LEAVING COLLEGE AND GOING TO THE SEMINARY
MY RELIGIOUS STATE OF MIND
It is as difficult now, as it would have been the day I graduated from college, to describe the religious temper of my mind at that time. When I went to college, in 1932, I knew all the traditional Christian beliefs, as taught by the best Baptist people I knew - the belief that the Bible was the inspired word of God - the infallible record of God's revelation of himself to humankind; the belief that God was the supernatural Being who created the universe and all therein; the belief that God was all wise, all knowing, all powerful, and the He could, somehow, be everywhere at the same time; the belief that God created man in His likeness and placed him on this earth to rule and have dominion over all His earthly affairs; the belief that the human race, in the course of time, betrayed God's trust; the belief that this made man unworthy of eternal life; the belief that God so loved his human creation that, rather than see us perish, He sent Jesus, his only begotten son, born of a virgin, into the world to atone for the sins of man; that Jesus died on the cross to make this atonement possible, thus sealing God's promise that whosoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have everlasting life; the belief that after being dead for three days Jesus arose from the dead, and after meeting with his disciples a number of times he ascended back to Heaven; the belief that all who believed in Jesus would, when they die, go to live forever in Heaven with God, Jesus, the angels and all their saved friends and loved ones; and the belief that all who did not believe in Jesus would, when they die, go to a terrible place called Hell, where they would suffer in the eternal flames of brimstone.
The best people I knew, who taught me these beliefs, seemed to have no doubt that they were true. They could quote verses from God's Holy Word to justify their beliefs. Also, it seemed that God had affirmed their beliefs, in answer to their prayers, through personal experiences. I could find Scripture verses that seemed to justify such beliefs. Yet I cannot honestly say I had even one personal experience through which I was sure God had affirmed such beliefs for me, even though I tried to pray in sincerity and truth. I knew that God had not answered my prayers, or if he had tried to, I failed to understand him. I could, and did, believe that God would not expect more of me than what was suggested in the Golden Rule, even though I could not point to any personal experience in which I was sure God had affirmed such a belief.
Such was the temper of my religious thinking when I left for college. I took with me the hope that my college professors and the great preachers I would hear in Birmingham would help me find the secret of believing with a certainty equal to that of many good people I knew, seemingly, could believe. Now it was four years later, 1936. I took the Bible course offered at Howard. The class was taught by a loveable old man. He had been a very successful minister - a long time pastor of the First Baptist Church of the University city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I listened carefully to his opinions and personal experiences. I also tried to evaluate whatever religious experiences I heard from other professors, and those of my classmates as well. I heard some of the ministers of the large churches in Birmingham. I made it a point to hear the noted preachers who came to the city for revival meetings. I mention here two of those ministers.
It was during my freshman years that Dr. Ham, an evangelist with something of a national reputation, came to town. He preached every evening, for a number of weeks, in the large city auditorium. Ham was a tall handsome man of some sixty years. He did not rant and rave as some evangelist do. He stood still behind the pulpit. Seldom did he raise his voice above a conversational pitch. His manner of speaking and tone of voice was that of one who speaks with authority and certainty. He sounded as though he had breakfast every morning with God, and was reporting to us what God had told him over a second cup of coffee.
He used, what is known as, the Schofield Reference Bible. The reference system cuts the Bible up into seven dispensations, or periods of time, selecting books, parts of books, chapters and verse from here and there in the Bible and placing them in this or that period of time. Without too much effort a person, by using this reference system, can appear to be a very learned person - a real scholar. To those who want to believe the Bible is the infallible word of God, anyone as cleaver as Dr. Ham could sound very convincing.
There were three things that helped to ruin Dr. Ham's convincing arguments for me. First, I knew something about the Schofield Bible. In fact, I owned one at the time. I had examined it enough to make me wonder how Mr. Schofield could be so God-Almighty sure that this paragraph of Scripture had reference to this period of time and the next paragraph had reference to another period of time. I just did not believe the basic assumptions of his reference system were provable. Second, since I was not so sure about so many of the things Dr. Ham seemed to be so certain about, I just wondered if he had ever read the verse of Scripture that reminds us "that now we see through a glass darkly; that we know and prophesy only in part."
