‘I make no use of the devil’s tea’
In the early 1800s, Methodist circuit rider Jacob Young followed the streams and trails on both sides of the Mississippi River separating Natchez country on the east and northeastern Louisiana on the west.
He was on a lifelong mission to preach the gospel, convert lost souls to Christ and help wilderness settlements raise churches. Oftentimes preachers like Young delivered the Word in outdoor assemblies or in the cabins of a host family.
The pay was poor and the conditions were at times horrendous.
What is lost sometimes in remembering the early preachers is that they were probably among the best frontiersmen traveling the wilderness. By necessity, they developed advanced survival skills and due to their profession regularly faced the possibility of violence from outlaws and bullies. Additionally, they often encountered wild animals that traversed the same pathways.
In his 1857 book (Autobiography of a Pioneer), Young, then an old man, wrote about the ”experiences, travels and ministerial labors” that led him to this region of the world.
His childhood was that of a typical frontier family, a life carved out in the middle of nowhere with multiple obstacles and dangers shadowing every moment.
He was born in 1776 some 20 miles south of Pittsburgh at a time when conflicts and battles raged “with dreadful fury” between whites and Indians. As Native Americans were pushed farther and farther from their homelands, whites followed the retreat to settle the millions of acres of wilderness along pristine streams.
Young was born in a log cabin that was fortified for battle. Small portholes were drilled in the walls to “project muzzles of guns.”
His father was an experienced woodsman and sharpshooter. The family relied on “a faithful dog” to sound the alarm of trouble. Young’s uncle – his father’s brother - lived next door.
When they were working the fields, one brother tended the soil and crops while the other held a loaded gun watching for any sign of trouble.
During his childhood, Jacob Young suffered numerous illnesses common on the frontier. For quite some time, he was ill with dysentery, known then as “bloody flux,” and also suffered from asthma and periods when his nose seemed to bleed nonstop.
He struggled with his spirituality. Many frontier preachers seemed to suffer horrific dreams of hell and lived in torment over their personal failures and doubts.
By the age of 10, Young had descended into a deep depression over the fate of his soul after he heard a voice whispering to him to “be of good comfort, your sins are forgiven.”
But for years to come he would find himself doing things he was ashamed of – gambling, dancing and frolicking about without purpose.
By the time he turned 15, his father determined that the family should follow the Ohio River farther west to Kentucky. Many settlers from Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania migrated west at the time, preceded by men like Daniel Boone who would become a frontier legend.
The Young family joined others in the journey in the 1790s. They boarded a flatboat with 52 people in all and 15 horses. Their cargo included provisions, furniture and their few possessions. The flatboat was so filled to capacity that many on board lived in constant fear that it would sink.
It was often Jacob Young’s job to go ashore in a canoe to cut wood, while the flatboat continued down the Ohio River. It was up to Young to paddle the loaded canoe fast enough to catch up. Sometimes it took hours. The hours seemed like days to his mother.
Although a 15-year-old is considered a child today, that was not the case then. For all practical purposes, a teen male had the responsibilities of a man.
Once, while Young was steering the flatboat, a violent storm swept across the Ohio. Young recalled that the horses were “prancing and trying to jump out of the boat. The women screaming at the top of their voices, cowardly men standing on the bow crying to the right and to the left, all at the same time.” This “made a perfect confusion.”
But they weathered it.
‘A BIG KNIFE FASTENED TO THEIR BELT’
In Kentucky, Young observed a different kind of frontiersman.
“Although I had departed far from the good and the right way before I left Pennsylvania,” Young recalled, “these Kentuckians had gone so much farther than any thing I had ever known in wickedness, that I was horrified at seeing and hearing them. The very sight of them was disgusting.
“Their costume was a hunting-shirt, buck-skin pantaloons, a leathern belt around their middle, a scabbard and a big knife fastened to their belt; some of them wore hats, and some caps. Their feet were covered with moccasins, made of dressed deer-skins.
“They did not think themselves dressed without their powder-horn and shot-pouch, or the gun and tomahawk. They were ready, then, for all alarms. They knew but little.
“They could clear ground, raise corn, kill turkeys, deer, bears, buffalo, and, when it became necessary, they understood the art of fighting the Indians as well as any men in the United States.”
‘THEIR SHRILL SHRIEKS’
Not long after settling in Kentucky, Young was asked to help frontiersmen open up a road from Newscastle, Kentucky – less than 40 miles northeast of Louisville – to the mouth of the Kentucky River: “That country, then, was an unbroken forest. There was noting but an Indian trail passing the wilderness.”
