In the autumn of 1877, a reporter for Augusta, Maine’s Daily Kennebec Journal documented a remarkable interview with an elderly African American man known as “Parson Eason”, a former Baptist preacher with Massachusetts roots.
FATHER EASON. The Man of a Century – Something of His Life and Experience.
“It may not be generally known that there lives in our midst a man whose birth day dates back more than one hundred years who stands among us a living monument of a past age and whose memory travels back almost to the time when the foundations of the republic were laid in tears and agony and blood. We refer to Mr. John Eason, the colored man better known as “Father Eason” or “Parson Eason”. He lives with his daughter, Mrs. [Margaret] Williams, on Cushnoc heights in this city. The other day in company with his beloved pastor, Rev. Mr. Penney, we visited Father Eason and spent a delightful hour in his company. The cottage in which he resides on Washington Street is a humble, though a comfortable one, a one story wood colored domicile. Kindly hands prompted by warm hearts minister to him and perform those loving offices so comforting to a person in his present condition.
The old bible in the chimney corner bears this record: John Eason, born May 14th, 1776, making Mr. Eason one hundred and one years old the 14th of May last. It is just to say that the old gentleman doubts the reliability of this record and believes himself ten years younger, but the evidences are against his theory. He is still straight as an arrow and has the appearance of enjoying good health, though appearances in this case are deceptive for he has almost constantly an excruciating pain in the head that is quite unendurable. He has a pleasant face, the hair is still quite thick upon his head, de place whar de wool ought to grow, no bald place appearing as yet, the hair and whiskers are of an iron grey color. The mind always clear has apparently lost none of its distinctive characteristics, though the family can see that there is occasional limping and halting of the memory. He always enjoys the calls of the minister and those who “love de Lord.” “Bress de Lord I love everybody who loves God, is born of His spirit, and is trying to do better.”
He was born in old Wareham, Mass. and in his youthful days often sported in the vicinity of Plymouth Rock. His memory goes back to the age of four or five years, can recall distinctly to mind a Baptist minister who at that time preached in his town – Elder John Drew, who afterwards took to drinking, working Sundays, and behaving like any other backshodden critter, and finally left the ministry. When John was about 13 his father removed with his family to Belmont, in the eastern section of Maine. The town is now named Morrill, in honor of Gov. Anson P. Morrill. He remembers when Washington’s funeral took place and all the men wore crape on their sleeves. He was then some 12 years old and this establishes his present great age.
At the age of 17 years John was converted, after a most wonderful leading, and in a manner almost as dramatic and vivid as that of St. Paul’s. A portion of this wonderful experience we will let the venerable father tell in his own language as nearly as we can recall it. “I first felt a change of spirit in the fall of the year when I was 17 years old. There was Calvinist Baptist preaching in town – no Free Will Baptists. I was under worriment of mind for long while, thought I could be a christian and not let anybody know it, howsomever the Lord had his way. The Freewillers were made fun of, when one was seen coming, the people would sing out, ‘Run, run, the Freewillers will take you and tear you all to pieces.’ I was working shaving out shingles, in camp, and was always a dreadful critter to fulfill my word. The man I was at work for wanted the shingles right away. The other boys had been invited to go to a certain place, but I felt as though I ought to make the shingles as I had promised. Mother says, ‘John, you are a dreadful afraid of your word and so you may go,’ As I was passing on to work a loud voice seemed to speak to me from Heaven, saying, ‘He that being often reproved and hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.’ I cried, ‘Lord, have mercy on me – I am de very one. Cause me to be convinced what my duty is, and I will do all I can.’ Still, I did not find peace, and while under great concern of mind, next day before I was converted, I had a dream. I dreamt I was riding along, expecting and fearing that the devil would take me and drag me down to hell. I looked up into the heavens and saw three suns, hanging in an angling position, the biggest one at the top. (This represented the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit) I thought the day of judgment had come sure, was in deep distress, and begun to cry and beg for mercy. Got into the edge of a wood and met a woman, whom I had seen when a boy. I pointed to the suns and asked her what this all meant. ‘Why,’ she said, ‘this is the day of judgment.’ I again cried for mercy, ‘O, Lord, have mercy on my soul!’ I turned a little in my course, and all at once saw three men, very tall, standing between me and the suns. They said it was the day of judgment, and that they were going to hell. They snapped a pistol at me, but it didn’t go off. I soon got on to a milk white steed and the men disappeared. I soon reached me own home, and saw by the door my mother and [blank] family [blank] and praising God. Then I awoke and found my pillow wet with tears. The very next night went to hear the Free Will Baptist preacher, Elder Ebenezer Hamblen, who is buried in the Insane Hospital Cemetery and who baptised me. They had got him down from Knox to preach, to make fun of. He came with some deacons and a number of young converts, meetings were held in the tavern. I had to walk two miles, and the minister was done with his sermon when I got there. As I sat down my dream came to me – the day of judgment, and I felt as though I ought to pray for mercy. Something said to me, ‘Perhaps if you get up and go to that dark corner and pray, God will have mercy.’ I did so, but was in much again distress as before. Then I thought if I go into the front room, where christians are, I would find peace, but as I stood on the threshold, it seemed as though the floor opened and let down into a pit. I fell and was caught in the arms of a lady. The hole in the floor shut up. I recovered strength and stood upon my feet. Converts were praying and shouting, Deacon Smith, the Baptist, was so mad that he told them if they wanted to make such a touse they had better go out of doors. I walked out into the kitchen, in the deepest distress, not caring whether I went to hell or not. Well, chil’ren, when I got to the outside door, I screamed from the bottom of my heart, ‘God have mercy on my soul!’ and I fell prostrate upon the stone door step. Then, as I was helped up, everything seemed changed. It looked like a summer’s day. It was a bright moonlit night, and it was past midnight. Earth and heaven appeared the same color as salmon scales, and everything was praising God. O, how weak did I feel, but I was as calm as any critter you ever see. Some one said, ‘John, the Lord’s had mercy on your soul!’ I saw a young man with whom I had been made before, and I just went and embraced him, oh, how I did hug him! When I went to him, I seemed so light, that I scarcely touched the earth. O, what a different feeling I had towards him. People said I had been frightened into religion, but bress de Lord, I wish everybody would be as scared as I was! Went home and they had a praying season. Mother says, ‘John, can’t you kneel down and thank God?’ I said, ‘O, mother, such as critter as I am, with no faith?’ When I sat down to breakfast the next morning, the words came to me, ‘Except ye eat my flesh,’ &c. and after that I felt happy – and was confident that God had mercy on my soul for Christ’s sake.”
