The Fruitful Sleeping of the Rev. Elisha Edwards
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
There was great commotion in Zion Church, a body of Christian
worshippers, usually noted for their harmony. But for the last six
months, trouble had been brewing between the congregation and the
pastor. The Rev. Elisha Edwards had come to them two years before, and
he had given good satisfaction as to preaching and pastoral work. Only
one thing had displeased his congregation in him, and that was his
tendency to moments of meditative abstraction in the pulpit. However
much fire he might have displayed before a brother minister arose to
speak, and however much he might display in the exhortation after the
brother was done with the labors of hurling phillipics against the
devil, he sat between in the same way, with head bowed and eyes
There were some who held that it was a sign in him of deep
thoughtfulness, and that he was using these moments for silent prayer
and meditation. But others, less generous, said that he was either
jealous of or indifferent to other speakers. So the discussion rolled
on about the Rev. Elisha, but it did not reach him and he went
on in the same way until one hapless day, one tragic, one
never-to-be-forgotten day. While Uncle Isham Dyer was exhorting the
people to repent of their sins, the disclosure came. The old man had
arisen on the wings of his eloquence and was painting hell for the
sinners in the most terrible colors, when to the utter surprise of the
whole congregation, a loud and penetrating snore broke from the throat
of the pastor of the church. It rumbled down the silence and startled
the congregation into sudden and indignant life like the surprising
cannon of an invading host. Horror-stricken eyes looked into each
other, hands were thrown into the air, and heavy lips made round O's
of surprise and anger. This was his meditation. The Rev. Elisha
Edwards was asleep!
Uncle Isham Dyer turned around and looked down on his pastor in
disgust, and then turned again to his exhortations, but he was
disconcerted, and soon ended lamely.
As for the Rev. Elisha himself, his snore rumbled on through the
church, his head drooped lower, until with a jerk, he awakened
himself. He sighed religiously, patted his foot upon the floor, rubbed
his hands together, and looked complacently over the aggrieved
congregation. Old ladies moaned and old men shivered, but the pastor
did not know what they had discovered, and shouted Amen, because he
thought something Uncle Isham had said was affecting them. Then, when
he arose to put the cap sheaf on his local brother's exhortations, he
was strong, fiery, eloquent, but it was of no use. Not a cry, not a
moan, not an Amen could he gain from his congregation. Only the local
preacher himself, thinking over the scene which had just been enacted,
raised his voice, placed his hands before his eyes, and murmured,
"Lord he'p we po' sinnahs!"
Brother Edwards could not understand this unresponsiveness on the part
of his people. They had been wont to weave and moan and shout and sigh
when he spoke to them, and when, in the midst of his sermon, he paused
to break into spirited song, they would join with him until the church
rang again. But this day, he sang alone, and ominous glances were
flashed from pew to pew and from aisle to pulpit. The collection that
morning was especially small. No one asked the minister home to
dinner, an unusual thing, and so he went his way, puzzled and
Before church that night, the congregation met together for
conference. The exhorter of the morning himself opened proceedings by
saying, "Brothahs an' sistahs, de Lawd has opened ouah eyes to
wickedness in high places."
"Oom—oom—oom, he have opened ouah eyes," moaned an old sister.
"We have been puhmitted to see de man who was intrusted wid de
guidance of dis flock a-sleepin' in de houah of duty, an' we feels
"He sholy were asleep," sister Hannah Johnson broke in, "dey ain't no
way to 'spute dat, dat man sholy were asleep."
"I kin testify to it," said another sister, "I p'intly did hyeah him
sno', an' I hyeahed him sno't w'en he waked up."
"An' we been givin' him praise fu' meditation," pursued Brother Isham
Dyer, who was only a local preacher, in fact, but who had designs on
ordination, and the pastoring of Zion Church himself.
"It ain't de sleepin' itse'f," he went on, "ef you 'member in de
Gyarden of Gethsemane, endurin' de agony of ouah Lawd, dem what he
tuk wid him fu' to watch while he prayed, went to sleep on his han's.