He met the company of frontiersmen early one morning with his ax, a food supply that would last three days and his knapsack. Approximately 100 men reported for the work.
Work began in late November 1797. He initially found the men to be “as jovial a company as I ever saw, all good-natured and civil.”
Working through rolling ground and lofty timber, they found a “great abundance of wild turkeys, deer, bear, and other wild animals. The company worked hard all day – were very quiet, and every man obeyed the captain’s orders punctually.”
Just before dark, the boss told the men to build large fires to protect them during what promised to be an exceptionally cold night.
“We felled the hickory-trees, in great abundance, and made great log-heaps, mixing the dry wood with the green hickory. And, laying down a kind of sleepers under the pile, we elevated the heap and caused it to burn rapidly.”
In the meantime, they filled their canteens with water from a nearby stream and back at camp, “warmed our cold victuals, ate our suppers, and spent the evening in hearing the hunter’s story relative to the bloody scenes of the Indian war. We then heard some pretty fine singing, considering the circumstances.”
Then without warning the entire mood changed as some of the men began to “raise the war-hoop. Their shrill shrieks made me tremble.
“They chose two captains – divided the men into two companies, and commenced fighting with the fire-brands – the log-heaps having burned down.” They set only one rule, or law: No man “should throw a brand without fire on it, so that they might know how to dodge.
“They fought two or three hours in perfect good nature, till brands became scarce, and they began to violate the law. Some were severely wounded, blood began to flow freely, and they were in a fair way of commencing a fight in earnest.”
Suddenly, the boss cried out that the games were over.
“They dropped their weapons of warfare, rekindled the fires, and laid themselves down to sleep … we finished our road, according to directions, and returned home in health and peace.”
‘GREAT WESTERN REVIVAL’
Back at the new home place, the family erected a log cabin.
“There were no floors to the cabin, nor shutters to the doors. The tall oak-trees overshadowed it, and the howling wolves made music for us by night. Our money was gone. Our only chance to raise bread was to clear the forest in the wilderness … We bought some milk cows, and made a large quantity of sugar early in the spring. Although we could not say our land flowed with milk and honey, it flowed with milk and sugar.”
Young’s father “brought us loads of fat venison” from the woods almost every day. “He being a mechanic, as well as a hunter, erected a small mill, called a hand-mill. Early, every morning, we ground the meal to make our daily bread.”
They planted corn, melons, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and other vegetables.
“We were truly a happy family,” recalled Young.
But personally, Young was unhappy spiritually, having surrounded himself with “unhallowed associations.” He gambled on Sundays while as a result his mother wept and his father’s heart ached.
“In a short time I became a desperately-wicked man, associating with bad characters and often getting into dreadful rookeries, where personal safety and even life were in danger.”
But during this period, “Methodist preaching came into the neighborhood, and I began to have serious thoughts again … Sinning with a high hand and an outstretched arm, I thought I had traveled so far from God that I never could return.”
He lost hope and expected a short life in which he would “enjoy all the pleasure the world can afford.”
Yet he was drawn back to church and influenced by preachers and his family. Young eventually saw his life transformed and he felt a calling to preach.
He studied the Bible and read books on religion and theology. Soon, he too was preaching during the “great western revival which took place in 1799. The Presbyterians and Methodists appeared then to become as one people. I saw as many as ten thousand people assemble in groves, and continue their meetings ten or twelve days. They had no tents, but lodged in the neighborhood at nights, and repaired to the grove early in the morning. Hundreds and thousands, from different parts of the country, were converted.
“The revival extended a heavenly influence throughout the state of Tennessee, south-western Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky; in fact, throughout the United States.”
In September 1801 Young was licensed to preach: “I was a very happy man.”
He went home to pack his clothes and books and say goodbye to his family. Soon, he preached his first sermon “as an itinerant minister” in Newcastle, Henry County, Kentucky.
From the beginning, he listened and learned from the elders in the church. One, Bishop Asbury, who supervised all of the Methodist clergy, set the tone as they traveled together on a circuit.
After both Asbury and Young had enjoyed a good night’s sleep, a man appeared where they were lodging with a bottle and glass in his hands.
“Bishop Asbury, will you take a little whisky this morning!” the man asked.
No thank you, the bishop answered, “I make no use of the devil’s tea.”