Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198
Theron Ware goes to the annual statewide meeting of the Methodist Episcopal Church with great expectation of being appointed to the large church in Tecumseh. He is greatly disappointed, therefore, when he is sent to Octavius, a small rural community. To the minister and his wife, the town and its citizens do not appear formidable at first, but a hint of what is to come occurs the first morning after their arrival. A boy who delivers milk to Mrs. Ware informs her that he cannot deliver milk on Sunday because the trustees of the church will object. Shortly afterward, the trustees tell the new minister that his sermons are too dignified and that Mrs. Ware’s Sunday bonnet is far too elaborate for a minister’s wife. Theron and his wife are depressed. Unhappy in his new charge, Theron decides to write a book about Abraham.
One day, Theron assists an injured Irish-Catholic workman and goes home with him to see what help he might give. At the man’s deathbed, Theron observes the parish priest and a pretty young redhead, Celia Madden, who assists him. Upon their acquaintance, the minister is surprised to find that his earlier hostility to Catholics and the Irish is foolish. These people are more cultured than he, as he learns a few evenings later when he goes to the priest for some advice in connection with his proposed book.
At the priest’s home, he meets Dr. Ledsmar, a retired physician interested in biblical research. The priest and the doctor know a great deal about the culture of Abraham and his people. They try to be tactful, but the young minister quickly sees how wrong he has been to think himself ready to write a religious book on any topic; all he knows is the little he was taught at his Methodist seminary.
Upon leaving Father Forbes and the doctor, Theron walks past the Catholic church. Hearing music within, he enters to find Celia at the organ. Later, he walks home with her and discovers that she is interested in literature and art as well as music. Once again that evening, Theron is made to realize how little he actually knows. He goes home with the feeling that his own small world is not a very cultured one.
Three months later, there is a revival at Theron’s church. Mr. and Mrs. Soulsby, two professional exhorters, arrive to lead a week of meetings that are designed to pay off the church debt and to put fervor into its members. The Wares, who entertain the Soulsbys, are surprised to find that the revival leaders are very much like insurance salespeople, employing similar tactics. During the revival week, Theron is nonplussed to discover what he thinks are the beginnings of an affair between his wife and one of the trustees of his church, Mr. Gorringe.
In a long talk with Mrs. Soulsby, Theron tells her that he almost decided to give up the Methodist ministry because of the shallowness he discovered in his congregation and in his church. Mrs. Soulsby points out to him that Methodists are no worse than anyone else in the way of hypocrisy and that all they lack is an external discipline. She also reminds him that he is incapable of making a living because he lacks any worldly training.
Theron’s life is further complicated when he realizes that he is beginning to fall in love with Celia. As a result of her interest in music, he asks her advice in buying a piano for his home, and she, unknown to him, pays part of the bill...
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for the instrument. He also finds time to call on Dr. Ledsmar, whose peculiar views on the early church interest him. He disgusts the old doctor, however, with his insinuations of an affair between Father Forbes and Celia.
In September, the Methodists of Octavius have a camp meeting. Its fervor does not appeal to Theron, after his more intellectual religious reading and his discussions with Celia and Father Forbes, and he goes off quietly by himself. In the woods, he comes upon a picnic given by Father Forbes’s church. At the picnic, he meets Celia and has a long talk with her, kisses her, and tells her of his unhappiness in his double bondage to church and to wife.
Soon afterward, he alienates Celia by telling her that he is afraid of scandal if he is seen talking with her. He also offends Father Forbes by reports that Dr. Ledsmar speaks slightingly of Celia. The priest tells his housekeeper that he is no longer at home to Theron.
One day, Theron openly confronts his wife with his suspicions about her and Mr. Gorringe. She denies the charges, but her very denial seems to speak against her in her husband’s mind. In his unhappiness, he goes to see Celia. She is not at home, but her brother, who is dying slowly of tuberculosis, sees him. With the license of the dying, he says that when Theron arrived in Octavius he had the face of an angel, full of innocence, but that in the eight months the minister spent in the little town, his face took on a look of deceit and cunning. Celia’s brother continues by warning the minister that he should stay among his own people, that it is bad for him to tear himself from the support that Methodism gave him.
Leaving the Madden home, Theron learns that Celia is going to New York City. It occurs to him that Father Forbes is also going to the city that evening and perhaps they are traveling together. He goes home and tells his wife that urgent business calls him to Albany; then he goes to the station and boards the train unseen. In New York, he sees the priest and Celia meet, and he follows them to a hotel. After the priest leaves the hotel, Theron goes upstairs and knocks at Celia’s door. She tells him that she is busy and does not wish to see him, adding that she noticed him following her earlier in the journey. While he pleads with her, Father Forbes comes in with some other gentlemen and informs Theron that they came to New York to get another brother of Celia out of a bad scrape.
Dismissed, Theron stumbles down the stairs. A few days later, he arrives at the Soulsby house at dawn. He tells an incoherent story of trying to commit suicide, of stealing money from the church at Octavius, and of wandering alone about the city for hours while he tried to drink himself to death.
The Soulsbys take him in and send for his wife. He is ill for months. After his recovery, both he and his wife realize that he was never meant for the ministry. Through the Soulsbys, Theron is finally able to make a new start in a real estate office in Seattle. Theron knows he will make a successful real estate agent; or, if that fails, he can try politics. There is still time enough for him to be in Congress before he is forty.