In Old Plantation Days

The Walls of Jericho

Parker was sitting alone under the shade of a locust tree at the edge of a field. His head was bent and he was deep in thought. Every now and then there floated to him the sound of vociferous singing, and occasionally above the music rose the cry of some shouting brother or sister. But he remained in his attitude of meditation as if the singing and the cries meant nothing to him.

They did, however, mean much, and, despite his outward impassiveness, his heart was in a tumult of wounded pride and resentment. He had always been so faithful to his flock, constant in attendance and careful of their welfare. Now it was very hard, at the first call of the stranger to have them leave their old pastor and crowd to the new exhorter.

It was nearly a week before that a free negro had got permission to hold meetings in the wood adjoining the Mordaunt estate. He had invited the negroes of the surrounding plantations to come and bring their baskets with them that they might serve the body while they saved the soul. By ones and twos Parker had seen his congregation drop away from him until now, in the cabin meeting house where he held forth, only a few retainers, such as Mandy and Dinah and some of the older ones on the plantation, were present to hear him. It grieved his heart, for he had been with his flock in sickness and in distress, in sorrow and in trouble, but now, at the first approach of the rival they could and did desert him. He felt it the more keenly because he knew just how powerful this man Johnson was. He was loud-voiced and theatrical, and the fact that he invited all to bring their baskets gave his scheme added influence; for his congregations flocked to the meetings as to a holy picnic. It was seldom that they were thus able to satisfy both the spiritual and material longings at the same time.

Parker had gone once to the meeting and had hung unobserved on the edge of the crowd; then he saw by what power the preacher held the people. Every night, at the very height of the service, he would command the baskets to be opened and the people, following the example of the children of Israel, to march, munching their food, round and round the inclosure, as their Biblical archetypes had marched around the walls of Jericho. Parker looked on and smiled grimly. He knew, and the sensational revivalist knew, that there were no walls there to tumble down, and that the spiritual significance of the performance was entirely lost upon the people. Whatever may be said of the Mordaunt plantation exhorter, he was at least no hypocrite, and he saw clearly that his rival gave to the emotional negroes a breathing chance and opportunity to eat and a way to indulge their dancing proclivities by marching trippingly to a spirited tune.

He went away in disgust and anger, but thoughts deeper than either burned within him. He was thinking some such thoughts now as he sat there on the edge of the field listening to the noise of the basket meeting. It was unfortunate for his peace of mind that while he sat there absorbed in resentful musings two of the young men of his master’s household should come along. They did not know how Parker felt about the matter, or they never would have allowed themselves to tease him on the score of his people’s defection.

“Well, Parker,” said Ralph, “seems mighty strange to me that you are not down there in the woods at the meeting.”

The old man was silent.

“I am rather surprised at Parker myself,” said Tom Mordaunt; “knowing how he enjoys a good sermon I expected him to be over there. They do say that man Johnson is a mighty preacher.”

Still Parker was silent.

“Most of your congregation are over there,” Ralph resumed. Then the old exhorter, stung into reply, raised his head and said quietly:

“Dat ain’t nuffin’ strange, Mas’ Ralph. I been preachin’ de gospel on yo’ father’s plantation, night aftah night, nigh on to twenty-five years, an’ spite o’ dat, mos’ o’ my congregation is in hell.”

“That doesn’t speak very well for your preaching,” said Ralph, and the two young fellows laughed heartily.

“Come, Parker, come, don’t be jealous; come on over to the meeting with us, and let us see what it is that Johnson has that you haven’t. You know any man can get a congregation about him, but it takes some particular power to hold them after they are caught.”

Parker rose slowly from the ground and reluctantly joined his two young masters as they made their way toward the woods. The service was in full swing. At a long black log, far to the front, there knelt a line of mourners wailing and praying, while the preacher stood above them waving his hands and calling on them to believe and be saved. Every now and then some one voluntarily broke into a song, either a stirring, marching spiritual or some soft crooning melody that took strange hold upon the hearts of even the most skeptical listeners. As they approached and joined the crowd some one had just swung into the undulating lilt of

“Some one buried in de graveyard,
Some one buried in de sea,
All come togethah in de mo’nin’,
Go soun’ de Jubilee.”

Just the word “Jubilee” was enough to start the whole throng into agitated life, and they moaned and shouted and wailed until the forest became a pandemonium.

Johnson, the preacher, saw Parker approach with the two young men and a sudden spirit of conquest took possession of him. He felt that he owed it to himself to crystallize his triumph over the elder exhorter. So, with a glance that begged for approbation, he called aloud:”

“Open de baskets! Rise up, fu de Jericho walls o’ sin is a-stan’in’. You ‘member dey ma’ched roun’ seven times, an’ at de sevent’ time de walls a-begun to shake an’ shiver; de foundations a-begun to trimble; de chillen a-hyeahed de rum’lin’ lak a thundah f om on high, an’ putty soon down come de walls a-fallin’ an’ a-crum’lin’! Oh, brothahs an’ sistahs, let us a-ma’ch erroun’ de walls o’ Jericho to-night seven times, an’ a-eatin’ o’ de food dat de Lawd has pervided us wid. Dey ain’t no walls o’ brick an’ stone a-stan’in’ hyeah to-night, but by de eye o’ Christian faif I see a great big wall o’ sin a-stan’in’ strong an’ thick hyeah in ouah midst. Is we gwine to let it stan’?”

“Oh, no, no!” moaned the people.

“Is we gwine to ma’ch erroun’ dat wall de same ez Joshuay an’ his ban’ did in de days of ol’, ontwell we hyeah de cracklin’ an’ de rum’lin’, de breakin’ an’ de taihin’, de onsettlin’ of de foundations an’ de fallin’ of de stones an’ mo’tah?” Then raising his voice he broke into the song:

“Den we’ll ma’ch, ma’ch down, ma’ch, ma’ch down,
Oh, chillen, ma’ch down,
In de day o’ Jubilee.”

