So, Maggie lives in a United States that is creating its own civic holidays, and which has austere religious liturgies and traditions. Little does she know that is about to change. It will take over 100 years, but she no doubt would be shocked by the culture of today’s USA and religious practices.
According to Leigh Eric Schmidt, the austerity and paucity of American holy days and holidays changed in the mid-1800s, in large part because of Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. Dickens toured the USA after the Civil War, where he would read his socially-conscious and sentimental story about a heartless employer facing the impact of his actions. It evidently touched a nerve. People began to understand that holidays (and holy days) just might have value. Workers would come back to their jobs refreshed and ready to start producing again.
But seen through commercial eyes, holidays and holy days also had potential. They could mean greater sales of items specific to the day, and this would mean greater income for business.
But all this happens just after the time in which my character Maggie is living, which is the Civil War era. Charles Dickens had yet to make his great tour of the United States. Maggie and her society would still be holding on to older American traditions regarding the celebration of holy days.
Maggie’s religious ancestry (and my own) goes back to John Wesley, who sought to create a revival in the Church of England. Anglicans who belonged Methodist societies were in the British Colonies by the mid-1700s. Long story short, the American Revolution forced John Wesley to break with tradition and ordain bishops to send to the newborn nation, even though he was hesitant to break with the Church of England (not to mention the king).
Despite our churches’ common DNA, Maggie’s experience is very different from mine. I haven’t written about how Easter or Holy Week was approached in the Maggie series. However, in Saint Maggie, I wrote in some detail about Christmas in Maggie’s boarding house and community. Her little Methodist church did not have a Christmas Eve midnight worship service. Rather, they gathered for worship on Christmas morning. Worship was followed by some modest gift-giving at home and a dinner. Then Maggie and family would go out to do something for someone else. In Saint Maggie, they visit the town’s orphanage, where they bring gifts of food and spend time with the children. In the short story, “The Dundee Cake,” Maggie tries to make the best of Christmas but is distraught that she does not have the money even to knit stockings or mittens for her daughters. Despite this, she and her girls call on the Johnson family and give them a modest gift of baked goods. Later, Maggie convinces her boarders to donate what they can, which means they will forgo the luxuries of Christmas dinner to help the Johnsons. In 1863, the tables are reversed in “The Christmas Eve Visitor,” when a stranger visits the once-again impoverished family during a snowstorm. This time they are on the receiving end, but the gifts are of a spiritual nature, which gives them hope.
These traditions probably seem strange to us – especially the simplicity and austerity. However, the idea that one should be generous at Christmastime – regardless of religious belief or unbelief – has survived. Still, I think Maggie would find our current era bewildering, especially the second she set foot in a church.
This is primarily because somewhere around the 1960 and 1970s there was a liturgical renewal among Protestant churches. During this time some of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church were recovered and integrated into Protestant liturgies. For instance, the Presbyterian church which I attended as a child only had communion (or the Lord’s Supper) quarterly. Maggie would have been completely at home with that. She also would have resonated with its penitential vibe. Not so with our contemporary observances of the Lord’s Supper. Today, our liturgy has a more celebratory feel, and Protestant churches observe it more frequently: monthly, twice a month, or even (gasp!) weekly. The church I serve is in the twice-a-month group.
Many Protestant churches today also follow the liturgical calendar and use the Revised Common Lectionary (or other proscribed readings) for the church year. Lent, the season before Easter, has taken on greater significance as a time of fasting and prayer. United Methodist churches start Lent with an Ash Wednesday service and end it with a Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Holy Saturday observance. Easter is not only a religious observance but at home many Protestants partake in more “secular” activities like buying new clothing, purchasing gifts of chocolate, coloring eggs, and enjoying children’s anticipation of the Easter bunny.
All of this would have been foreign to Maggie, except perhaps a large family meal. Our religious observances would smack of “romanism” or “popishness,” pejoratives for Roman Catholic traditions. Given Grandpa O’Reilly’s presence in her household, I doubt Maggie would have used such terms, although she would find the observances to be strange and uncomfortable. She might be horrified by the pagan elements like the Easter bunny and egg hunts. Our focus on consumption during both Christmas and Easter might alarm her, as well. As a pious Methodist, who has lived with poverty a good part of her life, Maggie would be disturbed by our practice of purchasing goodies for ourselves, rather than giving to those in need.
