His Mantel of Zeal and Holiness
This 'ere be Ahwega, boys. Pole hard less'n you want to swim!" shouted the crusty old river man from his position at the rudder. The words caught them by surprise and the three brothers nearly stumbled over each other as they poled up and down the walking planks, each straining to catch a glimpse of the village through the overhanging branches along the north shore of the river. Two days on the river had taught them how to control the odd-looking flat-bottomed craft although they had to admit, it was a lot harder than it looked. The old river man held the ark close by the shoreline, riding the current as close to the trees as possible, until the river broadened, the current slowed, and the heavy craft drifted toward the shallow waters below the village. Laden with heavy produce and bound for southern markets, the ark was drawing dangerously close to river bottom.
"I ain't gettin' stuck for you boys, Nosiree!" the captain snarled, "You boys got to jump if'n you want off!" The three brothers dropped their poles, tossed their satchels ashore, and one-by-one leapt into the waist-deep, murky waters of the Susquehanna River shoreline. The swollen waters were carving out a new shore and, at first, it wasn't easy for the brothers to find their footing. Eventually, however, the trio scrambled up the slippery bank and turned to take a look at the ark, catching one last glimpse of her as she rounded the river's bend.
As they stood on the riverbank in silence, wringing the mud from their hands, little did they know that each of them was secretly wishing they could have stayed on board that ark. The last two days had been a glorious adventure! And how grand it would be to ride that river past Wilkes Barre! and Harrisburg and Cumberland! and maybe even Baltimore on the great Chesapeake Bay itself, they imagined. But it could not be. They knew family friends were expecting their arrival. And besides, they had promised their parents they would try their hand at farming.
As few as five years earlier, the arrival of strangers into the village would have been cause for much excitement. Strangers brought news from home, badly needed supplies, and sorely needed companionship. None of these commodities were in short supply now. The year was 1805. Owego, New York, was fast becoming a center of commercial importance.
The three brothers did not stay long in Owego, but traveled the fifteen rigorous miles over an unimproved road to a cluster of cabins in the wilderness called "Brown's Settlement." 1 Here they met friends from western Massachusetts whom they had known as neighbors. In time, the three brothers purchased lots, built their small frame homes, and put in crops.
None of the three brothers met with much success in turning and sowing the boulder-strewn hillsides. Being young and adventuresome, the three brothers found the work dull and tedious; and each of them, by degree, became more and more restless as the days passed. In the evenings, they would gather by the hearthside and recall the stories their grandpa used to tell....of sailing ships, and exotic far-away ports, of strange people and unusual customs, daring sea battles and miraculous escapes. The lure of the sea was overpowering to these young men, but it was their mother who now prevented them from electing the sailor's life of adventure. They remembered the day in 1801 when word was received that their older brother Samuel had died at sea. It was the day their mother had begged them promise not to follow suit.
Inevitably, the brothers left their stony fields and gave up their property. Osmyn was the first to go. Perhaps wishing to save his parents the grief of knowing that he was determined to take up the sea-faring ways of his ancestors, Osmyn made his way to Canada where he is said to have signed on with a merchant vessel. Henry, demonstrating greater persistence, stayed on his property 2 until after his parents passed away; then moved his family to New York City, bid them goodbye, and found employment on a merchant vessel as well. Like his brother Samuel, Henry also found an early grave.
By 1807, true to form, the eldest of the three brothers, John Griffing, was seriously looking for more fulfilling employment. Early in that year, John returned to his parent's home in Richmond, Massachusetts, upon receiving word that his mother was in ailing health. John's mother, Jemima (Vail) Griffing, died on May 13, 1807. As his father was also in poor health, John stayed with his father throughout the summer until he too passed away on November 30th.
