<BACK> <HOME> <NEXT>
THE SAXON BAPTIST CHURCH
SPARTANBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA
August was vacation month. The Wades, the family of Elien's sister, Elma, owned a farm near Sedley, Virginia. The farm bordered on a small lake, known as Johnson's Mill Pond. The Wades built a nice cabin by the lake, nestled in a grove of stately trees. That's where we spent our vacations while we lived in Spartanburg. In the days before there were freeways in that part of the country it was an eight or ten hour drive from Spartanburg to the cabin.
Elien could not live anywhere that long without her ironing board. Lucky it was a perfect fit lying crosswise between the backseat and front seat of our 1939 Ford. A folded quilt or two on the ironing board made a good bed for one of the girls and the backseat was a perfect one for the other. The summer there was an epidemic of Polio in North Carolina we decided to make the trip by night. Food, a jug of water and a small pot to serve as an in-car outhouse were put in reachable places. These items made it possible for us to drive across North Carolina without Rose and Mary Beth getting out of the car. In the dead of night, somewhere along the way, Rose was not sleepy and Elien was. They traded places. We were going up a long hill when we came upon an opossum resting in the middle of the right hand lane. Not seeing him in time to stop or dodge we went right over him without touching a hair. He must have ducked at the right time. Rose, do you remember that?
This vacation spot gave Elien the opportunity to visit with most of the members of her clan, the Newsome family. There were her father, stepmother, stepbrother and two stepsisters, two half brothers, four sisters and five brothers. One of her brothers, Leon, was killed on IwoJima during the war. Counting in-laws and grand children there were about forty members of the clan. Also it gave Rose and Mary Beth a chance to get acquainted with their uncles, aunts and cousins.
I always caught enough fish to feed the clan, plus a few friends, at the annual pot-luck get together at the pond on the last Sunday of the month. I did my serious fishing during two hours in the early morning, beginning at dawn and an hour or more in the late afternoon, beginning a while before the sun went down. During the day I took Mary Beth and Rose fishing when they wanted to go. That did not take much time. Their fishing patience was very short, fortunately. Riding in the boat interested them much longer, as long as I did the rowing. They did catch a few fish. Once Mary Beth caught a pike twelve or more inches long. But when it was time to clean the fish they could not be found anywhere. Neither could their mother. They did not know how to clean fish and they had no interest in learning.
One day I caught an eel. Measured by a fisherman's tape he would have been three feet long. An eel is the slickest thing I ever tried to hold. Squeeze as hard as you may he will slide right out of your grasp. We gave him to a man who works on the Wade farm. I have eaten eel. The meat looks and tastes like catfish.
One hot summer day Rose, Mary Beth and I went huckleberry picking in the woods between the Wade home and the cabin. The berries we picked did not, perhaps, out number the chiggers (red bugs) that caught us. In those days the method of killing chiggers was to smother them by painting over them with fingernail polish. By the time Elien got all the chiggers smothered that came home on us her supply of fingernail polish was depleted. No, we never went huckleberry picking again. That was a once in a lifetime experience we shared with each other.
The summer after Elma's husband died I did a plumbing job for Elma in her house on the farm. I installed the fixtures for a complete bathroom, a kitchen sink and a hot water tank. For two or three days I crawled around under the house, trying to figure out how many feet of pipe and how many connecting pieces would be needed. The names of the connecting pieces I did not know at the time, such as tees, elbows, ells and others whose names I have forgotten. I had to make the ten-mile trip to Franklin to get my supplies. I came back by way of Courtland to borrow a pipe-threading outfit from a friend; the kind that is powered by human muscle and oiled with sweat.
Then the measuring, cutting (with hacksaw), and threading began, under the scorching sun of August in southeast Virginia. Day after day, crawling under the house to check measurements, cutting, threading, crawling back under the house to discover, as often as not, it was a bit too short or long. After one or more efforts it was made long or short enough to fit. I lost track of the trips to Franklin for pieces of pipe, joints and connecting pieces that I didn't know I would need at the beginning. Toward the end of the month everything was in place, and the countless pieces of pipe were fastened together and connected to the proper gadgets that had been installed. The water was turned on, and believe it or not, there were no major leaks. The two or three tiny ones were easily stopped by a slight turn of a pipe wrench. Twenty years later, when the house was remodeled, my plumbing job, I understand, was still serving its original purpose.
Why did it take me so long to do such a small job? Three reasons: 1. It was blazing hot. 2. I had to take time to catch enough fish to stuff the Newsome clan. 3. That was my first plumbing job.
AN EASTER SERMON
Shortly before Easter of 1950 I read the play, "Back to Methuselah", by George B. Shaw. The contention of the play is that the only possible way to improve human beings would be for them to learn to live longer. Shaw allowed that we die by the time we get old enough to have sense enough to live decently. In the play Shaw creates a new breed of long living human beings. Long before the end of the play short living humans had vanished from the earth. Before the play ends hardly anyone dies except by accident, which was rare.
In the last scene Shaw brings back the original characters and records what they think of their long living offspring. Among the original characters are Adam, Eve, the serpent, Cain, Abel and Lilith, the mythical mother of Adam and Eve. After such a summary of the play I used most of the last scene for the conclusion of my Easter sermon.
