Simon Suggs: Camp-Meeting
As he sat one day, ruminating upon the unpleasant condition of his “financial concerns,” Mrs. Suggs informed him that “the sugar and coffee was nigh about out,” and that there were not “a dozen j’ints and middling, all put together, in the smoke-house.” Suggs bounced up on the instant, exclaiming, “D—n it! Somebody must suffer!” But whether this remark was intended to convey the idea that he and his family were about to experience the want of the necessaries of life; or that some other, and as yet unknown individual should “suffer” to prevent that prospective exigency, must be left to the commentators, if perchance any of that ingenious class of persons should hereafter see proper to write notes for this history. It is enough for us that we give all the facts in this connection, so that ignorance of the subsequent conduct of Captain Suggs may not lead to an erroneous judgment in respect to his words.
Having uttered the exclamation we have repeated — and perhaps, hurriedly walked once or twice across the room — Captain Suggs drew on his famous old green-blanket overcoat, and ordered his horse, and within five minutes was on his way to a camp-meeting, then in full blast on Sandy creek, twenty miles distant, where he hoped to find amusement, at least. When he arrived there, he found the hollow square of the encampment filled with people, listening to the mid-day sermon and its dozen accompanying “exhortations.” A half-dozen preachers were dispensing the word; the one in the pulpit, a meek-faced old man, of great simplicity and benevolence. His voice was weak and cracked, notwithstanding which, however, he contrived to make himself heard occasionally, above the din of the exhorting, the singing, and the shouting which were going on around him. The rest were walking to and fro, (engaged in the other exercises we have indicated,) among the “mourners” — a host of whom occupied the seat set apart for their especial use — or made personal appeals to the mere spectators. The excitement was intense. Men and women rolled about on the ground, or lay sobbing or shouting in promiscuous heaps. More than all the Negroes sang and screamed and prayed. Several, under the influence of what is technically called “the jerks,” were plunging and pitching about with convulsive energy. The great object of all seemed to be, to see who could make the greatest noise —
“And each — for madness ruled the hour — Would try his own expressive power.”
“Bless my poor old soul!” screamed the preacher in the pulpit; “ef yonder aint a squad in that corner that we aint got one outen yet! It’ll never do” — raising his voice — “you must come outen that! Brother Fant, fetch up that youngster in the blue coat! I see the Lord’s a-workin’ upon him! Fetch him along — glory — yes! — hold to him!” “Keep the thing warm!” roared a sensual seeming man, of stout mould and florid countenance, who was exhorting among a bevy of young women, upon whom he was lavishing caresses. “Keep the thing warm, breethring! — come to the Lord, honey!” he added, as he vigorously hugged one of the damsels he sought to save.
“Oh, I’ve got him!” said another in exulting tones, as he led up a gawky youth among the mourners — “I’ve got him — he tried to git off, but — ha! Lord!” — shaking his head as much as to say, it took a smart fellow to escape him — “ha! Lord!” — and he wiped the perspiration from his face with one hand, and with the other, patted his neophyte on the shoulder — “he couldn’t do it! No! Then he tried to argy wi’ me — but bless the Lord! — he couldn’t do that nother! Ha! Lord! I tuk him, fust in the Old Testament — bless the Lord! — and I argyed him all thro’ Kings — then I thronged him into Proverbs. — and from that, here we had it up and down, kleer down to the New Testament, and then I begun to see it work him! — then we got into Matthy, and from Matthy right straight along to Acts; and thar I thronged him! Y-e-s L-o-r-d!” — assuming the nasal twang and high pitch which are, in some parts, considered the perfection of rhetorical art — “Y-e-s L-o-r-d! and h-e-r-e he is! Now g-i-t down thar,” addressing the subject, “and s-e-e ef the L-o-r-d won’t do somethin’ f-o-r you!” Having thus deposited his charge among the mourners, he started out, summarily to convert another soul!
“Gl-o-ree!” yelled a huge, greasy Negro woman, as in a fit of the jerks, she threw herself convulsively from her feet, and fell “like a thousand of brick,” across a diminutive old man in a little round hat, who was squeaking consolation to one of the mourners.
