Jacksonian Miscellanies, #42

December 16, 1997

S.J.M. Eaton, 3: A Future Minister Prepares for College on the Erie Frontier

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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S.J.M. Eaton, 3: A Future Minister Prepares for College on the Erie Frontier

Most of the following describes Mills Eaton's experience at Erie Academy, in preparation for college, starting about 1839. Some part of it also concerns his mental struggle over whether it was right for him to go into the ministry, and other agonizings and yearnings along that line.

I'm sorry to have left some words misspelled, but the book from which took the material won't be handy again until next Sunday. The corrected version will be archived on the Web site; those who want me to mail them the corrected version, please let me know.

It was while teaching in this school that he fully made up his mind to become a minister of the Gospel. His mind had been tending to this determination, as we have already seen, even from a child, and he knew that it was the great desire of his parents that he should devote himself to this sacred work. But the actual consecration had not yet come; and it was not without great hesitancy, and after weighing thoroughly and prayerfully the question of his fitness for the work, and whether or not he had been called to it, that he finally resolved to enter upon the needed preparation. His notion of what constituted the "godly call" seems to have been a very exacting and positive one. Providential leadings, inclination and desire, natural talent, his own unwavering faith in the Savior of sinners, the manifest wish of his parents-any one or all of these considerations did not seem to have sufficient weight to bring his mind to the final irrevocable determination.

His sister speaks of his process of reaching it as "a long struggle." Introspection, or self­examination,- indeed the most unflinching self­inquisition­­was one of the strongest traits of his spiritual nature, which we shall see more fully developed during his career in College and Seminary. We have no history of the progress of the "long struggle," or of the elements that entered into it-the prayers and searchings of the Holy Word, and the "strong crying and tears to Him who was able to save." We only know that he did finally resolve with God's help to go forward and enter upon the long period (eight years) of preparation for the great and glorious work.

It was after his second term of teaching in the Manchester school that he left home to begin his preparatory studies. The Erie Academy had then (in 1839) as now a high reputation as a classical school, and Mr. Eaton the elder had no hesitation in entering his son in that institution in order to his preparation for College. James Park presided over it at that time as principal. He was a man of striking and peculiar traits, both physical and mental. One of his pupils (footnote: Isaac Moorhead), in an article contributed to a school paper called "The Academy," published by the boys of the school in 1870, thus describes him: "He dressed in solemn black, with straight dress­coat, large pantaloons, and low shoes. His complexion was sallow, face smoothly shaven, hair brushed forward at the sides, and straight up in the center.

" .... .. . . He was very stern and exacting-not without a quiet humor of his own; but still he seemed to stand upon an elevation, and we never got quite near him. He used to say to us: 'The Bible is the best book, and then comes Ross's Latin Grammar.' He never seemed so well pleased as when hearing classes in the languages. He fairly reveled in Cicero, Sallust and Horace, particularly the latter; and after the lesson was over he would read page upon page for the edification of the class.

Mr. Park was a thorough disciplinarian, and made his mark upon his scholars, mentally and physically."

Another teacher, who came later in Mr. Eaton's career as an Academy student, made a lasting impression upon him. This was John Limber, afterwards a preacher of the Gospel. He also was a man of very peculiar traits-a fine scholar, but not, so far as discipline and management were concerned, a very successful teacher. But Mr. Eaton himself has drawn a picture of this strange man and of the school over which he presided, in an "Old Academy" article contributed to the same paper mentioned above. It is a fair sample of his ability as a writer in this lighter vein, and at the same time presents his teacher vividly to our view:

"I think I see John Limber now as he appeared when principal of the Academy. He was about five feet eight inches in height, slender and erect. Indeed he was very slender in form; with black hair and I think hazel eves. and a calm. mild countenance. He often looked pleased, but never frowned. There was a peculiar nervousness about him that seemed to render him unhappy. At least I thought so. He never sat down-was everywhere about the room in school hours, and was often seen when out of school taking solitary walks.

"He loved a good student, and to assist such he spared neither labor nor pains, in school or out. A mischievous boy was to him a pest and a plague. He could not punish him, he could not frown him down; and as a general thing left him in possession of the field. Mr. Limber had a most lovely disposition. He was meek and quiet and humble as a child. There was not the most infinitesimal grain of selfishness in his nature. He would divide his last dime with you, and most likely follow you and force his half upon your acceptance.

