<BACK> <HOME> <NEXT>
THE SAXON BAPTIST CHURCH
SPARTANBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA
W. T. STACE AND "THE GATE OF SILENCE"
W. T. Stace, independent of Schweitzer, came to that same conclusion concerning our world and life view. Stace was head of the philosophy department at Princeton University for many years. In a note to me, in the late 1940šs, he confessed, to his shame, that he had never read Schweitzer's "Philosophy of Civilization". In 1950 or 51 Stace summed up his position in a philosophical poem, using the word "poem" rather loosely. The poem was published under the title, "The Gate of Silence". When I read the book I wrote him a thank you note, stating that I read the last chapter of the book first, the title of which was, "The Sermon in the Desert". In due time I received a note from him, informing me that was the title he gave the book, but it was the contention of the publishers that no one would read the book if it was called a sermon. "The publishers", he allowed, "forgot those of your calling".
The preacher of the sermon is the only speaking character in the book, and obviously speaks for Stace. Like Schweitzer, the preacher finds it hard to accept the fact that our knowledge of the world leaves us surrounded by mystery. In this world, he says, "the infinite will-to-live reveals itself to us as will-to-create, and this is full of dark and painful riddles for us; in ourselves it is revealed as will-to-love". Or as Stace said it, "The world itself is neither good nor evil, blind, deaf, dumb, without mind, without soul".
Stace was painfully aware that this "inconceivable truth about the world" meant the rational death of the dreams and illusions of the great dreamers of the ages, the founders of the great religions and philosophical systems of thought, the dreams, hopes and illusions of which provide millions of the human caravan with the belief that their valuable convictions reflect the nature and purpose of the universe, or they are consistent with the will of the creator of all there is. Stace dedicated his little book to his children and grandchildren. He knew that the truth about the world would destroy the self-image that one's earthly life, however drab and hard, plays a cosmic role of eternal significance. This made him hesitate to confront his children with the truth about the world. Once he thought it would be better to tell them not "to seek the truth about the world", but rather to "seek illusions, dreams and lies".
Before the preacher gathered the people around him to hear his sermon in the desert, Stace sent him into the desert to be alone for forty days and nights, to ponder the hard facts about the world and to consider again the role the illusions, hopes and beliefs of the great dreamers have played in the human history. There alone the preacher, in his meditations, visited the god-men of he human past Jesus, Buddha and all the rest. He listened again to their real illusions and beliefs that made humans children of gods creatures destined for eternal worlds, where there is no pain, tears or death.
"And the preacher was silent,
And his heart was heavy within him nigh unto breaking,
Because he too had once looked upon that face and believed.
But he looked out over the endless desert,
And he thought of the men of the caravan;
And he remembered the horror of the cosmic eye;
And he said;
Very beautiful and tender is thy vision, O son of man,
Of infinite sweetness and infinite sadness;
Would to heaven only that reality were like thy dream."
The preacher listened with respect to the great dreamers, to their dreams, their mighty visions and noble fantasies that had made man great. But in the end he had to bow to the truth that they were "out-past, thrown down, ruined, fallen". Then the preacher gathered the people around him and said:
"Lo! The day of the great dreams and the great dreamers is gone by,
Beautiful they were and lovely to behold!
But they are broken, fallen down, shattered in pieces.
The lights of the world that lighted men in ancient days are gone out,
No more to shine again.
And though men cry for new lights in the sky, that cannot be;
For there is no light in the sky.
There is no light save the light which man makes for himself,
As the glowworm makes his own light;
And by that light which man makes for himself must man learn to live.
These things I say unto you not in a churlish contempt of man,
Not in contempt of the poets, prophets, philosophers.
Lovely are their dreams and fantasies of the world.
Far more lovely than the harsh world of reality.
I said in my bitterness; seek ye lies! Seek ye illusions!
But the truth breaks in and cannot be hid.
The dreams and the fantasies are put to flight.
These things, then, ye must know because they can no longer be hid.
Ye are not gods, ye are not immortal spirits.
And though the flame of spirit burns in you for a brief space
(As it burns in every living thing)
Ye shall die.
Learn ye now the lesson of the glowworm.
He makes his own light.
But if the glowworm should say: Lo! There is a great light in the world:
It cometh to me straight from the glowing center of the world,
It is shed on me out of the sky;
And the sky and the universe care especially for glowworms:
Then would the glowworm be deceived;
Then would this be the illusion, the dream, the fantasy of the glowworm.
For there is no light in the sky,
And the world all around the glowworm is black,
And the light proceedeth out of himself.
Now if the glowworm should learn there is no light in the sky,
That there is no glowing center of all being from which the light proceeds.
If he should learn that the world is black save for the light proceeding from himself.
