from Sidelights on Brethren History, by Freeman
©1962, The Brethren Press, Elgin, IL, pp. 117-122, reprinted by permission.
John Lewis and the Antietam Bible
Carefully the heavy wrapping paper which protected the contents of the package was removed. There revealed was the aged and brown leather-covered Bible of which we had heard much but which we had never before seen. This historic and widely traveled book, in size eleven by nine by two and one-half inches, is considerably the worse for wear. The leather back has come loose and the title page has been lost.
If this leather-bound volume could be endowed with the powers of speech, what a tale it could tell! Given by Daniel Miller to the Brethren people in 1851, it was placed in the Mumma (Antietam) church following the completion of the building in 1853. On that beautiful Sunday morning, September 14, 1862, as the Brethren were worshiping in the little whitewashed brick church, Elder David Long read from this Bible, his selection for the occasion being one of the psalms. When the church two days later became a hospital for the care of the wounded of both armies, the moans of the injured, the shrieks of the dying, and the songs of those for whom the war was over fell upon the Bible.
Soldiers, likely from the time that soldiering began, have been souvenir collectors. What motivated Sergeant Nathan Dykeman of Regiment 107, Company H, New York State Volunteers, to place this heavy book among his possessions on September 28, 1862, and, with the aid of a buddy, carry it to Schuyler County, New York, would be interesting to know.
But whatever his motive was, as a prize of war the Bible was taken from the rolling hills of Maryland hard by the placidly flowing Antietam Creek for a long sojourn among the hills of southern New York.
Providence has a way of working quietly behind manmade scenes. On the tenth day of January 1835, a colored boy was born in Carroll County, Maryland. Growing to manhood among the kindly Brethren people, and being of a serious mind with a strong religious inclination, he united with the Brethren at Pipe Creek in 1853 when he was eighteen years old.
This man of color, whose race was an underlying cause of the Civil War, was destined to play an important role in the experiences of the leather-bound Bible. Being free, he left Maryland in 1860 and went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In 1862 he went to the vicinity of Elmira, New York. Here he engaged, with only fair success, in farming and truck gardening.
One day the course of his life was unexpectedly changed as he was returning home from Elmira after marketing his produce. He saw, careening down the road toward him, a carriage pulled by a runaway horse. In the carriage were three very badly frightened women. Hurriedly driving to the side of the road, he leaped from his wagon and seized the bridle of the horse. A man of great courage and strength, he succeeded in bringing it to a stop without injury to the occupants of the carriage or to himself. It was then that he discovered that the three women were wealthy Mrs. Charles Langdon, her daughter Julia, and a nurse, who lived on the nearby Quarry Farm.
General Charles Langdon was not at home at the time, but upon his return he gave Mr. Lewis a check for one thousand dollars. Mr. and Mrs. Langdon were the parents of the wife of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Mr. Clemens, who was visiting in the Langdon home at the time, gave Mr. Lewis fifty dollars and a set of his books personally inscribed.
Mr. Crane, of the nearby home in which the women had been visiting that day, gave him four hundred dollars. Mrs. Langdon s token of appreciation was a massive gold watch with the following inscription engraved on the inside of the case:
"John T. Lewis, who saved three lives at the
deadly peril of his own, August 23, 1877.
This in grateful remembrance from
Mrs. Charles J. Langdon."
Mr. Lewis was able to clear his sixty-four-acre farm of all encumbrance. Furthermore, he entered the employ of Mr. Langdon as coachman and faithfully performed his duties for many years. He and Mark Twain became intimate friends and spent much time together. They were frequently photographed together. Whenever the noted writer visited the Langdons - and much of his writing took place on the Quarry Farm, which Mr. Lewis cultivated - these two friends were often together. Twain was a good judge of mankind and one day, in referring to Mr. Lewis in a picture of both of them, said, "The colored man. . . is John T. Lewis, a friend of mine. These many years - thirty-four in fact. He was my father-in-law’s coachman forty years ago; was many years a farmer of Quarry Farm, and is still my neighbor. I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one. Twenty-seven years ago, by the prompt and intelligent exercise of his courage, presence of mind and extraordinary strength, he saved the lives of three relatives of mine, whom a runaway horse was hurrying to destruction. Naturally I hold him in high and grateful regard."
