Footprints of the Pioneers


Chapter 15—The Firsts

John Byington

IT IS but a dot on the map now, it never was much more than a long right-angling street, and its bucolic name would have shut it off from the distinction of a metropolis; but for us it has the romance of first things. There was built the first Seventh-day Adventist church; there was begun our first church school; there lived the man who became the first president of the General Conference. Buck’s Bridge! north side of New York State, near the Canadian border, in the elbow of lazy Grass River. FOPI 129.4

We came to Buck’s Bridge in the fading light of a spent September afternoon. It was a hard place to find on the map, or to find maps that had it-only one of three in our possession and that in the smallest type, at a little round circle like the period some querulous penmen make. We had driven up from the lower reaches of the State, across the northern corner of the beautiful Adirondacks, and caught the cast-west road at Malone. A few miles toward the sunset, and we were at West Bangor, for a short visit with Miss Emma Lawrence, daughter of a pioneer, Elder Horace W. Lawrence, a man of faith and power. He accepted the truth in March, 1852, in Bangor, which was our first church up here, and which still remains. He preached the message; he raised up churches; he healed the sick through prayer; he put his hands on the heads of boys like Charlie Lewis and Frank Wilcox, destined for great service. Regretfully we left Miss Emma and her nieces, and went on to Madrid. Three miles beyond lies Buck’s Bridge. FOPI 130.1

John Byington was a Methodist minister when he accepted the Seventh-day Adventist faith in May, 1852, under the labors of George W. Holt and Hiram Edson. 94 He is reported then by Holt and, the next year, by James White, to have been living in Potsdam, 95 which is some ten miles southeast; but Amadon, in Byington’s obituary, says that he accepted the faith while living in Buck’s Bridge, 97 he himself writes from Buck’s Bridge on January 7, 1853 and White says that the town of Motley was about two miles from Byington’s house, which would be true of Buck’s Bridge but not of the town of Potsdam. Joseph Bates, in January, 1853, reports a meeting at Buck’s Bridge, where “The conference ... was held in the home of Brother John Byington, who but a short time since was a Wesleyan Methodist preacher. After an examination of the third angel’s message, himself and all his family have volunteered to stand for the long neglected and trodden-down Sabbath of the Lord our God.” FOPI 131.1

It would appear, then, that all reference to his residence in Potsdam means the community of Buck’s Bridge in the township of Potsdam, and that he lived all the time at the little town. His home at Buck’s Bridge was just around the corner from the Methodist church, where the road turns sharply to go to Motley; but his house is there no more-there is only a field. There are, in fact, but a dozen houses in the village, and they are nearly all farm houses. But a hundred years ago it was more populous; and while we must not suppose that all the Seventh-day Adventist church members of that time lived in the village, there were half a hundred or more of them. Emma Lawrence told us her father brought forty into the Buck’s Bridge church at one time. But the first company evidently grew up around John Byington. FOPI 131.2

The families whom we first contacted at Buck’s Bridge could tell us little of the long-forgotten Adventist era, but they referred us to the oldest inhabitant, back up the road, Mr. Clayton Haley. He was only five years older than I, but he had lived there since childhood. So I went up to see him. I found him at the barn, as it was milking rime, but two or three young men were doing the milking, and he had leisure and showed courteous patience with me. He was nature’s gentleman, one of the old school. FOPI 132.1

We sat down in the barn door, after I had told him my name and what I was after, and he discoursed of the early times. Did he remember the Seventh-day Adventist church? Yes, indeed he did. He and all the neighbors used to go there when the Adventists held big meetings; he heard the best sermon there he ever heard in his life. And they would go to the baptizing, too; the baptizing place is just across the bridge, on the other side of the river. FOPI 132.2

“I can tell you pretty near when that church was closed,” he said. “It was when I was thirty-five years old, forty years ago. They had pretty nigh all moved away; Dar Hall was the last, I guess. And Maurice Spears bought the church, tore it down, and built some hog pens with the lumber.” FOPI 132.3

Incidentally, I should say that another and more honorable fate overtook that lumber, according to the account given me by Mrs. C. C. (Myrta Kellogg) Lewis. She said that when she and Professor Lewis were up there in 1917, they met some man in Madrid who said he had that lumber all stored away in the loft of his barn, and he was keeping it with the hope that it might yet go into another Seventh-day Adventist church. But unfortunately she could not remember his name, nor otherwise identify him. FOPI 133.1

Did Mr. Haley remember the names of any of the old members of the Seventh-day Adventist church? Yes, he did. “There was Brainerd Hall, and Dar Hall, Sam Crosby and wife, Donald Crosby, Christopher Bradley (he had a lot of children), Darwin Town (lived in yonder house), George Buck, Charlie Lewis— FOPI 133.2

“Charlie Lewis and me used to have great times together when we was young fellers. Fished and hunted all up and down Grass River and Lyman Crick. Speared the biggest fish in the crick once, me holding the lantern and Charlie spearing. Big fight that fish put up; like to knocked the boat over. Charlie wasn’t an Adventist then—his ma was, but his pa wasn’t. She was a good woman; his pa was a good man, too. But Charlie was sort o’ peaked in them days, and they let him stay out in the open air ‘stid o’ goin’ to school. He caught up with school in a year or two, though; and when he was seventeen or thereabouts, he taught that hunderd-scholar school of his—licked it down to the bootstraps, too; and I guess that’s what started him teaching school, which he did all his life, I guess. FOPI 133.3