But the thing that did most to ruin Dr. Ham's arguments for me was that he was peddling the Protocols of Zion. The Protocols of Zion was a pamphlet of a dozen or so pages. I had never heard of it. I bought a copy and read it. It was so far out, so unbelievable, that it cast a shadow of doubt, in my mind, as to Ham's judgment, if not sincerity. He was telling the thousands of people, who came to hear him each evening, that the Protocols of Zion was the secret plan of the Jews to rule the world. He was selling the pamphlet for a dollar.
Later I learned that the Protocols of Zion had been proven a forgery. It was the work of an anti-Jewish group, who conceived the idea. They wrote and published the false document for the purpose of defaming the Jews. All informed people knew those facts about the pamphlet long before Ham came to Birmingham in 1933. If he did not know he was peddling a false document he should have. The absurdity of its contents should have made him suspicious enough to have done enough research to have found the true nature of the pamphlet before he peddled it as the gospel truth.
Dr. Truett was another nationally known minister I heard a few times. He was conducting a revival at the First Baptist Church of Birmingham. Dr. Truett was a long time minister of a Baptist Church in Dallas Texas. At the time I heard him it was, perhaps, the largest Baptist Church in the world. He was a large, noble and saintly looking man, approaching old age and was indeed, a persuasive speaker. His manner of preaching made you desperately want to believe whatever belief he was affirming.
I already wanted to believe. What I was in need of was something to help my uncertain beliefs. I found little such help from Dr. Truett's sermons. I even bought a book of his sermons and read them. He only intensified my desire to believe, so much so that I was tempted to pretend to believe what, in all honesty, I did not believe. I could believe he was a sincere man, believing what he preached.
Maybe I should state here what I, in time, came to believe to be an absolute essential in all religious matters. It is the element of sincerity. One can be sincere and still be wrong. But how can a person be insincere and still be right? I believe the religious value of any belief depends on the degree of sincerity that one can say, to himself, "I believe this is true."
Some of you who read the rest of this story of my life, if I live long enough to finish it, and if you live long enough to read it, will probably find there are things you sincerely believe to be true that I cannot believe to be true and that there are some things I sincerely say I believe that you do not believe. Let not your heart be troubled about that. Let each continue the struggle to be sincere with himself, never pretending to believe what he may no longer believe to be true, or to pretend not to believe that which he now sincerely believes. If all parties continue that struggle it may be that in the end we will find some common grounds for greater beliefs that seem equally true to all of us. We must all become and continue to be religious by sincere and humble thinking. We could encourage and help each other to practice such thinking by sharing with each other our sincere doubts as well as our sincere beliefs.
The Napiers were retired missionaries from China who befriended me when I was in bed with two broken legs, a story I will relate later in this narrative. Their son, David, was born and reared in China. David went with me one weekend to Gadsden Alabama to talk about China to the people of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. He said something in his talk that made me wonder if he, like me, was not so certain about some of our traditional beliefs. During that weekend, in just one very brief conversation, we revealed enough of our true states of our mind to let each other know that we were kindred souls, plagued with some honest doubts.
I had a similar experience with another student on the campus. His name was Weeks, and he was known to be a professed non-believer - and agnostic. In one very short conversation with him, as we walked across the campus, he shared with me some of his honest doubts about traditional Christian beliefs. Why do I still remember those two brief conversations? They were the only two conversations of that kind I had during the four years I was in college. Not once did I have such a conversation with even one of the eighty ministerial students on the campus. Not once did a group of us get together and share our honest doubts as well as our honest beliefs. Many of us spent seven years together, four in college and three in the seminary. We knew each other very well, but we knew nothing about the degree of doubt or certainty of each other's beliefs in the basic assumptions of the Christian religion. It is hardly likely I was the only one of the eighty ministerial students who did not have sufficient experimental evidence to affirm, with absolute certainty, the traditional Christian beliefs. In fact, I seldom heard any one so affirm his "born again status." Ninety-nine percent of us simply pulled the curtain of silence around the degree of our doubts or faith.
