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Oak Hill & Vicinity: William Hall, Catskill Mountains minister

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By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

The cover of Russell Mahan’s book. Contributed photo

About a year ago, Russell Mahan from Utah stopped at the Oak Hill Methodist Church seeking information about William Hall, a Methodist minister assigned to the town of Durham in 1862. 

Hall served the churches at Durham, Oak Hill, Cooksburg and Cornwallville. The buildings where William preached in Durham and Cooksburg are now gone, the Cornwallville church is at the Farmer’s Museum, and the Oak Hill Church still stands.

Just this week I received in the mail a copy of the book “William Hall, Catskill Mountains Minister” written by Russell Mahan. The cover tells us: “In 1853 a young man named William Hall (1829-1878) set out on his horse for a life as a Methodist minister in the Catskill Mountains of New York. This was the land where he was born, with the people he loved. He wanted to serve them in the best way he knew how. He was the pastor in Windham, Prattsville, Ashland, Durham, Roxbury, Walton, Andes, Bovina and elsewhere. This is his story.”

I was excited to have the book because there are so few, I am aware of, that tell the story of the ministers in Oak Hill and Vicinity in the 1800s. Today I want to share parts of the story. You can find the book on Amazon.com if you want your own copy.

“How do you write a biography of a person who kept no diary, did not write a personal history, and whose personal records were not preserved?” Mahan starts.

“William lived in the perfect time for him, in an era when people in general were more religious. During his lifetime the Methodist church was in a mode of expansion. With the slow means of transportation then available, it was important for people to have a meeting house close by so that they could get to it in a reasonable traveling time. The more buildings there were, the more people who would attend church. It is vastly different now. Urbanization, secularization and the automobile have been the undoing of that old way of life. Churches are declining and closing.”

An early photo of the Oak Hill Church with members of the congregation and horse shed in back. Contributed photo

Those familiar with the history of Meeting House Hill in Durham know the settlers almost immediately built not one but two churches, one Methodist and one Presbyterian. Those buildings were taken down and moved with the settlers when they moved off the mountain.

William Hall grew up in the Catskills and never went far from them. He married Sarah Bushnell from a family very much like his. The Bushnells and Halls, both originally from Connecticut, settled in frontier New York in the 1790s, with the Halls going to Sullivan County and the Bushnells to Greene County. The fathers were both successful farmers who were very active in the local community.

John Hall Jr., who came to New York as an 18-year-old boy, was one of the original settlers in Neversink in 1798. He was a justice of the peace and a corporal in the War of 1812. He served as a member of the New York Legislature in the House of Assembly in 1825. Alvin Bushnell, Sarah’s father, also served in the Legislature and served with Zaddock Pratt in the military. 

William Hall’s youth was that of a farm boy in a large farm family. When William was in his teens, his father was prosperous enough to send him to Liberty Normal Institute, a secular, privately owned secondary school open for those who could pay to attend.   

William could have been a farmer like most other men. He could have been a particularly religious-minded farmer like his father, who contributed generously to support the local church and was active as a lay person. But he wanted to be a minister and pastor.

The interior of the Oak Hill church in a colorized photo from Mahan’s book, “William Hall: Catskill Mountains Minister.” The image depicts Thanksgiving and illustrated close involvement of the church and minister with the agricultural lives of the people they served. Contributed photo

He went to the Charlotteville Seminary, about 45 miles north of the Hall family farm, when he was 21. This was a brand-new institution and this was the initial class. It had been endorsed by the Methodist Church for its religious training. After three years of study at the Charlotteville Seminary, William Hall was ready to begin full-time ministry in the Methodist Episcopal church.  He wanted to stay in the Catskill Mountains.

He awaited an assignment from the New York Conference of the Methodist Church. At the May 4, 1853, annual meeting in Kingston, several young ministers were “admitted on trial” to the ministry. William Hall was listed, in the minutes, as a probationer and assigned to the circuit in the town of Windham along with the Rev. James W. Smith, the preacher in charge. William was the novice minister. Pastors were assigned to their posts by the leaders at the regional conference every spring. As a result, every year or two he was reassigned to a new place.

The Windham circuit had 10 scattered locations where the ministers appeared regularly:  Windham, Eastkill, Hensonville, Mitchell Hollow, North Settlement, Ashland, West Settlement, Red Falls, West Hollow and Fuller Schoolhouse. There was preaching every Sunday at Windham, Ashland and West Settlement, and then every other Sunday at the other places. This necessitated three sermons every Sabbath, and one on Saturday evening every two weeks.

Scarcely had he arrived and settled than he was transferred 25 miles to the circuit centered on the village of Catskill. In 1853, that circuit included the communities of Catskill, Coxsackie, High Hill and Leeds.

The High Hill congregation, near Athens, was meeting in a schoolhouse but money had been paid by subscription to build a dedicated church building. Land was bought for $12.50 and the members themselves were doing the construction themselves. They specifically requested that William Hall be assigned to their location. Believing that the presence of a regular pastor would be desirable, they pledged money to support his coming. It was during the first months of his ministry there that Hall met 19-year-old Sara Jane Bushnell and they married.

