Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Varieties of Religious Experience
We’d been living in Cape Breton a couple of years when I asked the storekeeper why no ministers had come to call; in every other country place we had lived ministers were almost the first callers. He smiled. “People living in the Backlands are heathens. You folks are left to the Devil and Jehovah Witnesses.” I don’t know about the Devil, but no Witnesses appeared, and it must have been during seven or eight years because all the children were grown and gone before religion came to the Backlands. I had walked to a neighbor’s to make a phone call and I was on my way back when a man in an old pickup gave me a ride, and when I got out he handed me a piece of stiff paper, saying “Take this along, brother.” It was a homemade religious tract. One side was a typed message — “The Road of Life” — while the reverse was an amateurish drawing of a journey from birth to death, winding from one pitfall to another, the Seven Deadly Sins. I was impressed and so was Jo Ann.
“What an effort! What was he like?”
“Nothing special. I had the feeling that he was a little simple. He had long arms that stuck out of his sleeves.”
Passing out tracts in the country is not like in the city: here you know your man and can follow him up. We were not surprised when the man and his wife — Fred and Betty MacIsaac — turned up on Sunday afternoon. Fred was quiet and shy, a contrast to Betty, short, dark, blunt-featured, with prominent staring eyes, very self-assured. She had conceived the tracts and done the text; Fred did the drawing.
Jo Ann said something about it being a lot of work, and Betty shook her head. “No more. Now we buy them ready-printed. We didn’t know about them when we started — see. Here’s one of the new ones,” she said, pleased and proud.
“Have you been to Calvary?” it asked, and on the bottom in small letters I read, “Pilgrim Tract Society, Inc., Randleman, North Carolina.”
They went to the mall at the Strait on Saturday afternoons and passed out tracts, “Doing the Lord’s work.” They’d been at it for a couple of years.
“What made you start?”
Betty looked at Fred. He had been a silent figure in the background, drinking his tea at the far end of the long kitchen table. Now he sat up straight. “I had a vision,” he began deliberately in his quiet voice.
“It was a terrible hot day, and I was in the hayfield getting in a load of oats I’d cut green for hay. You know how it is with oats; when they’re thick you think they’ll never end. I’d go along for a while pitching, and then I’d climb up to build the load. The sun was burning me up and the sweat was just pouring off me.”
His voice did not seem to change, but we felt an intensity, a current lying just behind the words. We sat quite still, watching his face.
“The sky wasn’t blue, it was hazy, milky, and the heat was all around, pressing me down, and everything was turning like waves, and I looked up and the sky was as brass, and next thing I knew I was down in the stubble on my knees, praying to the almighty God.”
He smiled and sipped his tea. Betty said, “That’s when we took up the Lord’s work.”
We came out of our trance. I said, rather lamely, “That’s some story.” Jo Ann offered more tea, but Betty said they had to be going. At the door I said, “Come again.”
Jo Ann smiled. “They’ll come again, all right. This was just the first installment. Notice how they didn’t dissipate the effect by hanging around. Drop the bomb and go.”
“It was impressive.”
“Oh yes. And now they’ll be back after your soul.”
“You’re in it, too.”
“They don’t care about me; I’m just part of the picture. I saw the way they looked at you. It’s your naiveté, unworldliness.”
“So are you.”
“Yes, but it’s the man of the house they want. Well, they’re your Christian friends, I leave them to you.”
Fred came by nearly every Sunday afternoon for the next few weeks, and we would walk around the farm, discussing things like hay or drainage or fencing, and we’d stop at the stable to look at the pigs, and finally we’d wind up sitting on the porch steps, discussing religion. Sometimes Betty was with him. She wasn’t very sociable.
“She thinks Fred is wasting his time on you.”
“Yes. And I can see she doesn’t like the way I talk about religion with him.”
“She probably thinks you’re undermining his faith.”
“All I do is ask questions trying to make sense of what he says, a mishmash of Bible quotes and odd notions he’s picked up somewhere. I don’t challenge anything.”
“You’re supposed to swallow it whole.”
“Too bad. I like Fred and I enjoy his visits.”
The MacIsaacs didn’t appear one Sunday, but we had another religious visitor. I was working in the garden when a man drove up in a pickup. He looked extraordinary, even at a distance with a pork pie hat set four-square on his head — I hadn’t seen a hat like that since before the war — and a black suit so worn it was shiny. His face was remarkably flat, and his pale brown eyes were very small and slightly slanted, so he looked almost Oriental.
“Good day,” I said.
“Good day. Mr. Gardner? Yes. Well, I’m Angus R. MacDonald. Yes. Folks call me Angus R., don’t you know? Yes. And I came to see you. Yes.”
He had a high voice, with the sing-song rhythm of the old Cape Bretoners raised in Gaelic-speaking households. “What did you want to see me about?”
