Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Philosophy of Teaching College Students

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word teach derives from an Old English term that means "to point out" or "to show." A teacher, then, is someone who points out or shows to others something they had not seen before. This metaphor suggests at least three things about teaching.

First, it suggests that the teacher knows something significant that is not obvious, something useful that is not immediately accessible. The critical transfer requires someone who can identify for the learners something they would not otherwise know. This aspect of the work of teaching places the first responsibility upon the shoulders of the teacher. He or she must possess a deep knowledge of what is to be taught. Every student has had the bad experience of being "taught" by someone who did not really know the subject. By contrast, students usually appreciate and truly learn from the teacher who "knows his stuff" as they say.

Second, a teacher must give attention to the question of method. It is rumored that when Yogi Berra became a baseball manager, many of his players recognized that he understood the game as well as anyone. But they were often frustrated when Berra struggled to tell them what he knew. By definition, a genuine scholar is someone who has gained a deep understanding of a certain field of knowledge. But not everyone who has mastered a discipline can effectively teach it to someone else.

What are the best ways to teach? The answers to that question will vary, depending on factors like the subject, class size, the length of class sessions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the teacher. However, none of those significant issues matches the importance of the students themselves. In recent decades, educational theorists have partially succeeded in their attempts to convince teachers to give due consideration not only to their subjects, but also to their students. More than anyone else, David J. A. Clines has challenged me to think of my students as fellow learners. His writings and lectures have helped me to become more effective in the classroom. He has taught me to resist the urge to adopt the role of "sage on the stage," and to act more like an expert "guide on the side."

Absorbing the best ideas, practicing the best methods, and becoming a more effective teacher of students is an on-going challenge for me. But having taken up that challenge, I have discovered a few things, and have come to some conclusions about applying the concept of student-centered learning. For example, I believe it is important for teachers to vary their methods of instruction, to come up with creative ways in which they can involve their students in an array of learning activities. Doing this not only helps to retain their attention, it also ensures that students engage and discover for themselves a wider variety of ways to learn. When students watch a video clip, listen to music, fill out a short questionnaire, or pass an interesting object around the room, the senses of sight, hearing, and touch become a bigger part of the learning experience. When students in small groups discuss a well-worded question, and then report their answers to the rest of the class, they challenge and teach one another in lively, unpredictable ways. They also develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning.

Third, the root meaning of the word teach suggests that an ideal learning experience is one where students want to see what it is that the teacher is pointing out to them. But how do teachers help to motivate their students to be real learners? How can they ensure that once the semester is over, the learning will continue?

As I see it, this is one problem where the much-maligned lecture can be a part of the solution. What good can the lowly lecture do? Current research indicates that, although the lecture has its pitfalls as a teaching method, there are a few things it accomplishes well. For example, lectures can help students to read an assignment more effectively by providing an orientation and conceptual framework. Lectures are also good for summarizing material that is scattered over a variety of sources. In my opinion, the great potential of a lecture is realized whenever a teacher speaks clearly and enthusiastically about his or her area of expertise. This is not only great teaching, it also models for students what it means to be a scholar.

Sometimes when I am leading a discussion, especially if the question is open-ended and still unresolved, a student will speak up and ask, "So where do you come out on this?" At that point, I have the opportunity to explain my choice, why I have chosen it, and my relative certainty about my decision. Best of all, at that point I am talking to people who actually care about all of those things. They want to know what the teacher thinks. In that moment, I'm teaching.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My 12 Best Books of 2012

I read a few dozen books in 2012. (See photo above!). You can see some of those books at my Amazon list for this year. Almost all of them were non-fiction, and most of them had something to do with American religious history.

What follows are the top picks: my twelve best books of the last twelve months, in the order that I read them. When I put this list together, I wasn't trying to be objective. These are just the books I liked and appreciated the most. After each title, I'll say a little about each one. One more thing before I get to the list: Please recommend to me at least one really good book that you read this past year. (But I don't mean books of the Bible. I'm talking about books I wasn't supposed to have read).

1. Legacy Churches, by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond (2009)

In the U.S. alone, about 3,200 churches close their doors every year. This book explains that all congregations eventually die, and offers wise counsel to churches that are nearing the end of the life cycle. The authors recommend that dying churches become "legacy churches" by using their financial resources to begin one or more new congregations. Earlier this year, I posted a complete review: "When and How a Church Should Close."

2. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, by Edmund S. Morgan (1965)

Who should be recognized as a member of the church? Morgan, one of the truly great historians of American religion, traces Puritan ideas and practices regarding this question, beginning with the rise of the Reformation in England to about the year 1700. A classic source for understanding Puritanism, this book has remained in print for many years now. For more information, see my full review.

3. Calico Joe, by John Grisham (2012)

I don't read much fiction. But I always enjoy a novel by the great John Grisham. Calico Joe is one of his few non-legal stories. And, like A Painted House, this one has connections to Arkansas. It's a tale about baseball, and it helps if you know something about the game, I think.

4. To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism, by Theodore Dwight Bozeman (1988)

In this highly-significant book, Bozeman starts out by identifying the biblical-restorationist strand in early English Puritanism. Then he shows how this principle was commonly assumed in American Puritanism as well. He convincingly argues that Puritans were committed to a radical application of an old idea: "restoration of primitive purity was to be achieved by massive imitation of the New Testament pattern." Anyone who grew up in a restorationist church will immediately recognize that language. It's been around for a long, long time.

5. Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1635-41, by Michael P. Winship (2002)

This book is a first-rate, detailed account of the so-called Antinomian Controversy, "arguably the single most important event in seventeenth-century American colonial history." A great researcher and a fine writer too, Winship makes this story come alive.

6. The Enlightenment in America, by Henry F. May (1976)

Scholars often speak of "the Enlightenment," as though it was just one thing. In this ground-breaking work on the subject, May says there were actually four distinct Enlightenments that impacted America. In more or less chronological order they were, says May: Moderate, Skeptical, Revolutionary, and Didactic. This book is about understanding these four types, especially as they relate to American religion. For more, see my review.

7. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd Edition, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (2001)

A careful historian, Schmidt makes the case that the religious camp-meetings along the western frontier of America, like the Cane Ridge Revival, were neither spontaneous nor unprecedented. They were, in fact, planned regional communion gatherings, a tradition that began in Scotland in the early 1600s.

8. The Democratization of American Christianity, by Nathan O. Hatch (1989)

A contemporary classic in the field, this book argues that the predominant theme of American Christianity is democracy. History, tradition, and creeds were all swept away to make room for the impulse of the common man. The critical period in the development of this distinctive outlook was 1780-1830.

9. Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler (2009)

A fine novel. The story's about a sixty-year-old man who's recently lost his job and has now packed it in, just waiting around to die, until he finds out that he's not through living. The author has a great feel for the quirky things that sometimes happen to people, double entendre, and how people sometimes get trapped by their own lies.

10. Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History, by John Frederick Wilson (2003)

Originally three lectures in a series, this book is an overview of what's been written about religion in America. It's an excellent survey by one of the acknowledged masters of the subject. If you want to quickly get a handle on the topic, this is the place to go.

11. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South, by Albert J. Raboteau (1978)

How was slave religion in the South "invisible"? It was, says the author, hidden from the eyes and the ears of white society. Slaves who went to worship with their masters came to realize that Christianity was much greater and nobler, more liberating, than the moralistic lessons they were taught at church. So slaves sang to God and preached the gospel any place where they could find seclusion. Originally Raboteau's doctoral dissertation, this book is a ground-breaking, frequently-cited discussion of the topic.

12. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, by Matthew Avery Sutton (2007)

This is a carefully-researched, well-written biography that you're likely to enjoy. The author has family roots in the Foursquare Gospel denomination, which McPherson began. At times, he seems a little too sympathetic to his subject, and he claims too much for her. But it's still a fine book.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Why So Many Muslims Are Angry at the West

Every semester, I teach a freshmen-level course at Amarillo College titled "Introduction to World Religions." It's the toughest teaching assignment I have. In about 40 hours of total class time, I introduce, and we explore, five major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I have been teaching this course for six and half years now. During that time, every semester I've made it a point to read something that is new to me and related to the topic. One of the class sessions on Islam is titled, "Why Are They So Angry? Historical Sources of Muslim Irritation at the West." The following is an overview of two of my better sources for this class period. These are some of the notes I take with me to class:

“The Roots of Muslim Rage” by Bernard Lewis, first appeared in the Atlantic magazine in September 1990. The tag line reads: "Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified." Yes, the article came out more than a decade before September 11, 2001. It's now over twenty years old. But as you'll see, not very much has really changed since then. And that's why I believe this article is still pertinent. Here's what it has to say:

In order to provide some perspective, Lewis points back to German philosophers of the early twentieth century. Typically, they spoke of America as a civilization without a culture. Sure, they said, the United States is emerging as a world power. But unlike Germans, who are an “authentic” people, Americans lack the vitality and integrity of a long-standing, traditional culture. This view was absorbed by some Muslim intellectuals of the time. It is likely that they saw themselves as belonging to the same category as the European nations. Regardless of significant differences, they all possessed a time-honored, settled way of being.

Following the complete collapse of the Third Reich, German influence in the Muslim world was replaced by Soviet-style Marxism. As we know, the Soviets saw America as the most advanced and, therefore, the most dangerous version of Western capitalism. Again, much of this perspective would have been absorbed in regions of the world where Islam was the dominant cultural force.

Still later, the powerful West was demonized even by—in some cases, especially by—writers in Europe and America. According to this storyline, the innocent Adam and Eve of the East were being ruined by the evil serpent of the West.

No, the foregoing does not represent the source of Muslim rage against the West, particularly the U.S.  After all, it’s not as though the Nazi regime would have been sympathetic to Middle Easterners or to Islam. The same goes for atheistic Communism. How could the Soviet system have looked kindly at Islam with its devotion to Allah and the Quran? So, again, these items are not the source. However, they certainly encouraged the rise of Muslim resentment against the U.S., which in these instances represented a sort of common enemy that lived on the other side of the Atlantic. So what are the causes Muslim rage? Lewis lists three things:

1.  American support for the State of Israel (page 7).
2.  American support for hated regimes (7).
3.  Most offensive of all, iimperialism (8). But, says the author, that word "imperialism" has to be understood in the way it is used and heard in the Muslim world. There it has a religious flavor, “being used in association, and sometimes interchangeably, with ‘missionary,’ and denoting a form of attack that includes the Crusades as well as modern colonial empires. This is especially repugnant to Muslims because, in their eyes, the people being subjugated are the ones with the right religion. “What is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers” (9). 

So much for Lewis. My second source on this question is a series of lectures on Islam presented by Bill Humble who taught for many years at Abilene Christian University. In his presentation on "The Muslim World," Humble sized up the question with five points, some of which overlap with the article by Lewis. Why are Muslims angry at the West? Humble says:

1. Resentment at their own economic and military inferiority compared to the West.
2. American diplomatic and financial support of Israel against the Palestinians
3. American military presence in Saudi Arabia, the home of the two most holy cities in Islam: Mecca and Medina.
4. American military actions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. While many Muslims hated and feared Saddam Hussein, they hate the West even more. They want U.S. and NATO military forces out of Muslim countries.
5. The impact of secular western culture (videos, music, magazines, television, etc.). "To many Muslims, especially those in traditional societies, American popular culture looks a lot like old-fashioned paganism, a cult that worships money and sex. For such people, Islam is an oasis of old-fashioned family values." Imam al-Awlaki, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Charles M. Sheldon (1857-1946)

Charles M. Sheldon was born in Westville, New York in 1857. He was one of five children of a Congregational minister. Like a lot of preacher's kids, as he was growing up he moved to several different states. But when he was about ten years old, his father settled on a farm in what is now South Dakota, where the family lived in a log cabin with a dirt floor. For the rest of his life, Sheldon looked back fondly to those years on the farm, characterized by hard work and self-reliance. Later in life--much like his father, apparently--he never shied away from a spartan existence or a new challenge.

When he was a teenager, Sheldon was sent back east to receive his education. He graduated from Phillips Academy, and earned degrees from Brown University (B.A. 1883), and Andover Theological Seminary (B.D., 1886). He spent the next two years serving as minister of the Congregational church in Waterbury, Vermont. In 1888, Sheldon accepted the invitation to become pastor at Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, a position he held for the next thirty-one years. Not long after he began his ministry in Topeka, Sheldon met Mary Abby Merriam. The two were married in 1891 and had one son.

Estimates indicate that in 1890 the population of Topeka was about 31,000. By that time, the town had become a railroad shipping center, and in the subsequent decades its population steadily grew. In short, not long before Charles Sheldon arrived there, Topeka was quickly outgrowing its status as a frontier town and was becoming a Midwestern city.

As Topeka grew, it attracted hundreds of former slaves from the Old South and immigrants who came looking for jobs with the railroad. Recognizing that their world was very different from the world of his white, middle-class congregation, Sheldon decided to spend some time among these groups he hardly knew. He planned to spend one week in "Tennesseetown," the black section of Topeka. But he wound up staying three weeks, instead, observing firsthand the effects of racial prejudice, chronic unemployment, and poverty. Soon afterwards, he enlisted members of his congregation to help him with special projects designed to better the prospects and lift the spirit of the black community. For example, Sheldon established in Topeka the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi River. And the youth organization from his church met regularly to worship with the residents of Tennesseetown. (One of the most illustrious graduates of Sheldon's kindergarten went on to become an attorney. Later, the attorney had two sons who also became attorneys. And those two eventually argued the case known as Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education).