"He was a most conscientious man. Shrinking from all public duties, his conscience forced him forward until his life was a constant crucifixion. After he left the Academy he became a Minister of the Gospel. And yet in some of its aspects the work was a positive agony to him, for it brought him in contact with society, and placed him in a conspicuous position. Once when a brother minister had obtained from him a promise to preach, he went into his room a short time before the hour of service and found him walking the room and wringing his hands in agony. On another occasion the agony utterly overcame the poor man, and he fled from the house and from the town, and was seen no more for weeks."

Notwithstanding his natural defects as a teacher, there was much in the character of this slender and nervous man to impress and influence his pupil, still under the spell of the quiet home of a country minister. When the teacher was distressed and perplexed by the ceaseless pranks of the idle and mischievous big boys and hoydenish girls, who made up a large portion of the school, he found a ready sympathizer in the studious Mills Eaton. His patience, gentleness, and forbearance in trying circumstances, were a constant lesson to the young student in the practice of those Christian virtues; while in his studies the latter could not have found an assistant better or more helpful. Many an hour, either in the class or out of regular school hours, the willing teacher spent with the eager student in guiding him through the pleasant gardens of Latin and Greek literature, as well as along the easier paths of English learning; and to this faithful teacher, as well as to the more energetic and positive James Park, is owing much of the ease and grace of style shown by Dr. Eaton both in his writings of a secular character and in his pulpit discourses.

It must have been while a student of the Academy that he devoted himself to live(?) in the following solemn CREED AND COVENANT, found in his handwriting since his death; for it bears date of the year preceding his entering College:

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, eternal and invisible, the Creator of all worlds, the God of angels and of men: And in Jesus Christ his Son our Lord; and in the Holy Ghost our sanctifier- three distinct persons and one God, co­existent and co­equal: In the imputation of Adam's guilt as a federal head to all his posterity; the entire and total depravity of the human heart, and its utter inability to do anything good; the divine influence alone of the Spirit can prepare the heart of fallen man to receive the truth: In the regenerating influences of the Holy Spirit, and that without a change of heart there can be no hope of happiness. I believe in the resurrection of the dead, the communion of the Spirit, and the life everlasting.

"And now, O Lord Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Judge of quick and dead would I, a sinful creature, a worm of the dust, in view of divine majesty, approach into thy presence, and in humble reliance upon divine strength, make his covenant to be the Lord's. O Lord, thou knowest that I am a weak creature, altogether defiled by sin. Yet in humble reliance on the merits of Jesus would I approach unto thee and hope for reconciliation through his blood. I would come before thee just as I am, poor and miserable and blind and naked-utterly estranged from holiness and incapable of good. I would abhor myself on account of sin, and repent in dust and ashes.

And now in the presence of the heart­searching oaf(???), do I covenant to be only his. I give myself soul and body, time and talent, all I am and all I have, unreservedly unto his service; for they are all his. I am not my own, but bought with a price, even the precious blood of the Son of God. I commit my spotted soul into the hands of Jesus, to be washed and regenerated in his own good time and way, to be used in his service here, and to be placed hereafter among his beloved.

"O Lord, thou knowest that I have desired to have part in the ministry of reconciliation; that it is my heart's only earthly wish; and thou knowest whether thou hast ought for me to do in the work. O Lord, if thou sendest me among the heathen to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, there would I live, there would I die. I desire nothing here below but to do thy holy will, to enjoy the light of thy countenance, and the comfortable evidence of my acceptance through Christ. Be thou my guide thro' life, and my everlasting support in death.


Erie, June 13th, 1841.

Mr. Eaton early began to keep a record of his thoughts and experiences in the form of a "Journal and Diary." The earliest one that has come to light is designated as "No. 3," and the first entry is under date of July 25th, 1841. He was at this time at home from school for a few weeks "for various reasons, health recreation. &c." He at once took his place in the harvest field; but remarks: "I still get my 'tale (???) "of bricks' in Latin and Greek-study at night,' while "all around are sleeping."' Here and there an extract will be given from this Journal which will serve to show the current of his thoughts, and also his progress and prevalent characteristics as a student. His conscience seems to have been very tender at this time -as indeed it always was-and the thought of his duty and his relations to God was always uppermost. "What is in the future?" he suddenly asks in the midst of a record of a day,-and answers, "O Lord, thou knowest, and sufficient this is for me."Once in a while he disguises some thought or occurrence of a particularly private character in words of the Latin tongue, which he was then becoming acquainted with, as "Ambulam in societate cum M. occulo, claro (???)" &c.

"But the friendships of the world are vain," he adds. "What are they compared with the love of. . God, and having a friend in Jesus? O that sweet inward peace which the world knoweth not."