Should he then say: "There is no light. I must die"
Nay, for the light by which he lives and moves and has his being
Is nevertheless light albeit he makes it himself,
And though the light be little and dim,
Though it be no more than a pin point in the miles of ambient darkness,
Yet it lighteth up his world.
So also is it with man.
The light by which he has lived is the light of the beautiful and the good.
It is the light of love.
And the beautiful and the good he has created within his own heart,
They descend not from the sky, they proceed not from the heart of the world.
Yet is not that beauty still beauty?
Is not that goodness still goodness?
Is not that love still love?
Is not the light of man still light?
The world itself knows nothing of them.
The heart of the world is stony.
The heart of the world is black.
It beats not the faster because the rose is lovely,
Nor because there is love in the heart of man.
For one infinitesimal instant there flickers this light of man.
By that light, then, ye must learn to live.
Dim it may be like the light of the glowworm
Yet it must suffice.
Brief it may be, lasting only that instant before it is swallowed up in darkness,
Yet it shall last out the life of man.
Ye must become superior men
(Not super-men for there are no super-men in the world and never will be).
(The first mark of the superior man is this),
He does right not because other men do.
He does right because he is wholly himself.
The second mark of the superior man is this:
Though he follows no banners yet he pursues noble ends.
The third mark of the superior man is this:
There is neither envy nor any pettiness in his soul.
The fourth mark of the superior man is this:
From the center of his heart, as from a pure fountain
There gushes the love of men.
There is in him no hate.
There is no poison in his heart.
He has learned the saying of the blessed one,
Hate ceases not through hate;
Hate ceases through love.
He knows that hate is the root of all evil.
And that love is the root of all that is beautiful and good.
He knows that of all things beautiful and good
The love of man for man is the supremely good and beautiful thing.
And he knows there is no other god, no other hope of the world, than this.
Man stands at the cross roads.
Man stands in Peril of his life,
Because the ancient lights have gone out, and no other
light cometh from the sky.
And this then is the final question for man:
Can he learn to follow the good,
Can he learn to put away hate,
Can he learn to follow and live out to the end the saying
of the blessed one, Hate ceases not through hate;
Hate ceases though love.
Can he learn to do these things without the aura of the eternal,
Without fantasies, without dreams, without banners,
Without the crutches and props and supports of the false
delusions of his childhood?
Can he learn to stand upon his feet?
Can he grow up?
If he can do these things, he shall live.
But if not he shall perish.
This, then, was the discourse of the preacher.
And the people bowed respectfully and departed to their homes .
And the preacher stood alone in the desert;
And the preacher wept,
Because he knew not whether man could ever do these things he had said,
Because he doubted of this and knew not the answer to the riddle,
And he sighed and said within his heart;
What if this hope of a world of men grown up,
Of a world in which love overcomes hate
Of a world of superior men,
Should be itself no more than the last and greatest of illusions?
The sun went down over the desert's rim.
And over the head of the preacher was the silence of the sky
And the shining of the stars,
And in his heart was a great questioning."
From "The Gate of Silence", by W.T. Stace
It was through thought - by making the mental effort to find and use the available resources - that we have improved our means of transportation from that of four footed beasts, such as the camel, all the way up to space ships. Through thought we have improved our farming tools from that of an ox and a wooden plow to modern tractors, combines and pickers. Through thought we have gone from the hammer and anvil of the blacksmith shop to computerized machines that can turn out precision tools at the rate of a bushel or more an hour, to machines that can cut and shape most of the pieces for a car, ship or plane. Through thought we have improved our weapons of war from that of sticks and stones to hydrogen bombs with space rockets to shoot them. Through thought we have improved our means of communication from smoke signals and drum beats to electronic devices that enable us to see and talk to one another around the world and wherever we go in space, and to see and hear things much further in space than we are now capable of going. Through thought we have improved our medical knowledge and skills from that of the witch doctor to our present ability to understand the causes for most deadly diseases and to control or cure them, and to replace worn out parts of the body such as kidneys, knees and heart.
Through thought, by putting two and two together and observing the results, we have enormously increased our means and skills to do many extraordinary things. Is it not logical and reasonable to assume that we might, by the same process, greatly enhance our ethical powers and skills? Who knows what would come of it if we dedicated the same kind of energy and thought and effort necessary to find ways and means by which to improve our ethical capability, as we have to making atomic weapons, or to sending people to the moon and back. No, we cannot know in advance what the results of such an effort would be. But neither did we know, before hand, what the results would be of our effort to develop atomic weapons and to go to the moon. We simply dared to believe we could do those things and were willing to make a serious effort to try to do them.