Most of my college professors bypassed religious matters in their teaching and conversations. They said nothing about their religious beliefs or their lack of such beliefs. They simply taught their subjects in a religious vacuum. I remember a lecture my biology teacher gave on the subject of human life. It was mostly a description of birth, the growing process, and the mature state of life, the aging process and death. I recall him saying death was as important as birth, in that it made room for the young. From his lecture you would never guess there was a religious or philosophical dimension to human life. His description of human life could have been used to describe the life of a tree or a flower.
None of my college textbooks or the required reading lists dealt with the subject of religion seriously. They either bypassed the subject altogether or simply affirmed the traditional Christian beliefs.
I remember there was a prayer room on the campus. It was just a bare room with a few chairs. The room was upstairs in one of the small classroom buildings and the door was never locked. Anyone could go there at anytime, day or night. The Bible teaches that through prayer one might get in touch with God in a personal way and be assured of his presence and his loving care. I had also read and heard personal testimonies that God does answer prayer; assured that "more things are wrought through prayer than the world dreams of." I did not make regular use of the prayer room but I did try praying there when I felt like it. I usually went late in the evening, just before going to bed. I always went alone. Sometimes I would find one or two other persons there but most of the time I would be the only one. The lights in the room were never turned on. The only light would be from the campus lights outside. There was no talking. Each person was there on personal business with God. I would sit there in silence for a while and listen for God to make his presence known or felt. I always left as uncertain as I was when I came. I was never sure that what I felt or the thoughts that came to me had come from God.
I entered college hoping what I learned there would give me a greater certainty that an all powerful, all wise and loving Heavenly Father - the Triune God of the Christian religion "holds the whole wide world in his hand." I wanted to believe "that not even a little sparrow falls unless it be God's will"; "that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose." What I learned, however, during my college years, actually increased the degree of my uncertainty about some of the basic assumptions of the Christian religion.
The belief, for example, that the Bible is the infallible word of God was less believable to me when I finished college, than it was when I started. This was due less by what I learned in the classrooms than it did to my reading and studying the Bible. During my junior and senior years I had to prepare two sermons each week. That required a lot of Bible reading and studying on my part. My guess is I spent as much time studying the Bible as I did studying all my textbooks.
I had found things in the Bible that seemed to be just the opposite to the love ethic of the Golden Rule. The Psalms, for example, seemed to be the most popular Old Testament book in the Bible. Some publishers of the New Testament included the Psalms. Many of the Psalms were printed in hymnbooks as responsive readings and some publishers of the New Testament included the psalms. Many of the psalms were printed in hymnbooks as responsive readings. Some ministers felt that a psalm had to be read at every service. To me more than a few of the psalms were expressions of hate, malice and revenge. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," seemed to be the theme of many of the psalms rather than the theme of the ethics of love and forgiveness as taught by the great prophets and Jesus. To say the least, such inconsistencies in the infallible word of god seemed "fallible" and out of place to me.
During my college years I discussed my problems with the psalms just once. The wife of the treasury of the Mr. Carmel Church was a shut-in and never went to church. During one of my visits with her we somehow got off on a discussion of the psalms. She was a very intelligent and thoughtful woman. When she asked me how I reconciled what seemed to her the conflicting ideas in some of the psalms with the love ethics of Jesus, I assumed she and I had something in common. I told her that I could not, and did not even try to. It was something of a relief to be able to discuss my reservations about the psalms with someone who shared my dilemma.
I am more aware of the degree of my ignorance, forty-nine years later, than I was at the time I marched by Dean Burns, who, with my college diploma in his hand, halted the march long enough, not to speak of my scholastic exploits, for the truth about those would not have been so flattering, but to attribute to me something he called stick-to-it-tive-ness. I had never heard the word before. I was not sure if he was speaking of a virtue or a vice. I looked it up as soon as I got to a dictionary. If the College graded students for gumption - the ability to hang in there, to plod on come what may - Dean Burns, judging from what he said, would have given me an A+.