The summer that John spent in Richmond with his dying father was one that would have a pivotal effect on the rest of his life. While visiting with family and friends, John began to court Lydia Redfield, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Beriah and Dorothy [Stevens] Redfield. She was the twelfth of thirteen children raised by the gentleman farmer who had extensive holdings in the Berkshire Mountains. In an attempt to impress her doubting father of his worth, John Griffing was reportedly fully transformed in character and confessed "the errors of his sinful ways." In time, he developed "a deepening, growing, and widening expression of piety." Falling in under the labors of the Reverend Phineas Cook, a Methodist itinerant, John was converted and encouraged to answer a call to the ministry.
Three months after her sixteenth birthday,
Lydia were married. The ceremony
took place on October 1, 1808, in New Lebanon, New York, just across the state
line from Richmond. Apparently they eloped and did not have her father's
consent [see Permelia's Memoirs].
Apparently they eloped and did not have her father's consent [see Permelia's Memoirs].
what event, so emotional, so compelling, could possibly have brought young John
Griffing to seek his place at the mournerís bench?
Most likely, it was a camp meeting. Although a relatively new religion in America, the Methodists were having
remarkable success in finding converts in the backwoods settlements. By 1800, horse-riding evangelists had penetrated the furthest reaches of
the frontier, promising "eternal bliss from the grave...if [one] could
bring off the spiritual rebirth of handing his soul back to God who made
it." 3 And it was the camp meeting that was usually the first exposure any of
the backwoods settlers had to this new religion. The following description of camp meetings will make it easier to
In a large clearing a tent sheltered the platform for preachers. Around it were smaller tents and wagon room for the thousands of the soul-hungry and curious, bringing food and bedding for a stay of several days and even more important nights... Experienced preachers working in relays screamed damnation and eternal love from stumps and wagon beds, as well as the platform, dashing down in the crowd to assail waverers, tearing themselves ragged with contagious emotion, alternating verbal onslaughts with mass singing of popular hymns couched in lurid metaphors of blood and love and ransom and war.
by bonfires and torches, this rhythmic, raucous atmosphere led to striking
excesses. As the power gripped those workaday men and women and their sunburned
sons and rough-handed daughters, they were expected to and usually did give way
to violent physical antics as standardized as those of voodoo in Haiti. After an
agonized struggle with sin under the lash of the exhorter the convert would
suddenly be struck down writhing and slobbering as if by a stunning blow. Or he
would get the jerks -- a twitching so severe that a woman victim's long hair
might snap like a whip -- or the jumps -- superhumanly high leaps persisted in
for hours -- or the barks -- yapping like a dog on all-fours -- or the flops --
violent quasi-epileptic convulsions... Straw was spread thick on the ground to
keep the spiritually newborn from injuring themselves. Some spoke in tongues... 4
later, Samuel Clemens maintained "the Methodist camp meetings and
Campbellite [offshoot of the Baptists, now the Disciples of Christ] revivals
used to stock the asylums with religious lunatics" and referred to them
contemptuously as "wildcat religions." From the above account, could any outsider stumbling upon such a
gathering reach any other conclusion?
But what did it mean to be a backwoods Methodist preacher in the early 1800's?
[preacher] had a specific territory to ransom from sin by periodic preachings at
points where hearers could readily meet. Their regular tours of such fords,
courthouses, and crossroads gave the legal-flavored name 'circuit' to their
routes and made them 'circuit riders.' ...Mud to the horse's girths; even deeper
floods to swim; malaria; abuse from backwoods rowdies; dog days or blizzard, the
circuit riders kept at the Lord's work. Even in that rugged age they stood out
for grit and stamina....Methodism as circuit riding embodied it was a
muddy-booted, everybody - good - as - anybody religion close to the
backwoodsman's prejudices and sharply contrasting with the conventional sects...
In previously churchless neighborhoods, where cutting notches in a stick was the
best way to tell one day from the next, the circuit rider's periodical visit and
galvanic rantings about the terrors of hell and the infinite mercy of Christ
were something to look forward to even among those not highly religious-minded. 5
spirits lifted at the prospect of a new life, new direction, and a challenging
future before him in the work of the Lord, John Griffing returned to Berkshire,
New York, with his new bride. To
put food on the table, John had to resume farming but he worked to prepare
himself for the ministry and, by 1809, was able to hold regular meetings as a
self-appointed local preacher in "Rawson's Schoolhouse" in the
northeast section of Berkshire. 6 During the next five years, while serving in this capacity, John and
Lydia had three children, Henry [born September 17, 1809], Clarissa [born
December 10, 1810], and Lydia [born February 8, 1813].
