Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Traveling Preacher – Reverend James Riddle French

B. 18 Jun 1809 in Prospect, Maine
M. (1) 13 Sep 1832 in Bedford, New Hampshire
Wife: Nancy Riddle French
M. (2) 7 Aug 1849 in Nelson, New Hampshire
Wife: Sophia Newell Kittredge
D. 23 Mar 1857 in Stockton Springs, Maine

James Riddle French trained as a minister, then spent his short adult life preaching in 19th century New England. He was born in Prospect, Maine on June 18, 1809, the oldest child of William French and Agnes Riddle. It was a large family of four brothers and four sisters, and most of the children were given “Riddle” as a middle name.

James decided on a career in the church and attended a Congregational seminary in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He graduated and began a career as a minister, moving to the town of Bedford, New Hampshire, where his parents were from. During his time there, he became acquainted with his first-cousin, Nancy Riddle French, and after a courtship, married her on September 13, 1832.

As he established himself as a minister, James was devoted to his work. Many of his handwritten sermons still survive. On a Sunday in May of 1844, he roused his audience with, “If you, my hearer, had correct ideas of the future, if you believed the revelation, you would awake! Is Christianity easier learned that you should give so little attention to it? That you should treat it with inconstancy and neglect? What the Bible soon read, soon understood, are its doctrines comprehended, then connection soon perceived!”

A handwritten sermon of Reverend James Riddle French

James' time together with his wife Nancy was filled with sadness. The young couple produced five sons and four died young. Only Austin, born in 1842, grew up a normal healthy child. Nancy never recovered from the birth of her last baby and died September 26, 1848.

After Nancy’s death, James threw himself even more into his work. He became involved with the American Seaman’s Society (an organization offering religious guidance to sailors) and he was sent to Havana, Cuba on a mission. He returned to New England and continued preaching there.

James needed someone to help raise his son Austin. On his travels throughout New Hampshire, he met a young woman of a strong religious mind and he fell in love with. Her name was Sophia Kittredge, and she was 14 years younger than he was. They married August 7, 1849, but they spent the first few years of their marriage living apart as he went from town to town in New England as traveling preacher.

During his life on the road, James wrote many letters to his wife. In one he wrote, "My dear Sophia… I hope you have not melted in this hot weather. Perhaps it may not be so hot in the hills of Nelson as it is here. This is the third day of extreme heat. Monday I found it warm & very dusty on my way to -----bury, Vt., 20 miles of which I rode on a stage. Tuesday was still warmer, a fine day however for our meeting. In the evening I was permitted to make a short speech & a poor one it was. Wednesday was hot & about half past twelve, I left for Concord, N.H. where I arrived in the evening tired & dirty. But I soon found a good bath & after thoroughly washing away my outside pollution, I lay myself on a good bed & enjoyed a refreshing sleep."

One of James' letters to Sophia

Sometime in 1851, James was offered a position as a minister at the Bethel Church in Portland, Maine. He accepted, and Sophia joined him there with Austin. A year later, she gave birth to a healthy boy, James, in October of 1852.

One Sunday he used the pulpit to speak on the issue of slavery, and took a strong stand in favor of abolitionism. To make his case, he presented a logical argument: “We are told that the slaves are contented and happy, faring better than the northern laborers and would not leave their masters if they could. At the same time, we see southern papers filled with advertisements of runaway slaves, offering great rewards for their apprehension. Strange indeed, that they should make such attempts and run the hazard of being shot down or whipped to death to get away from contentment and happiness.” He further gave his views on what was happening in the South. “Slavery is a sin, a violation of the law of God. An outrageous infraction of the dictates of national justice because it recognizes human beings as property, degrading them to the condition of cattle, robbing them of their just earnings, annihilating the law of marriage, tearing asunder those endearing relations of domestic and social life which God has established, introducing a state of universal concubinage, breaking up families, neutralizing the authority of the parent over the child, forcibly separating parent and children, husband and wife, exposing them to be sold to a returnless distance from each other, and finally excluding them from the means of moral and intellectual improvement, dooming them to perpetual ignorance, and cutting them off legally and systematically from all consolations of religion and the hope of heaven.” Whether James had any participation in the abolitionist movement beyond this sermon is not known.

Daguerreotype of Reverend James Riddle French, early 1850s

James became a father one more time with the birth of a girl in September of 1856, who was named Nancy. By this time, though, he suffered from a serious illness. Just before Nancy was born, his condition forced the family to move back to his hometown of Prospect (now called Stockton Springs), where he preached at a church there. He pushed himself to great physical extremes; only when his throat became so strained that it caused great pain to speak, did he skip a Sunday at the pulpit.