“Good Lord, have mercy!” ejaculated the little man earnestly and unaffectedly, as he strove to crawl from under the sable mass which was crushing him.
In another part of the square a dozen old women were singing. They were in a state of absolute extasy, as their shrill pipes gave forth,
“I rode on the sky, Quite undestified I, And the moon it was under my feet!”
Near these last, stood a delicate woman in that hysterical condition in which the nerves are incontrollable, and which is vulgarly — and almost blasphemously — termed the “holy laugh.” A hideous grin distorted her mouth, and was accompanied with a maniac’s chuckle; while every muscle and nerve of her face twitched and jerked in horrible spasms. [Note: The reader is requested to bear in mind, that the scenes described in this chapter are not now to be witnessed. Eight or ten years ago, all classes of population of the Creek Country were very different from what they are now. Of course, no disrespect is intended to any denomination of Christians. We believe that camp-meetings are not peculiar to any church, though most usual in the Methodist — a denomination whose respectability in Alabama is attested by the fact, that very many of its worthy clergymen and lay members, hold honorable and profitable offices in the gift of the state legislature; of which, indeed, almost a controlling portion are themselves Methodists.]
Amid all this confusion and excitement Suggs stood unmoved. He viewed the whole affair as a grand deception — a sort of “opposition line” running against his own, and looked on with a sort of professional jealousy. Sometimes he would mutter running comments upon what passed before him.
“Well now,” said he, as he observed the fullfaced brother who was “officiating” among the women, “that ere feller takes my eye! — thar he’s been this half-hour, a-figurin amongst them galls, and’s never said the fust word to nobody else. Wonder what’s the reason these here preachers never hugs up the old, ugly women? Never seed one do it in my life — the sperrit never moves ‘em that way! It’s nater tho’; and the women, they never flocks round one o’ the old dried-up breethring — bet two to one old splinter-legs thar,” — nodding at one of the ministers — “won’t git a chance to say turkey to a good lookin gall to-day! Well! Who blames ‘em? Nater will be nater, all the world over; and I judge ef I was a preacher, I should save the purtiest souls fuss, myself!”
While the Captain was in the middle of this conversation with himself, he caught the attention of the preacher in the pulpit, who inferring from an indescribable something about his appearance that he was a person of some consequence, immediately determined to add him at once to the church if it could be done; and to that end began a vigorous, direct personal attack.
“Breethring,” he exclaimed, “I see yonder a man that’s a sinner; I know he’s a sinner! Thar he stands,” pointing at Simon, “a missubble old crittur, with his head a-blossomin for the grave! A few more short years, and d-o-w-n he’ll go to perdition, lessen the Lord have mer-cy on him! Come up here, you old hoary-headed sinner, a-n-d git down upon your knees, a-n-d put up your cry for the Lord to snatch you from the bottomless pit! You’re ripe for the devil — you’re b-o-u-n-d for hell, and the Lord only knows what’ll become on you!”
“D—n it,” thought Suggs, “ef I only had you down in the krick swamp for a minit or so, I’d show you who’s old! I’d alter your tune mighty sudden, you sassy, ‘saitful old rascal!” But he judiciously held his tongue and gave no utterance to the thought.
The attention of many having been directed to the Captain by the preacher’s remarks, he was soon surrounded by numerous well-meaning, and doubtless very pious persons, each one of whom seemed bent on the application of his own particular recipe for the salvation of souls. For a long time the Captain stood silent, or answered the incessant stream of exhortation only with a sneer; but at length, his countenance began to give token of inward emotion. First his eye-lids twitched — then his upper lip quivered — next a transparent drop formed on one of his eye-lashes, and a similar one on the tip of his nose — and, at last, a sudden bursting of air from nose and mouth, told that Captain Suggs was overpowered by his emotions. At the moment of the explosion, he made a feint as if to rush from the crowd, but he was in experienced hands, who well knew that the battle was more than half won.
