History Helps Navigate Tough Times

When I watch the news on social media and TV, sometimes my heartbeat increases. It went pitty-pat during this past week as Congress hassled over the coronavirus relief bill, which has now passed and President Trump has signed. The fierce arguments in the Senate reminded me of an attack on Senator Charles Sumner in 1856.

The run-up to the Civil War bears an astonishing resemblance to the spectacle of Senators and Representatives flailing the air in manufactured indignation, except that 164 years ago we couldn’t watch in real time or on video. Communications were obviously much slower or nonexistent between 1850 and 1865. No social media, no telegraph or radio. Not even any typewriters. When the first transcontinental telegraph tied the two coasts together in 1861, communications made a great jump ahead. And put the Pony Express out of business.

In Congress tempers flared over slavery even before the first guns fired on Fort Sumter. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks, a Democrat and pro-slavery representative from South Carolina, attacked Charles Sumner, a Republican abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts, as he sat writing at his desk. Brooks beat Sumner unconscious with his heavy gold-headed cane, and continued to beat him after he was down. Sumner was so badly injured that he could not return to work for a few years, but the Massachusetts legislature reelected him anyway. His empty desk in the Senate awaited him when he was able to return in December 1859. He became the leader of the Radical Republicans, the people who demanded that slaves be freed immediately, with full citizenship rights.

During this era Americans fought each other, families came apart, and violence became a way of life for some. And a remote section of mountains and plains became Montana Territory (May 26, 1864). Some young men grew up to think of a shooting war as a way of life, and they became the outlaws beloved of stories and movies of the “Old West,” aka the “Wild West.” In Montana, the frontier ended later than in other states, and the Curry Gang, most notably Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, rode and robbed and murdered well past the turn of the Twentieth Century.

But while Western fiction and movies love to portray gun-toting good guys as righteous, another type of young man rode hard for a different way of life. They were literally voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

Chief in the hearts of Montanans was William Wesley Van Orsdel, the Methodist circuit rider known as “Brother Van.” As a boy, he watched the battle of Gettysburg, which touched the Van Orsdel family farm. In 1872 he came to Montana to “preach and sing and encourage people to be good.” His lifelong message was God’s love for everyone, and he carried that love in his heart throughout his life. He befriended saloon keepers and drunks as well as “respectable” people. He condemned no one, but sought to bring them all to a better way.

Knowing Montana history comforts and inspires me, not from the example of the Curry Gang, but of Brother Van. Far more than Kid Curry (Harvey Logan) or the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh), Brother Van remains a part of who we are a 101 years after his death.

When I’m discouraged by situations and the news media, I think of Brother Van and I think that while evil stalks the land, goodness rides to counter it. Then I have hope for the future. And I’m comforted.