The congregation joined him in the ringing chorus, and springing to their feet began marching around and around the inclosure, chewing vigorously in the breathing spaces of the hymn.

The two young men, who were too used to such sights to be provoked to laughter, nudged each other and bent their looks upon Parker, who stood with bowed head, refusing to join in the performance, and sighed audibly.

After the march Tom and Ralph started for home, and Parker went with them.

“He’s very effective, don’t you think so, Tom?” said Ralph.

“Immensely so,” was the reply. “I don’t know that I have ever seen such a moving spectacle.”

“The people seem greatly taken up with him.”

“Personal magnetism, that’s what it is. Don’t you think so, Parker?”

“Hum,” said Parker.

“It’s a wonderful idea of his, that marching around the walls of sin.”

“So original, too. It’s a wonder you never thought of a thing like that, Parker. I believe it would have held your people to you in the face of everything. They do love to eat and march.”

“Well,” said Parker, “you all may think what you please, but I ain’t nevah made no business of mekin’ a play show outen de Bible. Dem folks don’t know what dey’re doin’. Why, ef dem niggahs hyeahed anything commence to fall they’d taih dat place up gittin’ erway f om daih. It’s a wondah de Lawd don’ sen’ a jedgmen’ on ’em fu’ tu’nin’ His wo’d into mockery.”

The two young men bit their lips and a knowing glance flashed between them. The same idea had leaped into both of their minds at once. They said no word to Parker, however, save at parting, and then they only begged that he would go again the next night of the meeting.

“You must, Parker,” said Ralph. “You must represent the spiritual interest of the plantation. If you don’t, that man Johnson will think we are heathen or that our exhorter is afraid of him.”

At the name of fear the old preacher bridled and said with angry dignity:

“Nemmine, ncmmine; he shan’t nevah think dat. I’ll be daih.”

Parker went alone to his cabin, sore at heart; the young men, a little regretful that they had stung him a bit too far, went up to the big house,

The Walls of Jericho

their heads close together, and in the darkness and stillness there came to them the hymns of the people.

On the next night Parker went early to the meeting-place and, braced by the spirit of his defiance, took a conspicuous front seat. His face gave no sign, though his heart throbbed angrily as he saw the best and most trusted of his flock come in with intent faces and seat themselves anxiously to await the advent of an alien. Why had those rascally boys compelled him for his own dignity’s sake to come there? Why had they forced him to be a living witness of his own degradation and of his own people’s ingratitude?

But Parker was a diplomat, and when the hymns began he joined his voice with the voices of the rest.

Something, though, tugged at Parker’s breast, a vague hoped-for something; he knew not what —the promise of relief from the tension of his jealousy, the harbinger of revenge. It was in the air. Everything was tense as if awaiting the moment of catastrophe. He found himself joyous, and when Johnson arose on the wings of his eloquence it was Parker’s loud “Amen” which set fire to all the throng. Then, when the meeting was going well, when the spiritual fire had been thoroughly kindled and had gone from crackling to roaring; when the hymns were loudest and the hand-clapping strongest, the revivalist called upon them to rise and march around the walls of Jericho. Parker rose with the rest, and, though he had no basket, he levied on the store of a solicitous sister and marched with them, singing, singing, but waiting, waiting for he knew not what.

It was the fifth time around and yet nothing had happened. Then the sixth, and a rumbling sound was heard near at hand. A tree crashed down on one side. White eyes were rolled in the direction of the noise and the burden of the hymn was left to the few faithful. Half way around and the bellow of a horn broke upon the startled people’s ears, and the hymn sank lower and lower. The preacher’s face was ashen, but he attempted to inspire the people, until on the seventh turn such a rumbling and such a clattering, such a tumbling of rocks, such a falling of trees as was never heard before gave horror to the night. The people paused for one moment and then the remains of the bread and meat were cast to the winds, baskets were thrown away, and the congregation, thoroughly maddened with fear, made one rush for the road and the quarters. Ahead of them all, his long coat-tails flying and his legs making not steps but leaps, was the Rev. Mr. Johnson. He had no word of courage or hope to offer the frightened flock behind him. Only Parker, with some perception of the situation, stood his ground. He had leaped upon a log and was crying aloud:

“Stan’ still, stan’ still, I say, an’ see de salvation,” but he got only frightened, backward glances as the place was cleared.

When they were all gone, he got down off the log and went to where several of the trees had fallen. He saw that they had been cut nearly through during the day on the side away from the clearing, and ropes were still along the upper parts of their trunks. Then he chuckled softly to himself. As he stood there in the dim light of the fat-pine torches that were burning themselves out, two stealthy figures made their way out of the surrounding gloom into the open space. Tom and Ralph were holding their sides, and Parker, with 3 hand on the shoulder of each of the boys, laughed unrighteously.

“Well, he hyeahed de rum’lin’ an’ crum’lin’,” he said, and Ralph gasped.

“You’re the only one who stood your ground, Parker,” said Tom.

“How erbout de walls o’ Jericho now?” was all Parker could say as he doubled up.

When the people came back to their senses they began to realize that the Rev. Mr. Johnson had not the qualities of a leader. Then they recalled how Parker had stood still in spite of the noise and called them to wait and see the salvation, and so, with a rush of emotional feeling, they went back to their old allegiance. Parker’s meeting-house again was filled, and for lack of worshipers Mr. Johnson held no more meetings and marched no more around the walls of Jericho.


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This work (In Old Plantation Days by Paul Laurence Dunbar) is free of known copyright restrictions.