“Jonathan!” I screeched as I surveyed the observation platform where the night before I had placed my prized milk-crock for the milkman to fill.
My beloved husband came running down the aisle of the chapel car tripping over hymnals that had fallen from beneath the pew-racks when the car was uncoupled from the passenger train.
“Someone stole my milk-crock,” I wailed unable to control the sobs. What else could I expect from a town like Devil’s Lake, North Dakota? I was unsympathetic to the town’s spiritual needs at the moment.
The crock had been a gift from my mother when we left Minnesota to begin our missionary service aboard the Messenger of Life chapel car.
Seeing that I was physically unharmed, Jonathan sighed with relief. “Evangeline, I thought you had been scalped.” He started to laugh, but seeing my despair, took me in his arms.
“I think God is giving me the title of tonight’s message...`Thou shalt not steal,’” he said more to himself than to me.
Our missionary journey had begun two months earlier in Fargo, North Dakota. As the Northern Pacific passenger train took the chapel car into various communities, townsfolk met us with much anticipation, anxiously waiting to hear the gospel.
For many, it was the first time in years they had fellowship with other believers since leaving their homes and moving west. Each time the Messenger of Life’s bell rang, calling worshipers to service, the chapel car was filled to capacity. Our congregations were a motley mix of souls... farmers, farm wives, cowboys, gamblers, shopkeepers, drifters, and ladies of the evening, all sitting on the wooden pews sharing hymnals as the overhead chandelier cast shadows on the wood paneling of the coach.
The Messenger of Life crossed the Dakotas into Montana, stopping in many towns along the railway. Often there would be two or three saloons in town, but no churches. I would read Bible stories to the children each afternoon. As I played the pump organ, they loved to sing Jesus Loves Me.
In the front part of the chapel car was our living area. We had upper and lower berths, a large wardrobe locker, a writing desk, and shelves. The kitchen was equipped with an Adams & Westlake stove, copper-lined sink with a tank overhead, sideboard, and a small china closet. The lavatory was such that at times I wished I had never left Minnesota.
The chapel car was lit by tallow candles, allowing night services to be held, which was a blessing to those who could not attend the two or three services held during the day. Above each window were panes of stained glass reminiscent of the churches many believers had left years before.
There wasn’t a baptistery in the coach, so Jonathan baptized new believers wherever there was enough water for submersion... rivers, water holes, rain barrels, or horse troughs.
In many towns, he officiated at weddings and funerals. In Forest River, North Dakota, we arrived a day after a family had lost their eighteen-month-old baby to a snakebite. It was comforting for them to have Jonathan conduct a Christian service.
When circus or theater cars were coupled to the Northern Pacific passenger train transporting the chapel car, we had to vie for the crowds at each stop. To overcome this distraction, we tried to stay a town or two ahead of the circus.
On the return trip to Minnesota, six months after beginning the mission, we stopped in many towns we had been unable to minister to earlier in the year.
One memorable stop was to revisit Devil’s Lake, North Dakota where we found new converts spreading the gospel and building a church. A box supper auction to raise funds was held the Saturday evening we arrived. The shops in town closed early, including the saloons. Families came from miles around to join the festivities. The sheriff and local cowboys bought most of the boxes and stayed for the singing service.
The last morning we were in Devil’s Lake, I stepped out on the observation platform and could not believe my eyes. There by the door was my cherished milk-crock, brimming with beautiful wild flowers.
For information about the chapel cars, see:
This Train is Bound for GloryThe Story of America’s Chapel Cars
by Wilma Rugh Taylor & Norman Thomas Taylor
Copyright 1999 by Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA 19482-0851
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