“Hold to him!” said one — “it’s a-workin in him as strong as a Dick horse!”
“Pour it into him,” said another, “it’ll all come right directly!”
“That’s the way I love to see ‘em do,” observed a third; “when you begin to draw the water from their eyes, taint gwine to be long afore you’ll have ‘em on their knees!”
And so they clung to the Captain manfully, and half dragged, half led him to the mourner’s bench; by which he threw himself down, altogether unmanned, and bathed in tears. Great was the rejoicing of the brethren, as they sang, shouted, and prayed around him — for by this time it had come to be generally known that the “convicted” old man was Captain Simon Suggs, the very “chief of sinners” in all that region.
The Captain remained grovelling in the dust during the usual time, and gave vent to even more than the requisite number of sobs, and groans, and heartpiercing cries. At length, when the proper time had arrived, he bounced up, and with a face radiant with joy, commenced a series of vaultings and tumblings, which “laid in the shade” all previous performances of the sort at that camp-meeting. The brethren were in extasies at this demonstrative evidence of completion of the work; and whenever Suggs shouted “Gloree!” at the top of his lungs, every one of them shouted it back, until the woods rang with echoes.
The effervescence having partially subsided, Suggs was put upon his pins to relate his experience, which he did somewhat in this style — first brushing the tear-drops from his eyes, and giving the end of his nose a preparatory wring with his fingers, to free it of the superabundant moisture:
“Friends,” he said, “it don’t take long to curry a short horse, accordin’ to the old sayin’, and I’ll give you the perticklers of the way I was ‘brought to a knowledge’ ” — here the Captain wiped his eyes, brushed the tip of his nose and snuffled a little — “in less’n no time.”
“Praise the Lord!” ejaculated a bystander.
“You see I come here full o’ romancin’ and devilment, and jist to make game of all the purceedins. Well, sure enough, I done so for some time, and was a-thinkin how I should play some trick —”
“Dear soul alive! Don’t he talk sweet!” cried an old lady in black silk — “Whar’s John Dobbs? You Sukey!” screaming at a Negro woman on the other side of the square — “ef you don’t hunt up your mass John in a minute, and have him here to listen to his ‘sperience, I’ll tuck you up when I git home and give you a hundred and fifty lashes, madam! — see ef I don’t! Blessed Lord!” — referring again to the Captain’s relation — “aint it a precious ’scource!”
“I was jist a-thinkin’ how I should play some trick to turn it all into redecule, when they began to come round me and talk. Long at fust I didn’t mind it, but arter a little that brother” — pointing to the reverend gentlemen who had so successfully carried the unbeliever through the Old and New Testaments, and who Simon was convinced was the “big dog of the tanyard” — “that brother spoke a word that struck me kleen to the heart, and run all over me, like fire in dry grass —”
“I-I-I can bring ‘em!” cried the preacher alluded to, in a tone of exultation — “Lord thou knows ef thy servant can’t stir ‘em up, nobody else needn’t try — but the glory aint mine! I’m a poor worrum of the dust” he added, with ill-managed affectation.
“And so from that I felt somethin’ a-pullin’ me inside —”
“Grace! Grace! nothin’ but grace!” exclaimed one; meaning that “grace” had been operating in the Captain’s gastric region.
“And then,” continued Suggs, “I wanted to git off, but they hilt me, and bimeby I felt so missuble, I had to go yonder” — pointing to the mourners’ seat — “and when I lay down thar it got wuss and wuss, and ‘peered like somethin’ was a-mashin’ down on my back —” “That was his load o’ sin,” said one of the brethren — “never mind, it’ll tumble off presently, see ef it don’t!” and he shook his head professionally and knowingly.
“And it kept a-gittin heavier and heavier, ontwell it looked like it might be a four year old steer, or a big pine log, or somethin’ of that sort —”
“Glory to my soul,” shouted Mrs. Dobbs, “it’s the sweetest talk I ever hearn! You Sukey! aint you got John yit? never mind, my lady, I’ll settle wi’ you!” Sukey quailed before the finger which her mistress shook at her.
