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 closed.

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 wondering.

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 grieved ter-night."

"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 vindicating himself.

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 pastorship."

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 the parsonage.

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 congregation.

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.