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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From ‘The Age of Homespun’
By Horace Bushnell (1802–1876)
 
MOST of all to be remembered are those friendly circles gathered so often round the winter’s fire; not the stove, but the fire, the brightly blazing, hospitable fire. In the early dusk, the home circle is drawn more closely and quietly round it; but a good neighbor and his wife drop in shortly from over the way, and the circle begins to spread. Next, a few young folk from the other end of the village, entering in brisker mood, find as many more chairs set in as wedges into the periphery to receive them also. And then a friendly sleighful of old and young that have come down from the hill to spend an hour or two, spread the circle again, moving it still farther back from the fire; and the fire blazes just as much higher and more brightly, having a new stick added for every guest. There is no restraint, certainly no affectation of style. They tell stories, they laugh, they sing. They are serious and gay by turns, or the young folks go on with some play, while the fathers and mothers are discussing some hard point of theology in the minister’s last sermon, or perhaps the great danger coming to sound morals from the multiplication of turnpikes and newspapers! Meantime the good housewife brings out her choice stock of home-grown exotics, gathered from three realms—doughnuts from the pantry, hickory-nuts from the chamber, and the nicest, smoothest apples from the cellar; all which, including, I suppose I must add, the rather unpoetic beverage that gave its acid smack to the ancient hospitality, are discussed as freely, with no fear of consequences. And then, as the tall clock in the corner of the room ticks on majestically towards nine, the conversation takes, it may be, a little more serious turn, and it is suggested that a very happy evening may fitly be ended with a prayer. Whereupon the circle breaks up with a reverent, congratulative look on every face, which is itself the truest language of a social nature blessed in human fellowship.  1
  Such, in general, was the society of the homespun age….  2
  Passing to the church, or rather I should say, to the meeting-house—good translation, whether meant or not, of what is older and more venerable than church, viz., synagogue—here again you meet the picture of a sturdy homespun worship. Probably it stands on some hill, midway between three or four valleys, whither the tribes go up to worship, and, when the snow-drifts are deepest, go literally from strength to strength. There is no furnace or stove save the foot-stoves that are filled from the fires of the neighboring houses, and brought in partly as a rather formal compliment to the delicacy of the tender sex, and sometimes because they are really wanted. The dress of the assembly is mostly homespun, indicating only slight distinctions of quality in the worshipers. They are seated according to age,—the old king Lemuels and their queens in front, near the pulpit, and the younger Lemuels farther back, inclosed in pews, sitting back to back, impounded, all, for deep thought and spiritual digestion; only the deacons, sitting close under the pulpit by themselves, to receive, as their distinctive honor, the more perpendicular droppings of the Word. Clean round the front of the gallery is drawn a single row of choir, headed by the key-pipe in the centre. The pulpit is overhung by an august wooden canopy called a sounding-board—study general, of course, and first lesson of mystery to the eyes of the children, until what time their ears are opened to understand the spoken mysteries.  3
  There is no affectation of seriousness in the assembly, no mannerism of worship; some would say too little of the manner of worship. They think of nothing, in fact, save what meets their intelligence and enters into them by that method. They appear like men who have a digestion for strong meat, and have no conception that trifles more delicate can be of any account to feed the system. Nothing is dull that has the matter in it, nothing long that has not exhausted the matter. If the minister speaks in his great-coat and thick gloves or mittens, if the howling blasts of winter drive in across the assembly fresh streams of ventilation that move the hair upon their heads, they are none the less content, if only he gives them good strong exercise. Under their hard and, as some would say, stolid faces, great thoughts are brewing, and these keep them warm. Free-will, fixed fate, foreknowledge absolute, trinity, redemption, special grace, eternity—give them anything high enough, and the tough muscle of their inward man will be climbing sturdily into it; and if they go away having something to think of, they have had a good day. A perceptible glow will kindle in their hard faces only when some one of the chief apostles, a Day, a Smith, or a Bellamy, has come to lead them up some higher pinnacle of thought or pile upon their sturdy minds some heavier weight of argument—fainting never under any weight, even that which, to the foreign critics of the discourses preached by them and others of their day, it seems impossible for any, the most cultivated audience in the world, to have supported. These royal men of homespun—how great a thing to them was religion!  4
  The sons and daughters grew up, all, as you will perceive, in the closest habits of industry. The keen jocky way of whittling out a living by small bargains sharply turned, which many suppose to be an essential characteristic of the Yankee race, is yet no proper inbred distinction, but only a casual result, or incident, that pertains to the transition period between the small, stringent way of life in the previous times of home-production and the new age of trade. In these olden times, these genuine days of homespun, they supposed, in their simplicity, that thrift represented work, and looked about seldom for any more delicate and sharper way of getting on. They did not call a man’s property his fortune, but they spoke of one or another as being worth so much; conceiving that he had it laid up as the reward or fruit of his deservings. The house was a factory on the farm, the farm a grower and producer for the house. The exchanges went on briskly enough, but required neither money nor trade. No affectation of polite living, no languishing airs of delicacy and softness indoors, had begun to make the fathers and sons impatient of hard work out of doors, and set them at contriving some easier and more plausible way of living. Their very dress represented work, and they went out as men whom the wives and daughters had dressed for work; facing all weather, cold and hot, wet and dry, wrestling with the plow on the stony-sided hills, digging out the rocks by hard lifting and a good many very practical experiments in mechanics, dressing the flax, threshing the rye, dragging home, in the deep snows, the great woodpile of the year’s consumption; and then when the day is ended—having no loose money to spend in taverns—taking their recreation all together in reading or singing or happy talk or silent looking in the fire, and finally in sleep—to rise again with the sun and pray over the family Bible for just such another good day as the last. And so they lived, working out, each year, a little advance of thrift, just within the line of comfort.  5
  No mode of life was ever more expensive: it was life at the expense of labor too stringent to allow the highest culture and the most proper enjoyment. Even the dress of it was more expensive than we shall ever see again. Still it was a life of honesty and simple content and sturdy victory. Immoralities that rot down the vigor and humble the consciousness of families were as much less frequent as they had less thought of adventure; less to do with travel and trade and money, and were closer to nature and the simple life of home.  6
  It was also a great point, in this homespun mode of life, that it imparted exactly what many speak of only with contempt—a closely girded habit of economy. Harnessed all together into the producing process, young and old, male and female, from the boy that rode the plow-horse to the grandmother knitting under her spectacles, they had no conception of squandering lightly what they all had been at work, thread by thread and grain by grain, to produce. They knew too exactly what everything cost, even small things, not to husband them carefully. Men of patrimony in the great world, therefore, noticing their small way in trade or expenditure, are ready, as we often see, to charge them with meanness—simply because they knew things only in the small; or, what is not far different, because they were too simple and rustic to have any conception of the big operations by which other men are wont to get their money without earning it, and lavish the more freely because it was not earned. Still, this knowing life only in the small, it will be found, is really anything but meanness.  7
 
 
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