“And arter awhile,” Suggs went on, “‘peared like I fell into a trance, like, and I seed —”
“Now we’ll git the good on it!” cried one of the sanctified.
“And I seed the biggest, longest, rip-roarenest, blackest, scariest —” Captain Suggs paused, wiped his brow, and ejaculated “Ah, L-o-r-d!” so as to give full time for curiosity to become impatience to know what he saw.
“Sarpent! warn’t it?” asked one of the preachers.
“No, not a serpent,” replied Suggs, blowing his nose.
“Do tell us what it war, soul alive! — whar is John?” said Mrs. Dobbs.
“Allegator!” said the Captain.
“Alligator!” repeated every woman present, and screamed for very life.
Mrs. Dobb’s nerves were so shaken by the announcement, that after repeating the horrible word, she screamed to Sukey, “you Sukey, I say, you Su-u-ke-e-y! ef you let John come a-nigh this way, whar the dreadful alliga—- shaw! What am I thinkin ‘bout? ‘Twarn’t nothin’ but a vishin!”
“Well,” said the Captain in continuation, “the allegator kept a-comin’ and a-comin’ to’ards me, with his great long jaws a-gapin’ open like a ten-foot pair o’ tailors’ shears —”
“Oh! Oh! Oh! Lord! Gracious above!” cried the women.
“SATAN!” was the laconic ejaculation of the oldest preacher present, who thus informed the congregation that it was the devil which had attacked Suggs in the shape of an alligator.
“And then I concluded the jig was up, ‘thout I could block his game some way; for I seed his idee was to snap off my head —”
The women screamed again.
“So I fixed myself jist like I was purfectly willin’ for him to take my head, and rather he’d do it as not” — here the women shuddered perceptibly — “and so I hilt my head straight out” — the Captain illustrated by elongating his neck — “and when he come up and was a gwine to shet down on it, I jist pitched in a big rock which choked him to death, and that minit I felt the weight slide off; and I had the best feelins — sorter like you’ll have from good sperrits — any body ever had!”
“Didn’t I tell you so? Didn’t I tell you so?” asked the brother who had predicted the off-tumbling of the load of sin. “Ha, Lord! fool who! I’ve been all along thar! — yes, all along thar! and I know every inch of the way jist as good as I do the road home!” — and then he turned round and round, and looked at all, to receive a silent tribute to his superior penetration.
Captain Suggs was now the “lion of the day.” Nobody could pray so well, or exhort so movingly, as “brother Suggs.” Nor did his natural modesty prevent the proper performance of appropriate exercises. With the reverend Bela Bugg (him to whom, under providence, he ascribed his conversion,) he was a most especial favorite. They walked, sang, and prayed together for hours.
“Come, come up; thar’s room for all!” cried brother Bugg, in his evening exhortation. “Come to the ‘seat,’ and ef you won’t pray yourselves, let me pray for you!”
“Yes!” said Simon, by way of assisting his friend; “it’s a game that all can win at! Ante up! Ante up, boys — friends I mean — don’t back out!”
“Thar aint a sinner here,” said Bugg, “no matter ef his soul’s black as a Negro, but what thar’s room for him!”
“No matter what sort of a hand you’ve got,” added Simon in the fulness of his benevolence; “take stock! Here am I, the wickedest and blindest of sinners — has spent my whole life in the sarvice of the devil — has now come in on narry pair and won a pile!” and the Captain’s face beamed with holy pleasure.
“D-o-n-’t be afeard!” cried the preacher; “come along! The meanest won’t be turned away! Humble yourselves and come!”
“No!” said Simon, still indulging in his favorite style of metaphor; “the bluff game aint played here! No runnin’ of a body off! Everybody holds four aces, and when you bet, you win!”
And thus the Captain continued, until the services were concluded, to assist in adding to the number at the mourners’ seat; and up to the hour of retiring, he exhibited such enthusiasm in the cause, that he was unanimously voted to be the most efficient addition the church had made during that meeting.
