Fervent pleas for aid to missionaries around the world are common, and by no means a recent phenomenon. Take, for instance, the effort led by Episcopalian Bishop Richard H. Nelson in the Albany area in 1913. Said the Glens Falls Daily Times, “It is the intention of Bishop Nelson to organize a missionary league in the diocese for the purpose of raising sufficient money to carry on the work of building up parishes in the neglected sections.” Nelson displayed a map of those neglected sections, where, he said, “The condition is almost unbelievable.”
When I was much younger, one of the most beloved and respected teachers in our local school left to work in the missions in Africa. She described many of the same problems voiced by Nelson: poverty, illiteracy, poor spiritual condition, and a disturbing lack of morals. In both cases (Nelson’s and the teacher’s), the viewpoint was from a devout Christian perspective (our teacher was a Catholic nun).
Nelson was direct in his assessment of the natives and their shortcomings. “The inhabitants, especially in the mountain region, are not only illiterate, but lack common decency. The spiritual condition of the people is as bad as in heathen countries. In many instances, men and women live together without having a marriage ceremony performed. In one instance a girl, 19 years old, came to me and wanted to get married to a man she said she loved. Upon investigation, I found that she had been married at the age of 12 with the consent of her parents. Of course, the marriage was annulled.”
According to the reverend, wife-swapping and trafficking in young girls was common practice, and marriage was seen as unnecessary. “Here, men are willing to exchange wives and there are absolutely no moral obligations…. They do not know any better. They are absolutely lacking of education in any morals and in sex relations.”
For missionaries, addressing a person’s moral status was considered as important—in fact, often more important—than overcoming poverty and illiteracy. The Daily Times noted that, “The lecture was largely attended and much enthusiasm manifested over the bishop’s remarks.”
As a charitable people, Adirondackers today would likely respond positively to a plea like Nelson’s. After all, who wouldn’t like to make the world a better place? But in the bishop’s original plea back in 1913, Adirondackers weren’t perceived as part of the solution. Instead, they were the problem.
That’s right. When he mentioned the common practice of wife-swapping and said, “The inhabitants, especially in the mountain region, are not only illiterate, but lack common decency,” he was referring to the Adirondacks. The comments were made in a speech titled, “The Need of Missionaries in the North,” delivered before the Ladies’ Missionary Society at St. Andrew’s Church in Albany.
The bishop went on to cite specifics, based on his own extensive missionary work in the mountains. “Within ten miles of the west shore of Lake George is a village of these people. There are also a number of small hamlets on the northwest side of the Adirondack region along the logging streams, principally the upper Hudson, the upper waters of the St. Regis River, and other smaller streams in Franklin and Warren Counties.”
But not to worry. Our slack-jawed, backwoods ancestors were teachable, or at least trainable, according to Nelson. “I’m not saying these things to make a sensation, or to hold up these people as objects of scorn. I do not want to do this and it should not be done…. These people, unlike the society folk, respond readily to the right teaching in morals.”
Despite the fact that folks up north were busy wife-swappin’ and carryin’ on, a backlash followed—led, of course, by non-swappers. Daniel Lynch of Minerva, father of famed educator Ella Frances Lynch, disputed Nelson’s claims in a written editorial. As to the bishop’s assertion that in some places not one clergyman could be found within a ten-mile radius, Lynch said it was very misleading because there “were many places in the Adirondacks where a 10-mile radius would not encompass one human being.”
Lynch continued: “Another charge made by the reverend gentleman, in regard to general delinquency of the Adirondack guides and loggers, I want to vehemently and emphatically protest in the name of every citizen of the community and of the thousands of urban tourists that sojourn at the resorts every year, and who often leave their children and families for days in the care of those guides…. These men have such dispositions that they would sacrifice their life, if necessary, to prevent insult or injury to an innocent person, and would be the first to go down in their pockets if they saw a worthy person in need.”
Rev. Milford H. Smith, pastor of Saranac Lake’s Methodist Episcopal Church, said the bishop owed an apology to the people of the Adirondacks: “For weeks I have conducted religious services among the sawmill hands and river drivers along the Saranac River, and I have never met with a single instance in all my experience where a man and woman were living in unlawful, open cohabitation. Such cases doubtless exist, but they are so rare and so covered up that I have never discovered a single instance. It seems remarkable that a missionary in a few short visits has been able to discover so many and such shocking infractions of the seventh commandment. So far as the traffic in ‘swapping wives’ is concerned, I never, before reading the bishop’s indictment, so much as heard of such a practice.”
Nelson had actually made similar statements in 1906, referring to “heathens” in the Adirondacks and the Lake George/Lake Champlain region, where “men are willing to exchange wives and there are absolutely no moral obligations.”
But his most recent tirade found its way into many newspapers, causing something unusual: citizens publicly rejecting claims made by a powerful man of the cloth. After Lynch, Smith, and other defenders of the region spoke out, the controversy dissipated.
Nelson’s comments may have been sincere, but I’ll note that in the context of regional history, they may have targeted a purpose. His remarks were made at a time when organized religions hadn’t permeated the region, and media coverage frequently mentioned missions in the Adirondacks by the Protestant, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other faiths competing for a foothold and to expand their reach (or as they put it, to save souls).
That would certainly help explain the urgency Nelson ascribed to the situation, and the purported need for the diocese to form a “missionary league” with the goal of saving Adirondack pagans and infidels from certain moral ruin.
Wife-swapping surged in popularity during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Little did the good bishop know, Adirondackers weren’t immoral—they were just way ahead of their time.
Photo: Bishop Richard H. Nelson