P.T. Barnum and the Frozen Church

I was in a church yesterday and it was a tad too cold and drafty for my liking. As I sat there all bundled up in my coat trying to stay warm in the pew, I thought of P.T. Barnum’s autobiography where he describes a similar scene in his own church when he was a boy.

If you haven’t read Barnum’s book yet, its available for free on Internet Archive and worth checking out.

The opening chapters of the book are about Barnum’s family and childhood in Bethel, CT. On the surface, this church story and others like it seem pretty harmless and are common to many recollections of children you’ll find from the 19th century. But in the context of Barnum’s life take special meaning:

Bethel Church
The First Bethel Church as it probably looked in the 1840s (the steeple was added after Barnum attended). “First Two Hundred Years of the First Congregational Church Bethel, Connecticut” by Lewis Goodsell (1960).

I have before said that our old meeting-house, without either steeple or bell, was a comfortable place in summer. But my teeth chatter even now, as I think of the dreary,
cold, and freezing times we had there in winter. Such a thing as a stove in a meeting-house had never been heard of in those days, and an innovation of that description would have been considered little less than sacrilege. The old-fashioned sermons were an hour and a half to two hours long, and there the congregation would sit and shiver, and their faces would look so blue, that it is no wonder “the world’s people” sometimes called them “blue skins.” They were literally so. Our mothers and grandmothers were the only persons who were permitted to approach comfort. Such as could afford it had a “muff and tippet,” and carried a “foot-stove,” which consisted of a small square tin box, perforated, and inclosed in a wood frame, with a wire handle. There was a door in one side, in which was thrust a small square iron dish of live coals, sprinkled over with a few ashes. Those who lived some distance from the meeting-house took their foot-stove in the wagon or ” cutter” — for there was generally good sleighing in winter — and, on arriving  to meeting,” they would replenish the foot-stove with fresh coals at the nearest neighbour’s before entering the sanctuary.

At last, and after many years, the spirit of reform reached the shivering congregation
of the old Bethel meeting-house. A brother, who was evidently quite ahead of the age, and not, as some of the older brethren thought “out of his head,” had the temerity to propose that a stove should be introduced into the church for the purpose of heating it. Many brethren and sisters raised their hands and rolled their eyes in surprise and horror. A pretty pass, indeed, when professing Christians needed a ‘fire to warm their zeal.” The proposition was impious, and it was voted down by an overwhelming majority. The ” reformer,” however, persevered, and, by persuasion and argument, he gradually gained a few converts. He argued that one large stove for heating the whole house was as harmless as fifty small stoves to warm the fifty pairs of feet belonging to the owners of said portable stoves ; and while some saw no analogy between the two cases, others declared that if he was mad there was ” method in his madness.”

Another year rolled by; cold November arrived, and the stove question was again
mooted. Excitement ran high; night meetings and church caucuses were held to discuss
the question; arguments were made pro and con in the village stores; the subject was
introduced into conference meetings and prayed over; even the youngsters had the question brought up in the debating club, and early in December a general ‘society’s meeting ” was called to decide by ballot whether there should or should not be a stove in the meeting-house.

The ayes carried it by a majority of one, and to the consternation of the minority, the
stove was introduced. On the first Sabbath afterwards two venerable maiden ladies
fainted on account of the dry atmosphere and sickly sensation caused by the dreaded innovation. They were carried out into the cold air, and soon returned to consciousness, after being informed that in consequence of there not being pipe enough within two lengths, no fire had yet been placed in the stove!

The following Sunday was a bitter cold day, and the stove was crammed with well-seasoned hickory wood and brought nearly to a red heat. This made most pails of the house comfortable, pleased many, and horrified a few. Immediately after the benediction had been pronounced at the close of the afternoon service, one of the deacons, whose “pew” was near the door, arose and exclaimed, in a loud voice, “The congregation are requested to tarry.”

Ev’ery person promptly sat down on hearing this common announcement. The old
deacon approached the altar, and turning to the people, addressed them in a whining tone of voice as follows :—

“Brethren and sisters, you will bear me witness that from the first I have raised my
voice against introducing a stove into the house of the Lord. But a majority has pronounced against me. I trust they voted in the fear of God, and I submit, for I would not wittingly introduce schisms into our church; but if we must have a stove I do insist on having a larger one, for the one you have is not large enough to heat the whole house, and the consequence is, it drives all the cold back as far as the outside pews, making them three times as cold as they were before, and we who occupy those pews are obliged to sit in the entire cold of this whole house.”

The countenance and manner of the speaker indicated, beyond all doubt, that he was
sincere, and nothing would appease him until the “business committee” agreed to take the subject into consideration. In the course of the week they satisfied him that the stove was large enough, except on unusually severe days, but they found great difficulty in making him comprehend that if the stove did not heat the entire building, it did not intensify the cold by driving it all into a corner.

Examples of 19th century foot warmers. Home Things Past blog.

Barnum wrote many times that the pranks and tricks his family and neighbors constantly pulled on each other prepared him for his future business ventures where he would fool and swindle the public out of their money through false promises and lavishly advertised attractions that often didn’t live up to their promises. The most famous of these stories is when his grandfather gave young Barnum the deed to “Ivy Island.” It wasn’t until Barnum bragged about his good fortune to his friends that his family let him in on the surprise- the “island” was a worthless swamp. Similarly, the church ladies fainting the moment the stove was installed parallels many of the performances Barnum and his accomplices gave.

Similarly, the old deacon’s incredulity reminds me of many of Barnum’s exploited customers who were fooled by his famous “Egress” exhibit and exploitative display of Joice Heth, George Washington’s alleged 160-year old nurse.

A nostalgic tale of small town New England, or sign of things to come in the life of one of the 19th century’s greatest swindlers and showmen? You decide!


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