Lilith was the last to speak. She told of her trials and tribulations with her human children in ages past. She confessed she was sorely tempted many times just to wipe them off the face of the earth, but for some vain or irrational reason or hope she always repented and spared them. Here is part of what she said on that occasion.
". . . I had patience with them for many ages: they tried me very sorely. They did terrible things: They embraced death and said eternal life was a myth. I stood amazed at the malice and destructiveness of the things I had made. Mars blushed as he looked down on the shame of his sister planet. Cruelty and hypocrisy became so hideous that the face of the earth was pitted with the graves of little children among which living skeletons crawled in search of horrible food. The pangs of another birth were upon me when one man repented and lived three hundred years; and I waited to see what would come of that. They have redeemed themselves from their vileness and turned away from their sins. Best of all, they are still not satisfied. After passing a million goals they press on to the goal of redemption from the flesh, to the vortex freed from matter. And though all that they have done seems but the first hour of the infinite work of creation, yet I will not supersede them until they have forded this last stream that lies between flesh and spirit, and disentangled their life from the matter that has always mocked it. I can wait: waiting and patience means nothing to the eternal. I gave the woman the greatest of gifts: curiosity. By that her seed has been saved from my wrath; for I am curious; and I have waited always to see what they will do tomorrow. I say, let them dread, of all things, stagnation; for from the moment I, Lilith, lose hope and faith in them, they are doomed. Mightier creatures than they have killed hope and faith, and perished from the earth, and I may not spare them forever. I am Lilith: I brought life into the whirlpool of force, and compelled my enemy, matter, to obey a living soul. But in enslaving life's enemy I made his life a master; for that is the end of all slavery, and now I shall see the slave set free and the enemy reconciled, the whirlpool becoming all life and no matter. And because these infants that call themselves ancients are reaching out toward that, I will have patience with them still; though I know well that when they attain it they shall become one with me and supersede me, and Lilith will be only a legend and play that has lost its meaning. Of life only is there no end; and though of its million starry mansions many are empty and many still unbuilt, and though its vast domain is as yet unbearably desert, my seed shall one day fill it and master its matter to its uttermost. And for what may be beyond, the eyes of Lilith is too short. It is enough that there is a beyond".
At the time I thought the play expressed a perception of immortality that made more sense than the one heard every Easter in most Christian churches. Shaw ruined my sermon, however, by dying early in the week before Easter. Every day from the day he died through the Easter morning paper there was at least one article about Shaw and his ideas. Each writer tried to outdo the other in finding and quoting Shaw's most uncharitable remarks about Christianity and his socialistic and agnostic views, which most readers, seemingly, equated with the views of communism and atheism. The people at the Saxon church that Easter could not listen to what I was actually saying because their minds were occupied with what the
papers, for days, had been printing about Shaw and his ideas.
I learned only indirectly the reaction to the sermon by those who were disturbed for theological reasons. Those upset for other reasons let me have it face to face. Ella Brooks Wilson was one of them. She is the youngest sister of Judson Brooks. After the service she cornered me, with flaming swords in her eyes. "How could you do what you did this morning! Easter Sunday, your largest congregation of the year, you get up there and quote Shaw after all that has been said about him in the papers".
I could then, and still do, count Ella as one of my close and dear friends in Spartanburg. I had much earlier judged her to be far from being a true Baptist believer. What I said, or what the papers printed about Shaw and his ideas, did not disturb her religious sense of values. She was worried that the new people and the Easter Sunday members would not come back. When I resigned, over a year later, she wanted to know if her reaction to the Shaw sermon had anything to do in making me decide to resign. I could honestly tell her no. My inability to preach one thing while believing another had already made that decision for me. By Easter of 1950 I knew I had to free myself from that situation. I knew then I could only do that by resigning as the minister of the Saxon church and as a Baptist minister.
I confess to giving some thought to just telling the people of the church what I honestly believed and did not believe and leave it to them to decide if I should go or stay. For two reasons I chose not to try to do it that way. One of the reasons being that I did not think I was capable of doing that well enough to be clearly understood by all concerned. I could have at the time, perhaps, made it clear enough what I could not believe that I was expected to believe as a Baptist minister. I could not, however, have made it clear what I still believed that a Baptist minister was expected to believe. I could not have, at that time, stated clearly what I believed instead of the Baptist assumptions I did not believe. Schweitzer had impregnated my mind with ideas and convictions that seemed true to me. I had not yet done the thinking necessary to nurture them through the process of being reborn, becoming the children of my own mind, the grandchildren of the mind of Schweitzer, as it were.
Even if I had been capable of sharing with them my positive as well as my negative beliefs, I would not have tried to make the church over in the image of my own religious beliefs. I could not have done so because I knew a goodly number of the members of the church could not have shared some of my basic doubts and beliefs. They were among the people of the church I truly admired and respected. One or two of them I almost idolized. I could not think of forcing them to make the kind of decisions they would have had to make had I tried to solve my problem that way.
In case you are wondering about the end results of the Easter sermon: As I remember, it was about as effective as most of my sermons have been. It caused no one to leave the church and no one to join it. The members and friends who came to church only on Easter Sundays came back the next Easter. The usual number of new people were there the next Easter, who came to show off their new Easter hats and to see and to be seen.