But he fu'give 'em, fu' he said, 'De sperit is willin' but de flesh is
weak.' We know dat dey is times w'en de eyes grow sandy, an' de haid
grow heavy, an' we ain't accusin' ouah brothah, nor a-blamin' him fu'
noddin'. But what we do blame him fu' is fu' 'ceivin' us, an' mekin'
us believe he was prayin' an' meditatin', w'en he wasn' doin' a
blessed thing but snoozin'."
"Dat's it, dat's it," broke in a chorus of voices. "He 'ceived us,
dat's what he did."
The meeting went stormily on, the accusation and the anger of the
people against the minister growing more and more. One or two were for
dismissing him then and there, but calmer counsel prevailed and it was
decided to give him another trial. He was a good preacher they had to
admit. He had visited them when they were sick, and brought sympathy
to their afflictions, and a genial presence when they were well. They
would not throw him over, without one more chance, at least, of
This was well for the Rev. Elisha, for with the knowledge that he was
to be given another chance, one trembling little woman, who had
listened in silence and fear to the tirades against him, crept out of
the church, and hastened over in the direction of the parsonage. She
met the preacher coming toward the church, hymn-book in hand, and his
Bible under his arm. With a gasp, she caught him by the arm, and
turned him back.
"Come hyeah," she said, "come hyeah, dey been talkin' 'bout you, an' I
want to tell you."
"Why, Sis' Dicey," said the minister complacently, "what is the
mattah? Is you troubled in sperit?"
"I's troubled in sperit now," she answered, "but you'll be troubled in
a minute. Dey done had a church meetin' befo' services. Dey foun' out
you was sleepin' dis mornin' in de pulpit. You ain't only sno'ed, but
you sno'ted, an' dey 'lowin' to give you one mo' trial, an' ef you
falls f'om grace agin, dey gwine ax you fu' to 'sign f'om de
The minister staggered under the blow, and his brow wrinkled. To leave
Zion Church. It would be very hard. And to leave there in disgrace;
where would he go? His career would be ruined. The story would go to
every church of the connection in the country, and he would be an
outcast from his cloth and his kind. He felt that it was all a mistake
after all. He loved his work, and he loved his people. He wanted to do
the right thing, but oh, sometimes, the chapel was hot and the hours
were long. Then his head would grow heavy, and his eyes would close,
but it had been only for a minute or two. Then, this morning, he
remembered how he had tried to shake himself awake, how gradually, the
feeling had overcome him. Then—then—he had snored. He had not tried
wantonly to deceive them, but the Book said, "Let not thy right hand
know what thy left hand doeth." He did not think it necessary to tell
them that he dropped into an occasional nap in church. Now, however,
they knew all.
He turned and looked down at the little woman, who waited to hear what
he had to say.
"Thankye, ma'am, Sis' Dicey," he said. "Thankye, ma'am. I believe I'll
go back an' pray ovah this subject." And he turned and went back into
Whether he had prayed over it or whether he had merely thought over
it, and made his plans accordingly, when the Rev. Elisha came into
church that night, he walked with a new spirit. There was a smile on
his lips, and the light of triumph in his eyes. Throughout the
Deacon's long prayer, his loud and insistent Amens precluded the
possibility of any sleep on his part. His sermon was a masterpiece of
fiery eloquence, and as Sister Green stepped out of the church door
that night, she said, "Well, ef Brothah Eddards slep' dis mornin', he
sholy prached a wakenin' up sermon ter-night." The congregation hardly
remembered that their pastor had ever been asleep. But the pastor knew
when the first flush of enthusiasm was over that their minds would
revert to the crime of the morning, and he made plans accordingly for
the next Sunday which should again vindicate him in the eyes of his
The Sunday came round, and as he ascended to the pulpit, their eyes
were fastened upon him with suspicious glances. Uncle Isham Dyer had a
smile of triumph on his face, because the day was a particularly hot
and drowsy one. It was on this account, the old man thought, that the
Rev. Elisha asked him to say a few words at the opening of the
meeting. "Shirkin' again," said the old man to himself, "I reckon he
wants to go to sleep again, but ef he don't sleep dis day to his own
confusion, I ain't hyeah." So he arose, and burst into a wonderful
exhortation on the merits of a Christian life.
