Rufus Ward: Aberdeen's Rev. Ingraham and 'The Ten Commandments'

September 25, 2010 7:36:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Recently, Aberdeen attorney T.W. Pace sent me a copy of the Rev. J. Lundy Sykes'' history of St. John''s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen. This was interesting for several reasons, as Rev. Sykes had married my parents and the history contained much information on The Rev. Joseph Holt Ingraham. He had been rector of St. John''s Church during the early 1850s. What was not in the history was the role Rev. Ingraham would play in Cecil B DeMille''s classic movie "The Ten Commandments." 


Ingraham was one of those people who experienced life as few others have. He was born into a shipbuilding family in Portland, Maine, in 1809. As a teenager he sailed to South America on one of his grandfather''s ships. There he became involved in a revolution.  


He returned to New England and entered Yale College but did not graduate. In 1830 he ventured to New Orleans where he studied law. There he showed little interest in the legal profession and again moved. Ingraham began teaching at Jefferson College at Washington, Miss., just outside Natchez. Though he had never graduated from Yale he was still given the title of "Professor." 


While teaching at Jefferson College he began writing novels. In an 1836 review of Ingraham''s work, Edgar Allen Poe called it overly descriptive with unnecessary detail. Ingraham soon became a prolific writer. An 1846 letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentions that he has written eighty books. Again though, Ingraham became restless. 


He decided to study for the ministry and moved to Nashville in 1849. There he founded a school for young girls and studied theology under his brother, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church. He returned to Natchez in 1851 and was there ordained a deacon by Episcopal Bishop W.M. Green. The following year he became a priest. 


In 1851 he was sent to the struggling Episcopal congregation at Aberdeen. There, efforts to build a church had raised only $1,250. Ingraham''s response was that he would be architect, contractor, and laborer. 


With the assistance of two young men and nine slaves, the building was completed in 1853 and is still in use as St. John''s Church. 


Ingraham resigned his position in 1853 and devoted more time to writing. He also helped with church services in Mobile and at St. Paul''s in Columbus. He wrote "The Pillar of Fire, or Israel in Bondage" in 1858. It was widely read and remained popular into the 20th Century. In 1858 Ingraham accepted the position as rector of Christ Church, Holly Springs. He died there as the result of a shooting accident in 1860. 


All this begs the question of what did Ingraham have to do with a classic Hollywood movie filmed 96 years after he died. In the movie''s credits, the third name shown behind only Cecil B. DeMille as producer and director, and Henry Wilcoxon as assistant director, was a writing credit to J.H. Ingraham. Apparently much of the screenplay was taken from "Pillar of Fire" and Ingraham was given the top writing credit for "The Ten Commandments." It may well be that the overly descriptiveness and detail that Edgar Allen Poe did not care for in Ingraham''s work made it attractive years later as a screenplay. So 96 years after he died, Joseph Holt Ingraham, former rector of St. John''s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen, received a top billing for the classic movie "The Ten Commandments." 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to him at [email protected]

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]