Whatever I managed to learned while in college did very little to make me an intelligent citizen of the actual living world. I left college too ignorant to know I was ignorant of the human world as it had been, was, and whither it was tending. I know now that, in the spring of 1936, the year I graduated, I was still a political, economic philosophical and social ignoramus.
MY SEMINARY YEARS
I don't know who rated the Baptist Seminary, In Louisville, Kentucky, as the most beautiful seminary campus in the world. As far as I know that could have been pure Baptist propaganda. At any rate, the campus had been so rated at the time I was there. It was a beautiful place; an ideal place to study.
All the paper work needed for me to go to the Seminary, in the fall of 1936, had been completed some months in advance. The Seminary had a loan fund from which an accepted student could borrow up to three hundred dollars. I applied for the loan and I applied for admission. To get the loan there were two conditions to which you had to agree. The loan did not have to be paid until you finished school and were gainfully employed, but you had to take out enough insurance on yourself to cover the loan in case you died before it was paid. I took out a thousand dollar life policy and gave the Seminary a lien on the policy for the amount of the debt. I still have the policy. The other condition required that you be a non-smoker. I never had been a heavy smoker. I had smoked off and on for some years. So I gave up the filthy habit during the summer of 1936. In 1943, after I went into the Army I started smoking again. I had already paid the debt by then I quit again in 1948 and took up the habit again in 1958. I quit again in 1968. I intend to begin smoking again in the year 2008.
I don't remember now why I had to borrow the $300.00. I never saw it. I assume it was to pay for the tuition. That was the total sum of my school debt when I had finished my school days, or years, and ventured out into the world as it was in the summer of 1939.
I rented a room in the dormitory, on the ground floor. That room turned out to be my home for three years. As a part time shoe salesman, I made enough money to pay my room and board and to take care of the other bare necessities for existence during the first year.
Marvin Gardner, my friend who lived with all those bedbugs that almost ate me up, finished the Seminary at the end of my first year. He had two country churches that he would be leaving. On his recommendation his churches invited me to become their new minister. During the last two years in the Seminary I went twice each month to each of those churches. In the summer I spent two or three weeks in the community of each church, conducting Daily Vacation Bible Schools and holding revivals. Both churches were in the same county but more than 20 miles apart. They were seventy miles west of Louisville.
I could go to Glen Dean by train on a fourth rate tri-weekly spur line, if I went on the proper days and was willing to kill a whole day making the trip. Just for the experience of it I did, during one summer, make the trip a couple of times by train. The train was made up of three cars - one for the mail, one for freight and one for passengers. At on place the train crossed a small creek on a high wooden bridge, way above the ground, build on very long stilts. The grade leading to the bridge was very steep for a railroad. The little train would fall off that hill and when it hit the wooden bridge built on stilts you could feel it sway back and forth, or so it seemed to me. Then it would creep up the grade on the other side. One time I got off the train and walked part way up the hill.
There was no sign saying so but, as I was to learn, the passenger car on this little train was segregated. The first time I rode the train there was no body on the train when I got on. I decided I would be able to see the scenery better if from the back of the car so I took a seat in the rear. I was the only person on the train at the time. Before the train left another passenger got on. He was a black man. He took a seat up at the front of the back half of the car. I was on the last seat at the rear. There was half a car between us. When the conductor came for my ticket he informed me I could not sit in the back of the car. He instructed me to move to the front of the car. When I asked why that was necessary, he said, "The back part of the car is for "darkies."
I said: "That does not bother me. I prefer sitting back here."
He became very nervous, and said; "It's not allowed: It's against the rules! You will have to move up front!" Rather than get the conductor in trouble, and maybe getting thrown off the train myself, I moved to the front of the car. I hope the Black man was as amused by this episode as I was disgusted.