In 1814, John was admitted on trial into the Genesee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and licensed to exhort. His assignment was to preach at four-week intervals on the four hundred mile Tioga Circuit with over thirty preaching places. This circuit, in 1814, included territory in New York as well as Pennsylvania. The route was described as follows:
a point below Bainbridge, Ouaguaga, Randolph, Osborne Hollow, Brother Hale's,
Brother Comfort's (father of Silas Comfort), Brother Rood's, Chenango Point or
Binghamton, Chocomet, down the Susquehanna and over the mountains to Brother
Canfield's on Wyalusing Creek, down the Wyalusing to it's mouth, up the Wysox
[Creek], from the mouth to the headwaters of the Towanda [Creek], thence to the
headwaters of the Lycoming Creek, thence over to Sugar Creek, thence to the
[Susquehanna] river again at Shesequin, Lisle, Green[e],and back to the place of
rigorous journey through the backwoods? Certainly.
And what would the traveling outfit of such a sojourner look
like? Reverend James Erwin, a
outfit of a Methodist preacher at that day was not very expensive. It consisted
of a horse, saddle and bridle, saddlebags, camlet cloak with cape down to the
tip of your fingers, a broad-rimmed white hat, and clothes of home made cloth
made in the plainest style. Some of the preachers would not wear buttons on the
coat, but used "hooks and eyes" instead. You could tell a Methodist preacher any where.... [And] our
salaries were not very "fat." A single preacher was allowed one
hundred dollars, if he could get it; if married, another hundred for his wife,
and sixteen dollars for each child under seven years of age, and for each child
from seven to fourteen years, twenty-four dollars. An allowance was made for
"table expenses and fuel" of from 25 to 50 dollars, according to the
ability and liberality of the circuit. 8
is believed that John Griffing moved his family from Berkshire to Tioga, a small
farming center about three miles west of Owego about 1814.
The twenty-two acre farm that he purchased from Amasa Dana for the sum of
fifty dollars was not registered until 1817, however. This farm was situated on land between the Susquehanna River
and the road immediately opposite the Tioga Cemetery. Here, poor in property but rich in spirit, John managed to
eke out a living. His reasons for
relocating to Tioga are not revealed but it is likely that the property was more
convenient to his circuit and, perhaps, he was seeking to shelter his family
from the ever-growing persecution of Methodists in Calvinistic Berkshire. According to one Methodist preacher in those times:
first settlers of the town of Berkshire were mostly from New England.
As Methodism began to grow and prosper, it met with opposition and
persecution from the Congregational society. They considered the Methodists as
intruders, and consequently assailed their doctrine, worship, and members with
ridicule and sarcasm. 9
1815, the population of nearby Owego was booming. A ferry had been established on the Susquehanna River near the point
where John and his brothers had reluctantly jumped from the ark some ten years
earlier. The ferry operation was
firmly establishing the village as a major crossroads and a suitable stopping
point for weary travelers. Throughout
the years 1814 and 1815, John made several futile attempts to establish a
Sabbath school in Owego. Where
others before him had failed, the following excerpt acknowledges his success:
in 1813 there came to the frontier village of Owego a brother Fiddler, who
preached once but was so illy received that he had not the courage to return.
But the seed had been sown and under the labors of the ferryman, Warner, and
later E. Bibbins and John Griffing, bore fruitage in 1816 in a revival on the
south side of the river and the formation of the first class of seven persons.