In 1891, Sheldon was wondering what to do with the Sunday-evening service. Attendance was down to nearly nothing. He decided that he would dispense with the regular sermon on Sunday nights. Instead, he would read to the congregation successive chapters in a fictional series he was writing. Before launching the plan, he spoke about it with his mother who told him "the deacons will never allow it." Ignoring his mother's advice, every Sunday night Sheldon read his stories that focused on Christianity as the antidote to racial and class prejudice, poverty and crime, corporate corruption, and the culture of greed and extravagance. He sent each chapter to be published in a Congregational magazine called Advance. Later, a completed series would be published as a single novel.

The first two or three of Sheldon's novels received little attention. But in 1897, he published In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? which immediately became a bestseller. The publisher of the book, who was supposed to have sent two copies to the copyright office, sent only one. Consequently, the book was not under copyright protection, and was pirated by about a dozen publishers (who evidently weren't concerned about what Jesus would do). Within just a few years, millions of copies were sold in a total of about twenty different languages. Sheldon reportedly claimed that in its first forty years, In His Steps sold 30 million copies. The article in American National Biography suggests it was more like 6 million. When Sheldon died, the New York Times said it was 23 million.

At any rate, Sheldon eventually published a total of about 50 novels. Most of them, like In His Steps, are stories with Social Gospel themes. But none of the others ever approached the success of his one great book. In 1919, after recovering from a serious illness, Sheldon resigned from his post at Central Church. For the rest of his life, he served as editor for a magazine called the Christian Herald, in which he published hundreds of articles.

Charles Sheldon's great legacy is his bestseller, one of the most influential books in American history, and that its author defended the civil rights of African Americans, Jews, women, and people who had recently immigrated to the U.S., long before that sort of thing was popular.


Bowden, Henry Warner. Dictionary of American Religious Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977.

Brown, J. C. "Sheldon, Charles Monroe (1857-1946)." In Dictionary of Christianity in America, edited by Daniel G. Reid, 1082. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990.

Luker, Ralph E. "Sheldon, Charles Monroe." In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 19:780-81. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An excellent brief source on Sheldon.

"Rev. Dr. Sheldon, Noted Writer, Dies," New York Times. February 25, 1946.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Social Gospel

Next week, I'm supposed to make a presentation about the Christian classic, In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon. At this point, I'm planning to spend the first five minutes or so describing the Social Gospel Movement, the historical backdrop for the novel. Here are the notes I've come up with so far:

"The Social Gospel" refers to a movement within some Protestant churches in North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement was a Christian response to a widely-perceived problem.

During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the U.S. and Canada experienced first agricultural and then industrial expansion. The immigration of tens of millions of people, primarily to the U.S., made the scale of this expansion possible.

This "modern situation," as it was called also generated what observers referred to as "the social question." That phrase included issues like the tension--and sometimes outright conflict--between labor and capital, the question of a just wage, the unprecedented growth of cities, and above all poverty and its effects (Schweicker, 67).

One of the basic convictions of the Social Gospel was that "society is a web of mutually interdependent relations and interests" (Otatti, 468). The problems of the unemployed person or the poor laborer are not simply individual. Instead, they are environmental or systemic. Therefore, the solutions to poverty and its effects are not only personal, but are also systemic. Advocates of the Social Gospel believed that this insight spoke not only about the world, but also to the church.  For that reason, they insisted that the church "could no longer claim that true religion is entirely a matter of personal conversion and individual salvation" (Otatti, 469).

Social Gospelers, as they are sometimes called, were convinced that their age had presented the church with a basic question: is our general, collective economic and social life beyond the scope of Christian ethics? Or is it the case that "the social question" pertains to the church; that responding to it is part of the business of the body of Christ? Leaders of the Social Gospel answered by saying that the church's obedience to a God of justice, its faith in a God of mercy, was exactly what North America needed. Why? Because it was the church that could say, "Unregulated industrial expansion and laissez-faire economics must be tempered by the command 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Ahlstrom, 786-77). Because that was the message of the Social Gospel, some people have said it was the religious face of the progressive movement and reform impulses in American politics of the time.

A couplet from the Lord's Prayer epitomizes what advocates worked for and really expected. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The Social Gospel movement began with the burden that the will of God was not being done in North America. To that extent, the kingdom had not yet come. But it could.

An interesting group of people provided leadership for the Social Gospel. Any short list would include the name Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a Congregational minister who spent a good number of his working years in Columbus, Ohio. Gladden was a popular speaker, and wrote about 40 books. One of the first, published in 1886, was titled Applied Christianity. Because his influence was early and immense, he is commonly called the father of the Social Gospel.

Another early leader was Josiah Strong (1847-1916). Like Gladden, Strong was a Congregational minister. He served mainly as a peacemaker and organizer among the various Protestant denominations. From 1886 to 1898, he was general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance. He was also one of the founders in 1908 of the interdenominational group, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America.

Probably the most significant non-preacher in the group was Richard Ely (1854-1943), a layman in the Episcopal Church. Ely was a political economist who took an interest in theological and religious issues. His expertise on economic questions made the Social Gospel movement seem more credible, and this was basic to its influence.

The best theological thinker and most eloquent prophet of the movement was the great Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). The son of German immigrants, in the 1880s Rauschenbusch began working as pastor of a Baptist congregation near that part of Manhattan called Hell's Kitchen. Ministering there, he was forever changed by his experience of what he called "an endless procession of men out of work,  . . . out of shoes, and out of hope." This became the burden that drove his ministry (Wooden, 267). In his later years, Rauschenbusch taught at Rochester Theological Seminary. In 1907, he published Christianity and the Social Crisis. He said that he wrote that book "to discharge a debt" that he owed to the working men among whom he had served. The book became a bestseller. In 1917, he published another significant book, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

And then there was the great creative writer of the movement, the Congregational minister, an activist, and novelist named Charles Sheldon. My next post will be about him.


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. See especially Chapter 47, "The Social Gospel," pp. 785-804. This source provides uncommon insight for understanding the Social Gospel Movement.

Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed., revised. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Erikson, Millard J. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. revised ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001.

Handy, R. T. "Social Gospel Movement." In Dictionary of Christianity in America, edited by Daniel G. Reid, 1104-06. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Hutchinson, William R. American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1968.

Ottati, Douglas F. "Social Gospel." In New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, edited by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, 468-70. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.

Schweiker, William. "Social Gospel." In Encyclopedia of Christianity, edited by Erwin Fahlbusch, Jan Milic Lochman, John Mbiti, Jaroslav Pelikan, Lukas Vischer, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and David B. Barrett, 5:67-69. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

Wooden, W. Frederick. "Social Gospel." In Encyclopedia of American History, edited by Ari Hoogenboom and Gary B. Nash, 6:266-67. New York: Facts On File, 2003.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

More about R. W. Officer and His Family

Since I last posted about the life and times of R[obert] W[allace] Officer, I have been able to discover additional information about him and his family. These new-to-me facts pertain to Officer's later years, which he spent in Red River and Hall Counties, Texas.

