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Mystery Monday: The Roving Reverend

Even a “man of the cloth” can be a black sheep…  Consider the case of Rev. George Washington Hays.

I used to be church historian at the church where I grew up.  One summer I decided to read all the board minutes, starting at the beginning—1858.  Not far into the project, my eyes were drawn to the word “alcoholic”— and I knew I had a story.

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Rev. Hays was born in Macomb, Illinois in 1837, son of a physician.  He was educated at Maryland College, then Princeton Theological Seminary after he gave up the study of law to prepare for the ministry.

After finishing up at McCormick Seminary, he got his first pastorate—First Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Illinois, shown in this drawing—in 1863.  It wasn’t long before he married Elizabeth Hannah, daughter of a prosperous local merchant and church board member.  And it wasn’t long after that that the previously healthy Elizabeth suddenly died.

Biographical sketches from his days at Princeton and McCormick, along with ancestry.com, got me this far. This is where the board minutes come into play.

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In June 1866 Elizabeth’s father stopped attending church. He was warned by the board not to shirk his duty and to stop circulating reports that the pastor had a hand in Elizabeth’s death.  A hearing took place, pitting the pro-father forces against the pro-pastor forces.  In three days of testimony, the father accused the pastor of drunkenness, refusing to allow a doctor to see Elizabeth, hoping she would die—and giving her a double dose of morphine to speed the process.  (The attending doctor was another church elder, who left the church shortly after Elizabeth’s death.)  The board sided with the pastor and voted 3-1 in January 1867 to suspend Elizabeth’s father until such time as he repented of his slandering, which he refused to do, so in September 1867, he was excommunicated.

Nevertheless, Rev. Hays left under a huge cloud of suspicion in 1868—“leaving the church nearly extinct, having passed through a church fight that left it depleted in numbers and burdened with debt,” so said a church historian.  But what next caught my attention was the almost gypsy-like wanderings of the reverend for the rest of his career.

In 1868 George found work at two churches in Carroll County, Ohio, where he married a woman named Harriet; they eventually had eight children.  By 1871 they were in Saline County, Kansas.  I found out by writing to his church there that he left there in 1873 due to a scandal; the board minutes said that they debated whether to contact the authorities or allow him to leave quietly, and decided on the latter.

After that, it was on to Henry County, Iowa until 1878; then Washington County, Iowa until 1881; then Scott County, Iowa until 1883; then Black Hawk County, Iowa until 1885.

In 1885 he settled in California and his wanderings ceased.  Did he find peace at last?  Or had he simply put enough distance between himself and whatever he was running from?  For whatever reason, George stayed nine years at one church in Sonoma County and then seven years at two more—but as “pulpit supply,” not installed pastor.

By 1903 he retired to a farm in Sonoma County he co-owned with his brother-in-law Horace.  Harriet died about this time, and in 1916 George died in Alameda County.

I wonder what really happened to his first wife?  And what happened in Saline County that caused him to leave Kansas altogether?  Was George a good husband and father?  What stories survive about him in the family?  Why did he wander from place to place?  I’ve got more questions than answers on this one.

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