I think it will be interesting to see how she reacts to having more money, now that Eli is Editor-in-Chief of the Register and the family is upwardly mobile. Will she resist encroachments of the Gilded Age? We’ll see.
 Leigh Eric Schmidt. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of Americans Holidays. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)
I’m pretty sure Maggie would freak out if she could see our contemporary observances of holidays and holy days. Some big changes happened in the latter part of the 19th and the 20th centuries that would have blown her mind.
I belong to a sect of Christianity called The United Methodist Church. Historically my church is related to Maggie’s church, the Methodist Episcopal Church. I could give a you a detailed family tree, but unless you’re fascinated by this kind of minutiae, you’d probably fall asleep. Despite our common DNA, the ways in which United Methodists approach religious holidays today is very different from the way in which Maggie’s church and culture would done.
To understand this, we need to go way back in time. In short and without getting terribly complicated, the Roman Catholic Church of the medieval era had a rich tradition of holidays and holy days. Then came the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Like many reform movements, it tried to wipe the slate clean of behaviors and thought it considered unnecessary. These things included drastically reducing the number of feast and festival days and stripping down the way in which worship was conducted.
In addition, the plague of the Black Death in the mid-1300s and the demise of feudalism, precipitated the rise of capitalism. The capitalistic impulse had a new take on what was important. It prized enterprise and personal industry. Simply put this means it encouraged people to labor more and party less, something that eventually became known as the “Protestant work ethic.” The new value of “time is money” gained even more support by the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Jump to North America. The English-speaking European groups who settled here were primarily Protestant, although Catholics did get a place of their own by royal fiat – Maryland – as well as territories settled by the French and Spanish. Among the non-Catholic groups were the Puritans of New England (later called Congregationalists), the Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed groups of the Mid-Atlantic, the Church of England of the Southern States (who after the Revolution became the Episcopal Church), and the Society of Friends, or Quakers, of Pennsylvania. Baptists, Methodists, and other groups had a smaller impact in those early years.
Of the above Protestant groups, the Puritans were the strictest in their approach to holidays and holy days. They famously did not celebrate either Christmas or Easter. In fact, the only break from the daily routine of work for the Puritans was Sunday, the day of worship. However, other groups practiced similarly austere approaches to both worship and holy day observance or non-observance, so the Puritans weren’t an aberration.
According to historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, there is another dimension to the work-holiday tension in the colonies: the American Revolution. After winning independence, British holidays got wiped out and gradually were replaced by civic holidays that were American in origin, such as Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July. In a sense, the United States was writing its own traditions and observances in both the religious and civic worlds.
This is the world into which Maggie is born. It is a world and mindset very different from ours, although we can still hear echoes of it today.
The stage is set.
But the stage is about to be struck and rebuilt. More tomorrow.
 If you’re interested in learning more about this, I highly suggest you start with Schmidt’s groundbreaking book, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ: 1995). Contrary to its title, Schmidt does not deplore the connection between commercialism and holidays; rather he gives a detailed and thoughtful exploration of the pros and cons of it.
All authors have themes running through their work. We can’t help it. Our minds seem to follow certain trajectories and focus on ideas that are of particular importance to us.
My major themes are faith, hope, and love. They show up in the Saint Maggie series and in HEART SOUL & ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.
As I’ve said before, just like the 1860s, our world today is rough. We are surrounded by anger, hate, violence, and division, and so feel threatened emotionally, physically, existentially. We want to lash out, punch back. But that is not a good strategy, at least as far as I’m concerned.
I have 25+ years serving in ministry in the United Methodist Church. Trust me when I say this: given my druthers, I would not have gone into it on my own. But God is a huge noodge, so there you are and here I am.
So, you won’t be surprised when I say that my major themes are faith, hope, and love.
Don’t click away quite yet (*sigh* religion again…). You don’t have to be religious to have faith. You can place your faith in a philosophy or a way or life. You can place your faith in your loved ones. You can place your faith in your dog. I mean it. After eleven years with my dog Tippy, I know exactly what to expect from her. When I take her to the church office, she hangs out in my vicinity. Often, she’ll place herself between me and the rest of the room. If I walk out of the room, she follows. The pastor I work with says that although Tippy is a very sweet dog, he has no doubt that she would do everything in her power to protect me. I have confidence that she would.