According to a record I obtained through "Find A Grave" by way of, the wife of R. W. Officer, Alice Crenshaw Gist Officer, died on September 21, 1921. As the photo and description in my first post indicate, the Crenshaw name does not appear on her tombstone. And, the stone lacks the birth and death dates for Alice.

Further, according to the 1910 United States Federal Census (Justice Precinct 4, Red River, Texas, Roll: T624_1585, page 10B), Alice Officer was born in 1860, and was then 50 years old, fifteen years younger than R. W., born in 1845, making him then 65 years old.

Now, Red River County, Texas is in the northeastern part of the state, hundreds of miles from Turkey, in Hall County. Yet, everything I've ever read has R. W. moving to Turkey in the early part of the 20th century. I'm confident that Officer did come to Turkey in the early part of the 1900s. But it's intriguing to find that the U.S. Census places him and his second wife, Alice, in Red River County in 1910.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

How History Should Be Told

A few days ago I was flipping through the channels when I came to a live broadcast of the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. There speaking to a group of hundreds of admirers was Robert Caro, the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson.

As of 2012, Caro has now completed four of a projected five volumes covering the years of LBJ. Caro had a lot of interesting things to say about Johnson the man. But what I found most interesting was his reflection on how he conceives of his project. He told the crowd:

I don't think of these books as being about Lyndon Johnson. . . .  I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the life of a famous man. From the moment I first thought of doing books, I thought of biographies as a way of examining the great forces that shaped the times that they lived in.

Caro's words reminded me of something I had read in the original preface to Fernand Braudel's 600,000-word history of the Mediterranean world during the second half of the sixteenth century. A father of modern historiography, Braudel relates that when he began his research on what would eventually become such a massive work, he meant only to write a diplomatic history of the reign of the Spanish king Philip II. But the further he explored the man and his times, the more the historian realized that whether he was studying the king of Spain or Don John of Austria, "despite their illusions" such leaders of the time were "more acted upon than actors" (19).

More acted upon than actors. Such an interesting phrase, it suggests that although it would be foolish to say that human leaders such as Alexander the Great or Martin Luther or Adolf Hitler made no real difference, historical contexts like geography, political states, and economies are also "participants" in the story that is history.

So, whatever I eventually publish in the field of history, I want it to be about people. I also want it to be about "the great forces that shaped the times they lived in." That seems to me the right way.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Death of R. W. Officer's Adopted Daughter, 1900

This post is a follow-up to the previous one which reproduces the obituary for Lota Venable Officer. It appeared in the newspaper serving Atoka, Indian Territory at the time.

Lota was R. W. Officer's first wife. The two were married in Winchester, Franklin County, Tennessee on Christmas Day, 1871. A number of secondary sources, which simply repeat each other, have them married on December 25, 1870. But the original marriage certificate, of which I have a copy, clearly indicates 1871.

Lota died on January 30, 1900, and her obituary appeared in the paper dated February 1. Two weeks later, on February 15, the same paper ran the following article:

Gone Home.

Elder R. W. Officer received the sad news Saturday, that Mrs. Allen Cunnings had died at her home at Allen, I. T.  He immediately left to attend the funeral services. Mrs. Allen Cunnings, nee Pheobe Gertrude Anderson, was an adopted child whom Mr. and Mrs. Officer took into their home and care at the age of seven years. She was Leon's playmate and was cared for and given the best advantages. She attended school in Atoka, and then Mr. Officer sent her off to school for three years. Soon after returning from school she married Mr. Allen Cunnings, a worthy and faithful man and a kind husband. This home was not blessed by any children, and since she had been called away so early, 'tis better so. She was a christian and had been for a number of years; but she was never strong; consumption was the cause of her untimely death. To the friends and bereaved husband we extend our sympathy and commend them to the Great Comforter of whom we can get that peace and comfort that passeth all understanding.

Indian Citizen-Democrat, February 15, 1900.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lota Venable Officer's Obituary from Atoka, Indian Territory, 1900

Related to my on-going project on R. W. Officer (1845-1930), I’ve made a new friend at the Atoka County (Oklahoma) Historical Society. Sometime back, she sent me two very interesting pieces from the Indian Citizen-Democrat (Atoka, Indian Territory) which date back to February 1900.  One of the two articles appears below. I will soon transcribe the second and make it my next post.

As anyone acquainted with Officer knows, he was a prolific writer for leading papers and journals among the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches. This was the case until about 1907, at which point the stream of articles dried up. Officer’s first wife, Lota Venable Officer, died at Atoka, Indian Territory on Jan. 30, 1900.  I have yet to see the obituary that R. W. wrote for the Gospel Advocate vol. 42 (Feb. 15, 1900), but Earl I. West quotes from it in his work Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 3, p. 134. What follows is the obituary that appeared in the local newspaper at Atoka:

At Rest.

"The weary time is over,
Her troubles cease to be"

In October 1853, at Winchester, Tenn., a baby girl was born to Major and Mrs. Venable, and was called Lota, and yesterday, the family and friends looked for the last time upon the body or house in which she had for 47 years lived, and in the Indian Territory that body was laid to rest. Miss Lota Veneable [sic] was educated at the renowned and fine old Mary Sharp College where as a student, artist, and young woman, she held the esteem and respect few can claim. About thirty years ago Miss Lota Venable became Mrs. R. W. Officer, and as a wife and mother, that character esteemed in young womanhood, blossomed, bloomed and shed its influence upon the lives of husband, son and those enjoying her friendship and as they laid her body to rest though rejoicing in “that hope,” her inheritance in Eternity; yet feeling that an earthly stay, strength and comfort has gone. For many years health and physical ease have been vainly sought by her, and her husband has been untiring in his efforts and determination to secure medical aid which would restore her health. During the last twenty-two weeks of her life she has patiently and bravely born a tormenting complication of diseases. During this long and lingering season the faithful, devoted and tender care of that husband, son and Miss Mamie Phillips shed around her such a halo that the darkest and heaviest cloud of sorrow’s hoar was dispelled. When she became aware of the fact that her days were to be only a few more, she simply said of death she had no fear and of her future she knew; but the parting from those she loved was all she had to regret. She asked them to be brave and not let her see any tears and so they did. To her boy she bid farewell and told him she knew he would live as she wished and had taught him. Supported in the arms that have nursed, lifted and protected her for years, she passed away as one falling to sleep. Her last motion and words were an appeal to Miss Mamie to help her to breathe easier. Mr. Officer’s loneliness and care of his invalid wife being ended is closely akin to the sadness of a mother who has laid to rest the babe of her bosom - - the empty lap, the hands can do no more for the beloved one. But the Great Physician has touched and healed that painful body, the soul shackled is loosed and is with the world’s Redeemer. The imprint of her character and life she has left with us in her son. The funeral services at the home Wednesday at 3 o’clock bespoke the esteem of the life here lived - - a host of friends, the beautiful flowers and kindest sympathy. While singing her favorite hymn “How Firm a Foundation” the body was covered in its last resting place in the city of polished white mansions of stone. Of the dead that die in the Lord, we are assured they are blessed, and to those yet waiting there is promised “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord.” God grant we may all be lovers of and die in the Lord.

