An often-overlooked aspect of Mary P. Wells Smith's writing is her religious fare. Early in her career, Smith began contributing to Unitarian publications, most notably the Unitarian magazine Christian Register. In 1867, her How to Be Happy was published as part of the American Unitarian Association's Tract series, and some of her earliest children's stories appeared in the Sunday-School Gazette in the late 1860s.
It is perhaps not surprising that Smith would choose to write for the Sunday-School Gazette, for she was involved with Congregationalist or Unitarian Sunday Schools for more than half a century and was for a time director of the Western Unitarian Sunday School Society.
"Lucy's First Prayer," published in the April 1, 1868, Sunday-School Gazette under Smith's pseudonym P. Thorne, combines religion with acknowledgment of local celebrations of history. In later years, Smith's series, such as Young Puritans and Old Deerfield, would gain recognition for their depictions of regional history.
ucy Rockwell never prayed till she was nine years old. Yet every night, her life long, she had said "Now I lay me down to sleep," and lately, too, "Our Father."
This was how it happened. When she was nine years old she went with her mother to visit some friends in Northampton. This was in the days of old fashioned "musters," and a grand muster was to come off in Northampton during their visit -- an event greatly anticipated by all the children, of course. Lucy in particular, who had always lived a very quiet life on a farm, could hardly wait for the day to come.
At last, however, the great day arrived, and a most favorable one it proved to be. Never had the sun shone brighter, or the air been clearer and fresher. The streets were soon alive with people who had come in to muster. On every corner, gingerbread and candy stands did a thriving trade. Now and then great excitement was created by one of the heroes of the day dashing through the crowd, -- some warlike and plumed militiaman on a fiery steed, -- evidently not quite indifferent to the sensation he caused. The encampment was in a field on Round Hill, a mile or so out of the village. Here, in the afternoon, was to be the grand feature of the day, -- a sham battle. As Mr. Hunt only owned a one-seated carriage, it became a question second only to the famous puzzle of "the fox, the goose, and the corn," how all were to be carried over to the scene of action.
"We girls all want to go together, father," plead [sic] Emma and Lizzie Hunt.
"Of course these three little friends mustn't be parted," said good-natured Mr. Hunt. "The best plan, I think, will be to take you, wife, and Mrs. Rockwell over first. I can then return and bring the children to you."
Here a cry of dismay rose from the girls: "Oh, father! it will be begun before we get there. We shall lose the battle, I know we shall!"
Finally Mr. Hunt, who, as his girls had already discovered, was the owner of a soft heart that could not withstand much teasing, hauled down his colors, came over to the enemy, and joined with the children in trying to convince two anxious mammas that the muster ground was a perfectly safe place for their daughters, during the short time they must be left alone.
"If you can only find John, he might see to them till we come," suggested Mrs. Rockwell. John was her husband's brother: usually a peaceful grocer man; but to-day rejoicing in all the glories proper to Colonel Rockwell of the Smithville Rough and Readys.
"Of course he will," said Mr. Hunt; "That is a good idea. If, however, anything happens that I don't find him, I will not leave the girls till I see them safely disposed of. Make yourselves perfectly easy about them."
At length they were permitted to go, and Mr. Hunt was on his way, trying his best to answer all the questions three busy little tongues had to ask about everything three pairs of bright eyes saw. Arrived on the field, they found themselves in a dense crowd of all kinds of vehicles, filled with all kinds of people.
"Now, Lucy, do you see your uncle John anywhere?" asked Mr. Hunt.
"Oh yes, there he is. Don't you see him with that long red feather, on that big black horse?"
"Oh, how his horse rears and plunges!" cried Lizzie. "See him prance sideways now! Don't he look exactly like Bonaparte crossing the Alps in the picture!" Which tribute to uncle John's heroic appearance made Lucy prouder than ever of him. But it was evident a great man like uncle John, who wore a red plume and went galloping to and fro, "observed of all observers," could not be asked to take care of three little girls. Mr. Hunt, after considering the matter a few minutes, drove out of the crowd to a quiet spot one side of the field. "Now girls," he said, "I will venture to leave you if you will promise me to stay right here till I return with your mothers. I shall be gone but a few minutes, and you will be perfectly safe if you only keep still. Of course the girls were profuse in promises. "Oh no, papa, we won't stir. We will sit here like mice, -- you see if we don't;" and Mr. Hunt drove off.
