When local editor William H. Mugford died in February 1880, the local newspapers provided ample overage of the funeral services. Included in the coverage was a transcript of the funeral sermon, preached by the Rev. Allen Van Wagner of Sedalia’s Congregational Church.
The Congregational Church building was 62-by-40-feet and could seat 350 people. The church was, according to the 1882 History of Pettis County, one of the most important in Sedalia, numbering among its members “a fair share of the financial standing and business enterprise of the city.” The press reported that the church was full of mourners, including 60 representatives of area newspapers, and many important residents of the area, coming to pay their respects.
The Rev. Van Wagner was known to be a “most acceptable pastor,” following the example of his father the Rev. J.M. Van Wagner, who had held the pulpit at the Congregational Church between 1872 and 1879.
Van Wagner faced a difficult task. He was to reflect on Mugford’s life and work, and provide comfort to Mugford’s family and friends, while being well aware that Mugford was an alcoholic whose misuse of alcohol caused problems on the job and in his family.
Attitudes toward alcoholism then did not reflect the physiological understanding of substance abuse available today; attitudes were complex and often contradictory. Some condemned any use of alcohol as sinful. These folks organized prohibition societies such as the Knights of Grand Templars and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Still, others viewed the moderate use of alcohol as acceptable and saw the advantages of a well-regulated alcohol industry.
Others, like the Rev. Van Wagner, sought to understand the psychology behind the use and misuse of alcohol. His attitudes are apparent in Mugford’s funeral sermon. Van Wagner began by reflecting on the profession of journalism. He noted the difficulty of attempting to persuade the public that issues are important only to be ignored by the majority of people. The journalist must have “ability, courage, and indomitable perseverance,” and he noted that Mugford had struggled, sometimes with success and sometimes with failure, in his profession.
The journalist was often criticized, even censured, for expressing his opinion. Van Wagner noted that Mugford had done a great deal of good as he reported and commented on the affairs of the day, but he was too often condemned by people who should be “more tender, larger-hearted, generous to the journalist.”
In addition, journalism was a work-intensive occupation, requiring long hours and paying little. Van Wagner praised the role of the journalist as a guardian of public morality and the bearer of uplifting ideals.
Van Wagner acknowledged that Mugford had his faults and made mistakes, as do all people. He refused to dwell on Mugford’s flaws, but instead spoke of his finer qualities; he was a “brilliant man and possessed large possibilities.”
Van Wagner closed his remarks with a bit of advice for those attending. He reminded them to “use their powers well” because one day they too would die. He spoke of the importance of truth: “Think truly, speak truly, write truly, live true lives.”
It may have been an interesting commentary on Mugford’s life that his pallbearers were fellow journalists from papers ranging from the most rabid of the Radical Republicans to the staunchest of Southern sympathizing Democrats, all of whom respected Mugford for his willingness to write the truth as he saw it.