 “In Heaven above where all is love

   There will be no sorrow there”
--Indian Citizen-Democrat (Atoka, Indian Territory), February 1, 1900.

Sometime back, someone interested in my research kindly passed along to me a recently-created web page featuring Lota Venable Officer’s gravestone.  Here’s a link to that page:
Again, I have yet to see the original article R. W. immediately sent to the Gospel Advocate magazine. But according to Earl West, who cites the GA article, the woman attending to Lota was none other than a daughter.  Also, in West’s report based on Officer’s article, the young woman’s name is spelled Maimee, that is, with the double e at the end of her name. But what seems clear from the obituary posted above is that son Leon Officer and Miss Mamie Phillips do not have the same relationship to the deceased.  This makes me wonder if “Miss Mamie” was a young woman who, years before, had been adopted by the Officers. If that were the case, why would she be wearing the last name of Phillips? We know that Officer rescued orphaned Indians and sometimes “placed” them with Christian families he knew through his extensive network. It appears that he and Lota sometimes fully adopted others. And this is related to a second article which, again, I will pass along within a day or so.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Enlightenment? Try Four Enlightenments

May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

May says that before he wrote this book he went exploring. He wanted to find “in the eighteenth century the roots of nineteenth-century American culture.” When he examined the writings of eighteenth century Americans, he saw a mixture of New England Calvinist Protestantism and the European Enlightenment. Moving on to the next century, he noticed that the “unexpressed and implied ideology of nineteenth-century America rested . . . on a series of tacit compromises. Of these the most basic was the compromise between a belief in moral certainties and a belief in the desirability of change and progress” (xi-xii).

Looking at the relevant secondary literature, he saw the hundreds of works that took up some aspect of Calvinist Protestantism in America.Yet hardly anyone had written about the American career of the European Enlightenment, although its principles were everywhere assumed. So, acknowledging that the two parts had to be taken together, he decided to focus on the one that had hardly been treated:

My book . . . does not deal equally with the two main clusters of ideas influential in early America: the Enlightenment and Protestantism, but rather about the Enlightenment, with Protestantism always in the background as matrix, rival, ally, and enemy. It is not about the Enlightenment and religion, but rather about the Enlightenment as religion (xiii).

May’s working definition of the Enlightenment as religion reads: “the Enlightenment consists of all those who believe two propositions: first, that the present age is more enlightened than the past; and second, that we understand nature and man best through the use of our natural faculties” (xiv). But things were never as simple as that because, as May observes, many Americans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would fall somewhere along a spectrum between Protestantism and the Enlightenment. The most revealing question might be, “To what degree would a person assent to the idea that reason, as opposed to revelation, tradition, or illumination, is the best guide?”

The biggest challenge for May was related to the fact that, while scholars had seen and studied the varieties of Protestantism, hardly anyone had sorted out the variety and difference within the Enlightenment (xv-xvi). So May created his own four-part division of the European Enlightenment, an arrangement that follows a more or less chronological order:

1. Moderate.  “This preached balance, order and religious compromise, and was dominant in England from the time of Newton and Locke until about the middle of the eighteenth century” (xvi).

2. Skeptical. Developed in Britain but especially France around 1750, this Enlightenment’s grand master was Voltaire. Among its most significant results were the skepticism of Hume and the materialism of Holbach.

3. Revolutionary. According to this variety, one could construct a new heaven and a new earth by destroying the old. It began with Rousseau and culminated in Paine and Godwin.

4. Didactic. This Enlightenment opposed both skepticism and revolution. From what it saw as the debacle of those Enlightenments, it attempted to save “the intelligible universe, clear and certain moral judgments, and progress.” Its main center was Scotland and began around 1750, but really triumphed, in America in 1800-1825 (xvi).

The Enlightenment in America is a survey of these four types. May concludes that by the time of early nineteenth century, the Skeptical and Revolutionary Enlightenments had died out. The Skeptical had always been much too radical and dismissive of religion, not to mention unintelligible, for most Americans. The Revolutionary had served its purpose in America and had been discredited by the more recent excesses connected with the revolution in France. Too, both of these Enlightenments were overcome by that triumph of Protestantism known as the Second Great Awakening. At the same time, the effects of the Moderate Enlightenment were still present in American politics and religion.  The Didactic Enlightenment was both practical and easy to understand. Above all, it could be mixed with the variety of religion that was popular in America at that time. Thus, the Didactic emerged as the greatest philosophical force in American intellectual culture during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Puritan Backgrounds to the Churches of Christ

"To the eyes of the Puritan faithful, Scripture presented a dramatic panorama which moved from Creation to Redemption to Resurrection and Last Things, a panorama that sprang into present life in preaching, biblical study, and meditation." --T.D. Bozeman, To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, p. 33.

Those who suspect that the Stone-Campbell Movement (a.k.a, the American Restoration Movement) goes back no further than Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell really should read this book. Bozeman clearly reveals that from their start in the 1560s the Puritans were biblical primitivists with assumptions and specific language that anyone who grew up among the Churches of Christ knows very well.  When I read the foregoing words from Bozeman, I immediately thought of an elaborate biblical timeline I had seen before. It's painted on the wall in one of the children's Bible classrooms at the San Jacinto Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas.  I snapped a few photos. Take a look:

From Creation to Final Consummation
and points along the way . . .

Monday, June 18, 2012

Two Sorts of Puritans?

Knight, Janice. Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

In this carefully-researched and well-written book, Janice Knight argues that the standard scholarly portrait of American Puritanism stands to be corrected and supplemented. She begins by observing that from Cotton Mather to Perry Miller, historians have portrayed American Puritans as a unified group that upheld a coherent orthodoxy. Knight, on the other hand, hears what she calls “significant differences and alternative voices within Puritan culture” (2). In fact, she identifies two distinct groups with well-known leaders in each one. Knight distinguishes between what she terms the “Intellectual Fathers,” roughly equivalent to Miller’s orthodoxy, and the “Spiritual Brethren.” In contrast to the first group, the “Spiritual Brethren” embraced a “mystical strain of piety” that was “associated with Augustinianism.” Another distinction was that, contrasted with the first group, the second emphasized “divine benevolence over power” and “converted biblical metaphors of kingship into ones of kinship” (3).

Knight says that the “Intellectual Fathers” were represented in England by William Perkins and, above all, William Ames. In America, the Amesian tradition was carried forward by Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Peter Bulkeley, John Winthrop and most of the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The “Spiritual Brethren,” on the other hand, were led in England by John Preston and, above all, Richard Sibbes. In America, the Sibbesian tradition was upheld most prominently by John Cotton, John Davenport, and Henry Vane.