I knew before Easter of 1950 I had to leave the Baptist ministry. I was not as sure that I wanted to get out of the religious business altogether. Neither was I too confident I could support my family in some other way. I had to find a way to honor my responsibility to my family. I could have, in the spring of 1950, given the same reasons for resigning as I did in my resignation statement of 1951. It was uncertainty of what I wanted to do or what I could do after resigning that made me hesitate to do what my sense of integrity was compelling me to do.
In the meantime I did not worry much about the problem. In the spring I put in a big garden, bought a tin can canning device, just in case I was around to harvest the fruits of my labor. Most of my conscious mind was occupied with day by day duties that demanded my attention. However, the problem was always lying just beneath the sensitive skin of consciousness, ready to surface to consider the possibility that an event or idea might suggest.
DAY TO DAY NOTEBOOK
Not consistently, but off and on over the years, I kept a day by day note book of the things I was doing, reading and thinking. A few days ago Mary Beth sent me a few pages she had found of such a notebook I was keeping, mostly during 1951. Here are a few quotes from those pages.
March 29, 1949 - "I called the orphanage concerning the B. children. The mother was led to believe they were coming for the children more than a week ago. Mr. Smith informed me he had 150 on the waiting list and could not promise when he could take them. A woman takes a daring risk to have even one child. The risk is beyond the imagination taken by the woman who dares or carelessly has seven. I see no hope for a better civilization as long as the majority of the children have to grow up in poverty and dirt. We should have an adequate birth control program, or adequate help for children in need".
"Last Sunday a college student told me he could hear me preach for an hour and a half. Something must be wrong with him. He is either far above or far below the average student. It makes me feel better to think he is far above the average".
After taking part in a funeral service for a soldier killed during the war I recorded this observation. "If we do not have the moral sense to live together without war, if we must destroy ourselves, why not let the women refuse to have any more children? That would be a more humane way to destroy the human race than by an atomic war".
"This morning Mr. Brooks and I visited Mrs. S. She lives in a one-room apartment. Her husband works out of town. He has been sick for two months. She has a two year old girl and a three months old baby. The baby is in the hospital and she has no money to pay the hospital. She had no food, no coal and the rent is due. We arranged for her to get some food and sent her some coal. Anyone who can save money these days must close his heart to the crying of hungry children and suffering of mothers".
"I took L. to get her last light treatment for six weeks; bought the B. children some shoes. The welfare gives the mother two quarts of milk a day, and thirty dollars a month. How can the woman pay rent, buy clothes, and feed a family of four with that sum? A society that cares no more for widows and children than that is not fit to survive".
"I learned a few days ago that the principle of the local grammar school sent to the nominating committee of the P.T.A. names of people he did not want nominated for any office of the P.T.A. I thought we lived in a land where the spirit of democracy prevailed".
"Some white people try to deny Negroes the right to vote with the argument they are not prepared to exercise such a right. Such white people are less prepared to vote than the most humble Negro who is guided by the spirit or attitude that the majority should rule".
"Mr. B. came by the office. He wanted the church letters of his wife, mother and his own. He does not believe I am preaching 'the red hot gospel', that I am a communist because I believe the working people should have the right to belong to a labor union, and because I believe in equal rights for Negroes. He believes he is better than Negroes because he is white. He has found scripture verses he quotes to justify all his beliefs. How can I help this man? Perhaps the most helpful thing would be to destroy his belief that the bible is the infallible word of God. But that is easier said than done. Who is responsible for this man's outlook? I feel helpless. Words, sermons and argument do no good. Only a good example is left and I am such a poor one I fear he will never see the light".
April 5, 1950 "The truth Schweitzer uncovered in his 'Quest for the Historic Jesus' is the fact that we have no true biography of his life; the real historical Jesus is hidden from us. What we do know of him shows that he is a stranger to our times and the eternal and godly thing about him is the absolute ethics of love that he preached'.
"The Democratic County Convention met last Monday. The Dixiecrats were in the majority but we gave them a fight. If we could get a chairman who would make proper preparation and conduct the meeting in a democratic fashion we might get somewhere. What we need are leaders who will encourage people to act democratically rather than make it almost impossible to do so".
³I had lunch with Henderson and Martin. We talked until three o'clock. Both, seemingly, want to help me. Martin says he expects me to get shot and maybe the whole family. He seems to be convinced he has found a way to teach people the revolutionary religion of Jesus, while making them think he is among the very orthodox and a defender of 'the dead, superstitious church religion' of today. He has suffered much in every way. I wonder if his method is not an unconscious effort to escape risk".
"I can see no way to escape risk in this life. You play it safe by being dishonest or by putting so much sugar coating on the truth that no one can recognize the truth you are trying to teach, or ignoring the evils that should be confronted. If you refuse to live at a risk for righteousness sake sooner or later the evils you condoned for convenience sake will overtake you and kick you in the pants, if they don't blow your head off. Yet, I am a big coward in many ways."
