Eli Smith, Maggie’s bespectacled, portly, newspaperman suitor stands out in the little town of Blaineton. Where most of the population is concerned with propriety and piety, Eli is… well… he’s not. He’s a bit like a slice of pink grapefruit among the yellow ones. Or are they all lemons? I want to say they’re both/and, something with which Eli would be comfortable. But that very attitude would mark him as "different" to the people of 1860s Blaineton. Aside from that, what makes him different?
He was raised as a Quaker, also known as the Religious Society of Friends. According to “Facts about Friends” by Ted Hoare (http://quaker.org/legacy/friends.html) here are the highlights of Friends belief: 1) anyone can have access to God, a priest or a minister is not needed; 2) the Bible is not the final revelation of God, but could move the reader forward in his or her spiritual journey if read at the right time and in the right spirit; 3) all are given an amount of power, or light, and how it used determines how much the light grows; 4) to hear the voice of God, one must wait silently and listen; God will speak to the heart; 5) all men and women are equal; 6) belief is experiential; God is always present so one should make God a participant one’s daily life; 7) opposition to war, it is essential to talk to one another, share ideas, and create unity.
The Religious Society of Friends were not uncommon in northwestern New Jersey. Even today one can find old meeting houses, some of which still have congregations. But by their very beliefs, Quakers were different from other Christians of the time: Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, and so on. Quakers did not fit in because they refused to define God and God's activity too specifically, refused to believe the Bible is inerrant and holy in and of itself, rejected "hireling clergy" (paid ministers), and used "plain language" ("thee" instead of "you") and plain dress, although by Eli's time both of these were less common.
His Quaker upbringing comes up in this brief bit of dialog between Nate Johnson and Eli in Saint Maggie:
Nate dusted his hands. “Well, if there’s a war, I’m joining up. If they’ll let me.”
“Think that’s a good idea?” Eli asked. “What if you end up getting taken prisoner? You could lose your freedom.”
“I’d risk it.” His black eyes were fierce. “Those folk down South are my brothers and sisters. My heart won’t let me stay out of this fight.”
“Would you go?” Nate asked Eli. “To war?”
Eli glanced down at his pot belly. “Look at me, Nate. Do I look like a soldier? Anyway, the Quaker in me won’t permit it. So, no – no fighting for me. If I do anything, I’ll cover the war as a correspondent. Folks need to know what’s going on.”
Nate’s gaze did not waver. “War correspondents get killed, too.”
“Yes, I know,” Eli murmured.
While Eli goes out of his way to say he is no longer a Friend, he clearly does not mean that he has rejected the sect's belief system. I believe he means that he does not have and does not want a Meeting.
His religious background, though, means that it is easy for Eli to become a “free-thinker,” or one who has a secular outlook on life, society, and culture. As such, he is more likely to accept ideas that churchy people of the time might not, such as the equality of women and of persons of color, immediate abolition, and skepticism about religion and its power. He also is well-suited to run his little newspaper, The Gazette, because as a free-thinker he wants to get to the bottom of things, to understand them, rather to accept things “as they are.”
Of course, this does not go down well with some people, particularly Maggie’s brother, Samuel Beatty. Although Sam mellows as the series progresses, he and Maggie are all but estranged in the first story, an estrangement that began when she married John Blaine, the son of the owner of a rival carriage factory. In this excerpt, Sam jumps all over Maggie about Eli:
“The idea of marrying that newspaperman...it’s completely unacceptable. Why he rarely sets foot in church! And I have heard rumors that he is a free thinker. To judge from those editorials of his, he is obviously a raving abolitionist. I understand they burned his printing press back in Ohio in ‘55! If I were a betting man, I’d wager Smith even approves of that horrible raid on Harper’s Ferry last October! He is sure to side with those who believe that John Brown is a martyr.”
Maggie laughed in his face. “Oh, honestly, Sam! Mr. Smith is a pacifist. He finds violence deplorable and unacceptable. Yes, he was run out of town by a pro-slavery opposition because of his radical views on abolition. But there is no shame in having those views. This is a free nation. People are allowed to say what they think.”
“But there is a limit – and he’s gone far beyond it on any number of occasions. Why just look at his views on the so-called rights of woman. He promotes female suffrage! Who ever heard of such a thing? Could you imagine what would happen if women started running about acting like men? Smith even says that women should be able to have careers other than wife and mother. What would happen to our families if they that did that? It is utterly scandalous!”
Samuel and the town haven’t begun to see scandalous yet – especially when both Maggie and Eli show forgiveness when the rest of the town demands retribution.
Eli is tolerated because he provides the community with a penny weekly, even though he is well-known as a church-adverse “heathen.” His lack of religious observance, however, turns around when he and Maggie start courting Maggie is amazed to see that he has darkened the door to Blaineton Methodist Episcopal Church. It is the first day that the Rev. Jeremiah Madison is in the pulpit as their new minister. That morning Madison’s preaching convicts and uplifts the tired little congregation. Well, most of them. Here is Maggie’s take on that morning:
Journal, I never saw so many move forward so quickly in all my years in Blaineton M.E.C. Lydia was weeping openly. Frankie fairly ran to the rail. Patrick McCoy and Edgar Lape threw themselves to their knees in prayer. I must admit that my own eyes filled with tears. The only one who seemed to resist Mr. Madison’s preaching was Eli. He stood at the back with his arms crossed over his stomach, feet firmly planted on the floor. From the look in his eyes, I could see that something was going on in his mind – but it was not surrender to God.
Maggie is on the money about her beau. His mental wheels were turning. Eli notices things and then investigates them. That's his talent and his passion. But there is one thing he tries not to notice: the One who wants his attention. This dynamic is not obvious in the first book because I had not planned to write sequels. However, in the succeeding novels, Eli has a number of brushes with the Eternal, particularly after he has been present during battle and face to face with destruction and death.
But right now, in the first book, Eli continues to go to church with Maggie when they get married. I explained it this way: he “believed it was important for husband and wife to worship together, and had chosen to sacrifice his personal comfort in favor of family solidarity.” Uh, huh. Yeah. We'll see about that, Eli.