Assuming for the moment that Knight’s distinction is valid, someone might ask how it could have been so consistently overlooked in the past. In response, Knight observes that in England, in spite of their differences, Puritans were held to together by common enemies like Catholicism and High Anglicanism. In America, following the Antinomian Controversy (1636-1638), the apologies written by Shepard and Winthrop actually began the process of establishing what Perry Miller would eventually identify as a univocal Puritanism. That is to say, from very early times, differences among American Puritans were white washed and suppressed. From the time of Miller forward, scholarship on the Puritans has tended to simply reinforce his reigning interpretation, while investigating some aspect or another. Even those historians who have identified something different in John Cotton have typically seen him as exceptional. But, again, Knight interprets Cotton as representative of a dissenting tradition that originated in England and of which several other popular leaders were a part.

For the remainder of the book, Knight explains and illustrates how her thesis is no mere academic distinction, but that it actually serves as a sort of interpretive master key. Her basic insight, she says, is vital to a full understanding of historic episodes like the Antinomian Controversy and Henry Vane’s loss of the governorship in 1637. But more than anything else, Knight’s distinction shines a light on significantly different ideas, beliefs, and practices within Puritanism. These include the following: the attributes of God, theological anthropology, the nature of sin, the process of conversion, preaching styles, love for God, self, and neighbor, and pastoral roles and responsibilities. From beginning to end, Knight attempts to show that on each of these points, we can readily perceive what she identifies as two different and coherent traditions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Chloe and Dad go to Pepperdine

On Sunday, April 29th, I went to worship with my home congregation, the San Jacinto Church of Christ in Amarillo, TX. Nothing unusual about that. The unusual part began sometime after lunch.

That afternoon, I said my good-byes to Michele and Aubrey and drove to Albuquerque, NM, where my daughter Chloe would be flying in from Hartford later that afternoon. I hadn't seen Chloe since my last trip to Connecticut in January. So I was excited about our reunion. I was also excited about our plans: We were headed for the Bible Lectures at Pepperdine University, a first for both of us.

There aren't many signs of civilization between Amarillo and Albuquerque. As it turned out, I didn't stop once. That worked out pretty well since Chloe landed about 15 minutes after I got to the airport! By the time she got off the plane and we picked up her bag, it had already been a fairly long day for the both of us. But I wanted to get as far west as Grants, NM by that night. It was time for dinner, so we decided to get something to eat near the airport. I asked a stranger where we should go to eat. "Go over to Central and have supper at Scalo," she said. She told us that it wasn't far from the airport and that the food was great. She was right. Here's the stuffed pork chop Chloe had.

By about 10 that night, we'd made it to Grants, where we spent the night. Sometime Monday morning, we made it to the Arizona border.

By the early afternoon, we'd made it to Flagstaff, AZ. And we were hungry. But we didn't want to eat at a fast-food place. We were looking for something a bit more adventuresome. So we drove around for a minute until we happened upon this place. It was really good . . . .

And we took pictures of each other. . . .

By the time we finished our leisurely lunch, we knew it had to make good time. We had to make it to the coast that night. So from Flagstaff on, it was serious car time. We stopped only a few more times and made it to Thousand Oaks, CA in good time. We got to sleep in the next morning, and since the Pepperdine events wouldn't start until later that day, we decided to go take a look at Beverly Hills. Here's the nice little "ristorante" where we had lunch on Beverly Drive.

Later that afternoon, we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Pepperdine campus in Malibu. The California weather wasn't cooperating just yet. It was overcast and kind of gray. But it was beautiful anyway.

Once we got moved in to the dorm, we walked down the hill to Firestone Fieldhouse. There, we got to sing with hundreds of other Christians and hear a really fine sermon by Jonathan Storment. I was especially interested in one of the late-night sessions, the series by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine. Their focus for the week was the great K. C. Moser in the context of his times. The first night was so good, I wound up going to all three sessions. Here they are on the first night.

After breakfast the next morning, I was ready to meet and to hear Tom Olbricht speak about the history of Bible lectureships. I really enjoyed taking in his two presentations on Wednesday and Thursday. . . .

Later, Chloe and I met up and went to the Harding School of Theology luncheon. It was great to see Dean Evertt Huffard for the first time in several years. I also got to meet fellow blogger Matthew Morine (purple shirt in the photo) and several others. We listened to Dr. Ed Gray who reminded us of the role and kingdom purposes of Christian counselors. His presentation featured an announcement regarding a new program of counseling studies at HST.

By Thursday, the clouds had mostly gone away, and the Pacific coast was drenched in sunlight. . . . .

Later that afternoon, we went further up the hill to where the graduate schools are. We found a nice patio where we just sat and read and took this picture . . . .

Friday morning, I got to hear Terry Gardner's really fine presentation on the life and times of Austin McGary. The Restoration Quarterly luncheon featured a talk by Doug Foster. He focused on four historic leaders among the African-American Churches of Christ.

That afternoon, we headed east. We spent the night at Needles, CA, and by Sunday morning, I was taking Chloe to the Albuquerque airport. It had been a great week for the two of us, one that we won't forget for a long time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Big Picture of Puritan History

What follows is not a critical book review of Stephen Foster's, The Long Argument. At the beginning, I do say a few things about the content and significance of the book. But for the most part, I'm simply writing about some of my reflections and curiosities as I was reading.

Foster, Stephen. The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Foster begins this fine, influential survey of Puritan history with a general observation: American historians have written as though they assumed that English migration to America represented a brand new beginning, something separate from everything else before. Whenever these historians have acknowledged transatlantic connections, invariably these have been connections to England. Along this line, the author reminds us that the Spanish established settlements in America at least as early as the English. Yet, American historians have normally called those earliest Spanish settlements “borderlands,” which are “peripheral by definition” (2).

Foster notes that Puritan studies have not avoided this common feature of American historiography. Thus, the American chapter of Puritan history has usually been isolated from its English parentage. This, says Foster, has resulted in a number of misunderstandings and poor reconstructions of the past. He observes:

Without some longer view that fuses the American and English histories of the Puritans and thereby locates enduring commitments and points of accord in decade after decade of reverses, internal divisions, and lamentations of decline the inevitable temptation has been to single out as definitive some one characteristic or another of a much broader movement and to tie the fate of a protean phenomenon to purely temporary arrangements (4).

Given that set of circumstances, Foster issues the following prescription and expectation: "Reassemble the English and American halves, examine the result over time, and with a proper regard to its settings, and the rough outline of the beast becomes visible enough" (5). With that, the author takes the reader on a masterful tour that begins during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and ends with the First Great Awakening whose events so ruptured Puritanism that by 1800 “there was no longer a movement” (290). In telling this longer version of the story, Foster demonstrates the validity of what stands behind the main title of his book. Near the end, he explains that The Long Argument does not refer so much to disputes or even to a particular dispute, “but to the continuing narrative” of at least 130 years of Puritan history (287).