"After leaving Martin and Henderson I met up with Blackwell. We talked until six o'clock. He thinks of me as having a lot of ability and character that I fear I do not have. I do have some ability to work long hours but the quantity and quality of the work I turn out seem too often to be very puny. He told me he had heard by way of a friend, through the police grapevine that I was being investigated by the F.B.I. on charges that I was a communist; that some of my enemies have been circulating that rumor and went so far as to say I was in jail. I talked to Brooks. No one has asked him about me or anyone else that he knows of. No stranger has been to see me. Blackwell said no one had been to see him about me. I f the rumor be true, how do they investigate a person, if they neither talk to anyone who knows him, nor to the person himself? Some months ago an F.B.I. man was in my office making what seemed to be a routine check on a military person whose home is in our community. He told me who he was and what he was there for. He did not stay long enough to learn anything about me and very little about the person he was investigating. I doubt if the F.B.I. would waste time investigating me. If they do, all I can say, God pity us all. Such a waste of time and money would indicate we are already in the hands of a leadership that is hypnotized by fear and lies".
"Even Blackwell, a level headed man, seems to be enslaved by such fear. His fear of Russia is frightening. He criticizes me for not going around condemning Russia all the time. He is, by that fear, made blind to all that is not square with the world and God on our side of the curtain. He is a sucker for all the war propaganda the brass hats put out".
"I think the Russian leaders have done some very stupid and dishonorable things. I am also convinced that we, as a nation, have done some very stupid and dishonorable things. My attitude is that we can not do much good by pointing out other people's sins. We can do more to improve the world by praying the prayer, 'Lord be merciful to me a sinner', and then facing the dirty facts of our own attitudes and acts".
"He accuses me of reading only one side. I may be guilty of that to some extent. I frankly confess I have heard and read so many lies and half-truths about Russia and communism by way of our propaganda agents that I have very little confidence in any of it. I take all of it with a grain of salt. On the other hand, in all honesty to myself, I have read very little of the communist propaganda. It is just as prejudiced and one sided and false as our propaganda".
"I know that my attitude toward Russia and our country has been colored by the facts and impressions I have picked up in such books as, 'Beyond Soviet Power', by G. Davis; 'The Soviet Power', by H. Johnson; articles by Strohm and Dr. Newton, Nehru and other like minded men. Also books about Asia by O. Lattimore, Stillwell, Jack Belden, Edgar Snow, Stein, White, Jacoby and Lauterback: other books as, 'The State of Europe', by Howard K. Smith; 'Days of Our Years', by Passen; 'Personal History', by Scheen; books by Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, Sorokin and Toynbee's 'Study of History'.
"Smithıs book, 'The State of Europe', Lattimore's books on Asia, and Belden's book, "China Shakes the World", seem to me to be must reading for those who want to be honest and sane about things today. But I can't get Blackwell to look at such books and hardly anyone else. They grab a bit of propaganda from "Life", "Time", and "The Reader's Digest", and assume they have the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Russia, ourselves and the conditions in Europe and Asia.
"God help me to be at least a flickering candle of truth and goodwill in this midnight darkness of lies and hate". M said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you mad". There is some truth in that.
Note: Even though they a recorded in my day-by-day diary, I don't remember the conversations with M and H, nor the one with B. Maybe my memory refuses to record some unpleasant things. Also, I do not recall living in fear of being shot or hurt. There was a time or two, when I got a few nasty phone calls with threatening overtones, that I pulled the shades at night. However, I was hardly ever aware of being afraid for my life or family. I went about my business, day or night, without taking any conscious precaution.
October 12, 1950 "M came by two nights ago. We talked until one A.M. He is a great friend. He has suffered much in past years. He tries to believe he is doing something by playing along with the backward looking. I hope he is. We agree in spirit, but our methods are different. He has the crowds and I have the empty pews. Who am I to judge"
I don't think I have introduced Henderson and Martin. Mr. Henderson was sixty seven years old, a country preacher, living on his own small farm a few miles from Spartanburg. He was a very liberal Baptist, far more than most ministers his age, background and education. He had a good mind and a lot of gumption. He liked to tell what he told a neighbor who had heard a radio preacher claiming the world would end on a given day of the coming month.
The neighbor: "Brother Henderson, you are a preacher, what shall I do"
Mr. Henderson: "On your way home go by the store and get a package of turnip seed. When you get home plant them".
Martin was the minister of a large church in a small town near Spartanburg. He was only a few years older than I. Both men shared my liberal theological views and, if silently, supported my position on the race issue.
December 26, 1950 "I feel like the mole must have felt when he ran under a hundred ton rock while making himself a new tunnel. If I had to choose between Hoover's plan and Truman's plan of fighting communism with guns, I would choose Hoover's. It is the best of two evils. The chance of having a more sensible program of action than either seems now to be as hopeless as the mole under his hundred ton rock"
"Christmas is over and the poor will have to adjust themselves to going hungry and cold for the next eleven plus months, and all who make less than $5,000.00 a year will have to struggle to pay their debts and taxes"
"A few days ago I buried a mother. Her daughter of 14 has been a T.B. patient for over two years. She came home from the hospital about ten days before her mother died so she could be with her mother during her last illness. After her mother died she did not want to go back to the hospital. I was trying to persuade her to go back".
"I am afraid to go back", she said.
"Why"? I asked.
"I am afraid I am going to be a mother", she answered.
"She went on to tell me that while her mother was slowly dying she was lying out drunk with a boy up the street. What kind of moral machinery, if any, does a person have to take advantage of such a child. Does such a person have a right to run free"
REV. ROBERT WESTON AND THE FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH OF LOUISVILLE
It was not until late spring of 1951 that an event suggested a possibility that I seized upon and decided to explore. The event did not fall, like manna, from heaven. It was the descendant of a number of events involving one person over a period of time. The story also involved another important stranger in my life.