What is preventing us from making such an all out effort to improve our ethical ability and skills? The nature of the most difficult mental roadblock preventing such an effort is suggested in the description of Schweitzer's eyes by Hermann Hagedorn? In his biography of Schweitzer Hagedorn described Schweitzer's eyes as "two dark wells of concentrated sorrow, faintly lighted by hope". Note, also, Stace's observation of the preacher after his sermon in the desert. The people had departed for their homes leaving the preacher alone. Stace observed:
"The preacher wept, because he doubted if the people could do the things he had said".
The main reason we do not make a serious effort to improve ourselves ethically is this: we do not believe human beings are capable of significant ethical improvement. Ethically we have such a pessimistic image of ourselves that we consider it a waste of time to take anyone seriously who dares to suggest ways and means by which we might enhance our ethical capabilities.
A serious study of such thinkers as Schweitzer and Stace would enable us to identify the only ethical recourse that is available to us. Also, they would make it clear to us where this ethical recourse may be found. Since it is a part of each of us, given in our human will to live, everyone has direct access to it, and is free to use as much of it as he has the will and confidence to share into thought and action. It just might increase our ethical confidence in ourselves, if we took the time to learn and understand what such thinkers have to suggest. But our hope in ethical progress is so weak and dim that we can not be persuaded even to do that.
Schweitzer's major books were published more than sixty years ago. To my knowledge, there is not a university in the world offering a course of study in the life and thought of Schweitzer. W. T. Stace's little book, "The Gate of Silence", was published in the early 1950šs. It has been out of print more than fifteen years. There is no religious body, including Unitarians, that have made a serious and persistent effort to help their members to know and understand the nature and dimensions of Schweitzer's philosophy, or religion, of reverence for life.
I am not unaware of a lot of the hard factual evidence that can be used to justify such a lack of confidence in ethical progress. Even Schweitzer's confidence was only "faintly lighted by hope". Stace's hope in ethical progress was even fainter than that. I need not go outside myself to find enough evidence to make me skeptical of my own ethical ability. I'm not blind to the motives and feelings of all the animals in the zoo of my being, who seem to have no sense of ethical responsibility. At the same time I'm on speaking terms with another creature of myself who refuses to permit me to be totally indifferent to the pains and joys, hopes and fears of other lives around me. This creature of my mind punishes me with pain and shame and regret when I cause another being to suffer in any way, even if it be a simple form of life. On the other hand it rewards me with pleasure and joy every time I do something to decrease the pain or increase the joy of another life.
I can believe there is ample evidence that this same creature is a part of the zoo of every human will to live, however stunted, gagged and bound it may be by internal and external factors, factors that now seem so invincible that we have little, if any, hope of freeing the human will to love from their prison walls, and thus give that will the freedom and power to play a larger role in our lives.
The kind of thinking Schweitzer published in his "Philosophy of Civilization" can lead you up to the "will-to-love", given in the human will to live, as the only and ultimate source of the ethical, and hand you over to that will to play it from there by ear, according to the dictates of that will's reverence for life. There it leaves you with the knowledge that, in the reverence for life of your will to love, you are in possession of the only world-wide ethical means which human beings may use to enhance their ethical ability.
Schweitzer does not identify and describe the nature of the unethical factors in the human situations that robs us all, or nearly all, of our confidence to love our neighbors as we do ourselves, that is, to insist all our neighbors be treated as we desire to be treated.
It must be pointed out, however, that only two volumes of Schweitzer's "Philosophy of Civilization" have been published. Two other volumes remain unpublished. It is uncertain what his completed "Philosophy of Civilization" would have had to say about the unethical factors of the human situation, and how and by what means the ethics of reverence for life might free us from the stranglehold such factors have on our ethical confidence.
Some years before he died it was reported that the manuscript for the third volume, "The World View of Reverence For Life", was finished, but for some minor changes. A few years before Schweitzer's death, Norman Cousins made a trip to Africa in hopes of getting a photocopy of the manuscript. I do not remember it ever being reported that Schweitzer gave him a copy. Anyway, the third volume has never been published. From what we have on the subject of reverence for life in the first two volumes, and in a few magazine articles, we have the basic essentials of what the contents of the third volume would have been. Put in a systematic and logical form the concept of reverence for life would have been made more understandable and meaningful.
The large outline for the fourth volume, "The Civilized State", was blocked out, I understand, during one of his visits to Europe some years before he died. If there is a complete, or near complete, manuscript for the volume I have never heard of it. I find little in the first two volumes to suggest what his final conclusion in that volume would have been. The title of the volume, "The Civilized State", suggests he would have been concerned with the civilized or cultivated mental and social essentials for a human society that would aid and abet the practice of the ethics of reverence for life.