The services were held in the home of David Thurston until increasing numbers
and interest necessitated a change to a larger and more public place, and the
young society made use of the schoolhouse in west Main Street. But here
opposition was encountered from a clergyman who appeared with a band of martial
music on the night appointed for Methodist service, from the schoolmaster with a
harlequin show, and from the teacher of the evening writing school who led the
pupils in disturbing the long-suffering worshippers. 10
In 1815, while still assigned to the long and grueling Tioga Circuit, John is credited with establishing yet another Methodist society in nearby Nichols, New York. This society met in the home of class leader Daniel McDowell Shoemaker and his wife Lydia until a church was built on the Maughwauwame Plain in 1822. This church, anointed Asbury Chapel, was a small frame structure that held approximately 100 worshippers. In recognition of these hard-won victories, John was ordained a deacon by Bishop Enoch George in 1816 and an elder by Bishop Robert R. Roberts in 1818.
Sometime between 1816 and 1818, while serving on the Tioga Circuit, the "Methodists were formed into a society by John Griffin" in Apolacon, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. According to the History of Susquehanna County, by Emily C. Blackman, "the constituent members [of that society] were John Brown and wife, Charles Nichols and wife, Benjamin Buffum and wife, and Winthrop Collins and wife. A little later John Clifford and wife joined the society, and the former was appointed class-leader, a position he held for many years. They have all passed away, as have most of those who labored for their spiritual benefit: Solon Stocking, Joseph Towner, Erastus Smith, Thomas Davy, John Griffin, Morgan Rugar, and others." In referring to the Methodist society in Silver Lake, also in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, Blackman claims it was "organized as early as 1818 by Elder Griffin, but it soon declined, and was not revived until 1831, at which time Elder Solon Stocking occasionally labored here."
One of the junior ministers who accompanied John Griffing during his rounds on the Tioga Circuit was a nineteen - year - old named Andrew Peck. In that year, 1818, the circuit had been substantially reduced in size as the following excerpt from his memoirs indicates:
The first year of my itinerancy ... was with Brother J. Griffing, on the Tioga, a four weeks circuit which extended from Spencer, then the County Seat, and several miles to the west and north, and Owego, N.Y., on the Susquehanna, as its northeastern boundary, and settlements on the upper waters of the Towanda Creek in Pennsylvania, and several miles further to its south and southwestern extent. At one point we traveled some twelve miles through an unbroken wilderness, where we were met by female hearers who walked about the same distance to enjoy the sermon and class meeting. From this we returned to our starting place on the Towanda. This Pennsylvania part included about one half of the circuit which embraced twenty-six regular, besides occasional, appointments, and required some three hundred miles of travel to meet them. In all this extent of country, we had two so-called meetinghouses. The walls of one, situated on Sugar Creek, consisted of hewed logs, with a door, seats, and pulpit 'to match.' The other, in the town of Tioga, was called 'Light's Meeting house,' from the venerable man living near who furnished the land upon which it stood, and with his worthy companion lived to an advanced age, to occupy their places in this movement of daring zeal of the early Methodists of that country. This house was actually roofed and inclosed, and whether the floor was really laid, or whether it consisted of rough, loose boards, as did the seats, I do not at this distance of time recollect... Our weekly and semi-monthly worship was held chiefly in school and private houses, both being often of the rudest character as to materials and construction. The Quarterly and extra meetings were usually held in barns.
of my colleague, I cannot refrain a few words. The Rev. John Griffing, a most
worthy and excellent minister of Jesus Christ, sleeps with his fathers. His
fervent piety, his powerful exhortations and prayers, gifts in which he
greatly excelled, his point and pathos in reproof, his tender and gushing
sympathies for the erring of all classes, yea, those eyes which were used to
weep, are momentoes 'graven on my mind and heart' as 'with an iron pen and lead
in the rock forever.' 11
1820, John and Lydia had added three more children to the family; John [born
March 26, 1815], Daniel Shoemaker [born January 7, 1817], and Beriah Redfield
[born March 27, 1819]. In that same
year, John Griffing was given a new appointment. This circuit was known as the Bridgewater
Circuit and encompassed the Pennsylvania hamlets of Springville, Auburn,
Rush, Fairdale, Skinner's Eddy, Meshoppen, Tunkhannock, and Nicholson.