During the school months I had to go by bus or in a car pool with other students who had churches further west most of the time I went on Saturday afternoon and came back Sunday night. Glen dean was ten miles south of the highway. Some one from the church would have to make the ten mile trip to Hardingsburg to pick me up on Saturday and some one would have to make the ten mile trip to take me back after the Sunday evening service. Most of the time a schoolteacher, a natural blond, provided my transportation back and forth from Hardingsburg. This made the trip nice for me and I hope for her.
The bus going to Louisville came through Hardingsburg about 10 P.M. When it was on time I got back to the Seminary around 12:30 A.M. Monday morning. Most of those Sunday night bus rides were made in silence. They were not lonely rides, but rather quiet and restful ones. Over the weekend I had talked enough, and heard enough, to satisfy my need to listen and to be heard. Being too dark to read the two hours were spent on a relaxed journey of the mind, wherever it cared to wander over its vast and timeless domain, stopping to explore what ever hope or dream, and to relive any event or experience that might appear on the horizon of consciousness.
One Sunday night my usual mind wandering journey was interrupted by a very attractive young woman. She was sitting in the second seat from the front of the buss on the door side of the bus. I was sitting in the seat next to the window and had put my briefcases on the seat beside me, trying to silently suggest, "don't disturb me by taking this seat." I then adjusted the back of my seat to the position I had learned was the most comfortable. Just as I was getting settled in for my silent two-hour journey, someone touched my shoulder. I looked up into the face of a very attractive young woman, neatly dressed. She politely asked if the seat next to me was taken. I had to tell the truth.
"No," I said, and began to move my briefcase.
"I would like to sit here," she said, "if it will not bother you."
"Not at all." I replied.
She had come from somewhere in the back of the bus. As she took her seat next to me she said, "A man back there was pestering me."
To make sure I would not be another pest I made no attempt to start a conversation.
"Maybe she, as I," I thought, "was in the habit of riding in silence."
I looked straight ahead, or out the window. She too remained equally as silent as I. In silence, side-by-side, we rode for twenty or more miles.
Then all of a sudden she said, "Boo."
I guessed her to be in her early twenties. She told me a good bit about herself by the time we parted in Louisville. She was born and reared in a small village in western Kentucky. When she finished high school she went to Louisville looking for work. She was at the time working in a department store. The description of her job, I remember, was somewhat vague. When I told her I was a student at the Baptist Seminary, and was the minister of a country church south of Hardingsburg, she asked me if I knew two or three other student at the Seminary. Their names I do not recall. They were not close friends of mine but I knew them well enough to identify their faces by their names. This turned the conversation in a religious direction. She had grown up in the Sunday school of a village church in her home community. She sang in the church choir and in the glee club of her high school. She had not been to church since moving to Louisville.
The bus station in Louisville was at Fifth Street and Broadway. To get to the Seminary I had to walk three or four blocks north on Fourth Street to catch a bus going east. Her bus went south. She could have caught her bus at Fourth and Broadway, but she chose to walk up Fourth Street with me and catch her bus where I was catching mine. By the time we went our separate ways, that early Monday morning, we had traded many ideas about many things, most of them with religious or philosophical overtones.
I don't remember the young woman's name. For the rest of this story about her I'll just call her, "Boo." Without her sudden "boo" that destroyed the silence between us she would not have appeared in this story of my life.
A few weeks after that bus ride, I called "Boo" and made a date. Since I did not have to preach on the fifth Sundays in a month, the date was made, perhaps, for a fifth Sunday evening. "Boo" and her roommate lived in an apartment in an older part of near downtown. After a short visit with her roommate, "Boo" and I decided to take a stroll down to the community drug store. On the way a taxi slowed down as it passed and the driver beeped his horn. She waved at the driver, and as she did so I noticed there was a slight shake of her head that said, "no." She said that the driver of the cab was a neighbor.
