Thursday, January 05, 2017

Press Erwin prays for the Iowa Legislature

Photo via Wikipedia

Iowa's Legislature convenes on Monday, which brought to mind an old story about the Rev. Preston S. Erwin and a prayer that he was called upon to deliver before the Iowa Senate at some point during the early years of the 20th century. The story was told, apparently upon several occasions, by Henry Gittinger --- editor and publisher of The Chariton Leader and a story-teller of some note.

Upon occasion, Henry stretched the truth just a little, so I'm hoping this story isn't apocryphal. I'm basing this version of it on one of his columns, published in The Leader of Jan. 11, 1917, as a new Legislative session was about to begin.

The Rev. Mr. Erwin, known as "Press," arrived in Lucas County with his wife, Agnes, and family during the early 1880s, among black Virginians --- many of them former slaves or children of former slaves --- brought west by mine owners to work in the coal mines of old Cleveland.

He also was an ordained minister in the A.M.E. --- African Methodist Episcopal --- Church and as such was instrumental in organizing Chariton's A.M.E. congregation as well as a congregation at Cleveland that disappeared when the mines closed and that little community vanished.

The Erwins moved to Chariton from Cleveland and the Rev. Mr. Erwin served as pastor, organizer, fund-raiser and in other capacities for the small congregation, off and on, for many years.

But pastoral work didn't generate sufficient income to support a family, so Press always had other jobs. He was an accomplished cook, so catering was one of them. Among his greatest pleasures, newspaper reports suggest, was cooking for Company H., Chariton's Iowa National Guard unit, both at its armory and during various encampments.

After the turn of the 20th century, Press found a job as attendant in the cloak room of the Iowa Senate chamber at the Capitol in Des Moines and he seems to have lived in the capital city much of the time after that, at least during legislative sessions. 

The senators were accustomed to opening each day's session prayerfully, but --- according to the story --- one day the chaplain failed to appear. Someone remembered that Press, too, was an ordained minister of the gospel and called upon him.

Here is the reported text of his invocation: "Lord, bless this deliberative body, inspire them with some wisdom --- and, Lord, forgive their trespasses and sins for they know not what they do."

What Henry probably didn't know when he wrote that column was that Erwin's health was beginning to fail that winter and he died, aged about 65, on Sept. 15, 1917, at the Des Moines home of his daughter, Signora (Erwin) Caldron. His remains were returned to the Chariton Cemetery for burial beside his wife, Agnes. Their graves, however, are unmarked.

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