Thus, between alternate tears and smiles, did the old patriarch related his ‘sperience. He married his first wife in Belmont [known as Green Plantation prior to incorporation in 1814]. The parson has had three wives, all of whom have “gone before”. He removed from Belmont to Sidney where he remained a few years, cultivating the soil and doing odd jobs, and came from thence to Augusta. This was 43 years ago, and he has resided ever since here. At one time, he says he got in to a state of back sliddeness because he didn’t join the church when he came here, although his hope was not at any time clean gone. He thought he wouldn’t go to meeting but keep up family prayers, then family prayers were dropped, and he prayed in secret, finally he laid down the duty of family prayer and that’s the way darkness temporarily shadowed his soul.
He first lived near the State House, but afterwards removed to North Street. There were only three or four stores in the place. The Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists had meeting houses. He helped raise the belfry of the old Baptist meeting house. Saw Sager hung, his whole family were there, and he had the baby in arms. He remembers distinctly Sager’s last words, ‘Gentleman, I am – but the fatal rope chocked the utterance of the last word – innocent.’ He was sexton of the Baptist Church the first year he came here, but when Elder Curtis came here to organize a Free Baptist Church, that being the people of his choice, he went with them. The Free Baptist Society then had meetings in the old Town House, and after Curtis left, Eason conducted the meetings, often taking texts and expounding in his original and quaint manner, the meaning of the Word, as it appeared to him. From this service he obtained the title of Parson, although the old gentleman in his great modesty, disclaims any such honor. He did not, however, become a member of the church until the coming of Mr. Cheney as its pastor. In the early struggles of the church, he often went into the woods, cut wood for fuel, to burn in the meeting house, and toted it home on his hand sled.
The venerable gentleman loves to call to mind the names of his co-laborers, and they are each and all sacredly embalmed in his memory. He recalls with great pleasure a big donation party given him some thirty years ago, when they had to prop up his house to keep it from falling, under the accumulated weight of friends and gifts. There was enough to fill two houses. All the rich people of all denominations came. There were several barrels of flour, groceries, provisions of every kind and clothing – indeed so much that he was obliged to give considerable away.
In season and out of season this venerable man has stood up for Jesus,- his pastor and the community always knowing just where to find him, and that he was always true to the right. In his enforced retirement though enduring pain, he can confidently sing –
I’ll stem the storm it won’t be long, I’ll anchor by and by.
Though for about four years deprived of the privilege of attending preaching services, the old man has been comforted by the frequent visits of praying friends, and on the very day of our visit he was looking forward with kindling ardor to a prayer meeting appointed to be held at the house that evening. He says his memory is ‘dreffvl scattering’ and his vision is somewhat obscured. He can see ‘men as trees walking’ some ten feet distant, but you must approach him within two feet before he can distinguish your features. On the occasion referred to, Rev. Mr. Penney approached him seeking recognition, when, as the features of the good minister dawned upon his slow vision, the old man cried aloud, the tears running down his wrinkled face, while he clasped the form of his dear pastor, exclaiming, “You blessed critter, how good you look to me!” Those who could look upon that scene with dry eyes have never learned the comfort of tears. Father Eason never could read, but his memory was so retentive that it appropriated everything he heard, and thus he is able to quote scripture freely. In regard to preachers, his criticism is, “Any man is a good preacher who has the Holy Spirit to aid him, that is enough.” Removed from the busy world, the example of Parson Eason is felt for good in this community, where his life has been spent for so many years, to him his humble cottage is a very bethel of prayer and a gate way to heaven, no angel of light around the throne ever had a heart more attuned to the worship of God than this dark skinned servant, who is waiting for the chariot and horsemen of Israel. How many rich men, rolling in luxury, unable to spend their income, would, if they could, exchange places with Father Eason. But his hope, his expectation, almost ripening into fruition, money cannot buy. ‘I soon shall reach that golden shore, Done with the sin and sorrow, And sing the song we sung before, Done with the sin and sorrow.’ ”
Daily Kennebec Journal (Augusta, Me.), 15 Nov. 1877, p. 3.
Next: Part Two: Who was Parson John Eason?