Eben Muir Rice may not be familiar to anyone except descendants of Luther Rice and Ebenezer Muir, but he was familiar with Martinsburg, New York. He lived there in 1860, when James Buchanan was in his final days as President and Southern states were threatening to leave the Union.
Eben was twenty years old, working hard at a new job, writing to his “darling girl” Mary Ann, visiting his relatives, attending church. And he was keeping a diary of his ambitions, passions, tribulations-soul-searching accounts of things he thought no one would ever see. But the value of Eben’s diary extends beyond his own life, for he wrote of the people of Lewis County.
When Eben arrived in Martinsburg, he was returning to his home state. He was born in Fort Covington in 1840, son of a Baptist minister who pastored churches in New York, Massachusetts, Montreal, and Chicago. It was in Chicago that Eben lost both of his parents — his mother in childbirth, his father to cholera a year later. Eben and his two sisters were taken to Montreal and raised by their mother’s parents. When Eben was seventeen, his grandfather, Ebenezer Muir, kicked him out of the house and for a while Eben was a nomad, living with one Muir relative then another, apprenticing for a career in pharmacy.
Attending to Business
Then, with four years’ experience behind him, Eben decided to come to the states and get serious about his career and his love life. He moved in with his father’s brother, Franklin Ebenezer Rice. Eben’s Uncle Frank was a farmer, born and raised in Martinsburg, married to Sarah Wright, with one son, Henry Almon Rice, who was the same age as Eben. Frank Rice’s farm was on Tug Hill, the vast plateau known for fierce lake-effect winds and serious snowfalls. Today a wind turbine marks the spot.
As Eben unpacked in the spare bedroom of his uncle’s farmhouse, he had one thought on his mind — to bring his fiancé from Hamilton, Ontario and settle among his father’s relatives. He got a job clerking at White and Belknap, a general store in the village. The hours were long but the customers few. Some days, he had the store to himself. It was turning into drudgery and he wrote about it candidly:
White spoke to me today telling me that business was very dull, and he and Belknap thought they could do the business alone. The long and the short of it was that they had kept me to suit their convenience, and now wish to get rid of me.
A Change of Heart
Eben was in a sticky situation — he had just lost his job but truth is, he was no longer interested in being a pharmacist or a merchant. Something was happening to him that would change everything. He recounted his experience in his diary a year later:
Well do I remember the day. It was at Uncle Frank’s. I had been down to Martinsburg to church and after I got home I lay down on the sofa to rest. While lying there it seemed as though someone came to me and asked me if I would become a minister. I was very unwilling, for I saw that I would have to give Mary Ann up, and many other things beside…So much was I agitated that I could not repress an occasional groan. At last Uncle Frank asked me what was the matter. I did not tell him plainly, but passed it off. I did not make up my mind for a week as to whether I would be a minister or not, but thank God, my decision was made and made a-right.
To Become a Minister
In 1860, the process of becoming a minister in the Baptist denomination was straightforward, personal, and local. Eben most likely announced his decision to the Martinsburg church. And, as a member of the Baptist Missionary Convention of the State of New York and the Black River Association, the church would have affirmed his calling and written him a letter of reference.
From that point on, a prospective theological student like Eben was on his own to learn the business of pastoring and preaching. He had a choice of two Baptist theological institutions in New York, one at Rochester, the other near Syracuse. Their combined enrollment was around fifty students. Not enough to supply all the Baptist churches in the state, but enough to claim the denomination had an educated clergy.
The Choice is Made
When Eben told his Muir relatives in Montreal he had been called to the ministry, they decided to pay his tuition plus a little extra — as long as he agreed to attend the new Baptist theological institute in Woodstock, Ontario. Eben wanted to attend Madison University in Hamilton, New York, where his father and his uncle earned their degrees. In fact, he wrote to Professor Hezekiah Harvey, Dean of the Theology Faculty, about enrolling, but he had no choice. It was back to Canada.
He made final arrangements in Lowville, bought a Greek Lexicon and a New Testament, got his vest pin fixed and changed his money at the bank. Then he walked over to Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle John Peebles. And as was typical of Eben, he ended up in a debate.
In the evening Aunt Mary Ann and I got into an argument about closed communion, Baptist doctrines, and Unionism. I endeavored to convince her from Scripture, but she would not acknowledge anything. She would not stick to the argument, but flew the track whenever she got into a tight place. However, I cornered her. She is a very smart woman but she has a bad side.
Eben took leave of family and arranged a ride to Watertown with Edwin Pitcher, a prosperous farmer who had just built a new hotel and block of stores in Martinsburg. But before leaving town, Eben made one final stop:
Visited my grandparents’ graves and plucked a small twig of a locust bush which grows over their graves. The burying ground is a very dismal looking place at this time of year. Nothing but snow; no green thing, no living creature – nothing but snow, with here and there a tombstone peeping out from its fleecy covering.