In 1854, he was assigned to Livingstonville, about 35 miles from Catskill, a small community of several houses and businesses in a totally rural, mountainous area. The hamlet in 1854 had a Methodist Church, a Presbyterian Church, a hotel, a grist mill, a shoe shop, a blacksmith shop, a tannery, a wagon shop and a general store. The Methodist Episcopal Church there was organized about 1824. 

The first church building was erected down the valley in a pine grove but moved to the present site in 1845. [I am fascinated with the way church buildings were regularly moved in those days]. The membership was 40. Next door was the parsonage where William and Sarah lived.

Church pay was low and not always reliable. The members of Methodist congregations had to regularly help out their pastors with “donation visits.”  Diaries from Oak Hill in later years speak of going to a “donation” for the minister. I never completely understood what this involved. They consisted of members of the congregation coming to the home of the pastor and helping in what ways they could: furnishing clothing, having a sewing circle, doing work around the house and grounds, cutting wood, and donating money. Donations were done because the salary of a minster was chronically deficient to meet his needs. 

The minister had to spend more on his clothing than other people did. No one wanted a dower-looking pastor. Also, on the Methodist circuit a good horse was required. Money that could have been used for the family had to be devoted to these things.   

In 1855, his probationary on-trial status ended and William was sent to the Walton Mission, which had about 160 members. The census of that year recorded that the parsonage was valued at $550.

In 1856-1858, he was assigned to Andes and Bovina. There was no dedicated parsonage on this assignment, so they lived in what quarters could be arranged by members of the congregation. The people were raising money to buy or build a home for the minister’s family, but it didn’t happen while the Halls were there. In 1857, William was ordained an Elder — he was now a full Methodist minister, with full responsibilities and authority.

In the late spring of 1858, William was sent to Prattsville. The Prattsville circuit there consisted of 10 preaching places served by Rev. Richmond and Rev. William Hall, who was preacher-in-charge and who lived in Prattsville. The district had about 270 Methodists. Willaim was assigned to stay a second year in Prattsville alone. Prattsville had a tannery, two hat manufacturers, a tin shop, a millinery shop, a blacksmith, a cabinet shop, general stores, three hotels, an academy, a doctor, three churches and a brewery. Sarah’s father, Alvin Bushnell, was a friend of Zadock Pratt’s. Pratt was not Methodist but contributed generously to the three churches in town.    Roxbury was also part of the circuit, which was building a church at a cost of $4,201.31.  Local records show that at the time of the dedication the funding was still $300 short of costs. The officiator at the dedication refused to speak until that shortfall was covered by pledges.

In the spring of 1860, William was assigned to Ashland. There were about 1,200 people in the township and two churches, one Presbyterian and one Methodist Episcopal, and the Ashland Seminary and Musical Institute.

The early village had wagon and blacksmith shops, a cooperage, a turning work, a cigar factory, a bag factory, a lumber mill and a potash mill. The 1860 census records William 31, an ME Clergyman. His personal estate was valued at $800. He owned no home or land. Sarah was 26 and they had one child, Alvin. Levi Hall, William’s 24-year-old brother, was boarding with them while going to the seminary.

One of Levi’s fellow students was Calvin Borthwick, from Cornwallville. Borthwick’s diaries note that: “Sun, Nov 18 [1860] attended meeting at Methodist Church. Preaching by Rev. Hall.  Wednesday, Jan. 9 [1861]. Donation at Rev Hall’s in village. Quite a number of students went down. Had as much cake as I wanted to eat and a good time general.”

Next, William was assigned to the town of Durham at the annual conference in 1862. There were churches at Durham, Oak Hill, Cooksburg and Cornwallville. The buildings where William peached in Durham and Cooksburg are now gone, but the one at Oak Hill still stands.

In 1921, at a commemoration of 100 years of the Methodist Church in Cornwallville, the speaker discussed the pastors assigned there over that time: “William Hall was here 1862-1863. He excelled as pastor, and as Sunday School and temperance worker. One of our future ministers was among Hall’s coverts at Andes: Andrew R. Burroughs, who succeed him here in 1863.”

Oak Hill Church today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Contributed photo

I’ll leave the story of his life in other churches to the book. After Hall’s assignment in Durham, he was sent to Stone Ridge, where they lived four years. The total geographical area of his lifetime ministry was relatively small. The westernmost assignment he received was at Walton, New York, the easternmost at Lee, Massachusetts.

William Hall died Jan. 24, 1878, at the age of 48. While working at a camp meeting in August he was taken quite ill. He spoke at the funeral of a congregation member in West Hurley and returning home afterwards; he never left the parsonage again. Perhaps he had consumption.

“William Hall’s ministry ended where it began, as a local minister among the people of a small congregation. He always lived in a congregation-provided parsonage. He never made any significant amount of money and was always dependent upon donation visits to supplement his salary as a pastor. This was the life he wanted, and he was glad of it.”

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