During the year of 1948 Wesley (Ezell) Tindall started attending the Saxon church. I believe he sang in the choir. He was married and had two children. His wife's parents, and his also I think, had long been staunch pillars of the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg. My few conversations with him allowed me to believe he decided to come to our church because he felt more at home with what we were trying to say and do at Saxon than he did elsewhere. After some months, for personal reasons, Tindall decided to return to the First Baptist Church. I never asked him and he never chose to tell me what those reasons were for that decision.
Later Tindall decided to study for the Baptist ministry and enrolled in the Baptist Seminary, in Louisville, Ky., in the fall of 1949. While home for the Christmas holidays of 1949 he came to see me. During our conversation he told me he had been attending the First Unitarian Church in Louisville. He confessed that he thought he was more Unitarian than Baptist and was thinking of going to a Unitarian Seminary. I suggested he make an appointment with the minister of the Unitarian church when he returned to Louisville. Perhaps he could be of help to him. I volunteered to write a letter of recommendation if he so desired. He gave me the minister's name (Robert Weston) and address. In my letter I told Weston what I knew about Tindall and my impression of his personality.
On returning to Louisville Tindall met with Weston, who sent me a report of the meeting. Mr. Weston and I exchanged a letter or two concerning Mr. Tindall. Tindall ended up dropping out of the Baptist Seminary and I am sure money was the major reason he never went to a Unitarian seminary. As I remember it, the major concern Tindall had was how he would manage financially since he had a family to support.
It was a year or more after the exchange of letters between me and Weston when Tindall stopped by to see me again. He gave me a magazine, saying there was an article in it he thought would interest me. The magazine was "The Christian Register", the monthly magazine, at the time, of the American Unitarian Association. The article to which he had reference bore the title, "Dear Baptist, Why I Left You", by John Huff. Huff was a seminary classmate of mine. He was near the bottom of the h's. When the professor called on him I knew my turn was not far behind. As the title suggests he had become a Unitarian minister. At the time he was a minister in one of the small towns that make up the city of Greater Boston. I read the article and everything else in the magazine. In doing so I picked up ninety nine percent of all I knew about Unitarians.
Immediately I wrote Huff a letter. Judging from what little I knew about Unitarians I informed him that I must be more Unitarian than Baptist and was interested in exploring the possibility of making the transition. After giving him a brief sketch of my spiritual sojourn since leaving the seminary I listed three courses of action I was interested in exploring. 1. My first choice would be to find a job to support my family in a city where there was a Unitarian church, which I could attend as a layman for a time, before deciding whether or not I wanted to be a Unitarian minister. 2. I would consider taking over a Unitarian church, run over at the heel that no one wanted of they would take a chance on me. 3. Since there were hardly any Unitarian churches in the south I would consider being a Unitarian "missionary" in the south.
Almost as an after thought I sent Mr. Weston, minister of the Unitarian Church of Louisville, a carbon copy of my letter to Huff. Keep in mind I had never met Mr. Weston. My only contact with him was the exchange of one or two letters concerning Mr. Tindall. The day before he received the copy of my letter to Huff he learned that the husband of his church secretary was being transferred to another city. When he read my letter to Huff the next day he called and offered me the job as secretary of his church, to begin as of September 1, 1951.
I thanked him for the offer, but honesty compelled me to add that if he knew the trouble he was asking for he would withdraw his offer. I pointed out that I was a bad typist, a poor speller and a sloppy record keeper.
"Do you know how to operate a multilith"? he asked.
"Never heard of one", I said.
"It is only a highfalutin mimeograph machine", he said, dismissing my ignorance of the machine as being no problem. He went on to express confidence that I could do the job to his satisfaction. I thanked him for his vote of confidence, knowing that it rested upon his complete ignorance of my secretarial abilities. I suggested he send me a description of the job and I certainly would give the offer serious consideration.
In less than a week we received a full description of the job and what the salary would be. He thought it was too small but it was the best he could do at the present. He had talked the matter over with the Board of Trustees and therefore, if I wanted the job I could have it. He promised, if I took the job, he would begin looking for a place where we could live. I believe I called him. Thanking him for the offer, I promised to let him know soon. After thinking it over with Elien and getting her consent we took the job.
Without knowing or intending to do so, Ezell Tindall made it possible for me to go to Louisville as secretary of the First Unitarian Church. Had he not done a number of things between 1948 and 1951 that culminated in bringing me the Unitarian magazine the odds would have been a billion to one I would not have gone to Louisville as secretary of a Unitarian church on leaving Saxon.
It was a stranger who played a deciding role in choosing the road I took at three significant cross roads of my life. Mr. Buckner, the principle of Holy Pond High School. Without the role he played: when a stranger, a million to one would have been a safe bet that I never would have finished high school. Knowing next to nothing about me Mr. Blackwell, minister of the Saxon Baptist Church, who did the high pressure sales job on me and the church that resulted in me becoming the minister of the Saxon church. Now Robert T. Weston, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Louisville, like buying a pig in a poke sight unseen he offered me the secretarial job of his church.
Mark Twain wrote an average sized book recording the results of a window being left partly opened on a given night. The first result was that a certain person caught a cold. From there the results began to multiply in every direction, faster than rabbits. His imaginary story, as complex as it became, is rather simple compared to all the ifs and buts that determine the course of one's life.