When I was at seminary, one of my professors said that “faith” should not be understood to mean something you believe, but rather something you do, i.e. “faithing.” Today I checked out the definition of “faith” at www.dictionary.com, and the first definition is indeed “confidence or trust in a person or thing.” My professor was not wrong. Faith is confidence or trust.
Just as in real life, characters in a novel place their trust or have confidence in things that help them get through. Given who I am, most of my characters operate out of the mindset that there is a God. For instance, Maggie and Emily put their trust in a God that they believe exists and cares, and that confidence finds its support in the Bible. But just because they have faith doesn’t mean life is easy and predictable.
In the first book in my historical fiction series, a scandal erupts, and Maggie Blaine Smith feels the absence of God where she once had felt close. However, she trusts that God is there and still prays even though she gets no answer.
Emily operates in much the same way. As noted in an earlier blog, during a time of crisis in A TIME TO HEAL, she maintains confidence that God will work to help them and reminds Maggie:
“Jesus promised that the Holy Ghost would give us the right words. We’ve got to hold Jesus to that promise. He knows what we’re going through. He’s been there. He died. But, praise God, he rose. That means God wins, Maggie, sometimes even if it seems otherwise.”
And then there’s Eli, Mr. Doubt. In WALK BY FAITH, he returns to Gettysburg to find that a chasm has been created between himself and Maggie, who also has suffered a terrible trauma. Not knowing what else to do, he retreats to the cellar, lights a lamp, and sits down.
He took a deep breath, exhaled, and repeated the process two more times. He sat quietly before he said to the air, “Here is my dilemma. I have catawamptiously destroyed my wife’s trust. I left the love of my life undefended in this town. I wanted to be Horace Greeley, but my newspaper skills would only fill the tip of his pinky finger. My selfish desires have caused all manner of catastrophe for the ones I love.”
He fell silent and sat watching the flame in the lantern flicker orange and yellow and white.
Maggie believed in God. She had faith in Jesus. She saw the Holy Spirit at work in her life. But there were many times Eli just wasn’t sure there was a God, let alone a Trinity. He sensed there was Light out there, something bigger than himself, bigger than his dreams and his desires. His Friends upbringing had taught him it was necessary to sit patiently and wait for Light. And he intended to do just that.
“I don’t know if I want forgiveness from you,” he said to whatever might be listening, “because that’s your business and your prerogative. But I want my wife’s forgiveness. My life won’t make much sense without it. And I want her to heal from this terrible ordeal. I need to know what I should do.”
In Eli’s case, his trust is like a courting dance. Sometimes he makes the approach and sometimes Someone Else appears to do it. And this dance continues throughout the series.
As for Lins in HEART SOUL, our contemporary heroine faces a life choice. Dealing with mid-life crisis, she wonders if perhaps she is being called to leave parish ministry after ten years. Was that a “yes” answer when Neil, front man for the Grim Reapers, asks her to join his band? How does she know it’s a “yes”? What if she is misinterpreting things? Early on, she finds her talking to Drew, the senior pastor. Lins starts things off by saying:
“So if being with a band is a ministry, how do I know if I’m really called to it? Maybe I’m just nostalgic for my college band days.”
“Well, that’s the tough part. Making a change requires the faith to make that change, doesn’t it?”
The phone rang. Through the door, I could hear the muffled sound of Sue’s voice as she picked up.
“You mean, I’ve got to believe it’s the right thing,” I said.
“Or trust God with something you wouldn’t normally do.”
“Good grief, Drew, I’d be crazy to join Neil’s band!”
“Maybe.” He smiled. “But God has called people to do crazier things…”
Throughout the book, Lins dilemma is, “Do I trust God enough to go in a very different direction in my life? Do I trust that it will lead to something good?”
That is what it’s all about. Whenever we make a big change in our lives or work to create change in our workplace, neighborhood, or country, we need confidence that it will lead to something good, something better. Without faith, we’d be frozen solid, fearful of making a mistake and having things not turn out the way we’d hope. Or perhaps we’d end up acting on every impulse without much thought. As I see it, it could go either way.
Faith is essential when we need to make a move. And so, it is one of my main themes.
