The Whole Load 05.29.1856 Search

A Good Yarn for a Slow Train Ride

Abraham Lincoln

Historical note

In 1856, on a slow train from Springfield, IL, to Blooming Grove (later Bloomington),  heading for the 1856 Illinois State Republican Party Convention, Rev. William Stoddart Crissey, a former circuit-riding Methodist minister on the prairies of Illinois in the 1830s, happened to share a coach car with a certain backwoods joke-cracking relatively unknown lawyer named Abe Lincoln.  Lincoln heard that Crissey had been a circuit rider and, shared the following drawn-out circuit-rider tale with him to pass the time. 

Once they got to Blooming Grove, after a long, hot day of political speech-making, the restless crowd demanded that Abe get up and tell jokes. He got up, and all the reporters put down their notepads and settled back for some entertainment. What Abe gave them was a hot, pointed incendiary speech about the evils of slavery. The crowd went wild and cheered. When it was over, the reporters realized that that speech was the keynote speech, not the one that had been announced. But no one had notes, so they asked Lincoln for a copy of his comments. The speech had been extemporaneous, and Lincoln knew that what he had said was intemperate and could be used against him, so he refused. The speech became known as "Lincoln's Lost Speech," and many Lincoln scholars point to that exact time when Lincoln went from a country lawyer to a viable presidential candidate. 

Elwell Crissey, who preferred the name Elwell to his real first name, that awful moniker "Arthur", settled in Bloomington, and while there he discovered by accident the details of the life of his grandfather, Rev. Crissey, who had given the first sermon by an ordained minister in Bloomington,  served in the Black Hawk War and at Chickamauga and had been Gen. Sherman's chaplain on his horrifying march to the sea.

Elwell Crissey wrote a book on Rev. W.S. Crissey, "Horse Preacher: A Methodist Circuit Rider Travels the Prodigious Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois in the 1830s." It was published in 1989 and it was purchased by every single Methodist Civil War historian in Central Illinois. (400 total). It is out of print. Elwell Crissey died in 1982 at the age of 93.
Horse Preacher


The Whole Load

A tale, approximately as told to Rev. William Stoddart Crissey by Abraham Lincoln, 1856,  on board the slow-moving Springfield to Bloomington Illinois Central train, heading for the 1856 Illinois State Republican Convention (oral tradition, Crissey family)


"Yup. I knew a circuit rider once," said country lawyer Abe Lincoln to Rev. William Stoddart Crissey, as the old train wheezed and chugged across the Illinois prairie on its way from Springfield to Blooming Grove to the 1856 Illnois State Republican Convention.

"He was a dedicated man of the Lord. There wasn't anything that would keep him from his appointed rounds. If Satan himself reared up in his path, he'd just smack him with the Holy  Bible and go right on. Every day he traveled 20 miles to the next farmstead, whether it was blistering sun, pouring rain, tornadoes, biting flies, wild Indians, or a blinding blizzard. At each cabin a few people would gather to hear the Word of God, and this circuit rider prided himself in never missing an opportunity to share God's love and possible damnation with a few parishioners.

"Then one day, in the dead of winter, when the circuit rider was staying with Jedadiah Johnson over in Macon County, an almighty blizzard swooped down from Canada and buried the Illinois prairie. The snow that morning was so deep the preacher's horse couldn't see over it. It was a massive storm. No one was going anywhere. Except for this dedicated Man of God.

"'I'm going out,' said the preacher to Jedadiah.

"'No way', cried Jedadiah, 'You'll catch your death of cold. It's cold enough out there to freeze the balls off a brass monkey! You'll freeze your burrow off out there! Stay here another day, Reverend. No one will be expecting you over in Blooming Grove. It's probably going to be just Old Man Johnson and nobody else. Stay here. Please!'

"'Jedadiah,' said the preacher, 'You're a farmer, aren't you?'

"'Yep,' said Jedadiah. 'What's that got to do with your freezing to death in the biggest blizzard since 1783?'

Circuit Rider

"'I'll tell ya,' said the preacher. 'Now do your cattle get hungry only when the weather's nice, or do they need to be fed every day?'

"'Why, they need food every day,' said Jedadiah, 'And I load up my wagon every day and I hitch up the team and go out into the field to feed the hungry cows.'

"'And what if t only one cow shows up? Do you feed it?' asked the preacher.