I know well enough that without the role three strangers played in my life I would have, for better or worse, traveled different roads than those I did travel. But there is no way to know or to calculate the events in the lives of those three strangers that caused the proper one at the right time to be at the cross road just when I came along, to say nothing of all the experiences of their lives to prepare them to offer to help me take the road each perceived I wanted to take or the one he thought I should take.
In the case of Weston I know that if the husband of the church secretary had not been transferred when he was, Weston would not have had a job to offer me . But all the events, motives and circumstances that combined to make the decision that the husband of the secretary be transferred would be impossible to track down and identify. Equally as impossible would it be to uncover all the contributing factors in the life of Mr. Weston that prompted him to offer me, a stranger, the job.
In the case of Tindall I have listed a few events in his life that played some determining role in his decision to bring me a particular copy of the Christian Register. But all the contributing factors that determined those events are beyond the knowing of anyone.
Then there are all the factors that shaped me into the being I was, when I met those three strangers, who could accept the challenge of their blind trust in me. Those factors are more than multitudes multiplied by multitudes. I could hardly name more than a half dozen of the larger ones. The truth is, it is little, if any, less than a miracle that anyone is where and what he or she is today. When all the determining factors are considered the existence of any one of us is a rare accident. Certainly no one is self-made. No one made all the decisions and did everything that shaped him into what he is: be he a genius or a moron a saint or the most wanted criminal. However, the will to try on the part of an individual does play a determining role, does make a difference in his or her life. All things may not be possible for the person who tries. It is certain he who does not try can never know what might have been if he had never know what friend or stranger might have seen him trying and offered a helping hand.
I do not remember most of the events described in the quotations, recorded on recent pages, from my Day to Day Notebook of 1950. That proves I do not remember every event in my life.
I have already stated why I felt I had to leave the Baptist ministry and thus resign from the Saxon church. I was not aware, at the time, of other motives or reasons than those I have given. But it is interesting to note how I began my resignation statement: "It is beyond my understanding to know all the motives and influences that prompts me to resign my position as the pastor of the Saxon Baptist Church".
Even though at that time it played no more than a tiny conscious role in my life, now, thirty five years later, I wonder how much that feeling like a "mole under a hundred ton rock" may have unconsciously played in making the decision to resign. It now seems to me that it would have been impossible for such a feeling not to have been gnawing away at my resolve and confidence that what I was doing was making a difference for the better.
For five years, with the active help of some, and the uncritical toleration of most of the other members of the church, I had really tried to contribute something toward creating a more "Christian" relationship between Blacks and Whites in Spartanburg. Now, I must admit, that an impartial judge, perhaps, would have had to say there was no noticeable improvement in Black and White relationship in 1951 over that of 1945. Also my efforts to be a contributing factor making for human decency and fairness in the relationship between management and labor, as well as in the political life of the community, an impartial witness would have, probably, allowed that my effort did not amount to a hill of beans.
Had I dared to be honest with myself I would have, no doubt, been more aware that the feeling like that of a mole under a big rock involved more than just my theological or philosophical frustration and the feeling of being up against an unmovable object. I am more aware now than then that it was in Saxon I began to realize that if there were to be any significant improvement in the economic, political and racial aspects of life, there would need to be changes in the economic and political thought and racial attitudes as radical as I felt were needed in religious thought. Anyway, whatever the motives may have been, I resigned around the first of June 1951.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME
My ability in the use of words is inadequate to describe my feelings and reactions when the decision to resign was made. I felt spotlessly clean inside. I had the sensation that every part of my mind and heart or soul had just taken a hot shower with uncontaminated soap. In the sky of my inner world there was not a cloud of doubt that my decision was the right one, no haze of uncertainty to mar my clear vision of the horizon of my hopes. Inside I felt as clean, wholesome and pure as a rose garden looks after a warm April shower. Never before or since have I felt so sure I had made the right decision.
I had an understanding with the church. I would give the church three months notice if I decided to leave. The church would give me the same notice if it decided I should leave. In resigning by the first of June we would have the vacation month of August to move to Louisville and, hopefully, get settled in by
Knowing I would not have the emotional control to read my resignation statement, I told Mr. C.L. Guthrie what I was going to do and asked him to make mimeograph copies of it to be handed out after the sermon on the first Sunday in June. He told Roger, his oldest son. Roger was a G.I. college student in his early twenties. He wasted no time in coming to see me. He thought I must be crazy. In his judgment my economic arrangement for the future was as unstable as water. When I convinced him I had no intention of changing my mind, he insisted that I leave out the part of my statement that revealed I had taken the job as secretary of the First Unitarian Church in Louisville, with the intention of exploring the desirability of becoming a Unitarian minister. When I refused to agree to that he thought I should wait to resign until the last Sunday I expected to be in Spartanburg.