Along the way, the author provides a good number of important insights on his topic, as well as some significant additions and corrections to the secondary literature. In what follows, I will report a few of these (the ones that really struck me), and will also mention some of the daydreams and questions that occurred to me as I was reading this book.

In Chapter 1, “The Elizabethan Contribution,” Foster says that one of the early hallmarks of Puritanism was a tension according to which (a) an individual must not live a life that is random. You cannot live as you want nor do as you please. To state it positively, there must be a better, greater purpose to a person’s life than simply pursuing one's own desires. But (b), said the Puritans, the church and the secular powers are failing in their duties to promote and enforce this ideal (9). I was especially interested in a related section where Foster describes how English Puritans had a stock literary character: the decent person who is really not engaged in religious matters. He is disinterested and ignorant. Yet he assumes he has nothing to worry about. After all, he’s really not much worse than anyone else (38-39).

I was intrigued by this because, looking back from the time of the Puritans, the impulse just described appears to be a theme among the followers of John Wyclif. I am aware that having studied a little about the Lollards, I am susceptible to seeing their influence everywhere. Still, we have the following statement from Foster himself:

The Lollards do merit a place in the prehistory of Puritanism because they persisted as an exclusively popular heresy for several generations after the authorities had frightened off the movement's original university-based leadership and its knightly supporters and because in some undetermined and perhaps indeterminable way they contributed to the Reformation itself (7).

So I wonder: in the Puritan trope identified above, are we looking at something that is at least in part a vestige of Lollardy? In his informal heresy trial before Archbishop Thomas Arundel, for example, the Lollard priest William Thorpe laments what “a great pity and sorrow” it is “that many men and women do their own wayward will; nor busy them not to know nor to do the pleasant will of God” (103). Later, Thorpe complains to Arundel that religion in England is so confused that those regarded to be out of the faith are really in, and vice versa. Remarkably, at least in this part of the examination, Thorpe does not distinguish the two groups along the lines of propositional truth. Instead, his accusation against people who are wrongly considered true members of Christ’s Church has more to do with their neglect of the things that matter most. According to Thorpe, these people “neither know nor have will to know nor to occupy their wits truly and effectuously in the right faith of Holy Church” (122). [The text used here is found in Alfred W. Pollard, FifteenthCentury Prose and Verse (New York: Cooper Square, 1964), 101-67]. Of course, it would take much more than this to demonstrate a line of historical influence. But to my ears, Foster’s description and Thorpe’s accusation sound very similar.

Moving forward from the time of the Puritans, I think about some of my own experiences growing up going to church. A minor theme in the sermons I heard back then was, if you’re going to be God’s person, then you must necessarily rise above the ordinary. The world being what it is, to be average is to be displeasing to God. More frequently, I heard that sincerity is not enough. One can be sincerely wrong. And, balancing bad deeds with good will not work. Good deeds are not the antidote to sin.

In Chapter 2, “Continuity and Ambiguity, ‘The Gospel Doing,’ 1590-1630” Foster tells us about Robert Cawdry, a radical Puritan of the late sixteenth century. Cawdry produced and refined “the first monolingual English dictionary” as a means of helping the common people to learn more from the sermons they heard (66). Clear definition, he believed, was basic to growing in knowledge. There is a lot of truth to that, of course. But here’s what really struck me as I read about Cawdry’s project: In the sermons I heard growing up, the dictionary was almost as likely to be quoted as the Bible. Not as often, of course. Usually, if the dictionary (almost always, Webster’s) was cited in a sermon, then that citation came at the beginning (much in the way of debates, where defining terms was a basic part of the first speech). In my experience, some theological definitions were mentioned so often, we came to memorize them. The first mention of “grace” almost always came with the reminder that this word means “unmerited favor ” (a definition that, strangely, is true enough while not really getting to the heart of the Christian message, which offers forgiveness in spite of demerits). And then there were these sort of folksy definitions that weren’t really accurate. But because they were so memorable, so preachable, ministers found them irresistible. For example, “justified” meant “just as if I’d” never sinned. Break up the word “atonement” and you get “at one ment,” and so on.

When reading about Cawdry and his dictionary, I also thought about Sherman, Texas, during the first half of 1904. That was the scene of T. B. Larimore’s gospel meeting that lasted six months. Larimore preached at two services every day, and three times on Sunday: fifteen sermons a week. David Lipscomb, then editor of the Gospel Advocate in Nashville, took an interest in the extraordinary meeting and wrote to Larimore asking him to report. Larimore’s reply includes this tidbit: “What books do I consult? The Bible, Webster's Dictionary, and the Bible--these three, and no more.” For more about this famous Churches of Christ episode, see an earlier blog post of mine.

In Chapter 5, Foster describes the circumstances in New England which led to the so-called Halfway Covenant. This is an example of where a longer treatment can be significantly more revealing. I say this because, although Edmund Morgan discusses the same episode in his book Visible Saints, he does not describe the particulars, at least not to the extent that Foster does.

Foster makes the case that at least two things led to the development of the Halfway Covenant: First, in New England, the descendants of the Puritans who migrated to New England did not have the same volume and quality of religious sources that their forefathers had had in England; not as many pamphlets, books, sermons, etc.

Second, as the population in New England grew larger, it grew younger. The percentage of very young people, all of them born in America, and all of them without the benefit of the religious “means” known in England, was remarkably high. To their parents and grandparents, they seemed hopelessly irreligious.

Foster explains that the Halfway Covenant,developed in 1656-57, essentially said that these young people who had come of age (16 or older) were still members of the church. However, until they could convince their congregations that they had had the experience of saving grace, they were not considered in communion with the church. Therefore, they could not participate in the Lord’s Supper and were not permitted to vote. And he makes it a special point to say that “all of the seventeen clergymen at the assembly were English-born; all but two were English-educated and had come to America as adults” (187-88). Foster’s description went a long way in helping me to get a feel for what was to Puritans of the time a situation that had to be dealt with.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Trip to Turkey on the Trail of R. W. Officer

For a few years now, I've wanted to travel to two Turkeys. I've now visited one. That country in Asia? The scene of some of the most impressive growth experienced by the first-century Church? That'll have to wait for another time. This time, last Friday, March 9, 2012 to be exact, I went to the other Turkey, a small town located in the southwest corner of Hall County, Texas.

And why did I want to visit this Turkey? Mainly because it is the last home and the resting place of one R. W. Officer, a most impressive historical figure. Born in 1845 in Georgia, Officer was a veteran of the Civil War who later became a preacher, writer, debater, and a renown missionary in Indian Territory (part of what is now Oklahoma). Early on, Officer was a Baptist. But for the big majority of his career as a Christian leader, he was connected to the Churches of Christ. The following are some of my notes about Turkey and my search for him and his family.

