My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 22, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.
As I walked up to the beautiful antebellum mansion hidden behind lush old trees, I was impressed by its size and presence. I was in Natchez, Mississippi, with my wife and my sister, and it was the third historic home we had visited that day. The exotic oriental design of the house, with its octagonal shape and the Byzantine onion-shaped dome, was unlike any of the other homes we had seen. It seemed out of place in the southern United States.
Each of the antebellum mansions in Natchez has a story to tell. Wealthy men wanted to show off their wealth and make sure they were noticed by Natchez society. The Natchez homes were town homes, as most of the homeowners’ wealth came from operating cotton plantations across the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The finest things that the world had to offer adorned these opulent homes. Marble and mirrors from Italy, carpets and china from France, clocks from Switzerland, and furniture from the finest furniture makers in the eastern United States were used in these luxurious houses.
Haller Nutt was one of the wealthiest citizens of Natchez. He was born on a plantation, and after attending the University of Virginia, he returned home to help his father run the family’s plantations. Haller Nutt inherited and purchased several plantations. By 1860, he owned 43,000 acres of land and 800 enslaved people. It was Haller Nutt’s oriental-style octagonal mansion that stood before me, gleaming in the sunlight.
As we toured Haller Nutt’s home, that he called Longwood, our guide told us the story of the house. The tour started on the basement floor. One of the first things I noticed was how low the ceilings were compared to the other homes we had toured. The other grand homes we toured had ceilings from 12 to 19 feet tall. But here in Longwood, the rooms had 9-foot ceilings. Our guide explained that these basement rooms were never intended to be the living spaces for the family. Those rooms had 14-foot ceilings.
Unfortunately, the family never lived in those rooms. Our guide continued with the story of Longwood. Haller Nutt hired Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan for his ambitious project. Sloan brought two hundred artisans from Pennsylvania to Natchez and began work in 1860. Producing over one million bricks on site, the structure of Longwood started to rise to impressive heights. When the structure of the six-story building was complete, the artisans began finishing the inside, starting with the basement.
When the Civil war broke out, the artisans from Pennsylvania didn’t want to be in Mississippi. So they dropped everything and made their way home. Work on Longwood came to a halt. Sensing that things would never be the same and unsure of the future, Nutt was able to finish the basement rooms with slave labor and moved his family into them. He hoped to finish Longwood when he could, but that never happened.
Haller Nutt suffered substantial financial losses during the Civil War. Both armies helped themselves to whatever he had stored and destroyed his cotton. His cash flow problems led to the foreclosure of his Louisiana plantations. He died from pneumonia in 1864, but his family said he died of a broken heart as his empire crumbled around him and his wealth vanished. The family was able to retain Longwood for the next one hundred years, but no more work was ever done to complete the remaining floors.
After we had toured the rooms in the basement, our guide took us up to the unfinished first floor, where four 34-foot by 20-foot spaces surrounded a central rotunda. When you look up from the center of the first floor, you can see the cupola on the sixth floor. The rotunda was designed to have a system of mirrors inside the cupola to reflect sunlight into the many rooms below. The shape of the cupola was designed to pull hot air upward toward the top of the cupola, creating an updraft to draw fresh air through the lower floors. The design and engineering of Longwood were very progressive, but sadly, it was never completed.
I can only imagine that as family members lived in the basement rooms of Longwood for the next one hundred years, there were so many dreams about what could have been. I wondered how often they went to the upper floors and looked at the tools and materials left there. As I looked around at the unfinished rooms, I thought about the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)
Here Jesus tells us not to place too much value on the things of this world. If you treasure them as essential things in your life, one day, you will find yourself very disappointed when they are devalued, destroyed, or stolen. Is Jesus telling us that we should not have any possessions here? Of course not. But he tells us that earthly treasures are subject to being eaten, rusted, or stolen. Treasures in heaven are secure. They will remain.
We understand what treasures are here on earth, but what did Jesus mean by “treasures in heaven?” Many preachers have used this verse to explain why I should give my money to the church. While that might be part of it, I’m confident that is not what Jesus had in mind. He wants us to use our time, energy, and finances to pursue those things that are of eternal value, Those things that will have value in heaven, not on earth.
Gentle Reader, treasures in heaven are things of worth in the kingdom of heaven, such as justice and respect for the dignity of every person. Jesus implies that we should invest our money in activities that transform the world, instead of accumulating earthly treasures. The Bible says, “set your mind on things above, not things on earth.” Colossians 3:2 (NKJV) Fortunes are made and lost. Mansion deteriorate, or like Longwood, are never finished, “but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1 Peter 1:25 (NKJV)