We spent an hour or more at the drug store, eating ice cream and sipping coke, while we traded ideas and experiences. From what she said and didn't say, I learned she was not involved with any community group whose interest and purpose she shared; that she was a loner in the big city without a family who cared, or any group of friends to play that role in her life. I got the impression that she was not too well pleased with herself for some decisions she had made; that she may have sold herself short by the road she had taken when she came to Louisville.
I knew there was a large Baptist church not far from where "Boo" lived. On the way back to her apartment I told her about the church; that there were a lot of young people involved in the activities of the church; that the choir, no doubt, would welcome with open arms any new voice; that the choir alone would give her almost a readymade group of new friends with whom she had something in common.
It must have been in the early fall of 1938 when I met "Boo," at the beginning of my last year at the Seminary. Shortly after I met her I told one of the guys, whom she asked about when we first met, that I recently met a girl who knew him. When I told him her name I observed, what I thought was, a little abnormal reaction on his part. He wanted to know where I met her. I told him.
"What did she say about me?" he asked.
"Nothing," I said, "she just asked if I knew you."
That seemed to satisfy him. I don't remember saying anything about meeting "Boo" to the other fellows she asked about.
Two or more months after my visit with "Boo" there was to be some big to-do at the Seminary, to be climaxed with a big dinner, followed by a social hour. The married students were expected to show up with their wives and the bachelors were encouraged to bring a girl friend. I thought of "Boo." Thinking she might enjoy such an event I decided I would invite her. Some two weeks before the dinner I called her and asked if she would be my guest. She accepted my invitation without the slightest hesitation, and did so with expressions of obvious pleasure and joy. Shortly afterwards I saw the fellow I had told that "Boo" had asked if I knew him. I told him I had invited her to be my guest at the big dinner. He seemed a bit disturbed by that bit of news.
Two or three days before the dinner "Boo" called me and reported it would be impossible for her to come to the dinner. She gave some kind of plausible reason and expressed reason and expressed regret that she could not come. At the time I accepted her plausible excuse at face value and dismissed it from my mind. After all I had not thought of her being my dinner guest as being a big event in my life. Among the few young women I might have invited "Boo" just happened to be the one I preferred to invite. Later, however, I had some second thoughts about the reason she gave for not coming.
I had every reason to believe that when I invited her she really wanted to come and was looking forward to it with pleasure and delight. Being so convinced I began to wonder if the excuse she gave was the whole truth. Anyway, I could not resist rerunning my memory tape of our conversations. In doing so I noticed some clues that did not register at the time as being significant. The reactions of the seminary student when he learned I knew "Boo" knew him, on second thought, appeared to have more significance than I had given them at first.
The next time I was down town, and had time, I went into the department store where "Boo" told me she worked. I gave one of the older clerks "Boo's" name and asked where I might find her, after I had told her I understood she was an employee of the store. The clerk said she didn't know of an employee by that name. She volunteered to call the personnel department. The personnel department reported there was no record that a person by that name had ever worked in the store. With that bit of information, added to the clues I had found by a rerun of my memory tapes, forced me to a conclusion I was reluctant to make. That is, the other students, who knew "Boo", knew something about her that would make her presence at the dinner, as my guest, something less than an honor to me. Knowing this, "Boo", out of respect for me, chose not to appear as my guest.
I never saw "Boo" again. The next spring I finished my seminary work and settled in Courtland, Virginia. It may have been six months, a year or more, or even longer, that I received a letter from her. I assume she got my address from the seminary.
I cannot quote the letter for the simple reason I did not keep it, or if I did I would not know where to look for it. I remember well enough the purpose of the letter and its general contents. She wanted me to know that she was singing in the choir of a certain church and was actively involved in the other church programs, as well as some of the social and educational activities of the larger community; that she was happier and more pleased with herself than she was when she made me jump, one dark night on a bus, by saying, "Boo."
She also wanted me to know it was our conversations that gave her the incentive and the courage to begin making some drastic changes, for the better, in her mode of life.
"Boo" did not refer to the broken dinner engagement. She either assumed I knew why, or that I could read between the lines. I'm sure I answered her letter, which ended our brief encounter on a happy note.