It's sort of a rite of passage now. To get to R. W. Officer, you first have to meet someone else. Entering town from the north, visitors are greeted by this sign paying tribute to Turkey's favorite son, Bob Wills, "the King of Western Swing." Check out the detail of the silhouettes on this sign. Impressive! Incidentally, Bob Wills is one of the few (or, the only?) to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame (1968) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1999). I've only recently begun listening to his music. What an interesting, charismatic person he was. He epitomizes the unmistakable spirit of West Texas, the one that says, "Life is what you make it!" I can only imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who had to smile when they heard his songs. He was one-of-a-kind. And, before Wills became famous it's very likely that he was R. W. Officer's barber.

Just one block north of Main Street (Highway 86), on 3rd Street stands the historic Hotel Turkey. Yes, that's a mounted turkey on the front porch. My understanding is that the original settlement was called "Turkey Roost." Just behind the bird are two plaques on the wall . . .

Pictured here is Cody Bell, a friendly guy and the owner of the hotel. When I met him in the lobby, he took an immediate interest in my research and provided me with a good bit of information about the town and its history. In the early 1900s, both sets of his grandparents, the Bells and the Meachams, were early settlers in Turkey. Cody confirmed that President George W. Bush has spent a night or two at the hotel. I know, you Democrats will think that explains the name.

The hotel features an very good restaurant. I thoroughly enjoyed my grilled chicken sandwich, one of the best ever!

After lunch, before I went out to the cemetery Cody took me over to the old school building that houses the public library and the Bob Wills Museum. Pictured above is just one of the many wall-sized photos in the museum. Fans should make time to visit this place. When you do, be sure to watch the video. The annual Bob Wills celebration in Turkey is held each year on the last Saturday in April. Just one more reason to go back.

Dreamland Cemetery is a few miles south and east of town. Take Highway 70 south to Farm to Market Road 656. A sign on 70 directs you toward the cemetery. From the highway, the road runs east and then curves to the south. The road divides the cemetery. A newer section lies to the east. The older graves, including Officer's, are on the west side.

Both Laurence W. Scott (Texas Pulpit, 1888, p. 384) and F. D. Srygley (Biographies and Sermons, 1898, p. 309) tell us that R. W. Officer's first wife was Lota Venable of Winchester, Tennessee, and that the two were married on Christmas Day 1870. Srygley, writing near the end of the 1800s, says that the two were still married at the time.

At this point, my assumption is that Alice Gist Officer was R. W.'s second wife. I don't know of any other wives. According to Earl I. West, (Search for the Ancient Order, vol. III, p. 134), Lota Venable Officer died January 30, 1900. I don't know where she is buried. Likely in Paris or Gainesville, Texas, or somewhere in Oklahoma. Another mystery: Alice Gist Officer's tombstone provides no dates. Silas Shotwell, an authority on Officer now living at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, tells me that when Alice died, her husband R. W., then 85 years old, remarked that he was ready to go. Within a few days, he died. So, the presumed date of death for Alice Gist is 1930.

Sometimes, seeing a place for yourself makes a real difference. And here we have a case in point. According to this source, Leon Officer is "the only family member of note in the plot." From that, one would never guess that R. W.'s wife lies buried in the very next grave, a strange oversight.

People still living who grew up in Turkey speak of a "Mrs. Officer" who was a "tough" school teacher. Because these people would have gone to school after 1930, my assumption is that this "Mrs Officer" was not Alice Gist Officer. Was the school teacher Leon's widow, R. W.'s daughter-in-law? Or was she R.W.'s daughter or granddaughter? Also, piecing together the available evidence, it is clear that Alice Gist Officer was not Leon's mother. Yet, "Mother" is her epitaph. So who was her child?

According to my best information, Leon V. Officer (1877-1922) was R. W.'s son, born when the father was 32 years old. Leon never reached his 45th birthday. Remarkably, the father made it to his 85th. Does Leon's middle initial stand for "Venable," the maiden name of Officer's first wife, Lota? I wonder.

I have found a place in West Texas where we are almost unknown for several counties. They have called me. There is no use to go there to stay a few days and return. On July 1, I am going to stay. The Indian Territory is coming in. It will be settled by white people, and my work there is done. I am off again for another waste, or neglected place, trusting God's promise and the brethren. (R.W. Officer, writing in the Gospel Advocate, as quoted in Earl I. West, Vol. III, p. 134).

Clearly, the marker for R. W. Officer's grave does not go back to 1930. I have no information on who provided this stone or when it was set. I'm told that this stone was most likely crafted in Clarendon, Texas, a larger town about 40 miles north of Turkey. The quality of the surface and the style of font suggest that the stone does not go back very far. What is clear, however, is that the Methodist Clergy badge that was attached to this marker at one time has since been removed. Note the two holes at the top right of the stone. No, I'm not the one who removed the badge. But attaching it to this headstone does seem to have been inappropriate.

A block or two north and east of the Hotel Turkey stands the meeting house of the Church of Christ. Along with Cody, I shared lunch with the preacher for the congregation, Stuart Smith. Stuart impresses me as being a fine guy. In addition to serving as a minister, he is a teacher and coach in the local school system. He has worked there in Turkey for 21 years. It was apparent to me that Stuart, his wife, and their family are highly respected in the community.

From Turkey, I traveled north and east to Memphis. From there I went over to Altus, Oklahoma to spend the weekend with my folks. On Saturday, it gently rained the better part of the day. So we stayed in, except for a visit with Betty Osborne, the widow of the late Bill Osborne. The two of them were a dynamic team. For many years, Bill, who possessed a unique mixture of homespun humor and Christian charisma, served as minister of the Elm and Hudson Church of Christ in Altus. Betty was the congregation's secretary. No one was better at encouraging and building up other people than the Osbornes. I'll always be grateful to the Lord for their remarkable service to His church.

On Sunday morning, it was a joy to visit my home congregation, to worship the Lord sitting next to my parents. In his lesson that morning, Tom Bailey emphasized that God is good.
Special note: I began this weblog in January 2005. Since then, I've had a few regular readers and a lot who have dropped by every now and then. I'm really thankful for the long-distance relationships that have begun, and for the reconnections I've made with people I have known in various places through the years. Special thanks to those who have commented. Like all bloggers, I'm always thrilled to get meaningful feedback. I'm writing this note mainly because this post just happens to be my 600th.

Yes, I plan to keep going. But not because of I have thousands of followers. I don't. Fact is, there have only been a few times that I even considered what makes a blog popular: Ten Things about this current topic, or Five Ways to do something everybody wished they did. No, from the first post until now my main interest has been getting down in print some of the things that were on my mind at the time. For me, this is a matter of talking about something I'm currently into, sorting out something that's running through my mind. If you truly understand something, then you can clearly say something about it. If you can't, then maybe you should reconsider your assumption that you understand it. So for me, blogging is a matter of making sure I have some level of understanding. Like I said, for me that's been a big part of the motivation.