The next morning, when the preacher of the day first entered the pulpit, he announced that “brother Simon Suggs,” mourning over his past iniquities, and desirous of going to work in the cause as speedily as possible, would take up a collection to found a church in his own neighborhood, at which he hoped to make himself useful as soon as he could prepare himself for the ministry, which the preacher didn’t doubt, would be in a very few weeks, as brother Suggs was “ a man of mighty good judgement, and of a great discorse.” The funds were to be collected by “brother Suggs,” and held in trust by Brother Bela Bugg, who was the financial officer of the circuit, until some arrangement could be made to build a suitable house.
“Yes, breethring,” said the Captain, rising to his feet; “I want to start a little ‘sociation close to me, and I want you all to help. I’m mighty poor myself, as poor as any of you — don’t leave breethring” — observing that several of the well-to-do were about to go off — “don’t leave; ef you aint able to afford anything, jist give us your blessin’ and it’ll be all the same!”
This insinuation did the business, and the sensitive individuals re-seated themselves.
“It’s mighty little of this world’s goods I’ve got,” resumed Suggs, pulling off his hat and holding it before him; “but I’ll bury that in the cause anyhow,” and he deposited his last five-dollar bill in the hat.
There was a murmur of approbation at the Captain’s liberality throughout the assembly.
Suggs now commenced collecting, and very prudently attacked first the gentlemen who had shown a disposition to escape. These, to exculpate themselves from anything like poverty, contributed handsomely.
“Look here, breethring”“ said the Captain, displaying the bank-notes thus received, “brother Snooks has drapt a five wi’ me, and brother Snodgrass a ten! In course ‘taint expected that you that aint as well off as them, will give as much; let everyone give accordin’ to ther means.”
This was another chain-shot that raked as it went! “Who so low” as not to be able to contribute as much as Snooks and Snodgrass?
“Here’s all the small money I’ve got about me,” said a burly old fellow, ostentatiously handing to Suggs, over the heads of a half dozen, a ten dollar bill.
“That’s what I call maganimus!” exclaimed the Captain; “that’s the way every rich man ought to do!”
These examples were followed, more or less closely, by almost all present, for Simon had excited the pride of purse of the congregation, and a very handsome sum was collected in a very short time.
The reverend Mr. Bugg, as soon as he observed that our hero had obtained all that was to be had at that time, went to him and inquired what amount had been collected. The Captain replied that it was still uncounted, but that it couldn’t be much under a hundred.
“Well, brother Suggs, you’d better count it and turn it over to me now. I’m goin’ to leave presently.”
“No!” said Suggs — “can’t do it!”
“Why? — what’s the matter?” inquired Bugg.
“It’s got to be prayed over, fust!” said Simon, a heavenly smile illuminating his whole face.
“Well,” replied Bugg, “less go one side and do it!”
“No!” said Simon, solemnly.
Mr. Bugg gave a look of inquiry.
“You see that krick swamp?” asked Suggs — “I’m gwine down in thar, and I’d gwine to lay this money down so” — showing how he would place it on the ground — “and I’m gwine to git on these here knees” — slapping the right one — “and I’m n-e-v-e-r gwine to quit the grit ontwell I feel it’s got the blessin’! And nobody aint got to be thar but me!”
Mr. Bugg greatly admired the Captain’s fervent piety, and bidding him God-speed, turned off.
Captain Suggs “struck for” the swamp sure enough, where his horse was already hitched. “Ef them fellers aint done to a cracklin,” he muttered to himself as he mounted, “I’ll never bet on two pair agin! They’re peart at the snap game, theyselves; but they’re badly lewed this hitch! Well! Live and let live is a good old motter, and it’s my sentiments adzactly!” And giving the spur to his horse, off he cantered.
“The Captain Attends a Camp-Meeting”
From Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs
By Johnson Jones Hooper
Read by Jared Hegwood
Audio Engineer Lindsey Hart
Directed by Walter Evans
Copyright Georgia Regents University
2010, All rights reserved