He had scarcely been talking for five minutes, when the ever watchful
congregation saw the pastor's head droop, and his eyes close. For the
next fifteen minutes, little or no attention was paid to Brother
Dyer's exhortation. The angry people were nudging each other,
whispering, and casting indignant glances at the sleeping pastor. He
awoke and sat up, just as the exhorter was finishing in a fiery
period. If those who watched him, were expecting to see any
embarrassed look on his face, or show of timidity in his eyes, they
were mistaken. Instead, his appearance was one of sudden alertness,
and his gaze that of a man in extreme exaltation. One would have said
that it had been given to him as to the inspired prophets of old to
see and to hear things far and beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. As
Brother Dyer sat down, he arose quickly and went forward to the front
of the pulpit with a firm step. Still, with the look of exaltation on
his face, he announced his text, "Ef he sleep he shell do well."
The congregation, which a moment before had been all indignation,
suddenly sprang into the most alert attention. There was a visible
pricking up of ears as the preacher entered into his subject. He spoke
first of the benefits of sleep, what it did for the worn human body
and the weary human soul, then turning off into a half-humorous,
half-quizzical strain, which was often in his sermons, he spoke of how
many times he had to forgive some of those who sat before him to-day
for nodding in their pews; then raising his voice, like a good
preacher, he came back to his text, exclaiming, "But ef he sleep, he
shell do well."
He went on then, and told of Jacob's sleep, and how at night, in the
midst of his slumbers the visions of angels had come to him, and he
had left a testimony behind him that was still a solace to their
hearts. Then he lowered his voice and said:
"You all condemns a man when you sees him asleep, not knowin' what
visions is a-goin' thoo his mind, nor what feelin's is a-goin thoo his
heart. You ain't conside'in' that mebbe he's a-doin' mo' in the soul
wo'k when he's asleep then when he's awake. Mebbe he sleep, w'en you
think he ought to be up a-wo'kin'. Mebbe he slumber w'en you think he
ought to be up an' erbout. Mebbe he sno' an' mebbe he sno't, but I'm
a-hyeah to tell you, in de wo'ds of the Book, that they ain't no
'sputin' 'Ef he sleep, he shell do well!'"
"Yes, Lawd!" "Amen!" "Sleep on Ed'ards!" some one shouted. The church
was in smiles of joy. They were rocking to and fro with the ecstasy of
the sermon, but the Rev. Elisha had not yet put on the cap sheaf.
"Hol' on," he said, "befo' you shouts er befo' you sanctions. Fu' you
may yet have to tu'n yo' backs erpon me, an' say, 'Lawd he'p the man!'
I's a-hyeah to tell you that many's the time in this very pulpit,
right under yo' very eyes, I has gone f'om meditation into slumber.
But what was the reason? Was I a-shirkin' er was I lazy?"
Shouts of "No! No!" from the congregation.
"No, no," pursued the preacher, "I wasn't a-shirkin' ner I wasn't
a-lazy, but the soul within me was a wo'kin' wid the min', an' as we
all gwine ter do some day befo' long, early in de mornin', I done
fu'git this ol' body. My haid fall on my breas', my eyes close, an' I
see visions of anothah day to come. I see visions of a new Heaven an'
a new earth, when we shell all be clothed in white raimen', an' we
shell play ha'ps of gol', an' walk de golden streets of the New
Jerusalem! That's what been a runnin' thoo my min', w'en I set up in
the pulpit an' sleep under the Wo'd; but I want to ax you, was I
wrong? I want to ax you, was I sinnin'? I want to p'int you right
hyeah to the Wo'd, as it are read out in yo' hyeahin' ter-day, 'Ef he
sleep, he shell do well.'"
The Rev. Elisha ended his sermon amid the smiles and nods and tears of
his congregation. No one had a harsh word for him now, and even
Brother Dyer wiped his eyes and whispered to his next neighbor, "Dat
man sholy did sleep to some pu'pose," although he knew that the dictum
was a deathblow to his own pastoral hopes. The people thronged around
the pastor as he descended from the pulpit, and held his hand as they
had done of yore. One old woman went out, still mumbling under her
breath, "Sleep on, Ed'ards, sleep on."
There were no more church meetings after that, and no tendency to
dismiss the pastor. On the contrary, they gave him a donation party
next week, at which Sister Dicey helped him to receive his guests.