It also required about four weeks travel and had between 16 and 18
preaching appointments. In his
book, published in 1860, George Peck described the impact that John had on this
Griffing was stationed on the Bridgewater Circuit [in 1820]. He was one of the
most powerful exhorters in the Conference and was always successful in winning
souls to Christ. [And so it was that] under his labors, the tide in favor of
Methodism set in strongly at several points where its influence had been but
feeble. A [Baptist] revival had commenced under the labors of [Elder Davis Dimock
during] the preceding year at Skinner's Eddy [which was] by some means
successful in getting them 'into the water.'
[But] this year they came home and remained firm and influential members
of the M. E. Church. The foundation was then laid for an excellent society and
finally an independent charge. 12
Beginning with the following year and continuing until nearly the end of the decade, John served on the Broome, Wyalusing, and Candor Circuits which were all significantly smaller circuits than his previous assignments and permitted him to spend more time with his family. 13 During this period, Lydia bore him four more children, Artemesia [born March 5, 1821 and died March 19, 1821], James Sayre [born October 28, 1822], Samuel B. [born August 1, 1825], and Osmyn [born September 22, 1828].
old-time camp meeting reached its height during this period of John's career.
The following account describes one such camp meeting, in which John was
known to be a participant, which occurred in Nichols in August 1824:
the commencement the preaching was plain and painted, and the prayer-meetings
characterized by warmth and ability; but nothing unusual occurred until Sabbath
afternoon, though the way was doubtless gradually preparing for some signal
displays of divine power and goodness. At the time a cloud of blessings broke
upon the assembly. The mourners were called into the alter, which soon filled to
overflowing. The cries and bitter lamentations were enough to melt the hardest
heart, and to excite the feelings and call forth the sympathies of the most
philosophical and stoical Christian. With the groans, sobs, and cries for mercy
soon began to be mingled some shouts of victory. These increased until at length
they prevailed. The whole mass seemed to experience a shock of divine power
which burst the bonds of the poor captives, and brought them at once to liberty.
The work went on gloriously to the conclusion. Thirty-seven presented themselves
as converts. As several had retired, the number was probably near fifty. 14
1829, after twenty hard years on the circuit trail, John Griffing was appointed
to the Barton Circuit.
A description of the circuit and the reason for its formation are found
in the following excerpt:
Circuit was formed in 1829 from territory embraced within the bounds of Spencer
charge, for the especial accommodation of Rev. John Griffing. He had labored
long in the regular itinerant work and had suffered much. The advancing
infirmities of age rendered it proper that his field of labor should be a little
more circumscribed than in the days of his early vigor. Accordingly, Barton
Circuit was formed, embracing all of the territory on the west bank of the
Susquehanna from Owego to Athens, thence up the Chemung Valley to Elmira. This
territory, in those days, was regarded as a small circuit - almost a station.
Mr. Griffing humorously styled it his 'turnip-patch.'
This circuit has been repeatedly divided and circumscribed until it
contains but five appointments, known respectively as Barton, Ellistown,
Smithborough, Taylor's Settlement, and Oak Hill. 15
with his regular appointments, John continued to serve the Methodist society in
nearby Owego where he alternated in the pulpit with three other Methodist
preachers -- Judd, Bibbons, and Agard -- until 1821 when the Methodist Chapel
was built and it became a separate charge.
Methodist congregation [of Owego] held its meetings in the Old Main Street
School house until 1821. March 21
of that year, James Pumpelly deeded to the society thirteen square rods of land
at the southeast corner of Main and Academy streets for $100, to be the property
of the society so long as it should be occupied for church purposes... The
framework of the church was erected in the fall of 1821, but it was not enclosed
and completed until the following year. It
was a large church, painted white, and similar to all the country churches built
at the time... The high pulpit was between the two doors at the entrance of the
building, and people coming in faced the congregation.