At first the girls enjoyed themvelves very much. The mere being out doors such a pleasant September day was happiness of itself. Then there was so much to see: the tents; the big flag floating over them; the gay uniforms; the carriages dashing this way and that. They all agreed it was better than any panorama they ever saw. But by and by the children began to tire of their position, to wish themselves a little nearer. Lizzie said, "I wish we were over there with the Burts. Don't you see them, Emma? We might have such a good time with Bessie and Tommie. It's only a little way, just across that road. I don't believe papa would care. He would like to have us with Mr. and Mrs. Burt, and we could see so much better. Do let's go." Emma, the oldest, hesitated; but, at that moment, Tommie Burt, spying them, ran across to beg the girls to come over where his sister was. "You can see so much better; and then the band is going to play, and you can't hear it here, at all." Here Tommie stopped to catch breath before telling the greatest attraction: "And oh, girls, there is a hand-organ man over there, with such a monkey! You ought to see him. A regular performing monkey, with a little red cap and coat on!"
In short there were so many good reasons, it seemed to the girls, for breaking their promise to Mr. Hunt, that they consented to go, thinking they should still be in sight when he returned. But as they were crossing the road, suddenly there was a great noise and hurrahing, and out of a cloud of dust came a cavalry company, apparently dashing right down upon them.
"Clear the way there!" "Out of the road!" "Look sharp, or you'll be run over!" cried the crowd. Each ran, as fast as possible, the way that was nearest out of the road. When Lucy's heart had stopped thumping so she could catch breath again, and she had rubbed the dust out of her eyes, she found herself alone in the crowd, not a face near her that she had ever seen before. In vain did she look every way for the Burts, for Lizzie and Emma. Frightened and bewildered, she could not even find her way back to the place where Mr. Hunt had left them. Every one was too busy sight-seeing to notice the trouble of a strange little girl. Just then began the sham battle; and the banging of guns, the prancing of frightened horses, the general uproar, put the finishing touch to poor Lucy's terror. Clapping her hands over her ears, and expecting every moment to be shot, she ran swiftly to where, behind a clump of sumacs in one of the zigzags in the rail fence surrounding the field, she saw a place of refuge. Here she sat down on the ground and cried as if her heart would break. Never before had she known what it was like to be alone. There had always been the tender love of father and mother between her and all fear and trouble. But now she was lost, -- lost in this strange place, in this great crowd of people, none of whom cared for her. What would become of her? By and by night would come, and where should she go then?
"I shall never, never see mamma again," thought she, "and she will never know what became of me. Oh, if we had only minded Mr. Hunt!"
Then she tried to stop crying and think if she could do anything to help herself. Suddenly she remembered what her mother had told her about God: that he was everywhere, that he always saw her, that he loved Lucy more even than her father and mother did, and was always ready to help her if she would only ask him. Lucy had not thought much about this when her mother had told her. She had father and mother then, and felt as if she could do without God. But now her frightened little heart felt comforted at thought [sic] of this kind Friend who was everywhere, and so must be here. "Mother said so, and it must be true," she thought. "I will ask him to help me now."
So she shut her eyes, and said, "Dear God, please take care of me, and help me find my mother." She did not say it as she had said her prayers at night, safe in the little bed-room at home, with mother ready to tuck her in, when she mumbled sleepily "Our Father" and "Now I lay me" without once thinking what the words meant, only saying them because mother wanted her to. But now she felt as if her heart went straight up to the blue sky where God was, above all this dust and turmoil. She felt, too, a sense of peace and comfort in her heart. It was God's answer to her prayer.
As she was sitting quietly, not afraid now, she heard a voice behind her calling, "Lucy!" and, turning around, oh, joy! there was Mr. Hunt's carriage over the fence, and there was mamma looking as if she had been feeling quite as badly as Lucy herself. How Lucy flew to her, how the doleful, tear-stained little face brightened into smiles, how she clung close to her mother, as if nothing should ever separate them again, I hardly need tell.
Mr. Burt had soon found the other children after the general scattering, but Lucy, in her fright, ahd fled so far that no trace of her could be found; and great had been the anxiety of all her friends.
When Lucy grew up she forgot all about the glories of the muster and the sham battle; but she never forgot the difference between praying and saying prayers. As the years went by, she found there were many troubles from which no one's love could shield her; by and by, that she must learn to live in the world without father and mother; but always there was the one Friend whose love "abideth forever," who never failed to draw near to her when she drew near to Him.
P. Thorne [Mary Prudence Wells (Smith)]
Sunday School Gazette 19 (1 April 1868): 26-27.