Thursday, November 4, 2010
Here is a daguerreotype image of the Reverend William Watson, young and roguish, with his cheeks faintly colorized by the photographer's brush. He is my great-great-great grandfather, father of the Samantha look-alike (Mary Watson Mahaffy) pictured below, born in Northiam England in November of 1823, died in Ilion, New York in 1898. I've always considered the horde of loot he left his descendants to be my prime material -- he left scores of sermons, diaries, letters, pictures, books, and personal effects to the family. We have his false teeth. We have his flute, his worthless mining stock certificates, his speech on abolition, his diary from the voyage to America in 1851. We have his wooden crate full of serious works of history and Bible scholarship -- it has sat in the Brick House relatively undisturbed for more than a hundred years. It makes a good nightstand in the tiny bedroom my grandpa dubbed "The Watson Wing."
My parents made some serious headway into the material when my dad had the cockamamie idea of trying to earn an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Texas in the mid-seventies. He started a thesis on Grandpa Watson. He discovered many of the Watson papers in the attic of the Brick House, where my great-grandmother was using Grandpa Watson's trunk as a step up into the crawl space. He and my mom visited Grandpa Watson's grave in Ilion, and found his old parish across the pond in Northiam, which had been converted to a kitchen boutique. My mom worked on sorting the papers and typing up some of the diaries in an early word processor (not compatible with modern data, unfortunately). Life intervened -- it was too much to finish an M.A. when there were two kids to raise. There was no time to keep up with Grandpa Watson, although Dad did make use of his sermons from time to time. One Sunday he dressed up as Grandpa Watson and delivered a hearty dose of Victorian Methodist fire-and-brimstone from the pulpit. (Dad is an Episcopalian, by the way -- a big departure, as Anglicanism was one of the things Grandpa Watson railed against. One letter he kept in his papers is a reprimand from another clergyman, chastising Grandpa Watson for using an invitation to give a funeral prayer at another church as a platform to criticize that church's lack of grounding in the Bible. I assume the offended clergyman was an Episcopalian.)
I am safeguarding most of the papers in my study now, where mice are less likely to get at them then at the Brick House. Suddenly they are very relevant to all the things I am thinking and writing about. Temperance, that quixotic political movement that seemed so important then, is one topic Grandpa Watson can help me sort out. After the Civil War, when the country no longer needed him to speak out about the evils of slavery, Grandpa Watson turned his attention to the scourge of drink. He felt it his moral duty to get involved with temperance, and he struggled in his conscience with the references to wine in the Bible. He entered into correspondence with an old mentor in England on the subject of Biblical drinking, and his mentor dipped back into Biblical Greek and Hebrew to show that, in fact, when Jesus says wine, he probably does mean fermented grape juice.
This sermon, actually an address to the Methodist District Meeting at Fulton in 1871, does not show any doubt on the matter of temperance. It begins, "Drunkenness in the Scriptures is Classed with the grosser Crimes, and no one who is adicted to it can be fit for refined or elevated society -- or enjoy the favor of God in this Life -- or go to Heaven when they die."
Oh, the courage of conviction! I know I can use this.