Stafford: Courtship letters focused on cholera and God

Tom Stafford
Tom Stafford

Part 2 of a 2-part column

“Life seemed so uncertain for them, surrounded by death from cholera and other infectious diseases, in the midst of which this youthful romance blossomed ….”

-- John Wilson

Australian John Wilson has pondered over the correspondence courtship of Sarah Simmons and the Rev. Charles Gorsuch Meredith, his great-grandparents.

And, as his remark suggests, their story, seen in letters discovered in 1976 in the attic of a Plattsburg farmhouse, could be published under the Gabriel Garcia Marquez title “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

The time was 1849, 30 years before the Marquez tale.

And although the outbreak of the time encompassed all of Ohio, it ravaged Cincinnati, which reported 8,000 deaths.

The Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), explains why.

“The Ohio River conspired to be sure cholera always took hold of the Queen City. Travel on the river to Cincinnati’s docks made the city a prosperous trade town, but prosperous trade centers are crowded and have a lot of visitors coming in and out every day – two recipes for the spread of disease.”

The third related to the city’s nickname at the time, Porkopolis, and on what we today would call its prime industry’s essential workers.

“The reliance on docks (and the prevalence of nearby hog slaughterhouses) … meant many lower class residents were living and working in dirty and damp conditions -- the breeding grounds of cholera.”

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Christianity and courtship

That year the Rev. Charles Gorsuch Meredith, 29, was traveling on horseback through the Maysville, Kentucky, circuit of the Methodist church, bringing the gospel to small towns in Lewis and Mason counties, which lay on the south bank of the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Portsmouth.

When he writes to Sarah that June 30, she has just turned 21 and he, freshly returned from riding the circuit, is shocked by what he finds.

“Since I left this place, death has called away many of the inhabitants of Maysville, which should be a warning to all survivors ‘to be always ready.’”

For his own continuing good health, he thanks “a Superintending Providence,” a reference to the will of God. As might be expected, his letters to Sarah are filled with thoughts regarding God’s role in that time of trial.

In the same letter, he addresses the other ongoing theme of the correspondence -- one Sarah mentioned in her first return letter to him. Although the movement of the post at the time prevents him from accusations of speed dating, his initial letter may have struck her as abrupt.

“It is no marvel,” he writes, " that you were surprised on receiving a note from … almost an entire stranger (particularly one) whose sacred calling, as well as holy profession should ever guard him from any step that would bring upon him censure from a pious mind."

He reassures Sarah that “nothing but a desire to cultivate your acquaintance prompted me to such an act of boldness” and asks her pardon if his intentions had been unclear.

“I shall be glad, at any time you feel disposed; to desire a communication from you and will take a pleasure in responding.”

Both the relationship and epidemic soon become more serious.

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A test of faith

Great-grandson Wilson finds it “amazing to think they had no idea what the source of the cholera was, what to avoid to protect themselves, which added to the sense of helplessness and panic. The number of neighbors that died and the speed of death is startling to read in the letters.”

In her July 12 response to Charles, Sarah is startled indeed.

“Oh, how mysterious are the ways of Providence. Though we walk through the valley and shadow of death we are enabled to keep our souls staid ….”

The child who years before on a troubled night looked through a window expecting to see the end of times was now a young woman looking into a troubled future again.

“Oh,” she writes, “that we may be prepared by holy living for triumphant dying.”

But even while rubbing elbows with a plague, she affirms the footing on which her relationship with Charles might continue -- the “hope that our acquaintance will be cultivated with strict reference to the spiritual edification of both and the glory to God.”

She signs off “with respect and Christian esteem.”

Charles next writes on July 20, informing Sarah that he had shouldered an addition two tours of the circuit – perhaps knowingly putting himself at higher risk -- so that a colleague, Brother Chalafont, “might remain in this city with his family.”

In the midst of mounting deaths of men, women and children, Charles seems to take to heart a Biblical statement about human frailty: “All flesh is grass.”

He then writes of a community response to the grass fire that’s afoot.

“I have heard of a revival going on, in the (circuit) under the labors of one of the local preachers. I intend starting to aid them immediately. Twenty-five have joined and 15 professed conversion; the interest manifest in the meetings is great, yesterday afternoon 17 were at the after prayer.” Then, the man who had nearly apologized for the forwardness of writing to her continues to press his cause.

