Thursday, June 14, 2012

A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson (1906)

I didn’t expect much from this book, but it turned out to be full of surprises. Early westerns about parsons tend either toward the saccharine or the farcical, as the man of the cloth is held up either to praise or to scorn. There’s a fine line between, where he’s portrayed in three dimensions like any other character—warts and all. And this novel comes real close to succeeding.

The parson in this case is a young Methodist minister from England, who shows up in a mining camp in Nevada. Clement Vaughan by name, he gets to be known familiarly as “C.V.” Sincere, idealistic, and not in the least sanctimonious, he has a winning way about him that invites trust. It helps that he can ride a difficult horse, which in the West is typically the test of manhood.

Plot. Vaughan has left the seminary and taken up medicine when we first meet him. He has a wife, Delia, back home in England with aspirations of living a comfortable life in America as a doctor’s wife. The hunger for spiritual guidance he finds in the raucous mining camp of Eureka gives him a change of heart, and he sets up shop in an abandoned church.

Comstock miners, Nevada, 1880s
The way to building a following is smoothed by the friendship of a saloon owner, Jack Perry, a retired lawman. Perry, who carries considerable weight in town, takes an instant liking to the young man and is untroubled by Methodism’s opposition to drinking and dancing. He seems to believe that church going gives stability to a community and contributes to public morale. Methodism’s appeal to the working class also makes the church a gathering place for the miners and cowboys and their families.

The conflict in the story is not between a well-meaning minister and a town full of sinners. Once Jack Perry takes an interest, the church quickly fills. Even the poorest and least educated among the townfolk are inspired by Vaughan's sermons and his example. He comes to understand their guilt and their need for admonishing and absolution and speaks to the spark of the divine that he sees in all of them.

This all sounds pretty pious, but Ward pulls it off by never allowing Vaughan a holier-than-thou moment. He’s just a decent guy trying to alleviate the human suffering he sees around him. It helps that he’s bright, endearing, and a good talker.

George Wharton James, the "Sage Brush Parson"
Romance. The residents of town who disapprove of him are the well-to-do whose social position puts them in the pews of the tonier Episcopal church. Arthur Sinclair owns a mine that allows him to live in a grand house. His widowed sister, Katharine, lives with him. She’s a lady of considerable refinements, who discovers a man of some polish under Vaughan’s rough exterior.

Impatient with the snobbery of her small circle, she allows her interest in Vaughan to become progressively personal. Her affection for him veers toward much deeper feelings, as his does for her. But as she crosses the barrier of social class between them, allowing herself a “forbidden” love, the plot takes a melodramatic turn.

Who should show up on the scene but Vaughan’s estranged wife and their infant child. She hasn’t given up her dream of being a doctor’s wife and demands that he return to England to be the man she married. To hell with his dream of saving souls in this abysmal mining camp.

Word that Vaughan has been secretly married all this time scandalizes the community, and his congregation begins to fall apart. Many of the men stay loyal, but the women flee in droves, including the organist. Meanwhile, Katharine feels betrayed and humiliated.

Matters worsen when Vaughan’s angry wife and their child jump (or are pushed by him) to their deaths from a cliff. Taken to jail for his safety from a lynch-minded element in town, Vaughan does not deny responsibility for the demise of his spouse.

Facing execution after a brief trial, in which he pleads guilty, he admits to a friendly sheriff that she in fact jumped, to spite him. Because he’d wished her dead, he believed himself guilty of murder. Saved by a governor’s pardon, he accepts an offer of a retreat in the desert to gather himself for a return to his life’s work. Katharine waves farewell to him as he leaves town.

George Wharton James, in his study
Character. Vaughan, who never carries a gun, makes for a curious western hero. He never has to use physical strength to assert himself among other men. The respect he earns from others comes from a moral authority that has only partly to do with his profession. His honesty and decency make him a man of his word and thus worthy of other’s men’s trust.

He gives what he can to support and protect those in need, and he never judges a person for not living up to the standard of conduct he subscribes to for himself. His golden-rule behavior is in keeping with the secular Code of the West, which is what other men see in him and respect.

It helps that the friends he makes in town have authority they have earned in more conventional ways—by physical strength and the ability to shoot to kill as needed. When an irate saloon keeper punches him in the eye for preaching temperance, he turns the other cheek and ends up, comically, with two black eyes.

Wrapping up. A. B. Ward was in fact Alice Ward Bailey (b. 1857), born in Amherst, Massachusetts and educated at Smith College. The character of Clement Vaughan, the “sagebrush parson,” was based on George Wharton James (1853-1923), a Methodist missionary in Nevada during the 1880s. He became widely known as a writer and lecturer on the Southwest, Indians, and the California missions.

The Sage Brush Parson is currently available at google books and Internet Archive, and for the nook. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

George Wharton James, Exposition Memories (1917)
The School Journal, vol. 72, 1906

Photo credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, Brooks and Dunn


  1. Okay,this is one I will have to read and will download on my nook! The name, George Walton James, sounds familiar and I may have come across it in my studies. Interesting, there was a pastor in Virginia City, NV that had abandoned several wives in the east and in Canada and who was discovered to be a fraud after doing a good job at the church!

    1. Could be the same man. James apparently was unfaithful to his wife but seems not to have lost a following. I believe that's called charisma.

    2. I came home at lunch and pulled out and dusted off my dissertation. James wasn't in the biblio. The person I was thinking of was William Laughlin, who was a Presbyterian, but had been a deflocked Methodist before (he left a trail behind him that included NY, Canada, ND, Idaho)

  2. I remember the way "The Virginian" treated parsons.

    1. Yes, he gave the man a really hard time.

    2. Mark Twain said something like this about Virginia City: if the city had as many parsons as lawyers, they'd be hard press to determine which occupation produced the most rascals

  3. This book looks interesting. thanks Ron. (You run great pix). Julia

  4. Yet another interesting aspect to the western era. Thanks for the review, Ron. I think I have downloaded a couple of Ward's ebooks. I'll have to check them out.