Religion and Social Movements

Uncle Sam Smith Becomes a Methodist and Shocks his Kin

Growing up in Newburyport, Mass., in the 1790s, Sarah Anna Emery’s mother lived on the Smith farm, the family homestead of her father, James, and his brother Sam Smith.

Methodist circuit riders, like this one seen in a Harper’s Weekly illustration, traveling New England delivering fiery and passionate sermons built the church by converting men like Sam Smith to the church and then moving on, leaving the new converts to spread the word.

Methodist circuit riders, like this one seen in a Harper’s Weekly illustration, traveling New England delivering fiery and passionate sermons built the church by converting men like Sam Smith to the church and then moving on, leaving the new converts to spread the word.

Life on the farm centered on work, family and church — the Congregational church.

Sarah’s Uncle Sam Smith had sold his portion of the homestead to his brother and left for Vermont, where he built up his own farm into a successful operation.

Each winter, Sam would return to Newburyport loaded with country farm produce. He would then swap it for dry goods and products he needed.

On that cold February day when he arrived with a loaded sleigh, the family burst into activity. The Smiths celebrated his visit and caught each other up on the news.

First Religious Society Church, Newburyport

Uncle Sam Smith, Methodist

One year, however, Sam brought news that shocked his Newburyport kin. He had become a Methodist, he said, sending his family into an uproar.

Emery wrote about the event in her book, Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, a lively accounting of the events and milestones of her life.

The conversion began when a stranger — a travelling Methodist preacher — visited Sam Smith’s small Vermont town, she  wrote:

The people were not united respecting the regular minister, and the stranger produced a marked effect. He was invited to prolong his sojourn; Uncle Sam and many others became converted, and a church was formed. The preacher had then gone to new spheres of labor, but Uncle Sam and others conducted a regular Sunday worship at the school house.

A Specimen of Methodism

“Before returning Uncle Sam gave us a specimen of Methodism in a long and singularly well-worded prayer,” she wrote. He delivered it in the loudest tones of a powerful but finely modulated voice. He followed the prayer with a “good hymn set to one of the enlivening Methodist tunes.”

Uncle Sam Smith had a remarkable voice and an exquisite ear and taste, she wrote. Sarah called his singing “superb.” She found it enchanting and her mother liked the hymn. “But father shook his head and gravely declared his sorrow. ” Sam’s head always would be full of something. He had got over dancing and poetry, now it was preaching, praying and singing.”

“Well, what was born in the bone could not be beat out of the flesh,” her father observed. “He never was cut out for a drudging farmer, and he never would be one.” Father only hoped he would not let that farm he had got under such headway go all to rack and ruin.

“Grandmother was so deaf that it was difficult to make her comprehend the matter; but Uncle Sam was too zealous to leave her long unenlightened.” This good woman was positively aghast. “Her son, her son Sam, turned Methodist!”

First Family

Sarah’s grandmother came of a first family, as “complete an aristocrat as ever trod in No. 2 shoes. Something must be done; she could not have any such doings. Why, it was a disgrace to the family, and would bring ruin to himself! He had become of some account in that far-away place; he should not subject himself and his friends to ignominy, and mar his bright prospects.”

“‘Methodists, why they were ranters, gathered from the lower classes! Her son had nothing to do with such people. It was preposterous’! And the sweet, mild little woman put on all the assumption of authority that she could possibly assume.”

Methodist revival meeting

Grandmother, wrote Sarah, “in the most solemn manner pronounced her ban upon this new spiritual scheme.”

Aunt Sarah didn’t like it either. She “pished and pshawed over the praying and singing, then fidgeted and fussed respecting the business of selling and buying, declaring that ‘Brother was so full of his new religion that he couldn’t tell a cent from a dollar’.” Then when he brought home a dress pattern of black silk for his wife, and a tasty blue silk bonnet for his daughter, “she sat down with a hopeless face. She folded her hands, and with uplifted eyes, washed her hands of the whole proceedings.”

Uncle Sam would never be a forehanded farmer, and Aunt Sarah really feared he would become clean distraught. “The Lord wasn’t deaf, he needn’t holler so at prayer as to make the warming-pan ring in the cellar way, or to scare Uncle Thurrel’s folks, who couldn’t imagine what all that shouting over to Jim Smith’s meant,” wrote Sarah.

Uncle Sam, More Than a Match

“She thought Methodist women cut off their hair and made frights of themselves, but then sister hadn’t lost her senses, like her husband, as she knew. and for all his piety, Sam had too much of the old Adam yet, to let his pretty Sally wear anything but the most becoming.”

A thaw came and Uncle Sam prolonged his stay. The intelligence of his embracing Methodism caused quite a stir amongst his relatives and acquaintances, wrote Sarah. “Every evening our house was thronged. Some came to hear of the new doctrines from mere curiosity, others from a desire for knowledge, and a few earnestly to combat what they deemed a serious error, affecting both the temporal and spiritual welfare of the convert.

“Amongst the most forward and zealous of this class, was Aunt Ruth Little. It was vastly amusing to listen to the war of words, and, it must be confessed, Uncle Sam proved more than a match for the contestants.”

This story last updated in 2022.

Images: First Religious Society Church By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9516431.

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