In writing the fourth volume I can imagine he would have followed the same historical approach he used in writing the first two volumes and his "Search for the Historic Jesus". After appraising the vices and virtues of all the civilizations of record, he would have then drawn a word picture of a civilized state that would be in step with the ethics of reverence for life. In the first two volumes there are hints he had a mental picture of such a society. However, there is little in those volumes to indicate it was clear to him as to how, by what means, the profound mental and social revolution was to be achieved that would be necessary to transform the present civilized states into a human society, the primary virtues of which would be in harmony with the ethics of reverence for life,
Through the years, in my small way, I have given considerable thought to what kinds of transformations would be required of such a revolution to succeed. Knowing a little about the dimensions of the problems such a revolution would have to resolve, I would not be surprised to learn that the proposed fourth volume of Schweitzer "Philosophy of Civilization" was never finished and published because Schweitzer was never able to reach firm convictions as to how such a revolution was to be accomplished.
I donšt pretend to know how such a revolution is to be achieved. But I am convinced that if the ethics of reverence for life is to make any significant ethical improvement in the human world, a profound mental and social revolution will be necessary. This is not the place in this story for me to express my views on that subject. But, just in case I never get that far in this verbose tale of my life, and perchance someone, somewhere at some time, who may read these pages, should become interested in such a revolution as a subject he wants to pursue, I shall here call attention to just one enormous transformation that would be required of such a revolution - the transformation of the self-image by which most people of the world now answer the personal question, "Who am I"?
I shall try to make clear what I have in mind with a true story. Smith is not the real name of the family but to protect the privacy of the family we will use the name Smith. There were five boys in the family. Mr. Smith died when the boys were still small children. Their mother worked and reared the five boys until they were capable of taking care of themselves. Each of the Smith boys grew up to be successful men in the profession of his choice. The one I knew personally was the minister of a large Baptist Church. If I remember correctly, two of the Smith boys were doctors, one was a college professor and one was a lawyer. he Smiths were a very proud family. I was in the seminary with two sons of one of those Smith boys. As the story was told to me the mother inspired her boys to become what they were by simply saying, every time she thought one of them needed to be inspired to do better, "remember, son, you are a Smith!" For emphasis she repeated it, "remember, you are a Smith!"
However noble your family may be, and deserving of your respect and loyalty, a self-image that includes only one's immediate family is much, much too small to inspire you to measure yourself by the expectations of the ethics of reverence for life.
"I am a child of the universe", the poet said. Any self-image smaller than that cannot inspire the kind of respect and reverence we need to hold for earth and sky - water, land and air and the mighty little atom.
A self-image that is too small to identify itself as being a thread in the total web of life is too little to inspire in man the kind of respect and reverence we owe to the animal and plant life, with whom we share this planet.
According to the ethics of reverence for life the smallest self-image that can define my ethical responsibilities to other human beings is this: I am a human being, a child of the human race.
"I am a child of the universe"; "I'm a part of the total web of life on this earth." To be a good citizen in a civilized state a self image must include all life to be in step with the ethics of reverence for life. Such are the dimensions of the self-images you would have to be able to recognize as the primary self-images that properly define who you are.
Compare those self-images with what appears to be the much smaller primary self-images of most of the people of the world today. "I am a Smith!" "I am an American!" "I am a Russian!", "I am Chinese!" "I am Black!" "I am White!" "I am a Jew!" "I am an Arab!" "I am a Christian!" "I am a Muslem!"
The unanswered question is, how, by what means, can these small self-images be transformed into images of self that will inspire a person to be ethically responsible as a child of the universe, as a conscious part of the web of life on the earth and as a child of the human race?
A study of Schweitzer's "Philosophy of Civilization" might help to answer that question. But how to get the people of the world to do that remains an unanswered question. The ethics of reverence for life ask no more of us than the will to love that is given in our human will to live. But let us not kid ourselves, the will to love in our nature, which Schweitzer defines as reverence for life, asks a lot more than charity handouts. It asks for nothing less than a transformation of our perception of who we are and of our social values - a transformation that would make charity handouts no longer necessary.
Who will accept the challenge to finish Schweitzer's "Philosophy of Civilization" by writing the fourth volume "The Civilized State"? For the one or two or more who might be willing to try to make some mental contribution to that end, I suggest you explore the historical worlds of H.G. Wells (Outline of History, three volumes); Will Durant (especially the volume that tells the three thousand year story of the Greeks); Arnold Toynbee (A Story of History, Abridgement, two volumes) and Louis Mumford (The Myth of the Machine, two volumes). In the historical surveys of those authors you will not find the answers to the questions you are looking for. You will get some idea of the nature and age of some of the problems you will have to find a way to resolve, if a civilized state is ever to become a reality, that is, one that measures up to the ethical standard of reverence for life.