"If you leave that Unitarian bit in and resign now" he said, "they will not let you preach another sermon in that church, and they just might kick you and your family out of the parsonage immediately". It had never crossed my mind that the people of the church would so react if I told them what I was going to do. Anyway, I felt so good about my decision, so confident I was doing the right thing, that even Roger's fears failed to cause me a moment's anxiety. I tried to assure him that the people of the church were too kind hearted to treat us in a way that would justify his fears. Besides they had too much respect for the truth not to respect me for being honest with them. In any event, copies of my resignation were passed out. I assume it was read. If so I do not remember who read it. Since Guthrie was familiar with it he would have been the logical one to have been asked to read it. There was not much said, no negative remarks were heard. Someone made a motion the resignation be accepted, which, if passed, would mean I would remain the minister of the church until September the first. August being vacation month we could leave any time in August that suited us. No objection to the motion was voiced and the resignation was properly accepted by the vote of the congregation. If any member of the church voiced any objection to me preaching until we left I never heard of it. We left during the first week in August.
During the two months leave taking the Isoms could not have been treated better and with more tender care than they would have treated us had I been leaving to become the President of the Southern Baptist Convention. The people of the church knew I loved and respected them, and they continued to provide me with ample evidence that they respected me, even if they could not always agree with me. To me it was a lovely and sad parting. Toward the end they gave us a going away shower. In addition to little personal gifts to the members of the family there was a gift of something over five hundred dollars, plus my monthly pay check for August.
It was a hot day in August when the movers arrived late. Our car was already packed and ready to go when they arrived. It was our intention to pay them what they estimated it would cost and have them bill us for the rest, if any, or wait and pay it all when we were sent a bill. No! They were not agreeable to either suggestion. The bill had to be paid in advance, and the amount could only be determined after our things were loaded and weighed at the weighing station. This delayed our departure until the afternoon. Due to some unexpected work involved in unloading our things they sent us an extra bill. I had told them I had never seen the place, that all I knew was the address and that some of the things would be on the second floor and some in the basement. Since they delayed our departure more than a half day by insisting on being paid in advance I refused to pay the bill. After writing two or three letters to higher and higher authorities in the company, explaining my side of the case they dropped it as a bad debt.
It was in the afternoon before we could depart to Virginia for a week or ten day visit with Elien's clan, before we left on the two day trip to Louisville, through the mountains of western Virginia and West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. We arrived in mid-August, which gave me time to learn something about the multilith, the highfalutin mimeograph machine, and to do some work on our living quarters: more about that later.
What did Elien think of this pulling up stakes and starting over in a strange place and a peculiar church, with a sharp cut in salary? I really do not have an authentic answer to that question. If she cares to add a foot note to what I say here and tell you the real truth she may do so. I can only report my impression of what she thought and felt. During the eleven years we had lived together we had never shared our private theological thoughts. She was not active in any Baptist church before we married. She had been attending a Christian church in walking distance from her home. The nearest Baptist church was in Franklin, three or more miles away.
Shortly after we married I observed she would readily volunteer to do anything in the church as long as it did not involve expressing her own personal religious beliefs. I could not imagine her volunteering to work on a "soul winning" team, taking her bible, reading and explaining those scripture verses which were supposed to help a person to believe in Jesus and be saved. I also had the feeling she would do everything possible to avoid leading a prayer, except flatly refusing.
In the Sunday school and the other organizations of the church she would readily volunteer to do the kind of jobs that required more hard work and the least possible teaching of the bible or expressing her thoughts and beliefs. When she felt she had to agree to teach a Sunday school class it seemed to me she always asked for the youngest age group possible. Had there been a nursery at Saxon she would have, I judge, volunteered to stay with the babies.
She never mentioned her feelings about such matters to me and I never asked her if my impressions were true. All along I assumed that, religiously, we were kindred souls, in that neither of us felt so God-Almighty certain about some of the things we were expected to believe as Baptists. I was satisfied that we shared some common doubts that each of us chose to keep under the key of silence.
When I wrote to Huff she proofed the letter. In the letter I had stated the major Baptist beliefs that I did not believe. I was not surprised when she admitted that she too wondered why it was she could not believe some things with the certainty that others seemingly could. By then we had learned that Unitarians had no written or unwritten set of beliefs a person had to confess to believe to be a member of the Unitarian church. In the Unitarian church it was not necessary for you to pretend to believe what all or anyone Unitarian professed to believe.
From a religious point of view Elien seemed to be as happy as I in this religious adventure we were making. There was, no doubt, some apprehension on her part (and rightly so as it turned out) about the housing arrangement Mr. Weston had made for us. Whatever her reservations may have been I do not think they caused her to lose much sleep. If she was not as enthusiastic as I she certainly put up a brave front and was a good sport about it. As for me, I was too happy about the move to be disturbed or sensible.
NEW ALBANY, INDIANA AND OUR NEW ABODE
About two weeks after we agreed to take the job in Louisville, Mr. Weston informed us he had found us a place to live if we wanted it. It was an apartment in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Biggerstaff, who were members of his church. They had two children, Ann, a daughter by Mrs. Biggerstaff's first marriage, and Jimmy, their two year old. Ann was twelve, two years older than Rose. Mr. Biggerstaff was a lawyer. Mrs. Biggerstaff was an art teacher in the public school system. What they wanted was to trade us rent in turn for Elien looking after Jimmy while his mother was in school, plus a certain amount of house work.
The place was on what was called, in some circles, "Snob Hill", I would have called it a mountain, with little to be snobbish about. The neighborhood was on Silver Hills in New Albany, Indiana, a mile or more up from down town New Albany, which was just across the Ohio River, north west of Louisville. As the bee flies it was about three miles from where we lived to the Unitarian church in Louisville. It was more than six miles by the roads. The street in front of the house ran along the ridge of the mountain between the city's water reservoir and the row of houses hanging on the side of the mountain just below it.