Time rolled on, taking Sergeant Nathan Dykeman with it. In 1903 his regiment held a reunion at Elmira. In the meantime the Bible had been given over to a widowed and needy sister of the late sergeant. She wanted to return it to the little Brethren church on the Antietam battlefield, if the church was still in existence. The information was given to the surviving members of the regiment gathered in reunion. They were willing that this should be done. Knowing the financial circumstances of the widow, they raised ten dollars to purchase the Bible from her and incidentally to help her in her time of need.
Here a problem presented itself: Who could inform them as to the church, its pastor, and whom to contact? In the entire Elmira community there was only one Brethren who could be found - the colored man, John Lewis, widely separated geographically from those of like faith. He was contacted to provide the needed information. Having kept in touch with the Brethren through their periodicals, he was able to tell the representatives of the regiment that the little church was still in existence and that its pastor was Elder John E. Otto of Sharpsburg. The regiment then designated Mr. Lewis as the agent in the restoration of the Bible to the church.
Let us turn now to the letter which Elder Otto prepared and pasted to the inside of the front leather cover of the historic Bible.
Sharpsburg, Dec. 4th, 1903
This Bible was taken from the Church after the Battle of Antietam by
Sergeant Nathan F. Dykeman, September 28, 1862, Regt. 107, Co. H.,
N.Y.S.V. He is now dead and it fell into the hands of his afflicted
sister. She presented it to the Company at their reunion this fall 1903
for which they gave her ten dollars.
The Daniel Miller mentioned in the letter was the father-in-law of Pastor John Otto and the great-grandfather of Miss Ruth Otto of Sharpsburg.
It was a gala day for the Brethren when the express package arrived in Sharpsburg from Elmira. The old Bible was restored to its former place in the church. Again its sacred pages were opened to the eyes of the ministering elders. Here it served the congregation until 1914. By this time a church building had been erected in Sharpsburg and services were being held only once a month in the whitewashed church on the battlefield. This battle-scarred church was the victim of the ever-present souvenir hunters, who had even gone so far as to remove and carry away bricks from the rear of the building, eventually creating an opening large enough to permit entrance into the church. Those in charge, fearing that for a second time the Bible might be carried away as a souvenir, removed it and placed it in a vault at the Fahrney-Keedy Home at Mapleville. In 1937, when the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle was celebrated, the Bible was taken from the vault and displayed.
It is now the property of Mr. and Mrs. Newton Long of Baltimore. Mr. Long is a grandson of the Elder Long who read from its pages on September 14, 1862. Mrs. Long is the great-great-granddaughter of the aforementioned Daniel Miller. At a later date the volume was given into the temporary care of Dr. and the late Mrs. Walter Shealy of Sharpsburg. At the proper time, when the final restoration of the church building is completed, the book is to be loaned to the church, properly protected, and recognition given to the owners. Along with it will be some of the communion vessels.
The aged colored man was photographed sitting in a chair with the Bible on his lap. While he was sixty-eight years of age at the time of the photograph and was broken in health, there remain the marks of his former strength of body and mind. His brow is the brow of a philosopher; his beard is worn according to the custom of the Brethren of his day.
Just three years following the restoration of the Bible to the Brethren church, John T. Lewis was gathered to his fathers. Following the death of his wife twelve years before, he had been cared for by his only child, Susanna. He had prepared his own obituary, in which he stated: "I came to New York State in 1862, since which time I have been cut off from the church. I have tried to be faithful to the New Testament and order of the Brethren. Though separated from them here, I hope to meet them above where parting is no more. When I am gone, if no brother can be obtained to preach my funeral, I request to be laid away without ceremony, as I recognize none as true Christians who refuse to teach the whole Gospel."
In 1906 his daughter, feeling that his life would soon come to a close, contacted Elder J. Kurtz Miller of Brooklyn, New York, who was conducting a preaching mission in Iowa at the time. Mr. Lewis died soon after that, at the age of seventy-one. No Brethren minister being available to conduct the funeral service, it was conducted, at Mr. Lewis s request, by the mortician’s assistant. Burial was in the Woodlawn cemetery at Elmira. Four years later his bosom friend, Mark Twain, was laid to rest in another part of the same cemetery.
Other chapters in Freeman Ankrum's book
related to the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg and "the little Dunker Church":
Troubles Over Slavery
David Long: Civil War Preacher
Return to "The Little Dunker Church" page