Do not ask if such a civilized state is possible. You have no choice but to try to make it possible, except to sit and wait for the disintegration of the human adventure and carrion.
THE PLEDGE TO THE BIBLE, DOUBT, AND CONVERSION
The best educational program, from the Southern Baptist point of view, was the Daily Vacation Bible School. The materials for the school were well written and provided a balanced program of learning activities for the age groups from kindergarten through high school. The school was held during the first two weeks after the public schools closed in the spring. The daily hours for the school were from eight A.M. until noon.
The school began each day with a solemn march into the church, led by the bearers of the American flag, the Christian flag and the open bible. The symbol bearers marched to the front and made an about face. When everyone was in place the saluting and pledging ceremony began. First the American flag and then the Christian flag. The pledge to the bible was as follows: "I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's Holy Word. I shall hide its words in my heart and make them a light unto my feet all the days of my life".
I was then, as now, able to believe many things in the bible to be of great ethical value. I could, however, no longer hope to believe the bible was "God's Holy Word". I had to live with what seemed to me to be the historical truth that the persons who wrote, edited ad compiled the books of the bible were fallible human beings, just like everybody else, having no more infallible source of information than any other serious searcher after the truth. Yet, here I was in a situation that made me party to the encouragement of my children and my neighbors children to believe something that I could not believe to be true.
Because assumption that the bible is "God's Holy Word" is such a basic belief among most Southern Baptists, there was no way I could find a constructive way to suggest the phrase "God's Holy Word", be dropped from the pledge. I wrote to the Daily Vacation Bible School Department of the Sunday School Board (the Sunday School Board was responsible for everything published for or in the name of the Southern Baptist Convention). As politely and humbly as possible I suggested it was time we begin to find a way to face up to the truth that the bible is not "God's Holy Word", a divinely inspired or dictated book.
In suggesting that phrase be left out of the pledge, I admitted I was asking them to do something that was hedged by many difficulties that could not be easily overcome. However, I felt that honesty compelled us to begin to try to resolve the difficulties that prevented us from facing up to the truth. I never received a reply to my letter. It was simply given the silent treatment.
Later hindsight reminded me that they too were caught between the truth and a sacred myth. Had anyone of the Sunday School Board hinted out loud that my suggestion should have been given serious consideration, other orthodox Baptist ministers would have aimed their cannons of hell fire and brimstone at the Sunday School Board, demanded that every member of the board and all the employees of the board be required to sign a loyalty oath to the bible as "God's Holy Word", otherwise this board would be blown out of existence.
Realizing there was no constructive way that I could, from within the Baptist Church, share my honest beliefs with the people, my own sense of honesty left me no choice except to leave the Baptist Church home wherein I would be free from having to pretend to believe and teach things that I could not believe to be true. As I see it the essence of anything worthy to be called religion must be sincerity. Pretending to believe what you do not believe is the most rancid kind of hypocrisy.
I have already confessed that I had serious doubts about some of the sacred Baptist myths when I went to Saxon. I could not have, at that time, articulated such doubts. Hindsight tells me that the honest thing for me to have done would have been to have left the Baptist ministry when I left the army. In defense of not doing so it can be said that I could not, at that time, have articulated an answer, that would have satisfied me, to the question: "What do you believe"? My respect for and confidence in the many good Baptist people who believed things that plagued me with doubt, could still make me doubt my doubts. It was not until after I had studied the great books of Schweitzer that I could say, with some confidence, what I did believe, beliefs that proved to be contrary to the myths which I had wondered about, to say the least, for years, some from childhood.
In the meantime I fully held in common, with the people of the Saxon church, the belief in the basic ethical teachings expressed in the Bible. The people of the church were kind, patient and long suffering. They expressed little or no objections to my sermons that nearly all had to do with ethical problems rather than the sacred Baptist theological dogmas which were the objects of most of my doubts. So, as much as possible, I accented the ethical teachings in the bible that I truly believed and kept silent about the sacred myths about which I had doubts.
There is, for example, no general rule among Southern Baptists as to how often the Communion Service should be observed. There is a widely shared belief that all Baptist churches should be guided by the scripture verse that quotes Jesus to have said, "As oft as you do this, do it in remembrance of me".
In the Saxon church the Lord's Supper, or Communion, was observed four times a year, on the first Sunday of every third month. For some years before we went to Saxon, Grandmother Foster had been responsible for making all the preparation for the Communion ritual. This she continued to do for a year or more after we came. Mr. Foster was dead. Mrs. Foster was the last of the old families of the church still living in the village. She lived across Front Street, in front of the mill office. Without being reminded or without reminding anybody she made all the preparation for the Communion. Most of the time I would not be aware it was the Sunday for that ritual until I entered the church and saw the Communion table properly dressed with white table linen.