"'Why, of course!' said Jedadiah. 'Why wouldn't I?'

"'Exactly,' said the preacher. 'Why wouldn't I feed Old Man Johnson, even if his neighbors don't make it?'

"'Oh,' said Jedadiah. 'I see what you mean. You've got to go, don't you?'

"'Yes, I do,' said the preacher, as he gathered up his things and wrapped his muffler about his neck and turned up his collar.


"So out into the howling weather went the dedicated preacher, defying Satan and his evil blizzard tricks. The preacher's faithful horse Nicodemus irresolutely made step by labored step, on into the teeth of the blizzard, On to Blooming Grove, on to the next scheduled stop.

"The nearly frozen preacher and the weary Nicodemus labored all day and well into the night before they stumbled onto Old Man Johnson's humble abode, dark in the moonless night. A hopeful wisp of smoke trailed from the clay and wood chimney.

"Making a supreme effort, the preacher hauled himself out of the saddle, lurched up to the door, and pounded on it with the last of his strength.

"After what seemed like a long time, the door creaked open to reveal Old Man Johnson in his night cap and gown.

"'Preacher!' he cried out, 'What are you doing here? This is the biggest blizzard of the century. None of the neighbors came. They expected you to stay at Jedadiah's till the weather cleared. There's no one here but me, and it's very late. But come on in! I'll build up the fire, put old Nicodmeus in the barn  and make you some hot gruel.'

cattle feeding


"'Well, that sounds wonderful,' said the preacher, as he stumbled in and collapsed near the fire. 'With nobody here but you, I can take the night off and skip the sermonizing. A nice feather bed sounds real good!'

"'Now just a minute,' said Old Man Johnson. 'You know I'm a farmer, don't you?'

"'Of course,' said the preacher.

"'And I have cattle out in the field.'


"'And they need feeding every day.'

"'Yep, I understand that, said the preacher.

"'And every day I hitch up the team, load the wagon, and feed the cattle.'


"'Even if only a single cow shows up.'


"'Oh,' said the preacher. 'You're hungry for the Word of God, aren't you? You're the reason I came through the blizzard, aren't you?'

"'Yep,' said Old Man Johnson.

"So the preacher got out his Bible and his hymnal and his vestments and his inspirational texts and, after a restorative bowl of hot gruel, launched into an inspired sermon, perhaps the best of his life.

"On into the night the inspired preacher preached, sometimes calling forth the rage of an angry God,and sometimes weeping at the grace of the little Son of God in the humble manger.

"He told his best parables. He related his best jokes. The quoted his favorite passages.


rocking chair

"Hours later, with Old Man Johnson struggling gamely to keep his eyes open, the preacher came to a thundering crescendo, paused, wiped his sweaty brow, and then fell in a tired heap into the straight-back rocker by the fire.

"'Well, how was that?' the preacher asked, when he had caught his breath. 'Did you get fed?'

"'Indeed,' said Old Man Johnson. 'I am veritably bloated with godliness. Thank you!'

"'It is only my duty to feed every last cow in the Lord's field,' said the preacher.

"'I see,' said Old Man Johnson. 'But let me tell you something, Reverend.'

"'Yes, what is it, friend?' said the preacher.

"'You know I'm a farmer, don't you?'

"'Of course,' said the preacher.

"'And I have cattle out in the field.'


"'And they need feeding every day.'

"'Yep, we went over that, said the preacher.

"'And every day I hitch up the team, load the wagon, and feed the cattle.'


"'Even if only a single cow shows up.'


hungry cow
Whole Load

"'Indeed, and I fed you well, didn't I?' asked the preacher.

"'You sure did, Reverend,' said Old Man Johnson, 'but there is one little detail you forgot.'

"'Why what is that? Did I forget some passage? Did I forget to sing your favorite hymn? Tell me!' said the preacher.

"'No, it's nothing like that,' said Old Man Johnson. 'But it's just this: If I load up the wagon full of hay, and I hitch up the team, and I make it out into the fields in a blizzard, and only a single cow shows up, I feed him all right.'

"'Well, yes,' said the preacher, 'That is what you should do.'

"'But, said Old Man Johnson, ' If only a single cow shows up, I do feed him, but...

"-- Lord Almighty, Reverend! -- 

"I don't drop the whole Load!!'"


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