On the Front Lines
While Eben was a theological student in Ontario, he corresponded regularly with his cousin Lucy back in Martinsburg. Here’s the news from Martinsburg the year after he left:
Lucy tells me that my cousin Sarah (Uncle Lorenzo’s eldest girl) has been married, and has gone out west…About the war, Lucy says that her brother was wounded in the hand at the battle of Richmond. Hazen was badly wounded in the shoulder, and one of the young Pitcher’s was mortally wounded and has since died. Another company has been raised in Martinsburg and is off to the war.
War was taking its toll on Lewis County’s sons. Sterling Hazen, a young attorney from Denmark, now a Second Lieutenant in the Fourteenth Infantry, took a rifle ball in the left shoulder and neck in the battle of Malvern Hill and spent months in the military hospital on Bedloe’s Island in the New York harbor. Oliver Howard Pitcher, another of Eben’s relatives, was just nineteen when he was shot in the hip at the battle of Gaines’ Mill. He was taken prisoner and died a month later.
Lucy remained Eben’s link with his kin in Martinsburg. Once, Eben ran short of money — he couldn’t buy textbooks or pay his rent — and he turned to Lucy for help:
I wrote to Lucy enclosing my photograph to Aunt Mary Ann. I spoke about desiring to borrow money and asked her to sound out Uncle John.
But his request failed. Uncle John Peebles, despite a handsome income from his farm, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) lend Eben any money. You’d think that a ministerial student would learn not to hold a grudge over this, but years later Eben wrote in his diary:
Heard today that Uncle John Peebles died in Martinsburg last Sunday evening. Little good will his money do him now.
The Truth about Lucy
It took a good bit of research to figure out who cousin Lucy was. There are no birth records for her but she’s found in the NY census, though her whereabouts are somewhat confusing. She’s living with one family, then another.
Finally, a newspaper account from 1904 made Lucy’s identity clear. Although she used the surname Butts, she was actually a Rice. Lucy had to go to court at age sixty-five to prove that she was the illegitimate daughter of Eben’s Uncle Almon Rice. And because Lucy was Almon’s only heir, the court awarded her his entire estate. So Eben was saying a lot when he called Lucy his cousin and wrote of her sympathetically in his diary in 1864:
Received a letter from Lucy. She is back at Aunt Mary Ann’s. She married John Fairman and moved out west … She had a baby, but it died, and John went to fight, so she went back to Martinsburg. John is in Nashville Tennessee … I am very glad to hear from Lucy, for I have often thought about her and wondered where she was. Poor Lucy, she has had a hard life of it. May God make her future brighter.
Serving as a Minister
The same prayer could be said for Eben — may God make his future brighter. For awhile Eben’s future was bright. He pastored Baptist churches in Quebec and Ontario, then Illinois. He was co-founder of the Bothwell, Ontario YMCA, clerk of the regional Baptist association, and secretary of his alumni association. In those days, relations between US and Canadian Baptists were close enough that a minister could cross from one regional association to another with ease — doctrines, ordinances, polity were compatible.
Baptists on the North American continent, like Eben, were descendants of “dissenters” who had separated from the Church of England in the 1600s, or from the Church of Scotland in the 1700s, some immigrating to Canada, others to the US in the late 1700s. They held the Scriptures as their sole authority and adopted believers’ baptism. As a mark of dissention from the established church, they held firmly to the autonomy of the local church. Yet they were known for their strong interdependence through mission societies and regional associations and shared resources. For example, until the 1880s, Canadian Baptists used hymnals and Bibles and Sunday School materials published in the US or Great Britain.
Eben lived during interesting times for Baptists in northern states and Canada — they were simultaneously developing Sunday Schools, supporting foreign missions, and attacking the institution of slavery. Baptist work was done with great passion by ministers who made a meager living. This was true of Eben, whose penny-counting and crop-raising went hand-in-hand with spreading the gospel. He traveled many miles, between Sundays, for Baptist causes. It was pioneer work and it wore him out.
Only ten years after wrestling with his call to ministry on the sofa at Uncle Frank’s, Reverend Eben Muir Rice died in Marseilles, Illinois of an enlarged heart — a congenital disease that no medicines of that day could cure. He had not yet reached the pinnacle of his career as a Baptist minister when he passed away at age thirty. It was not unexpected, his passing, because even while a theological student, there were signs that his days were numbered. His fatigue when he walked a long way. His shortness of breath, pains in his chest.
Eben found his life’s calling among the people of Martinsburg. And he felt so strongly about it, he decided to keep a daily record of all that was unfolding. So he bought a blank book, maybe at White and Belknap’s store, and late at night, by the light of a flickering oil lamp, he wrote in tiny script, filling every page, to the end.
The diaries of Eben Muir Rice are with The Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.
Photos, from above: Eben starts a diary; F.E. Rice farm, section 88, 1875, Atlas of Lewis County; Franklin Rice farm, Martinsburg; and the end of volume one of Eben’s journal.