When Mrs. Foster felt she was no longer able to make the necessary preparations for the Communion service I announced that fact for two or more Sundays, asking if there was someone who wanted to volunteer to assume that responsibility. When no one volunteered Elien and I took the trays and serving cups home and stored them on the top shelf of the pantry. A year or so later, at some business meeting of the congregation, the question was asked. "When was the last time we had Communion"? No one was able to remember. Who asked he question? A college student. I had a hunch it was his conservative father who suggested he ask that question. It was decided we should have a Communion service. A Sunday was named for it. Elien retrieved the Communion tools from their long resting place, dusted and washed them, placed them, along with a small bottle of grape juice and some squares of bread, on the Communion table and covered all of it with white table linen. After the ritual was duly observed we gathered up the tools, took them home, washed them, and put them back on the top shelf of the pantry. If I remember correctly they were not disturbed again until we took them down and gave them to someone for safekeeping when we left for Louisville in August of 1951.
As far as I know it was the universal belief among Southern Baptists that the bread and wine were only symbols of the blood and flesh of Jesus, and the observing of the Last Supper had nothing to do with one's salvation. It was considered only a symbolic way of reminding the believers that Jesus died to save them from sin. The ritual never impressed me with awe and wonder as I watched it being observed during my childhood and youth, before I was old enough to know what it was all about. After I understood its significance to believers I had some reservations about its worth, in that it encouraged depending too much on the death of Jesus and not enough on the ethical efforts of human beings to save us from sin.
As it was with the Communion service, nearly all the members tolerated, without protest, my near silence about Baptist beliefs and practices about which I had some doubt. Such subjects as Heaven and Hell, the resurrection, the doctrine of salvation by grace and related subjects were seldom heard from the pulpit when I was behind it. During the last years we were in Saxon, had I used the word Hell, some in the congregation might have thought I was using it profanely. However, I could not avoid using the word Heaven at funerals. Regardless of how big a rascal the dead person might have been, I always felt I had to give the bereaved some hope that the beloved would make it to heaven. I admit I felt a bit guilty in offering what I believed to be false comfort. I tried to justify doing so by telling myself my heart was in the right place. I was just trying to be kind and helpful to the bereaved in a way they could, hopefully, believe to be true. I was never satisfied with that justification.
WAKING THE DEAD
"Enough noise to wake up the dead" is a phrase I have heard parents and teachers use when scolding children for making too much noise. I would not bet on the power of noise to wake up the dead, but I would bet all that I could that noise cannot prevent a person from dying. I found evidence to justify such a bet by answering an urgent telephone call one night when the person on the other end of the lined said, "come quickly, mother is dying."
The person whose name was given to me, and the address, were unknown to me. I discovered it to be in a mill village some distance from Saxon. For a minute or two no one was aware there was a stranger in the room. I say stranger for no one there knew me and I recognized no one. During that moment or two, I judged, by their action, that five or six of the men and women in the room were the children of the woman dying on the bed. One was down by the bed, praying as loud as his voice permitted. Another was on and off the bed, praying equally as loud. A third was screaming in her mother's face for her to say something. When someone looked at me I introduced myself and explained I was the minister. Immediately the praying got louder and increased in volume. I was urged to pray for God to heal their mother. I suggested, as politely as possible, that we be quiet for a few minutes, and that silent prayers might be better for the time being. My suggestions were completely ignored. The loud praying and screaming continued unabated. Not knowing what to do I just stood there in silence, speaking only when spoken to. After a few minutes I stepped out on the porch, where an elderly woman was sitting quietly in a rocking chair. On her beautiful if wrinkled face there was a blended expression of sorrow, pity, shame and disgust. She said nothing. I said nothing. Finally, as she barely rocked, she sighed and said, "When I go I hope they will let me die in peace and quiet". With a soft touch of my hand on her shoulder I silently thanked her, as a kindred soul, for expressing my feelings. Shortly thereafter the poor woman, amid a crescendo of noise, died, which was, no doubt, a relief to her, as it was to me and the lovely old woman in the rocker.
Immediately after the mother died the noise ceased. No one expressed any hard feelings toward God for not answering the long and loud prayers for the mother. No one seemed disappointed. I suggested to one of the sons that he should contact his mother's minister and then excused myself. I departed in a state of depression, feeling that their religion and mine had nothing in common. I was saved from despair by the kindred spirit of the lovely quiet woman on the porch.
A RELIGIOUS EDUCATIONAL ADVENTURE
I stumbled upon a book about the Sermon On the Mount the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew, by Ernest Ligon. He was a professor at the Union College in Schenectady, New York. In the book he identified the character traits which were emphasized in those chapters of the bible. Somewhere in the book or on the fly leaf there was a note informing the reader that the author and his colleagues were writing materials for Sunday school teachers and parents as aids in teaching those character traits.