On my weekend trips to Glen Dean I spent Saturday night, ninety-nine percent of the time, with Mr. And Mrs. Owens. They were old and insisted that I stay with them whenever I was in town. Mrs. Owens brother owned and operated the general store. The Owens lived in a three bedroom in the same building as the store. There was a big large living room, a big dining room, nearly as large, and a big kitchen on the ground floor. The bedrooms were upstairs over the store. Mr. Owens was the hometown, self-taught, veterinarian - that is, he castrated the hogs and bulls of the community.
Mrs. Owens never ate with Mr. Ownes and me. She stayed in the kitchen and served us as though she was a waitress. She always prepared a full dinner on the Saturdays I was there, and I was always hungry. One evening there was a platter of golden fried meat on the table, something like chicken sticks made from the breast pieces. After I had stuffed myself with a number of pieces of the meat, I asked, as I reached for another piece, "Mr. Owens, what king of meat is this?"
There was a slight hesitation on his part, and I heard Mrs. Owens giggle in the kitchen, in spite of herself, before Mr. Owens could say: "Bull nuts! Bull nuts!"
I managed to eat the last piece I had taken but it did not taste as good as the ones before.
Glen Dean was hardly more than a country store and a post office in a farming community. Some company, that made dill pickles, operated two huge vats across the railroad from the store. The vats must have been twelve feet deep and twelve feet in diameter. The company had a contract with some of the farmers to grow the cucumbers. Other than pickled cucumbers the vats provided the community with a very unpleasant odor.
Mrs. Owen's brother bought and sold Kentucky hams. He had orders for hams from as far away as the west coast. The Kentucky ham is unique, but in taste the Southampton Virginia ham has it beat by a country mile.
The Glen Dean church was about a quarter of a mile from the store. It sat on a wooded middle-sized hill overlooking the valley and railroad below. One summer the boys in the Daily Vacation Bible School and I, by a little digging and by moving the rocks around, made a rough stairway up the hill to the church.
There were some interesting personalities in the Glen Dean Church. I must tell you a little about one of them. Her name was Alpha Decker. She was the oldest child of a very poor family. The Deckers lived a mile or more from the church. I was never invited to the Decker home, and did not know the parents of the family. Alpha had a number of brothers and sisters. Eve, was twenty-two and prettiest of the girls. Beulah was nineteen. There were three or four younger children. Alpha was twenty-five or older. She was physically very plain and dressed in grandma garb that made her look older and more homely than she really was. It was her "inward beauty of character" that more than made up for her outward appearance and made her such a beautiful person.
Alpha was very humble and modest. She not only had the respect of her brothers and sisters, the whole church and community respected her. She was intelligent as well as good. I assume she had finished high school. I'm not sure of that. She made up her mind that she needed to go to college. Everyone hesitated to encourage her, since there was no money in the family budget to pay her expenses. But Alpha took the position that where there is a will there must be a way. She had heard of Berea College - the small college in eastern Kentucky where you could work part time and go to school part time - so she wrote to the college stating her case and asked for information and application forms. The college sent all necessary requirements, papers and the test she would have to take. She filled out the application papers, took the test under the watchful eye of a schoolteacher and mailed it all back to the college. Remember this was the school that rejected my application because I was not an A+ student. In due course of time the school notified her that she had been accepted and that she could enroll in the school on a specified date. The women of the community gave her a going away shower and raised a small purse that was more than enough to pay her transportation and sent her on her way to pursue her dream. I never saw Alpha again, or heard how she made out but I have never forgotten her. She was smart enough and good enough to succeed. My guess is she did.
Stephensport sits on the west bend of the Ohio River. In the winter I could stand in the pulpit of the church and look out over the Ohio River and the flatland of Indiana beyond. In the days when the river was the main means of transportation Stephensport was a thriving river port town. By the mid nineteen thirties it was hardly a shadow of its former self. The river docks had long since gone. A very small ferry, making its few trips a day, only as needed, was all that was left of the once heavy river traffic that docked at Stephensport.
