WHEN LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE
Carl Woodward tells many wonderful stories about our church in his book, Horse and Buggy Boyhood (see Gifts and Memorabilia). Here he recalls a tale told by his Uncle Thompy Conover, sexton of Old Tennent at the turn of the twentieth century, describing the chain of events that saved our church from destruction in the summer of 1878:
Uncle Thompy, though not a professing member, was a devoted servant of the church. He took great pride in its history and followed its activities with keen interest. Since he was something of a philosopher as well as an entertaining conversationalist, we delighted in listening to his fund of anecdotes about the church, especially the one that disproved the time-worn adage that “lightning never strikes twice in the same place.”
During an electric storm near the turn of the century, a bolt of lightning struck the spire, ran down the edge of the roof and the corner leader pipe, ripping off shingles, and penetrating the wall to the stairway inside. Yet the building was not set on fire. We saw the damage done by this stroke soon after it happened. Not so fortunate was a similar incident thirty odd years earlier that almost ended in disaster. This story was told us by Uncle Thompy who had it from his two predecessors as sexton, Perrine (Priney) Craig and John Snyder, both of whom were involved.
The year 1878 was a noteworthy one in the annals of Old Tennent. It was the centennial year of the Battle of Monmouth and the church was prospering under the pastorate of the Reverend Archibald Cobb. On the anniversary Sunday in June, Mr. Cobb preached an inspiring sermon to a large congregation, estimated in a newspaper report, probably excessively, at a thousand souls who crowded into the church, and another thousand turned away. Five weeks later, the old church almost ceased to be.
This was one of Priney’s twenty-one years as sexton. As he was leaving for home on the afternoon of August first, he noticed the rain-barrel that was kept under the leader pipe at the corner of the building (for the purpose of collecting water for the use of those desiring to water flowers in their grave plots) was out of place and empty. So he pushed it back under the pipe. Early that evening a heavy shower came up and filled the barrel. John Snyder was paying a call on Lem Bedel who lived nearby. About nine o’clock he noticed a sharp flash of lightning and, looking up towards the church a few minutes later, saw a small fire in the steeple. John and Lem ran to the church, forced their way inside, ran up to the balcony and tore open the trap door in the ceiling. Lem climbed up into the steeple and broke through the shingles to get at the fire, and John brought up a bucket of water from the rain-barrel. By this time ten or a dozen men had arrived, and together they managed to put the fire out; and the old church was saved!
There was much that seemed providential in this near catastrophe. The storm that brought the lightning, which set the fire, also brought the water to put it out. Just suppose Priney hadn’t moved that rain-barrel! And suppose John Snyder hadn’t happened to stop at Lem’s house that night or couldn’t find a bucket to carry the water! It was easy for the faithful parishioners to believe that the event was part of a Higher Power’s design, perhaps to teach the Tennent people that they should take better care of their house of worship. Grandma for one, found satisfaction in the familiar line of Cowper’s:
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.” And in his
Jolted into action, the trustees decided to have the building insured and to dig a well on the property. But they didn’t think lightning rods were necessary. Only after the church was struck a second time did they have the steeple rodded, and it still stands. On such a slender thread has hung the fate of the venerable edifice.
Carl R. Woodward, Horse and Buggy Boyhood, 2001, pp 58-59