At this time he had a longing to become a Missionary to the heathen. "Surely," he writes, "the 'fields are white already for the harvest,' and the Lord of the vineyard is by his providence making the appeal, 'who will go for us ?' O Lord, here am I, send me ! . . . . . Often admonished by a cough that this tabernacle is mortal, living or dying may I promote thy glory. Let me be up and doing, for time is hasting away."

On the 11th of August he makes record of a terrible calamity, which many of the oldest inhabitants of the city of Erie, after almost fifty years, still remember with a shudder: "Heart­rending intelligence has just reached us that the steamboat Erie has been burned, and nearly two hundred lives lost." "August 12. News confirmed of the disaster. Supposed to be one hundred and seventy­five lives lost-all hurried to an untimely grave and a dread eternity."

By the 23d of August he was again at his studies in the Academy. "Commenced Virgil." he says. "Like it much. How sweet and smooth-exceeds anything I ever read. On the Sabbath following he attended the "Seceders Church" (now United Presbyterian). He notes hearing the distinguished Dr. Pressly (footnote: Father of Rev. Joseph H. Pressly, D. D. for years the beloved pastor of the United Presbyterian Church, Erie) for many of Pittsburg in the Synod then in session. "He is quite an interesting man rather beyond middle age, tall and graceful, with a thin face full of expression and animation; and certainly a model for a speaker in debate."

On one Sunday he notes having "attended meeting six times,-at 9 o'clock young men's prayer meeting, at 10 o'clock Sabbath School, at 11 Presbyterian Church, at 1 p. m. the same, at 3 Episcopal Church, and in the evening the Seceder Church." Being highly commended one day by his teacher he veils the fact in Latin­English phrase thus: "Got magnam laudem to­day e meo domino. I like to read Virgil very much indeed. Some most beautiful and lovely ideas. Sitting surrounded by my books the question came to my mind, 'Lovest thou me more than these ?' Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I desire to love thee, but O how weak. Strengthen me by thy almighty power." Some days afterwards be writes: "thought of a departed friend who, when dying, said to me: 'Something tells me that you will be of service in the world.' O that it might be so. But 'Thy will be done.' I think I desire nothing here but to do the will of God. All, all for Christ. How precious is the Cross!"

The words that follow, taken from the record of a day, seem more like those of an aged Saint "ready to depart and be with Christ," than those of a buoyant and ambitious student in the midst of his preparation for College and Seminary and forty years of valiant service on the battle­fields of the Church. "O blessed hope, full of immortality!" he exclaims; "when shall 'this mortal put on immortality?' When will the unclouded regions of heaven dawn to this low estate? Then shall we be free from the sufferings and calamities of this life. But better still we shall be free from sin (blessed hope!), be perfect in holiness, and see the Savior as he is-cast our crowns at his feet, and be permitted to ascribe all to his free and sovereign grace alone May I daily be washed in the sanctifying blood of Jesus Christ, which cleanses from all sin."

During the months of October and November (1841) he remained at home, but devoted himself faithfully to his studies-reading on some single days, as he notes, three hundred to four hundred lines of the AEneid. Early in December he returned to Erie and commenced teaching in one of the public' schools. He speaks of it as "not very large-all boys, which makes it rather lonesome. I think a hard set of boys to getalong with." Being troubled with a cough he writes: "Perhaps the Lord may see fit to summon me from life ere I have completed many more years or months. O Lord, thou knowest how I have desired to be a missionary to the dying heathen. But though sad and bitter the disappointment, I desire ­­ O Savior, help me to say, 'Thy will be done!"'

On the last day of the year (1841) he makes the following important record relating to his religious experience: "I trust that the past has been the most interesting year of my brief existence. I humbly trust that in the past year, through the free grace of God, I have found the 'pearl of great price.' To God he the glory. for I have done nothing."

His cough continued and became very severe, and he finally surrendered his school for a time and returned home. About two weeks later he writes in his Journal: "I feel much better. almost recovered. To God be the praise and glory. Perhaps the Lord will yet send me to the dying heathen. 'Behold thy waiting Servant, Lord."' A few days later he returned to his school, and was able to carry it on successfully till the end of the term in April.

