out of print and out of use, namely, "Cobb's Spelling­Book." And it seemed to have within its covers more hard words-that is words with more "silent" and useless letters in them-than any other book designed for the affliction of youths and maidens in their efforts to learn how to spell. Much time was occupied during school hours in acquiring this accomplishment; and then an evening was given almost every week to a contest among the scholars of the school, or with some neighboring school, in spelling. And the boy or girl who could "spell the school down" was accounted worthy of the highest honor-a very champion of scholarship.

These various duties of the country school­master Mills Eaton was able to perform with satisfaction to all concerned,-meantime "watching" the mischievous or idle or wicked scholars, and keeping them in order through the year or infliction of rod or fertile,- with the necessary expenditure of nervous power and bodily strength. But when the day's work was over, he was homesick and most unhappy. For he was obliged to "board around," as it was called. First there was a walk, whatever the weather and the state of the roads, often of from one to three miles. Some of the houses in which he was entertained were very uncomfortable and the people primitive and rude in their manner of living. What he saw and endured was often unpleasant; but at the same time the ludicrous or fun­loving side of his nature was touched; and many was the strange and often laughable story that he had to tell to his mother-whom he always made his confident-when he would get home at the end of each week, of his peculiar trials and experiences as a pedagog. One amusing incident among his "boarding 'round" experiences may be worth relating. During one week he was entertained in the house of a German family. When he arrived on Monday evening, the mistress of the house showed him into the awful "best room;" and having in due time placed a roasted goose upon the table for his evening meal, she "left him alone in his glory." And all that week the "chief of his diet" was roast goose-or at least as long as the goose held out.

His next school was in the village of Manchester, as it was called, at the mouth of Walnut Creek, the same spot where his father began to preach some thirty years before. His experience here was much more pleasant than in the half German settlement of "Neff­town;" and then he was but two miles from home, and would often trudge over the muddy or snow­coated road through the woods, after his day's toil was over, that he might spend the night at that place dearest to him on earth, his father's and mother's pleasant home.

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