The business establishments of the community consisted of the railroad station, post office and a small store. Hemmed in by the river to the north and the small range of mountains to the south there was no easy way to get to the little community, except by train. The two poorly kept access roads were rough and steep. The small, but well kept, Baptist Church, sat in the middle of the community and dominated the landscape, that is, all except the cemetery which covered the largest mountain side of the community
Mr. and Mrs. Smith were the main pillars of the church. Mrs. Smith's sister, Mrs. Waggner, would have been their equal had she had the cooperation of her husband. Mr. Waggner was a quiet and peaceful man, but he had no interest in the church.
I went to Stephensport by train. The train left Louisville at 6 A.M. and arrived in Stephenspot at 9 A.M. The train left Stephensport for Louisville at 9 A.M. Monday, arriving in Louisville at noon. I usually spent the time preparing for my Monday afternoon classes.
The Smiths were in their sixties. I always spent Sunday night with them. They had no children of their own and adopted me as their own. They could not have treated me better had I been their own son. Actually, they were shamefully too good to me.
Mr. Smith was a tobacco farmer. Their home was in the village but his farm, barns, livestock and equipment were across a small river that ran between their home and the farm. You could, by going around both elbows and one knee get from one to the other by road, but Smith used a skiff (rowboat) to transport himself back and forth across the stream. I used the skiff for fishing, sometimes, while waiting for the train on Monday mornings.
The train ride, in the early morning, from Louisville to Stephensport, with only a few passengers, was an inspiration in summer, winter, fall or spring. For a good long way the train ran along a hillside as near as then steps off the Ohio River. During the three hour ride I watched the scenery go by with one eye and studied my sermon notes with the other.
In college I had to prepare eight, sometimes, ten sermons each month. In the seminary, having two churches, and using the same sermons at both churches, I had only four sermons to prepare each month. In college I made a good outline of the sermon, with good cues for stories, experiences or whatever I wanted to use. I memorized the outline and preached without referring to my notes. I always took my notebook with me to the pulpit but I never opened it. In the seminary I made fuller notes and read some parts as written in the notebook that was always open before me on the pulpit.
In 1952, while we were with the First Unitarian Church of Louisville, I took a day off to take the family to see Stephensport. The Smiths and her sister, Mrs. Waggner were still living. They were a bit upset because I have become a Unitarian but they still loved me. That was the last time I saw those good friends. When Elien and I got married Mrs. Smith and her sister sent us two quilts as a wedding present. One was made according to a wedding ring pattern; the other was a Dutch girl pattern.
The Seminary was only indirectly affected by the great flood of the Ohio River in 1937. It was located on one of the few places in the city that was above the water line. For a number of reasons the Seminary had to discontinue classes for more than a week. I saw Louisville and the surrounding countryside from a number of points of view during the flood. It is hard to believe now what I saw then.
One day a carload of us managed to find a way to get to the highest hill overlooking the river just north of Louisville. As far as you could see there was water. Here and there a few treetops and maybe the top of a farmhouse or barn could be seen. Everything else was hidden beneath a sea of muddy water.
After days of continuous rain some devout student organized a twenty-four hour prayer service to ask God to stop the rain. Two or three persons were assigned a period of time to be at the praying place to relieve those who had been praying and to take up the praying and continue until a certain time or until relieved by another group of prayers. This was to be a twenty-four hour, non-stop prayer to persuade God to stop the rain.
I was given an ungodly hour in the night. I went and went through the ritual of praying with my assigned prayer partners. I confess, however, I prayed or sat there, with no faith. I just could not believe there was any conscious force in the universe that could, or would, stop the rain in the Ohio valley at my request. I acted irreligiously by not confessing as much to the organizers of the prayer vigil. Had I been honest with myself, and the others, I would have refused to take part. The social pressure of tradition make it hard for brave souls to be honest with all concerned. It makes it impossible for cowards like me.
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