The absent-minded minister

I’m currently writing an essay about Samuel West, my predecessor in the pulpit here in New Bedford from 1761-1803. He had the reputation for being absent-minded and eccentric. Back in 1849, John Morison, another one of my predecessors in the pulpit here, wrote the definitive biographical essay of West. Morison tells the following anecdote as evidence of West’s eccentricity, and I’m going to ask you to read it, and then tell me what you think….

“The following story was told me by his daughter, and is unquestionably true. He had gone to Boston, and, a violent shower coming up on Saturday afternoon, he did not get home that evening, as was expected. The next morning his family were very anxious, and waited till, just at the last moment, he was seen hurrying his horse on with muddy ruffles dangling about his hands, and another large ruffle hanging out upon his bosom, through the open vest which he usually had buttoned close to his chin. He never had worn such embellishments before, and never afterwards could tell how he came by them then. It was too late to change — the congregation were waiting. His daughter buttoned up his vest, so as to hide the bosom ornaments entirely, and carefully tucked the ruffles in about the wrists. During the opening services all went very well. But probably feeling uneasy about the wrists, he twitched at them till the ruffles were flourishing about, and then, growing warm as he advanced, he opened his vest, and made such an exhibition of muddy finery as probably tended very little to the religious edification of the younger portion of his audience. ‘That,’ said his daughter, in telling the story, ‘was the only time that I was ever ashamed of my father.’  ”

So here’s my question: The poor man had a rough ride back home, was probably riding all night, got muddy and dirty, didn’t have time to change his clothing, but made it into the pulpit in time to preach. I don’t get it — this is eccentric how? I readily admit that I don’t pay much attention to my own personal appearance, and have been known to wear a suit on Sunday morning but forget to put on a tie (since I don’t wear a robe in the pulpit, this does not look good). I also admit that I have been asked by Beauty Tips for Ministers to submit a photograph to demonstrate how not to dress if you’re a minister. And I admit that it would be better if people like me and Dr. West had it in us to pay attention to our personal appearance.

But by all accounts, West was an amazing preacher, and can’t we put up with dirty ruffles for the sake of good preaching? And yeah, you don’t have to tell me, if the answer is “no,” I had better find another line of work….

2 thoughts on “The absent-minded minister

  1. Jean

    I think this is the key: “He never had worn such embellishments before, and never afterwards could tell how he came by them then.” The ruffles, apparently, were not his. Hmm. Methinks the good minister may possibly have borrowed a blouse from someone. Err, someone not ministerial. Shall we say.

    As for dressing, fashion, all that. Oh, good grief already. Dan, you dress just fine. And the advice on the ministerial fashionista site…it actually makes me shudder. The most recent post (March 20) offering some swell shoes? Oh god, no, please don’t buy those. They reek of dork trying to be trendy. I can just see the tan pantyhose with the reinforced toe peeking out. ewww.

    Sorry. Anyway: Fashion is a complex system of signs; as such, it is always in flux. And as a system of signs, there is an intricate interaction between the signifiers. Your lack of tie, for instance, is probably completely obviated (if not overwhelmed by) the length of your ponytail. And the minister in question in your post? Well — daughter probably read the dirty floppy fluffies correctly, but chose to interpret it as a fashion faux pas. Or perhaps the biographer did…

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