The front door to the first floor was at ground level. The back door of the basement was at ground level. It was not necessarily a fatal accident if you fell while trying to cut the spot of grass by the house. There was a pond a quarter of a mile below to cushion your fall. The house was a middle sized home, a well built frame building. I would guess it was thirty or more years old at the time.
The living quarters of the Biggerstaffs were on the first floor. The basement housed our kitchen and Rose's piano. The rest of our living space was on the second floor, at the top of a stairway hardly wider than the stairway to the attic in an average home. There was a small living room, an average size bedroom and a tiny one. There was but little head space to spare anywhere. The only bathroom was on the first floor.
The basement had the same floor space as the first floor. To get to our kitchen from our second floor quarters we had to maneuver the attic size stairway which ended at the bathroom door, go through the Biggerstaff kitchen and down a stairway a bit wider than the one to the second floor. The furnace and hot water heater were in one corner at the front end of the basement. In the other front corner, there was a sink and space for our kitchen equipment, an electric stove, refrigerator, a combination clothes and dish washer and the kitchen table and chairs. In the rest of the basement, other than Rose's piano, there was a large rolling electric iron that was designed to make ironing fun. There may have been a few pieces of the Biggerstaffs' furniture scattered about. The roof of the basement consisted of the sleepers and the underside of the flooring of the first floor, plus all the pipes and wires found in the unsealed basements of most homes.
Before I continue the description of our living quarters a word about the Biggerstaffs is in order. We found them to be very likable and agreeable people. They were people of many solid virtues, honesty, thrift, industrious, easy going and friendly. They were reasonable and patient, easy to please and anxious to please. We lived with them some nine moths without a fuss and parted as friends.
The rest of the description of the basement, as I remember we found it, will suggest, as the Biggerstaffs would readily admit, perhaps, that one of their better virtues was not that of keeping a tidy house, especially the parts that were seldom if ever used. To the Biggerstaffs there were more important things in life than keeping a spotless house.
Before we arrived they had put in a glass block partition from the wall to the stairway that divided the kitchen from the rest of the basement. I saw no evidence that they had done anything else to clean up what had been a little used basement.
The roof of the kitchen and furnace spaces were the worst. Everything overhead was covered with dust. On all the pipes there were little mountain ridges of dust. The slightest jar above would cause a dust slide; a sneeze would blow up a dust storm - well, a little one. Ancient cobwebs were hanging from everything above and in the corners, over laden with dust, dead flies, wasps, "dirt dobbers" and a variety of other dead varmints. Some had already given way under their burden, but hanging still, ragged and empty. I doubt if the parts of the roof of the basement had ever felt the touch of a broom, dust rag or mop.
After a hot dog snack with the Biggerstaffs we made up our beds and lay down to rest. As I remember Elien and I told each other how we felt with forced grins. I think that was the night Elien, to keep from crying, I would think, got tickled and then laughed until she cried.
The next morning we descended into the basement, armed with every cleaning device we had or could find - vacuum cleaner, brooms, dustpan and rags, washrags, brushes and mops. By nightfall the roof and floor of the basement had been vacuumed, swept, dusted and mopped. We ate our supper that night without fear of being sprayed by a shower of dust or some dead varmint falling into our soup. When church started on the first Sunday of September, the kitchen floor and the roof of the kitchen space had been painted and the walls cleaned. Thanks to Elien, without a sour note, for the countless other things she did to make tidy the hardly used Biggerstaff basement. I think Mrs. Biggerstaff was shocked as much as surprised at the transformation of the basement.
In the meantime I had found time to learn to operate the highfalutin mimeograph machine well enough to get out a newsletter and print the Sunday program for the first fall service. I had had very little time to get acquainted with Mr. Weston. I found him in a poor state of health. Our vacation month was gone. The vacation, such as it was, we had to admit was an unforgettable one and marked for us a new beginning in a different direction.
ROSE AND MARY BETH?
What was the first impression of Rose and Mary Beth of their new dwelling place? I do not recall any negative or positive comments. They may have taken their cue from their parents, permitting silence to hide their feelings and thoughts. They did not seem to be too happy or sad. Ann and Rose hit it off immediately and became very close friends. Ann, being a very friendly girl, kept Rose and Mary Beth entertained for the first few days by showing them all the things she had to show them.
Mary Beth was not so lucky in finding a ready-made friend near her age. There was no little girl or boy, like Gordon in Spartanburg, with whom she could explore the world. It was not until the next spring, when we moved in our own house in Clarksville, that she found children of her age nearby to pal around with. Clarksville was just across the river northeast of Louisville, only three miles from the church.
Both the girls liked the gothic building that housed the Unitarian church. They also liked the Westons. The next spring, while we were in the process of buying a house, when the Westons left for their summer vacation they insisted we stay in the parsonage. The following summer when we sold our house and shipped our things to Wichita, Kansas, they invited us to stay in the parsonage until we were free to leave in August. I was pleased by the way the girls had adjusted to the new surroundings we had imposed upon them. They can never know if it would have been for better or worse for them had we remained in Saxon. As the years passed now and then one of them would say she was glad we left Saxon and the Baptists. I suppose there were times when they wondered.
<BACK> <HOME> <NEXT>