I have before me a copy of lesson two of a series of lessons designed for children in the first and second grades. This group of lessons is known as the Social Adjustment Unit. It has to do with the character traits suggested in Matthew 5:4 and 7. The basic virtues this unit hopes to cultivate are, "being sensitive to the needs of others", and "being determined that every man shall have his chance at happiness and success". The subject for lesson two is, "Words Are Important". "Learning the value of a social vocabulary and social manners as means of expressing consideration for others" was the stated objective for lesson two. The following words are the "socially effective" words the lesson was designed to help children to learn their social value and to practice their use. Thank you. You're welcome. I am sorry. Excuse me. Please. If you please. Will you please help me. I beg your pardon. Let me help. I will try. Let's take turns. It's your turn.
The materials were being published by The Union College Character Research Project, Laboratory of Psychology, Union College, Schenectady, New York.
I wrote to Mr. Ligon, asking on what terms could the Saxon church use the religious materials his colleagues and he were publishing. The first requirement, I learned, was for the church to send the minister and not less than one adult to represent each department of the church school, from kindergarten through high school, to Schenectady, New York, for a three week course of instruction on the nature and use of the materials.
That was an impossible condition for the Saxon church to honor. The people of the church were working people who could not afford to take off from work that long. Also, the church did not have the money to pay the expenses of such a mission. When I informed Mr. Ligon of the hard facts of our situation I asked if he would consider permitting Elien and I to use the materials in our home with Rose, who was in the second grade and Mary Beth who was five. I promised that after we had used lesson one I would pass it on to a couple with children of the proper age. The next week I would take lesson number two to the new couple, pick up number one lesson and pass it on to a third couple and so on.
While he was trying to decide what to do with my request, I offered to pass on, in the same way, the materials for all other age groups if he would agree to it. In time, with some misgivings, he sent me the materials and let me try to introduce them my way. My Monday morning job became taking, dropping off, picking up and dropping off lessons for the week. I had some reservations about the basic philosophical or religious assumptions which were, for the most part, silently used to give the materials some intellectual validity. However, I liked the materials for two reasons. They were mostly concerned with thoughts, ideas, attitudes and values that would, hopefully, help people develop ethical characters or personalities. Also, the materials involved the parents in the religious education of their children. In fact, the materials were prepared more for the daily use of parents than for the use of Sunday school teachers. Their job on Sunday morning was to introduce the things to be studied and explored during the week. Hopefully doing it in a way to arouse the interest of the children to the extent they would want to continue, with their parents during the week, what they started in the Sunday school class.
During the early fifties I knew of a few churches using the materials. Mostly Episcopalians. There may be churches, I know of none, using the materials today. One of the major reasons, in my opinion, the materials were never in popular demand was the fact that their use required more time and effort on the part of parents, in the religious education of their children, than most parents are prepared to give.
Elien and I made an honest effort to use the materials as suggested. I found it helpful to me and I can believe the girls benefited from the experience. How much the other parents used the materials I do not know. No one used it enough to become enthusiastic enough about them to express interest in continuing after the first six month supply was used up. Had those who used the materials become interested enough to help me sell the program to the church I, perhaps, would not have left Saxon, certainly not in 1951. Whatever their defects, the materials were better, in my judgment than what we were getting from the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.
Shortly after moving to Saxon Elien had to have a major operation. Fortunately she recovered in due time. Elien's youngest sister Sally, and her daughter Gloria Jean, who was the same age as Rose, came to look after us until Elien was up and about. Sally's husband was still in the army. It was discovered that Rose had a serious seeing problem. Lucky for her it could be corrected with glasses. She has had little trouble since, except when she loses her contacts.
Mary Beth, at the early age of three, decided to pursue show business as a career. Our neighbor's three year old son, Gordon Gregory, and Mary Beth played together as much as they would have had they been brother and sister. One day when I came home for lunch Mary Beth and Gordon were on the front porch of the neighbor just the other side of the Gregory's. While Gordon watched Mary Beth, without a stitch of clothes on, appeared to be singing a song. I drove on to the house. After telling Elien the location and the nature of the show I returned to the open porch theater. By the time I arrived the show was over and Mary Beth was partly dressed. I do not remember ever discussing the show with Mary Beth. The discussion she and her mother may have I have forgotten, if I ever knew. I do know, for reasons unknown to me, she dropped the striptease act from her front porch show.
