American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

The Wilderness Preacher

"A letter for me, did you say?"

The speaker was a slender, unassuming man, far past middle age. He was dressed in the homespun garb then common in Kentucky, and the threadbare elbows of his coat showed that his present suit had done long and faithful duty. His hair, which was almost white, was combed straight down over his ears. His blue eyes were full of kindliness. His voice was soft and pleasant to hear.

"A letter for me, did you say?"

"Well, I reckon it's for you," answered the backwoodsman, who had brought it. "They say that your name's on the back of it. That's as much as I know about it."

The old man took the letter and read the superscription:

"To David Elkin, Kentucky"

"Yes, that is my name," he said; and he opened the missive. It was merely a sheet of paper, folded, with the ends tucked under. It had neither envelope nor stamp, for envelopes and stamps had not then come into use. It contained no postmark, for postoffices were few in the western country, and it had been carried by private hands and the hands of friends. The place from which it had come was not more than a hundred and fifty miles distant, and yet it had traveled by a roundabout way, and had been on the road for weeks.

David Elkin smoothed the crumpled sheet with his hands and held it up to the light to make out the signature. The writing was in a plain, delicate hand, and had been done with a quill pen and pale home-make ink. We do not know the exact words which that letter contained. But David Elkin's eyes filled with tears as he read them. Let us suppose that they were these:—

"DEAR FRIEND,—I take my pen to let you know that mother is dead. She was buried yesterday. But oh, Mr. Elkin, there is no preacher anywhere in this country, and we could not have any religious services. Our sorrow is too great to bear. Won't you please come soon and preach her funeral sermon? I do not know where you are, but I hope this will reach you somewhere in Kentucky, and that you will come.

                     "Your young friend,

        "Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana, 1818."

David Elkin read the letter over and over, His hand trembled. His lips quivered.

"Where did you get this letter, Isaac?" he asked.

"Well," answered the backwoodsman, "I was up in Harrodsburg last week and a man asked me, 'Is there anybody down your way by the name of David Elkin?' I stopped to think a minute. Then I told him that there was a preacher going through this section that folds called Brother Elkin, and that perhaps his name was David, but I wasn't sure. Then he said that he had a letter for David Elkin, and wouldn't I carry it to you? He said he guessed it had been all over Kentucky, carried from hand to hand, and passed from this place to that. I told him I'd try to find you and give it to you; and that's what brought me here."

"And I thank you very much," said David.

"It is from the son of some dear friends of mine who used to live in the Knob-Creek settlement. They moved to Indiana about two years ago, and this letter tells me that the mother is dead;" and he covered his face and sobbed aloud.

The next day the good preacher began to make ready for a journey to Indiana. "Little Abe wants me to preach her funeral sermon," he said, "and if God gives me strength, I will do it."

He borrowed an old horse. In his saddlebags he packed a shirt, a loaf of bread, a hymn book, and a Bible. Then he mounted, and rode slowly away through the wilderness.

The streams were swollen with recent rains, and, as there were no bridges, he was often obliged to leave the road and ride far around to some safe fording place. Sometimes he stopped at a settler's cabin for a bit of food or a night's lodging. Everybody was glad to entertain him, for in that early day hospitality to strangers was the first rule of life.

The roads grew worse. In some places there was not so much as a bridle path through the forest. Night sometimes fell while the lone traveler was far from any dwelling. Then he tethered his horse to a tree, built a fire of sticks and brush, and sat down by it to wait for the morning. At such times the howling of wolves and the screeching of panthers echoed around him; stealthy steps were heard among the dead leaves; bright, savage eyes gleamed in the darkness. What could an unarmed man do in the midst of so many perils? David Elkin trusted in God.

[Illustration] from American Book of Golden Deeds by James Baldwin


At length he reached the Ohio River and was rowed across to the Indiana shore. Another day's journey brought him to Pigeon Creek and the home of the Lincolns. Imagine the joy of that sorrowing family, and, especially, of the nine-year-old lad whose letter had been the means of bringing him.

In sparsely settled districts news travels much faster than you would suppose. It seems almost to fly by a kind of wireless telegraphy from one lonely cabin to another. In a very brief time the settlers for miles around knew that a preacher had arrived among them, and that on Sunday morning he would preach a funeral sermon at the grave of Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Sunday morning came, and with it the greatest gathering of neighbors that had ever been known in that section. Some came so far that they had to start from home at daybreak. They came afoot, on horseback, and in wagons. All sorts and conditions of backwoods settlers were there. Everybody was eager to hear what the preacher would say.

At a little before noon the services began. David Elkin, his kind face clouded with grief, stood at the head of the grave. Mr. Lincoln and his two children sat quite near him. The visitors and friends were grouped around them. The preacher opened his hymn book—there was not another at the meeting. He turned to the hymn he had selected, and read it, two lines at a time. At the end of each reading, the women and girls joined him in singing the lines he had pronounced. To the rude settlers, unaccustomed to better things, this singing was most delightful, impressive, and inspiring.

A brief prayer followed the hymn, and then David Elkin began his sermon. We do not know what his text was. We do not know what were the words he spoke. But we may well surmise the substance of his discourse: the nobility, the gentleness, the loving self-sacrifice of the poor woman in whose honor they had met together. To Abraham Lincoln it was doubtless fraught with inspiration, urging him then and thereafter to a noble, manly life. "My angel mother!" he afterward cried, "all that I am and all that I shall ever be, I owe to her."

The sermon over, there was another prayer, another hymn was sung, and then the benediction was pronounced. The settlers tarried under the trees, to greet the minister and one another, to talk about the sermon, to exchange the gossip of the different neighborhoods. When at last they separated and each took his homeward way, there were but few who had not been made wiser and gentler and more thoughtful than they had ever been before.

David Elkin did not remain long with the Lincolns. A day or two later he saddled his horse, mounted, and turned his face toward Kentucky.

"Good-by, Abraham, and may God bless you."

He shook the hand that was offered him, rode down the woodland path into the great forest—and we hear no word of him again.