The Reverend Isaiah Travis and his daughter Mirabile introduced themselves to me as they readied their covered wagon to leave. They were headed for the western end of New York State, they told me, where the people were notoriously welcoming to the word of God.
“The ‘burned-over district’ some call it,” Travis said, “for the number of times their souls have been set ablaze. But a soul is never burned over; once set on fire, it will always retain a spark.”
I could join them, they said, offering me food, shelter and paying work if I did, but I had to decide fast. They were leaving Salem immediately and did not intend to return. I was reluctant to leave my home, but I saw nothing but trouble if I stayed, so I agreed to go with them to New York.
We headed west out of Salem, passing farms, first familiar then strange to me, then into woodland, farther from home than I had ever been. That night I slept outside, under a blanket, while Mirabile and the Reverend slept inside the wagon. It was frightening at first, but soon it became routine. I slept under the stars when the night was clear and under the wagon when it rained.
As we traveled, my days were spent studying scripture—learning the Bible randomly, verse by verse. Sometimes I would sit next to Reverend Travis as he drove the horse, and he taught me the hellfire verses. Other times I would ride in the wagon and Mirabile taught me the merciful ones. She taught me Bible stories, most I already knew, but her voice was like music as she read. I loved the time I spent with Mirabile; she was so kind and beautiful. I hoped she might begin to feel a similar affection for me, but she showed no interest beyond that of a teacher to a student.
It was a lot to learn, and they wanted me to know each verse by heart.
“You’ll thank me, Jonathan,” said Reverend Travis, “an aptly chosen bible verse will win any argument.”
But I still had trouble remembering; there seemed to be no common thread connecting the verses. I thought maybe if I just read the whole book it might make more sense. When I suggested this to Reverend Travis and Mirabile, they just looked at me strangely.
Reverend Travis said, “That would only confuse you, boy. It is a tonic best taken in small doses.”
So I continued struggling with the recitations without the help of the written word.
The first big town we came to was Worcester, Massachusettes; the Reverend wanted to hold a service there. I thought my role would be limited to setting up the stage and handing out tracts and the like, but as we ate breakfast around the fire outside of town, Reverend Travis told us he had other plans for me.
“I can’t stop thinking about that crowd back in Salem.” He said, “They had so much sympathy for Jonathan that they would have done anything for him. They would have murdered that cooper had I but said the word. I wonder if we could make that work again.”
“How do you mean?” Mirabile asked.
“What if Jonathan came before the crowd and testified? Limping to the front, his face bruised and cut, telling how his master knocked him down and beat him.”
“I think it was the other boy knocked me down,” I said.
“Beaten by his master for desiring to hear the word of God.” The Reverend said, in the tone he had used that day in Salem.
“He beat me for knocking down his barrels.”
“Beaten senseless for the Lord’s sake. Rescued by an angel of God, isn’t that what he said? An angel of God in the form of our beautiful Mirabile. Yes, I think that could work.”
“That’s not really the way it happened,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter, Jonathan, the details don’t matter. All that matters is you were listening to the word of God and you were beaten for it. That is all they want to hear, and that is what we will tell them.”
“Like the parables,” Mirabile said. “You don’t think Jesus actually knew that prodigal son, do you?”
I thought not, and I got the point. With some misgivings I rehearsed that simple story and, while somewhat less than the truth, it was much easier to learn than the Bible verses, and by the end, I nearly believed it myself. I especially like the ending where the angelic Mirabile stayed the hand of the aggressor and shamed him into freeing me from bondage. It was a moving story.
We arrived in Worcester on a fine spring afternoon, and it pleased me not to be working at the cooperage. Instead, we would go shopping in town. Reverend Travis had a billfold full of bank notes, which he kept separate from the offerings. He extracted a bill, said “this should do it,” and, arm around my shoulder, took me to a tailor in downtown Worcester. He bought me a new suit of clothes, complete with a wool cap and a white cotton shirt. Though the bill no more than five dollars, the Reverend paid with a twenty dollar bank note, taking the change in gold coin. I was duly impressed—it looked as though there was money in this work after all.
We found a vacant lot near the main thoroughfare, and I helped set up the stage. There was some lifting but nothing hard, nothing like a day hefting barrels at the cooperage. One end of the stage rested on the back end of the wagon, the other end set upon two barrels. Mirabile and Revered Travis showed me how to set it straight. It went up easy but seeing the stage set up started me fretting about the role I was to play. Mirabile told me not to worry; it was better if I were nervous; it would be more natural. She told me to say the words as well as I could and let the Reverend handle the rest, she went on to the stage to ready the lap organ.
On the Reverend’s signal, she began playing “A Mighty Fortress.” People became curious—as I had been in Salem—and gradually a crowd had formed to listen to the music. When the crowd had reached a size he liked, Reverend Travis mounted the stage and began singing in a loud but melodious voice. Many in the crowd could not resist joining in. When the song was over, he led us in prayer, thanking the Lord for the beautiful day and for the opportunity to bring his word to the good people of Worcester. Then came the sermon. The text was all righteousness and forgiveness – the salvation for those who follow Christ; damnation and hellfire for those who did not. He spoke of the difficulty of preaching the gospel in these Godless times and talked especially of the wickedness in Salem.
“Brother Jonathan, come forward please.” He motioned me toward him, and I climbed to the stage. He turned to the crowd and said to them. “Brother Jonathan was chastised, for trying to hear the word of God. He was beaten, as you can see, and driven from his livelihood.”
The reverend had fairly well told the whole story before calling on me to speak, but as I spoke to the hushed crowd, they hung on every word. I was fearful at first, and my voice wavered, but as Mirabile had predicted, that only added to the effect. I had rehearsed well, and by the end, I was speaking with confidence. When I finished, Reverend Travis led us in prayer, praying for my health and praying for the soul of my tormentor. He said “Amen, ” and Mirabile played the organ as we all sang “Rock of Ages” with great enthusiasm.
After the service, we passed a basket for donations, and it filled quickly. Many in the crowd came forward to congratulate Reverend Travis on a wonderful sermon and to praise my bravery and righteousness. A small group was standing around the two of us when a voice called out from behind.
“You owe me, Reverend! That bill you gave me is queer!” It was the tailor we had visited earlier in the day.
Reverend Travis turned and said with all meekness, “Pardon me, sir?”
“I took your twenty dollar note to the bank and was told the bill is counterfeit. I should have known better, but I thought I could trust a preacher.”
“As did I trust the Salem man who donated it.” Said the Reverend. “I assure you, sir, I had no idea that the bill was bad and I insist you take retribution from the offerings these good people gave for God’s work. And of course, the boy will relinquish his new suit.”
But the crowd would not have it; as they had in Salem, the gathered multitudes sided with the preacher. They chastised the poor tailor and shamed him until in confusion he left without his money. Some of the people were so moved by this that they gave a second donation to prove how unlike the tailor they were.
So that day I got a new suit of clothes, and the Reverend a pocketful of gold and the collection basket was augmented, while the poor Worcester tailor took a serious loss. And in the back of my mind, I was more than half sure that the tailor was right.
As Mirabile so often told me, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”