John served as sole pastor of the Owego Methodist Chapel in 1830 and shared the pulpit with Rev. L. Hitchcock in 1838 and Rev. Robert Fox in 1839. All of John and Lydia's children attended Sabbath School and eventually became members of this church, including the two newest additions to the family, Permelia [born February 8, 1831] and Mary [born August 3, 1834].
In 1837, John Griffing sold his property on the banks of the Susquehanna River to Jared Foot and purchased a small lot from, and next to, Osee Hall on a hillside opposite Catlin Hill about a mile north of his former farm. On this spot, within view of the Susquehanna River valley, he built a two-story frame home and spent the remainder of his days.
John's later years there is little record. He did continue to serve the Methodist society and attend each of the
Quarterly Conferences until his last in the fall of 1844, when it is reported
that "he was taken unwell the evening Conference closed, came home and went
to work, preached but a few times -- then returned to his family as he said, 'to
die.' " The Owego newspaper
carried the following obituary reporting his death on December 22, 1844:
Griffing was among the cherished and honored fathers of the Conference, loved
for his virtues, and respected for his successful services... A generous
yearning sympathy for his fellow men always dwelt in his heart, manifested by
labors and anxieties evinced in the history of few men in any age of the Church.
Aside from the ardent toils upon the respective charges, he served the preachers
who have labored at Owego; and other charges in that portion of our work will
call to mind his hearty cooperation in helping forward the work of God.
Though in love with all good people, he was an ardent friend of the Church of his choice - all her doctrines, usages, and peculiarities, he loved and defended with ability and success. For more than thirty years he labored, suffered, rejoiced, and wept - as an itinerant preacher. He has gone. May we his sons in the Gospel catch his mantel of zeal and holiness.
 Henry Griffing purchased property in Berkshire on the east side of Owego Creek on the north half of Lot 385 from Azel Hovey. Azel was born in 1763, was a native of New London, Connecticut, and came to Berkshire as early as 1798.
 J. C. Furnas, The Americans, p. 325.
 Ibid., p. 328
Ibid., p. 326
 George Peck, Early Methodism within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference, p. 458.
 A. F. Chaffee, History of the Wyoming Conference, p. 36.
 Rev. James Erwin, Recollections of Early Circuit Life, p. 18-19.
 George Peck, Early Methodism within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference, p. 461.
 Harry B. Tillbury, Owego Sketches by Owego Authors, p. 107.
 George Peck, Early Methodism within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference, p. 326
 Ibid., p. 445: "In 1821, toward the close of the year, a revival took place under the labors of John Griffing and James Hodge, the preachers on the Broome Circuit."
p. 336: "At a quarterly conference held at the widow Gaskill's in Owego, October 5, 1816, while the name of Marmaduke Pierce stands as Presiding Elder, John Griffing's name appears as circuit preacher." In Tioga, October, 1820, two circuit preachers are mentioned, Asa Cummins and John Sayre. It is very likely that Rev. John Griffing named his son, James Sayre Griffing, after this second preacher. Since he already had a son named John, he substituted the name, James. John Griffing had already named one of his other sons after a good friend, Daniel Shoemaker."
p. 441: "In 1822, Brother G. Lane still remains as P.E. and John Griffing and James Hodge appear as preachers" on the Wyalusing Circuit. "In 1824, Spencer and Wyalusing were connected, and John Griffing, Caleb Kendall, and Philo Barbary were the preachers. This was a strong charge, and was well manned."
p. 453: "In 1827 John Griffing and Joseph Towner and in 1828, John Griffing and Miles H. Gaylord were the preachers, all men of mighty faith and prayer, and of eminent qualifications for usefulness. Under the ministrations of these faithful servants of God...the cause of Methodism continued steadily to prosper" on the Candor Circuit.
 George Peck, Early Methodism within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference, p. 443.
 Ibid., p. 454.
CENSUS RECORDS FOR REV. JOHN GRIFFING (click on image to enlarge):