The hymn was one we sang in church, page 23 in the old black Methodist hymnal, “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing.” The second verse begins, “Here I raise my Ebenezer; Hither by thy help I’ve come.” To any kid snuggled among those craggy oak pews the name Ebenezer seemed a touch curious, after all we knew who Ebenezer was. The image of “raising Ebenezer” didn’t sound like a particularly nice thing to do, old and well-dead was Ebenezer.
Dickens late in life expressed contrition for naming his central character Ebenezer Scrooge. Until A Christmas Carol, written in 1843, took Charles Dickens to that plane of fame, the writer was a poverty-stricken hack, stalked by creditors, narrowly escaping debtor’s prison. On a lecture series in Edinburgh, a standard tactic how writers pay their bills, Dickens was out for an evening stroll to calm his nerves. He stumbled across Canongate Kirk and the gravestone of one Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, the name he would utilize so effectively two years later. The inscription on the headstone was what set off his tale of A Christmas Carol; Ebenezer was described in stone as a “mean man.” Well after the damage was done, Dickens learned the inscription actually read “meal man.”
Ebenezer Scroggie was a corn merchant of importance as well as a quality vintner of Edinburgh town. His notable life doesn’t stop here for it was E.L. Scroggie who gained the first whisky contract for Scotland’s preeminent magical potion with the Royal Navy, a beknighted time when Naval stores included single malt. It was Ebenezer who provided the catering service when George the IV visited Edinburgh in 1822. The first sovereign in English history to wear a kilt, reportedly of the same generous size as the King himself. This investiture officially displaced the 1746 Acts of Parliament that banned the tartan kilt on pain of death, deemed at the time an act of terrorism. Exactly the intent where men choose to go skirted.
The real Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie would have provided Dickens with a wonderful character in his own right if an alternate plot-line to A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer is well remembered as a highly successful merchant with a man-about-town personality, rambunctious how some described him, given to generous parties, described less discretely as having a licentious mood.
This Ebenezer was admonished by the Church of Scotland for having a child out of wedlock in 1830, reputedly ravishing the woman on a gravestone. Funny how the details always show up. Later chastised by the church for disrupting the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland having “goosed” during the solemn proceedings a certain Countess of Mansfield. Happily the goose got the blame. His grave site at Edinburgh was lost to redevelopment in 1932 as they did not anticipate the interest of mini-skirted tourists to sit on top of his headstone. Had Dickens only known, A Christmas Carol might have gained a more entertaining plot than Tiny Tim.
The original Ebenezer reference comes from the Bible, specifically 1 Samuel, the Hebrew pronunciation being “Eben ha-ezer,” reference to the commemorative stone erected after the Battle of Ashdod with the Philistines. A closer reading suggests celebration was of mixed probity for the first and second battle of Ashdod turned out quite miserably. In which the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, but on taking it home to find it was full of rocks. The story details how on the first night they parked the Ark next to their god statue Dagon — I am not making this up.
Lord god Dagon falls over during the night. Put back up, the next night good Dagon falls over again, breaking off the head, arms, legs, whatever. To suggest cosmic displeasure. The circumstance now getting a touch spooky for the victors. At this juncture the entire town comes down with an insistent itchy rash. Primitive science being what it was, the Ark is moved to another town, they too get the rash, an infectious disease guy would have noticed the pattern. At which they tire of the coincidence and send the Ark back to Israel including some gold since they lost track of the rocks.
Turns out the Jews had an inordinate affection for those rocks and didn’t think the gold was sufficient to call a fair trade. Workers at the village of Beth-Shemesh rejoiced at seeing their Ark returned, while those at Jeconiah didn’t take off from work to watch the parade, the Bible version says 70 died outright. This precautionary tale might inspire those who won’t even try to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” to tilt back their heads. All of which doesn’t make a case for an infectious disease but that depends on who’s writing the script. Just in case there was a septic connection, the Ark is hidden away 20 years, a mite long for an incubation period but smallpox can do that whether or not god is on your side.
Knowing the origin of Ebenezer I can now sing the hymn on page 23 with an understanding heart, whose subtle moral is: Don’t mess with infectious diseases, remember sanitation matters, and, when push comes to shove, you can always make a Christmas story out of a word like – Ebenezer.
Justin Isherwood is an award-winning writer, a Wisconsin farmer, humorist, author and contributor to numerous collections and publications including: Badger CommonTater, Isthmus, and Newsday. His books include: Christmas Stones & the Story Chair, Book of Plough, Farm Kid, and most recently, Pulse.