Winter then and now

Hans Rollmann
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Last Monday night, I went to bed with the comforting thought that one of my sons had managed to shovel the car free in the driveway.

On Tuesday, our front door would not open, since another two feet of snow had drifted in during the night.

Only after several sturdy arms had worked strenuously for a couple of hours did we gain access to the narrowly plowed track on our side street.

Although our walkways remain perpetually covered, our mechanically fortified existence, assured by city snowplows and private snow blowers in every second driveway, compares quite favourably with what our forebears in 18th- and 19th-century Newfoundland had to endure.

If you dont believe me, I invite you to look in on two 18th-century evangelists in Conception Bay.

Rev. Laurence Coughlan, an Anglican priest and the founder of Newfoundland Methodism, who lived in Harbour Grace from 1766 to 1773, brought hope to many of societys downtrodden by preaching and organizing intimate religious support groups.

In the counter-cultural religious society that he promoted, local merchants found themselves often at the bottom while humble fishers saw their dignity restored and even took on leadership positions in the devotional cell groups that sustained them spiritually.

Eventually, however, this troublesome revivalist was forced out of Newfoundland by the combined efforts of the Conception Bay merchants, the governor and his employer, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Coughlans revival, leading to such life-changing effects for some Newfoundlanders, began in the winter of 1768. Especially during this season the clergyman could engage in regular door-to-door visits and people were able to attend extended religious services.

Individuals who flocked to his meetings came from a great distance along the shore and some even came across the old aboriginal footpath from Trinity Bay. Some came fifteen, some twenty miles, Coughlan wrote, to hear the Word. I have known some to come, with their dear infants in their arms, over mountains of snow, at the hazard of their lives; so mightily did the Word of God prevail.

The revival in winter provided the preacher in his Account of the Word of God in Newfoundland, North America (1776) with an opportunity to speak at some length about Newfoundland winters and what they meant to contemporaries who experienced them.

The winters in Newfoundland, Coughlan wrote, are very severe, there being great falls of snow, and hard frost; the houses there are mostly very disagreeable to those who are not used to them.

At the time, most wooden dwellings, he tells us, had walls consisting of studs put into the ground close together, and between each, they stop moss, as they call it, to keep out the snow. This they cover with bark of trees, and put great clods over that; some are covered with boards.

Although he found great hospitality wherever he went, and considered Newfoundlanders as people of a very bright genius, on winter mornings my bedside has had a beautiful white covering of snow; my shoes have been so hard frozen, that I could not well put them on, till brought to the fire.

Nevertheless, Coughlan contended, under all this, I was supported, seeing a glorious work going on.

Similar experiences

His fellow Methodist missionary, William Thoresby, who preached in Conception Bay at the end of the 18th century, shared similar experiences about Newfoundland winters, as is obvious from his diary.

Thoresby even had difficulties recording his experiences, since the weather was sometimes so intense that it has frozen the ink in my pocket, nay, it has frozen the ink in my pen when writing not far from a large fire!

One must actually experience a winter in Newfoundland, Thoresby insisted, to know what one was talking about.

Those persons in England who have never been here, he wrote, can have no just idea of the nature of the frost, and the depth of snow in Newfoundland in the winter season.

This day has been the most stormy for wind and snow I ever saw, he wrote on a January night in Bay Roberts. It was so exceedingly stormy, I expected none

at the evening preaching; but to my great surprise, about forty persons came through the snow up to the waist.

In the last two places he had slept, Thoresby confided to his journal, the snow blew into the rooms and even on my face, I have thereby caught a severe cold; but God be praised my mind is happy in Him; and if souls are brought to my Saviour, I shall not count my life dear to me, so that I may finish my course with joy.

One February, he noted that there was the most sharp and severe frost that they have had in Newfoundland for ten years past; the Bay was frozen over in a very short time; and my bed was covered with hoary frost.

The next morning, however, saw him once more stumble across nearly unrecognizable paths, amidst severe winds, with the snow flakes flying in every direction.

In such weather, Thoresby travelled ten miles almost up to the knees in snow, to Ochre Pit Cove.

On arriving there, he writes, I changed my linen, (which was as wet as if it had been drawn through water) and after refreshing myself proceeded to Witsons Bay.

His exertions were so strenuous, he remarks, that none can tell what I suffered in this journey, but God, and myself.

Yet, as Coughlan had before him, Thoresby took these winter challenges in stride. All the privations he suffered through snow, frost and ice could not eradicate the thankfulness with which he endured them, so that he concluded his latest travel in Conception Bay with thanksgiving: thro the goodness of my God, I got safe to Mr. Perey's, where I preached and slept.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious

studies at Memorial University, and can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Conception Bay, Harbour Grace Trinity Bay North America England Bay Roberts Ochre Pit Cove Witsons Bay

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