Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Holy and Unholy Deacons in Late Nineteenth-Century Popular Verse

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Holy and Unholy Deacons in Late Nineteenth-Century Popular Verse

Article excerpt

Abstract: Vernacular rhyme about deacons abounded in popular literature in the late-nineteenth century, presenting a thought-provoking interplay between the ideal of diaconal holiness and the vicissitudes of daily life. These verses, ideologically balanced between free will and determinism, used humor to defuse economic and social tensions within rural communities. The use of rural vernacular was a signal that the writer was in tune with bedrock values, the moral cornerstones of the Republic. The single lesson that emerges is that while deacons may be subject to any of the seven deadly sins, true charity means being a good neighbor to the hungry and poor.

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   Old Deacon Gray was as mean a man
   As I've seen for many a day;
   He'd steal and lie for the sake of a dime,
   And rob all who came in his way.

--Ullie Akerstrom

Deacons abounded in American popular literature before the turn of the twentieth century. They figured in poetry and prose, and song and image, most appearing without mention of church affiliation. Countless writers, many little known today, called attention to a figure seen more often in church aisles than in the newspaper, and they often did so in vernacular rhyme. A few members of this diaconal fraternity were saintly; many more were scoundrels. Some were susceptible to feminine wiles, while others enjoyed a daily tipple and drove fast horses. On the whole, these figures present a thought-provoking interplay between the ideal of diaconal holiness and the vicissitudes of daily life. William E. Barton, a "pastor of a non-liturgical church" writing in 1906, is correct in his assessment:

   The newspapers find the name deacon a convenient one when they want
   to contrast profession with performance, and readily associate that
   title with the light weight and the short measure of the village
   store, and with the asperities of domestic and neighborhood life,
   and the inconsistencies of trade which most of all prove trying to
   even true religion. (432)

While Barton goes on to defend his deacons, the newspaper poets for the most part follow the example of the early nineteenth-century writer Rose Terry Cooke, whose dismay over the "warped and distorted form" of rural religious orthodoxy led her to create any number of memorable and disreputable deacons. For these "New England country folk," Westbrook comments, "the word 'deacon' became a verb meaning 'to cheat,' or at least drive a hard bargain. If a deacon were a storekeeper, he could be expected to sand the sugar and water the rum that he sold" (253). That characterization persists through the end of the century: woven into the local writers' rustic phraseology and humor is a catalog of the seven deadly sins--pride, avarice, wrath, greed, lust, envy, and sloth. In the popular imagination, deacons are, at their best, flawed figures whose better nature was sometimes hard-pressed to triumph.

On the whole, however, the popular poems suggest a fundamental call for moral and social change that was, in its own way, a reflection of the call to conversion. Peter Olney's comment about the labor movement in the 1930s has an unexpected application to these earlier works. He notes that social justice organizers follow three steps: exposing the system's oppressiveness, "processing of pain" in an attempt to retool the system, and finding Biblical foundation for a just society (44-45). Often, these are the steps mirrored in the verses. Clearly, then, the versifiers' mocking assessment of a figure whose religious office ought be founded on a moral lifestyle reflects the tensions within turn-of-the-century Protestantism, tensions engendered by a population shift as well as a growth in evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

The social and economic delimiters of a burgeoning population--from 31 million in 1860 to 106 million in 1920 (Marty 310)--were reflected in church membership as well. …

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