“Sister Sarah. It affords me no small degree of pleasure to receive friendly communications from you, yet I am disposed to ask at your hand a greater favor….. It is foreign from my mind even to desire to enter into an engagement of this kind without personal interviews. I wish to consider this subject only in such a manner: that should we after a more thorough knowledge of each other views on this subject …. should we not think that the better course, that we dismiss. I cherish for you the warmest feelings. Whatever you may think of the above I expect to remain ever your sincere though unworthy friend.”

Anxious for her response he urges her to “write soon,” and signs off as “yours affectionately, Chas G. Meredith.”

The destroying angel

Below the greeting of “esteemed brother,” Sarah’s Aug. 4 letter to Charles begins with a phrase of thanks for God’s protection at a time when that protection is needed.

"Through the goodness of our kind Heavenly Father I am well, although this past week has been one of severe trial and bereavement. “The destroying angel,” she writes, had turned on her dearest friends with startling speed.

“Though there are telegraphic wires and a rail-road from here to spring fields, they were both dead and buried before they could get the word here, and father and mother could get there. So soon does this monster do his work?” She clearly feels cholera breathing down her neck. "I have seen misery this summer and thought I sympathized with afflicted friends, but now I feel that the Cholera is indeed among us, " she writes. With six of her father’s congregation members taken in a month, she clung to her faith.

“While my stricken heart mourns the loss of those I dearly loved, yet I desire to say 'Thy will, not mine, Oh Lord be done.”

Therein may lie a difference for lives lived after the development of germ theory: The knowledge that a disease, not God, might be the agent of death – and the consequence of that for peace of mind.

The dark turn of events may have prompted her to see higher stakes in her relationship with Charles – a relationship, she writes, that bears on “not only the interests of this life but also the next.” But those higher stakes also seem to weigh her down.

“I feel my entire incompetency to consider it as it should be. I should rather give you my news verbally, when it would be convenient to you, with the prayer that we may be directed aright in all things, in Christ Jesus.”

In Charles' Aug. 21 letter, it is clear the two intend to marry but it remains unclear whether they will.

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Their plan “hangs upon at least one contingency,” he writes, “your father’s full consent. There is no fellow-mortal that has the same seat in my affections with you; yet I want in all things, reason not the promptings of our feelings to govern.”

The says her father is concerned about the brevity of their acquaintance. But it also seems reasonable to think a man who has buried so many so recently might worry that the disease might suddenly step in to cut Sarah’s marriage short just as death ended his marriage when she was only 3.

A happy ending

The letters for the remainder of the year are filled with details of their Dec. 4 wedding and setting up housekeeping.

There are relatives to be written, furniture to be accumulated, plastering at the parsonage and joy of the sort expressed by Sarah when, on Oct. 17, she celebrates receiving a letter “from my best earthly friend.”

The week before their wedding – addressing him as Mr. Meredith -- she sends him a sober message: “I hope and pray with you, that the important step that we are about to take will be a blessing to both and never be cause of regret to either, and that we may be of one heart and mind ….. I am fully convinced that it is only through grace that we can live as designed by our creator though we are sinful by nature. Yet there is a sufficiency in the atonement to redeem from all defilement which sin has made, and prepare us by holy living, for triumphant dying and for a place in the kingdom of our blessed Savior.”

A reversal of fortune

The dots at the end of the quote that opens this story are called ellipses. They indicate there is more to come.

John Wilson’s complete quote is: “Life seemed so uncertain for them, surrounded by death from cholera and other infectious diseases, in the midst of which this youthful romance blossomed, only to end so tragically.”

In the fifth year of her marriage Sarah and her family experienced a tragic reversal of fortune: The woman who lost her mother at age 3 would raise sons William and Edward without their father, who died July 16, 1854.

In a consoling note, a relative seemed as dazed as 26-year-old Sarah by the “mysterious” ways of providence.

Although he grants there is no evidence to support it, Wilson wonders whether cholera took Charles as well. If not, Wilson has his pick from a host of agents that shortened life with a regularity we might would find shocking today – but that did so regularly when Sarah and Charles found love in the time cholera.

Part 1 of this column ran on Sept. 6