This week in our ongoing exploration of South County’s famed quirky curiosities, we are going to examine the life and times of our area’s 19th century celebrity preacher, Elder Edwin R Wood. Read on and enjoy.
It has been said that Elder Edwin Wood married more couples and preached at more funerals than any other clergyman in South County. But Wood was more than that; he was a celebrity of sorts, the epitome of an old fashioned Yankee preacher, a living link, in his day, between the 19th and 20th centuries. Edwin Wood was born in 1832 in the little mill village of Crompton. At the age of 7 he was sent off by his family to work in those mills. Eight years later, the 15-year-old had had enough; he ran off, made his way to New Bedford and shipped out on a two year whaling voyage. This was the beginning of a 15-year career at sea; somehow in the midst of it all, he met and married Abby Reynolds of Exeter. One can only imagine the life they had; voyages of from two to four years in length were not uncommon at that time. Wood’s conversion from deep sea sailor to man of God was said to have happened at sea when he was 30 years of age. After this voyage, he returned to the Exeter farm of his wife’s parents never to sail again. After “much study and serious contemplation” Wood was ordained as a pastor of the Advent Christian Church and took the helm of the Exeter congregation, located just west of the Exeter/North Kingstown border. Wood, who later built himself a home at the end of Old Baptist Road in North Kingstown, also shared preaching duties with the various pastors of the Lafayette, Shannock, Frenchtown, and Chestnut Hill Churches.
Elder Wood was a man of God and a man with a presence. Over six feet tall, thinly built with a long flowing beard, he’d pace back and forth during his sermons swinging his great long arms around for emphasis. He was a sermonizer, an exhorter, a man willing to point the finger at wrong doers; cut from the same cloth as Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards he had no problem with fire and brimstone. Wood was a preacher of the Gospel, a revivalist, an evangelist known to stop in his tracks, midstream through a sermon, and break into a rousing chorus of “Rescue the Perishing” or “I Have Anchored my Soul in the Haven of Rest.” He’d stack up well against the best Baptist Tent Revivalist. Wood was a showman with a mission, a splash of Swamp Yankee color, a genuine celebrity with just a hint of the knock-about deep sea sailor he once was, who would regularly take his show on the road for all who would listen.
The word got out about Elder Wood before long. Sought after by individual souls and congregations alike, he traveled across the countryside praying and preaching his mighty version of the Gospel. Soon couples were coming out of the woodwork, knocking on his door entreating the humble preacher to marry them. Newspaper accounts exist of folks waking the good pastor from his sleep to perform marriages. He was always being called upon to eulogize someone’s dearly departed relation and he preached at literally hundreds of funerals across the region. His is truly the most common name in the marriage and death records of southern Rhode Island. Elder Edwin Wood was a local phenomenon at the time when the 1800s were becoming the 1900s and the world as it was sat poised to change forever.
Elder Wood preached his last sermon on New Year’s Day in 1905 at his beloved Exeter Advent Church. Two weeks later, the 75-year-old one-time child millworker, former sailor, and simple preacher was dead from pneumonia. The whole region mourned his loss, although I suspect that few realized that with Wood’s death, an era ended in southern Rhode Island. You can bet that they all sang “I Have Anchored My Soul in the Haven of Rest” as they lowered Edwin Wood into his final resting place at the ancient cemetery of the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church.