It was during this period that the great "Washingtonian" Temperance movement was sweeping over the country. Starting with seven drunkards, who, after a debauch in a tavern in Baltimore, pledged themselves to each other in a solemn promise of total abstinence from all that could intoxicate, the good cause extended in all directions, with these seven reformed men as the Apostles of the crusade. Temperance meetings were held in every town and village, and almost every school­house was the arena for Temperance orators. Students in the Academy who had some gifts of eloquence had frequent calls here and there in country neighborhoods, and were willing enough to air their oratorical accomplishments in advocacy of so good a cause. Mills Eaton and some of his fellow­students were among these, and were ready to make Temperance speeches in churches and school­houses in the neighborhood of Erie. Of his first effort of this kind he says (March 31): " Last night went with R. to a "Temperance meeting to make our maiden speeches." I was enabled to speak with confidence and boldness. An unseen power sustained me. 'Not unto me but unto thee be the glory, O Lord my God.' I felt confused at first; but the text, 'Commit thy way unto the Lord and He will direct thy steps,' came to mind, and then I felt easy and calm."

He attended several other meetings, and seems to have been quite successful as a Temperance advocate.

In a letter to one of his brothers written about this time, he speaks of a literary society of the town with which he was connected, called "The Adelphic." It consisted of forty members and had gathered a library of 200 volumes. We have a mighty project in view," he says, "which will astonish the 'natives' when it becomes public.-provided it does not die "in the bud." The writer then branches off into a humorous account of a high function which he had been called to perform the evening before as the presiding "Judge" at a "colored" debating society' with George K. and Ralph K. sitting on either side as assistants. "And such a debate-such eloquence! O Demosthenes! . . . . . I happen to recollect the exact language of one eloquent speaker. Speaking of the wrongs of the Indian he said: 'De Ingen is in a state of grievancy. He is droven off to de Rocky Mounting, whar nothin' but de bar and de panter and de pokepine and oder unfortunable animals can stay.'-They keep up their debates regularly once a week. The following is a specimen of the way they do business. One member got up and said, 'I motion and second the question for next evening be: Which are the most beneficial to community, Stores or Taverns? All who are in favor manifest by saying aye' "

Our young student, who doubtless devoted the hours of the day deligently to his school studies, found his evenings fully occupied with engagements either of a literary or religious character. He thus describes the after­night occupations of one week: "Monday evening,elocution class; Tuesday, 'Adelphic' and prayer meeting; Wednesday, prayer meeting at our house; Thursday, 'Athenaeum'; Friday, prayer meeting; Saturday, sometimes one thing and sometimes another "

James C. Reid, of Erie, a recent graduate of Jefferson College, and a man of superior attainments, was at this time a teacher in the Academy. He took great interest in matters of science; and Mr. Eaton in one of his letters speaks of ``a splendid variety of Mineralogical and Geological specimens which Mr. Reid 'had just received direct from Greece andRome-no 'less than three or four hundred specimens, each 'neatly done up in paper and labeled-Crystals; Quartzes, Carbuncles, &;c. But what is more valuable to the antiquary, is a number of 'relics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, -among 'other things, a piece of gilded plastering from a 'house in the former city, whose tenants have, been 'sleeping with the dead nearly 2,000 years.

Also a fragment from the temple of Diomede, of the finest marble; various specimens of lava from Mount Vesuvius, &c. They were brought by a son of Capt. Knapp, who is a midshipman in the Navy,- so that they are genuine.''

The religious controversy in the Presbyterian Church, which had led recently to a division of the Church, and had caused separations and heart­burnings among the members of individual churches, was then still in an inflamed state. The Erie Church and its pastor had sided with the "New School" branch, while the Fairview Church and Father Eaton threw in their lot with the "Old School." Our Academic student and incipient clergyman sided strongly as he naturally would, with his father's views. Of course he attended the Presbyterian Church, and most of his friends belonged to families of that church; and he early learned, if it was not a part of his nature, to "follow the things that make for peace." His convictions were strong, but he was not given to controversy.

Yet to be silent at all times was not easy. In a letter to his father, in August, 1842, when near the close of his Academic course, he speaks of his troubles in this respect: "My own situation here," he says, "is not very pleasant in some respects. They are continually requesting me to point out the difference between the two parties (Old and New School), or draw the line of demarcation; and this you know is not always an easy matter-especially to those whose theological knowledge is rather limited, and who are not very anxious to arrive at the truth.

Although hard at work in his studies during the summer-digging among tough "Greek roots," and reading the satires of Horace-"I am not fond of Horace," he says; "love Virgil much better. Sweet Virgil how I admire you !" -although deeply engaged in these and other studies in his final preparations for entering College, he seems to have given more attention than formerly to physical exercise, and to have borne his part in the social enjoyments of the town. But "these things of time and sense"-when he comes to make note of them in his Journal-" these " things are unsatisfying. They do not afford action(???) for the soul. There is a void which nought but faith in the son of God can fill."

He left the Academy at the close of the school year in September, thoroughly equipped in the studies he had pursued, and ready to enter, as we shall see, the Sophomore Class at College.

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