“Charlie Lewis come to see me once, ‘bout twenty-five year ago, him and his daughter [Agnes Lewis Caviness]. Jest sich a day as this, spittin’ rain. Come up to the door, he did, and sweeps off his hat with that grand air of his, and he says, ‘Do you perhaps know me, Mr. Clayton Haley?’ he says. I took one look, and I says, ‘Well, if it ain’t old Charlie Lewis! Come in here whar I kin git at ye!’ He like to never got away. Charlie Lewis was a great man.” FOPI 133.4

“There was another man,” went on Mr. Haley. “Can’t remember his name. Had a big family; but he wouldn’t feed them children of his no more’n two meals a day; and they all got pot-gutted. [A finical gentleman of the new school would say obese.] Can’t think of his name.” FOPI 134.1

“He probably didn’t feed them any meat, either,” I ventured. FOPI 134.2

“I guess that’s right,” said Brother Haley. FOPI 134.3

“Now, look at me,” I said, exhaling, and drawing up my diaphragm. “I’m not so very pot-gutted, am I? And I haven’t eaten any meat for fifty years.” FOPI 134.4

“Ye hain’t!” exclaimed Mr. Haley. ‘Ye eat lots o’ fish, and chicken, and eggs, don’t ye?” FOPI 134.5

“No chicken, no fish, and not so many eggs,” I answered. FOPI 134.6

“Hoo!” said Mr. Haley. “What ye do it fur?” FOPI 134.7

“Health,” I said, “and to save the chickens. Besides, it’s cheaper. All you get out of a chicken, or a steer, or a hog is what you put into him, and not all of that. And I like it better.” FOPI 134.8

“Whoo!” said Mr. Haley. FOPI 134.9

“Did you ever hear of one of those Adventists named Byington, John Byington?” I asked, with a last faint hope of getting a line on my main trace. FOPI 134.10

The old man turned a startled face toward me. He slapped his leg. “That’s the man,” he said. “That the very old man!” FOPI 134.11

“Well, I knew the grandchildren of John Byington,” I said, and they were as slender as you are, more slender than I am. I guess they came out all right.” FOPI 134.12

“‘Spect so,” said Brother Haley. “Tell ye somethin’ funny. Few years ago there come a passel of men through here, looking for the old things, same as you. And I told ‘em about this old man that had the pot-gutted children. And one of ‘em spoke up and says, ‘I was one of them!’” And the old man laughed heartily at the joke on himself. (It adds nothing to the tale to say that John Byington moved away thirteen years before Mr. Haley was born. But doubtless there was a tradition.) FOPI 134.13

Almost directly across from the neat white Methodist church is the site of the old Adventist church. There is no monument. We found it across a sagging barbed-wire fence, behind a telephone pole and a pile of road gravel. Nothing is left there now but a few foundation stones, disjointed and with gaps. I wonder that so much remains. This was one of the first, if not the first Seventh day Adventist church ever built: 1855. The church at Washington, New Hampshire, is indeed older, but it was built by the Christian congregation, who afterward became (first day) Adventists. After the Disappointment the majority of this church (all but the handful of Sabbath keepers) reverted to the Christian denomination, and kept the church, which in the early reports of our workers is always called the Christian church. About 1863, their church dissolving, they turned the building over to the Seventh-day Adventists. FOPI 135.1

The first church in Battle Creek, Michigan, was, like the Buck’s Bridge church, built in 1855, but probably Buck’s Bridge was the earlier. 99 It was not a large church, about the size of that Cass Street church in Battle Creek, I should judge. If the rather scattered foundation stones tell a true tale, it was 20 by 30 feet, with a 15-foot extension in the rear. FOPI 135.2

So many old landmarks have melancholy associations of thought; but this we could make no wailing wall. Perhaps it was the cheerful aura of Mr. Clayton Haley, and also the very friendly attitude of the nearer neighbors; anyway, despite the rain and the meager photographic results, we felt a glow of good cheer as we contemplated the spot where the first General Conference president built the first Seventh-day Adventist church. Of course he did not become president for a dozen years after that. There was no General Conference and no general church organization in the 50’s. FOPI 135.3

Another first was the first church school, apparently started in the year 1854. This was prior to the great general church school movement by forty-three years; it was two years before the first elementary church school in Battle Creek. This Buck’s Bridge school was taught by Martha Byington, John’s daughter, who afterward married George Amadon. He, as a boy, left the towpath of the Erie Canal, to enter on apprenticeship in the little Review and Herald office at Rochester, New York, and he went on with it to Battle Creek, where he became a foreman, a deacon, a key worker in Sabbath school and church, a man of deep piety and happy memories. Mrs. Martha Amadon also furnishes us reminiscences of Sister White and other early workers. FOPI 136.1

Whether the school was held in the church, or elsewhere, no one tells us. The tiny church might contain the congregation, well packed in, but it would hardly seem adequate for a school full of children. And remember, those Buck’s Bridge people “had a lot of children.” We do not know how many pupils Miss Martha had, nor how long the school continued, but it was the first. John Byington, with his family, removed to Michigan in 1858. Buck’s Bridge church continued for many years, but evidently, according to the testimony of Mr. Haley, it had ceased to exist in the early 1900’s. FOPI 137.1

We crossed the bridge, too, to look at the “baptizing place.” Across a rail fence, the meadow slopes gradually down to the still waters; and through the misty rain we beheld as it were a great company assembled, standing on the gentle slope, the townspeople mingled with the church members, to watch the candidates-children, youth, and new converts-going down into the water to be buried with their Lord in baptism, while the congregation sang: FOPI 137.2

“I will follow Thee, my Savior,” and
“Just as I am without one plea,” and
“Shall we gather at the river?”
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?
“Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.”