Shortly after we got home one Sunday evening from church Mary Beth, for no apparent reason, began crying. After some anxious moments of pleading she revealed, between sobs, the cause of her tears. Her sense of honesty was giving her a mental spanking. Miss Jennings, the choir director, promised to give her and her girl friend, Janice Finley, a dime if they did not say a word during the sermon. Miss Jennings gave each of them a dime when they reported after church that they had not talked. But that rigid judge of the soul, honesty, kept confronting her with the fact that she did talk. Even though it was just a little, once or twice at most, that stern invisible judge insisted that a lie was a lie, be it a big one or little one: she had sold her soul for a dime. So convinced that the dime was making her life unbearable and robbing her of all happiness and self-respect, she insisted I take the dime back to Miss Jennings immediately. I explained Miss Jennings lived across town and it was bedtime. The promise to return the dime the first thing the next morning did not ease her pain. In time I got her to agree I would call Miss Jennings, explain the problem and promise we would return the dime the next morning. No she did not want to speak to Miss Jennings. She would accept my report of what she said.
I reported to Mary Beth that Miss Jennings understood and was willing to forgive and forget; that the next morning would be soon enough to return the dime. That seemed to satisfy the stern judge within and Mary Beth felt much better immediately. The next morning I persuaded Mary Beth to believe she would feel better about it if she went with me and returned the dime herself. Miss Jennings was a music teacher. Her studio was down town. At the proper time Mary Beth and I appeared before her desk. Without a word Mary Beth stepped forward and handed Miss Jennings the dime.
Miss Jennings: "What's that for"?
Mary Beth: "You know".
Awkwardly Miss Jennings tried to make Mary Beth feel better by telling her she had done the right thing in admitting she had talked and in insisting on returning the dime. On the way to the car, hand in hand, I too tried to say something that would be helpful and constructive until Mary Beth said: "I know daddy, let's not talk about it." I do not remember us ever talking about the episode again, not until she was grown up and wanted to know about some of her experiences when she was too young to remember. However I did not at the time tell her or Miss Jennings my true feelings about the matter. Miss Jennings was a very lovely person and I am sure she had the best of intentions, but had she thought before making that promise she never would have made it. I felt she was asking too much of two four year olds. Even my sermon, addressed, entirely to adults, must have been to them twenty minutes of boredom. To ask them to sit through it without a word was asking just too damned much. That is what I would have said to Miss Jennings had I told her my full reaction to her promise. Adults, without intending to, cause children much mental and emotional suffering by conning them, in one way or another, into promising to do what is impossible for them to do. Yes, Miss Jennings I forgave you. I too am guilty.
In a small accident, a few years ago, I cut the back of my right hand that severed the tendon leading to the middle finger. When the doctor sewed it back together he put my hand in a cast to prevent the finger from moving while the tendon was healing. When I went to have the cast removed the fellow came at me with what looked like a baby ripsaw. He turned the switch on and the one-inch saw began a baby buzz. I held up the project long enough to say, "Remember, my arm is just under that cast".
"Oh! I won't cut you. See", and he put the saw on his arm while the saw was going full speed. It seems not to be a saw but a small thin vibrator that gnaws its way through the coarse sand like material of the cast, causing no damage if it should touch the hide.
When Mary Beth was five she fell and broke an arm. I was out of town and Elien had to take her to the doctor alone. I took her, when the time came, to have the cast removed. Thinking this would be a joyful occasion I allowed I got the best end of that deal. When the cast remover came at Mary Beth with, what we thought was a small ripsaw, Mary Beth was seized by an uncontrollable fear. In vain he tried to assure Mary Beth that he would not cut her arm. I could understand her fear. The thing looked like a tiny ripsaw. It buzzed like one. But his verbal assurance was not enough to demand the trust of a five year old. It was a very painful one for me. My promise to hold her arm and not let her get cut was beyond her belief. As I remember it he had to remove the cast without the aid of what each of us judged to be a saw. Why he did not show her it was not a saw, and that it would not cut her arm, if it should touch it, by holding it against his arm is beyond my comprehension. That would have been the kind of assurance a five year old could understand. By forgetting that what is reasonable assurance for adults may be very unreasonable for children, adults without intending to, cause children unnecessary anguish and suffering.
Our social life in Saxon was almost entirely tied in with some kind of church activity or with some group within the church (that was equally true wherever we lived). Elien's activities in the choir, the Sunday school and the women's organizations of the church left her very few free evenings. Occasionally during the summer a few families would prepare a picnic dinner before church and after church take off to the mountains south of Asheville, North Carolina, about forty miles north of Spartanburg. Chimney Rock was one favorite spot. It was on a mountain stream just inside the forest of the mountainside. The going and coming was hedged on both sides by a ceaseless chain of postcard views of mountains, gorges, streams, rolling hills and fields no artist on canvas could capture.