The outbuilding where Cyrus Griest hid self-emancipators, Quaker Valley, PA
New Jersey has a long history and many old buildings. One thing you can be sure of when you enter a building that existed in the 1700-mid-1800s is that someone most likely will tell you 1) George Washington slept there; 2) the building is haunted; or 3) it was a station on the Underground Railroad.
Obviously, much of what we’re told is wishful thinking. I don’t know whether George Washington slept there or if a ghost is haunting the place – or even Washington’s ghost haunting it, but I can give you clues to find to learn if the building might have been an Underground Railroad stop.
The answer is obvious. You need to figure out who was living in the town around 1790-1860. Was a community of free black people there? Did they worship at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion or African Methodist Episcopal Church? Was there a white Methodist church in the area? What about a Quaker meeting? Did an abolition society have a chapter nearby?
Also look at opportunities for transportation. Were roads, stagecoach lines, railroads, or waterways with boat traffic accessible? What could someone who was finding their way to freedom use to keep moving north?
And, finally, is the building near a known Underground Railroad line?
If the answer to two or more of those things is yes, then the building just might have been an Underground Railroad stop.
Let’s look at the area around Gettysburg, PA, for instance. Free black people lived in the town and had established St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. Then the church started an anti-slavery society called the Slave Refugee Society. Huge clue!
But wait. There’s more.
Up the road from Gettysburg was a place in Butler Township called Pine Hill. On the hill Edward and Annie Mathews founded a small community made up of people of color. So, it should come as no surprise that Edward and Annie were active in the Underground Railroad. Furthermore, some of the people living in the little community on the hill were suspected of being self-emancipators. Eventually, Pine Hill became known as “Yellow Hill,” most likely a reference to the skin tone of some of its residents.
Oh, and there’s something else.
Working with the Mathews were Quakers who lived in the aptly-named Quaker Valley area to the north. Cyrus Griest, a member of the Menallen Friends Quaker Meeting, was active in the UGRR. His house and the outbuilding in which he hid self-emancipators still stand. I had the pleasure of seeing both (from the outside) some years ago.
And that’s how the Underground Railroad worked. Diverse people from diverse backgrounds cooperated to move formerly enslaved people to safety.
Now, let’s look at my books.
In WALK BY FAITH, the boarding house and the Gazette were burned down by an anti-abolitionist mob in 1863. The family then moved to Gettysburg, where Eli’s family home was an Underground Railroad station co-managed by the Eli’s Quaker sisters and the members of Gettysburg’s St. Paul AME Church. Before the war began, the process went like this: people running from enslavement were welcomed in Gettysburg at the old Smith House by the people of Anna and Pete’s church. Next, they were escorted north to the Millhouse farm (Eli’s sister and brother-in-law), which was near Middletown. Or the travelers were taken to the Mathews’ house on Pine Hill. The following night they would be guided further north to the Griest home near Wrightsville, and later would be taken to the Adams County line. It is very much like history, just tweaked a bit.
My book is set in 1863, which is in the middle of the war. Escaped slaves and fugitives, however, were still arriving in the town and needed to be moved to safety. This now becomes the job of Maggie’s family since they are living in the old Smith house. In addition, Maggie uses the UGRR line to evacuate her friends of color, the children, and Grandpa O’Reilly from Gettysburg prior to the battle.
In A TIME TO HEAL, the old Smith House in Gettysburg is being used as a hospital where the wounded of both sides are cared for by Maggie’s family. Only one fugitive slave, Moses Galloway, finds his way to the house. However, his passage north, as well as that of Matilda and Chloe Strong, is handled by the Quaker communities. Moses and the Strongs are given white conductors to escort them on their rail trip to Canada. Why? Because people of color traveling alone on a train were viewed with suspicion. It was safer for them to be in the company of a white person and be viewed as a servant.
So that’s how I tied the UGRR into two books. If you’d like to learn more about the Underground Railroad, please check out the sources listed below.
Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. New York: Amistad-Harper Collins, 2005.
McCauslin, Debra Sandoe. Restructuring the Past: The Puzzle of the Lost Community of Yellow Hill. Gettysburg, PA: For the Cause Productions, 2007.
Smith, David G. On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870. New York: Fordham State Press, 2013.
Swintala, David. Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey. Stackpole Books: 2006.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder