Don’t mess with Congregationalists.
Over Easter my son and I visited parts of beautiful Vermont along Highway 9, coming from his school in MAssachusetts. A largely deserted road which calls out for a peppy two wheeler – and the local Harley lads were hard at it – it’s otherwise empty, running through pretty rural countryside.
As always, comedy was to be found aplenty and after finding some nice aged Vermont cheese in Wilmington, a picture perfect village which boasts no fewer than three bookstores, we meandered north to Bennington, the town which gives the eponymous Battle of the Revolutionary War its name. The Germans were at it even back then when, on August 16, 1777, Gen. John Stark’s 1,500-strong New Hampshire Militia defeated 800 German (Hessian) mercenaries. As those experts in losing might put it, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.
This was Easter Sunday so the town’s churches were putting on their best show. The local Catholic Cathedral was making a big deal of the Resurrection and we were retained as journeyman portraitists to snap pictures of some of the locals dressed in their Sunday best outside the church. But if religion interests us little, Catholicism appeals even less so we made our way up Main Street where we chanced on a gorgeous traditional New England church, spire and all.
The First Congregational Church in Bennington, VT
Closer inspection disclosed this to be a First Congregational Church. The beauty of Protestantism is that you can shop à la carte for your prejudices of choice, Congregationalism denoting a sect which is led by its own congregation, not beholden to the Pope of Rome or some nut in Germany pinning proclamations to the door. One of the earlier graffitists, I suppose.
Now before I relate our amusing experience here, I should refer you to a luminous late 1940s movie named Life With Father. Luminous because it stars one of the most elegant men from Hollywood’s Golden Era, Dick Powell, whose only competitor for acting skill and demeanor was Cary Grant. While it’s decades since I have watched it, one scene sticks in my mind. Powell, a New York aristocrat of the 19th Century (meaning he employed kids in coal mines, I suppose) is an Episcopalian, as befits the monied class of New York. (If you’re skeptical of my demographics, next time you are on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a cold winter’s Sunday, just pop into St. Thomas’s Episcopalian, just up and across the road from St. Patrick’s, and take an inventory of the sable fur coats).
Powell, being a big shot, gets the front pew in his church on Sunday, emblazoned with a brass plaque bearing his name, denoting he has made the required payola to secure pride of place. There’s nothing so bad about this system if you hew to the sort of vulgarity we have in American society today, starting from the bottom, the cess pit that is the Oval Office. For Powell, his place of worship, where the object of adulation is money, is nothing more than a club, one whose hierarchy is visible from the location of your pew.
Anyway, Winston and I, (un)suitably attired in jeans and T shirts – his an early block graphics gaming model, mine sporting an even older English motorcycle; neither on the First Congregational approved clothing list – approached the imposing portico only to be arrested by two old hags who were clearly sporting automatics under their voluminous skirts. These were the Guardians of the Galaxy, the nave and altar behind.
Winston was later to remark, somewhat presciently:
“Dad, those two never did a day’s work in their lives”.
“Now, now, son”, I replied, “they are doing God’s work, just like that nice man from Goldman Sachs”.
Fearing for life and limb I quickly confessed we were tourists, just looking around, whereupon at the sainted hour of 11:50am on Easter Sunday, we were reluctantly allowed in only to see …. that the scene in the William Powell film was no joke. Yup, pews with doors and brass plaques.
Plebeians need not apply.
Not only did I have a flashback to the movie, I was reminded of all those cries of “We don’t want your kind here” from supplicants of the ruling American Pig when confronted by those of color or slanted eye, with the related certainty that their resumés proudly proclaim ‘Christian’ amongst their many boasts.
With the eyes of the two gatekeeping harridans boring through our backs I snapped the above image clandestinely before they set the Storm Troopers on us and politely asked if it was permitted to visit the cemetery.
“It’s through a gate to your left” the taller of the two sniffed, all 4 feet 9 inches of her.
We made off at something approximating Olympic pace to check out the founding fathers of Bennington, and a fine time it was.
It turns out that Robert Frost is buried here, the same Frost who gives his name to the library at Amherst College, a school very much on my son’s short list for the class of 2024.
Winston at the tomb, against the backdrop of the church.
The cemetery is beautifully maintained – well, what did you expect? – and many of the graves (and mausolea, for the likes of Powell’s character) are really old.
The oldest grave.
As we left the cemetery, passing the main doors to the nave, an older lady and her very old mother turned up at the gates to heaven only to find …. they were locked! Yup. It was 12:05, Easter services had started and tough luck if you are but a minute late. Such is New England’s high end, exclusionary Protestantism. The look on the poor old woman’s face, dressed in her Easter finery with nowhere to go, is not one I will quickly forget.
All snapped on the Panny GX7 with the kit zoom.