In early 1857, James reached a point where he was too weak to work. A detailed account of his last few weeks of life has been passed down in the form of a letter written by his wife Sophia. She described that in mid-February, James was “seized with hemorrhage of the lungs.” The bleeding lasted a few hours, and kept him in bed for over a week. He missed one Sunday in church, but the following week wanted to find the strength to preach for a final time. He said to Sophia on that day, “My dear wife, are you not going to hear me preach my last sermon?” To get out of his sickbed when he wasn’t well enough upset Sophia, and she replied, “If this is your last effort, is it wise to make this attempt?” “Yes,” he said emphatically. “If I knew I should never preach again, I should do it. If God spares my life, I will deliver it.”

He did speak at church that day, and as Sophia had feared, paid a price for it. That night he was awakened with a severe bleeding in his lungs. Sophia observed that he appeared as if not to be breathing for a few minutes, then jumped to his feet screaming in pain. It was impossible to get a doctor at that hour; a winter storm was raging outside and snow was “flying in every direction.” When the attack subsided, James said, “My dear Sophia, you must make up your mind to give me up. I feel that I must leave you, indeed I have long thought so, and in preparing for my sermons, have felt that each one might be my last. No physician can help me, but I wish to have you satisfy yourself and do for me what you think is best.”

The nearest doctor was 12 miles away and he was able to come to the house the next day. James was diagnosed with “congestion of the heart and brain, partial paralysis of the brain, and typhoid fever.” Whether or not this matches modern medical descriptions of his condition, it was clear that he was dying. He suffered more as weeks went by, but Sophia observed a calmness, as he settled his affairs “with as much composure as though he was going on a journey.”

Towards the end, he reassured Sophia that death was not the end by saying, “It matters not which goes first, the separation will not be long. Although the clouds and darkness are sometimes round about me, yet the prospect of the approach brightens and the dark valley appears very narrow. All the beauties and glories of the upper temple are but just within the vail. I never expected to have such joyful anticipations. I am a poor sinner, saved by grace. Oh, what a plan of salvation! How full, how free, how perfect.”

In his final days, he could no longer communicate with the people around him. At intervals, he would simply exclaim, “Blessed Jesus, I want to be with Jesus!” Sophia described that his mouth and tongue had turned black from being burned up from fever, and his hands and feet were covered in sores where he had pounded them in spasms of pain. He died on March 23, 1857. Sophia had him buried the following Thursday. Sophia went on to become a city missionary in Boston. She died in 1900.

Children by Nancy Riddle French:
1. Lucius Thurston French – B. 30 Apr 1836, Bedford, New Hampshire; D. 6 Apr 1837, Bedford, New Hampshire

2. George Washington French – B. 25 Jul 1838, Gilmanton, New Hampshire; D. 10 May 1839, Bedford, New Hampshire

3. Austin Bradford French – B. 14 May 1842, Peterborough, New Hampshire; D. 12 Apr 1914; M. Sarah Jane French (~1846-?), 22 Aug 1865

4. James Riddle French – B. 26 Jan 1845, Peterborough, New Hampshire; D. 28 Jan 1845, Peterborough, New Hampshire

5. William Henry French – B. 26 Mar 1847, Peterborough, New Hampshire; D. 11 Oct 1848, Bedford, New Hampshire

Children by Sophia Newell Kittredge:
1. James Riddle French, AKA Frank Emerson – B. 12 Oct 1852, Portland Maine; D. 13 Jun 1913, Los Angeles, California; M. Mrs. May Lynch (1850-?), 25 Aug 1878, San Bernardino, California

2. Nancy Sophia French – B. 21 Dec 1856, Stockton Springs, Maine; D. 12 Jul 1916, Berkeley, California; M. George Henry Hewes (1853-1923), 17 Jul 1879, Boston, Massachusetts

Family Bible of James and Sophia French
The History of Bedford (New Hampshire), 1903
Letters of James Riddle French to Sophia (Kittredge) French 1849-1852
Sermons of Reverend James Riddle French
Letter from Sophia French to Abel Kittredge, 31 Mar 1857
Death certificate of Frank Emerson, 16 Jun 1913, Los Angeles, California
Death certificate of Nancy Hewes, July 1916, Berkeley, California
Marriage certificate of George Hewes and Nancy French, 21 Jul 1879, Boston
1870 U.S. Census

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