Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Family Pictures

Autobiography of Rev. J. M. Ragan

I was born in Morgantown, Tennessee, December 17, 1832. My father was a Methodist class leader, and my mother was a Cumberland Presbyterian, having been converted under the preaching of Revs. Aston and Lansden, the first Cumberlands that preached in Monroe County. I was baptized at the age of six weeks, and in after years was well instructed in the design of that ordinance. August, 1847, at the age of fifteen, I was converted at a camp-meeting at Old Concord in Knox County. I had been so well taught the doctrines and polity of both churches that by the time I was twelve years old, I made my choice. After my conversion, it was my father’s wish that I join with my mother. I was pleased to have his approval.

When only nineteen years old, I had impressions to preach. Like many others, from Moses down to the present time, I began to make excuses, but the Lord followed me up, and the impressions grew stronger until I felt I would be responsible for lost souls. Now after sixty years in the ministry, I thank God that I did yield, and my good “sword” shall never be sheathed until called to lay it down to receive the victor’s palm. In 1852, my father having moved to Missouri, I was received as a candidate for the ministry by Platte Presbytery. My circumstances were such that I could not attend Presbytery regularly, so was not licensed until September, 1855.

I made my first effort to preach in April, 1853. Then I was often sent by the old preachers to fill appointments and visit vacant congregations. After I was licensed, I took regular work. I was ordained by the Chillicothe Presbytery over my protest in October, 1863. Have never been without regular work until the last three years, and then only through the winter—not able to go out through the cold weather, being eighty-one years old December 1913. But through the summer I preach almost every Sabbath.

The Lord has done great things for me in leading hundreds of souls to the Savior. And when at last I come to lay at His feet my gathered sheaves, I know there will be much chaff, brambles and bitter weeds, and “though the full ripe ears be sadly few, He will accept not what I did, but what I tried to do.”

Of course, when I started out this was all pioneer country, and the people believed in a free gospel—and that was what they got if they got any—I had a great many severe trials and risks of my life to get to my appointments, or my family, in crossing swollen streams, sometimes swimming my horse. But trusting in the “Rock of my salvation,” I did not falter or grow weary of my Master’s service and to Him be all the glory.

When the Union question came up in the Presbytery, the basis was money and popularity. My conscientious convictions led me to oppose it. All the preachers in Chillicothe Presbytery went except myself. Thank the Lord he does not depend on big crowds to accomplish His work.—“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein.” “A tent or a cottage, oh! Why should I care? They’re building a palace for me over there; Tho exiled from home yet still I may sing, All glory to God I’m a child of a King.”

Source: Our Senior Soldiers: The Biographies and Autobiographies of Eighty Cumberland Presbyterian Preachers. 1915 [To make it more readable, corrections and paragraphs added by moi.]

J.M. Ragan is James M. Ragan, my mom’s great- uncle, if you can imagine that. His brother, Elbert, was also a Presbyterian Minister. One of their sisters married the man who was to be my great-great-grandfather. What fascinates me is the thin, precious thread that connects me to J.M. Ragan, that is, my mother’s fading memory of her grandfather, who everyone knew as “Lum.”

Lum was the nephew, you see, of James M. Ragan. As such, when J.M. Ragan speaks of “many severe trials and risks of my life to get to…my family,” it’s to his wife or mother or sister he travels, maybe even among these, his nephew, Lum, whom my mother knew and remembers. Along this thin filament I travel to J.M. Ragan. Once having reached him, he then serves to lead me to his father and mother and their parents before them. Before you know it, I’m in England or Ireland, Holland or Denmark, even to Zurich of Switzerland, where Adam Glattfelder and Verona Segi had a son, Johannes, in 1571, my very great-grandfather.

Although I now present this relatively coherent, family picture, before I found the above autobiography, I possessed only fragments, which I was laboriously piecing together. 1) I had my mother’s memory (fading). 2) I had census records of a Ragan family, which appeared to have originated in Tennessee and migrated to Missouri. 3) I had the maiden name of Lum’s mother, Ragan. With hope and glue, I had put the fragments together, but without any real proof. Yesterday, I found the autobiography and the obituary of my great-great-grandmother (in which the names of her parents, husband and children were all provided), which painted the picture in whole and supported all my conjectures. It was a triumphant day.


Dalesings said...


How rich your gathered memories are! And how enriching.

As I sat reading in the dark morning stillness, I turned serendipitously to this poem by the contemporary Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, published just this year.



I'll never know them,
those outmoded figures
--the same as we are,
yet completely different.
My imagination works to unlock
the mystery of their being,
it can't wait for the release
of memory's secret archives.

I see them in cramped classrooms,
in the small provincial towns
of the Hapsburgs' unhappy empire.
Poplars twitch hysterically
outside the windows
while snow and rain dictate
their own orthography.

They grip a useless scrap of chalk
helplessly in their fists,
in fingers black with ink.
They labor to reveal the world's mystery
to noisy, hungry children,
who only grow and scream.

My schoolmaster forebears fought
to calm an angry ocean
just like the mad artist
who rose above the waves
clutching his frail conductor's wand.

I imagine the void
of their exhaustion, empty moments
through which I spy
their life's core.

And I think that when I too
do my teaching
they gaze in turn at me,

revising my mutterings,
correcting my mistakes

with the calm assurance of the dead.

from Eternal Enemies
by Adam Zagajewski
trans. Clare Cavanagh
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Morning Angel said...

Interesting that phrase, "gathered memories." Is that my current work, gathering memories? If so, once gathered do they become "my" memories? By *knowing* do I share in the experience of my ancestors? And if that is true, then does it follow that my ancestors continue to exist, experiencing and remembering through me?

Many people through time and across many places have believed so, and it is difficult to say they were/are wrong.