“Yes. What did I want to see you about? Well, yes, you see I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, don’t you know. Yes. And I go around making calls on folks yes, that’s what I do.”
He smiled and smiled, his little eyes disappearing in the wrinkles, and I thought he was an innocent eccentric, but the impression he made was not unpleasant. “Before you go on, Mr. MacDonald, you should understand I’m an atheist.”
“No!” His smiled broadened.
“Yes,” I answered, smiling too.
Angus R. shook his head and said “No.” again, not, I think, in shock or disbelief but as rejection of the whole notion. He pulled a small Bible from his pocket. “Well now, Mr. Gardner, yes, this is the word of God you know, isn’t it?”
“No. Part of it is Jewish history and mythology, and part is Christian mythology. In other words, I don’t believe it’s the word of God.”
Still smiling, Angus R. shook his head. I waved my hand magnanimously. “Let’s not argue about it. Agree to disagree.” I was very pleased with my definition of the Bible. “Come
on; we’ll have the tea.”
Once in the kitchen, however, he politely refused tea. “Just a cup of warm milk, yes, just a cup of warm milk, don’t you know, if it’s no trouble, Missus.”
He put the pork pike hat on his knee and drank the milk in little sips, smiling all the time. He had been a Witness nearly all his life he said, and when he talked about his past he spoke soberly without nervousness.
“Well, you see, I went with my mother around to all the places when I was just a gaffer, and when I got bigger I carried the gramophone and records.” He smiled. “We had records to play to folks, talking records, you know.”
“What was on them?”
“Talks. Like the stories in the Watchtower, you see. Different ones — Religion and Morality, Is there a God? Immortality — lots and lots of things.” He looked at the clock. “Gosh! It’s time I was leaving, yes, it’s time for me to go, don’t you know?” Standing, he clapped the hat firmly on his head.
“But you haven’t been here long.”
“Well, well, you’re very kind, yes, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome, don’t you know. I’m not welcome every place, you know, no I’m not. But I don’t live far way, just before Jamesville, don’t you know, yes, and I’ll be by again. Yes, yes, I’ll see you.”
When Fred and Betty came by again, the first thing I mentioned was Angus R.’s visit. That was a blunder.
“Jehovah’s Witness,” Betty said with great scorn, making me feel I’d given my patronage to a rival and inferior firm.
Fred was upset. He couldn’t focus his attention on anything — Angus R. kept intruding. How long was he here? What did he talk about? What did I think of him? Finally, he asked portentously, “Did he tell you about our Lord Jesus Christ coming back to Earth in 1914? Did he tell you that?”
“No. He didn’t say much about their doctrine. Of course, I knew that about Christ already.”
He was shaken. “How’d you know that?”
“What’s so strange about it? Anyone who’s talked to a Witness must know it. It’s one of their most distinctive ideas.”
Fred nervously plucked at his sleeves, trying to draw them down over his wrists. I realized I wasn’t supposed to know anything about religion beyond what the MacIsaacs had to offer; no wonder Betty was skeptical of me. I wished I hadn’t mentioned Angus R.
In a gloomy voice Fred said, “I used to go to the Kingdom Hall outside Baddeck.”
“Oh? Why didn’t you stick with them?” We were sitting together on the porch steps and Betty was on a bench behind us. She spoke with great contempt, “Not spiritual enough.”
I turned to look at her. The stern set of her lips, the scowling frown, her narrow heavy-lidded eyes showed a hardness that daunted me. What could she mean by “spiritual?” she stared back at me coldly.
Fred came alone next time, and he couldn’t stay long. It was raining, so we sat in the kitchen and had tea. He kept tugging at his sleeves. As he was leaving, standing in the doorway, he said they wanted to hold a service there at our farm with all their fellow believers — and then he was gone. We were left with our mouths open.
Jo Ann shook herself. “Absolutely not!” she said firmly.
“Why not? It might be interesting.”
“They want to convert us, and I’m not interested. I’m a Jew and that’s that. Christian attempts at conversion are insulting. I won’t have it.”
“OK, OK, take it easy.”
“You’d better write right away. Don’t wait, you might be too late otherwise. That was a deliberately fast exit so we wouldn’t have time to object.”
I wrote as graciously as possible, but I had to say there would be no services at the farm. I knew Jo Ann was right, and beyond curiosity I had no real interest in the gathering. But I was afraid this would drive the MacIsaacs away, and I enjoyed Fred’s visits, just as I always like people who were religious in an unworldly way. I like their simplicity, their lack of pretension, their sharp contrast with the narrow-minded materialism so common in the countryside. The only trouble was that sooner or later you had to join them. I ended the letter, “I hope this will not affect our friendship.”
That was the end of the visits, although I saw them once again, as we shall see. * . . . . Continued in the next issue.