Did Robert Robinson Go Untuned?

Sometimes I feel like everybody’s a heretic. Maybe that isn’t the best way to put what I mean, but it seems like two groups are inclined to jettison people from the ranks of the orthodox. On the one hand, we have those who don’t want anybody to be orthodox. They’ll find any little foible from an historical figure and use that as a way to call their faith into question: “Abraham Lincoln expressed some doubts once, so he wasn’t really a believer.”

On the other hand, you have people from within the church who point accusing fingers at anybody who, even for just a brief season, shows some weakness. “Abraham Lincoln expressed some doubts once, so he wasn’t really a believer.”

The first group seeks to diminish the church by excluding potential members. The second desires to improve the church by setting the bar for its members impossibly high.

I’ve heard Ulysses S. Grant presumed among the pagans because of his infrequent attendance at church, while various Founding Fathers have been categorized with the infidels because they once read Voltaire. Recently, I took up the topic of the once-orthodox Michael Gungor who is now at least questionable. Perhaps I was unwittingly joining that second group.

What brought this into my mind today was an excellent article about Robert Robinson. Robinson wrote one of my favorite hymns, the one that gives this site its name, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” After coming to Christ as a young adult, Robinson spent many years as a successful pastor, but there is question as to how orthodox he remained in his waning days.

He died just after spending time with Joseph Priestley, one of the most infamous political and theological radicals of the late eighteenth century. Priestley and his fellow Unitarians (who denied the deity of Christ) were quick to claim Robinson as one of their own.

Is this a case of Priestly and his ilk trying to co-opt Robinson or attempting to discredit him? Or is the knock on Robinson–if there truly is one of consequence–the action of the over-zealous faithful seeing the speck in their brother’s eye despite the beam in theirs.

In the long run, of course, the important thing is not whether I can categorize Robert Robinson, Brooks Robinson, or Smoky Robinson as to their orthodoxy. What matters is that I maintain myself where the Spirit wants me to be. The rest, God can attend to.

Explosive Matters

Harry T. Moore celebrated Christmas and his wedding anniversary on the same day in 1951. Retiring to bed at 10:30, he and his family had their sleep interrupted by a bomb that shattered the house and ultimately killed Harry and his wife Harriette. What was Harry’s offense? Had he whistled at a white woman? Did he have the temerity to work on his own account rather than toiling in the orange groves? Was he just at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Apparently, Harry’s death came because he had angered the wrong people by insisting on justice for Florida’s African-American citizens. Probably the most aggressive thing the man did was write letters to the governor as the state head of the NAACP.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer-winning book by Gilbert King, and this morning’s installment involved the events described above. In fact, I haven’t even gotten as far as Harriette’s death but felt compelled to write these things.

As a child of the 1960s, someone who has lived through any number of After-School Specials, documentaries, and dramas about the Civil Rights Movement, I know a lot of these stories. I’ve heard about Rosa Parks and the 16th Street Baptist Church girls. I’ve seen the events portrayed in newsreel footage and dramatized.

So why is this book making me feel so much more strongly? Why am I more outraged at this account of 70-year-old injustices than I have, I think, ever been before? At least once a year, I teach Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” the first chapter in Invisible Man, and I am struck by the masterful way that Ellison presents the complexities of segregated life and his psychological response to it. I think that’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, but, despite its power, I’ve never had it bother me as much as King’s book. Why?

Something has changed, and it clearly isn’t the events. Although the “Groveland Boys” case is not one I knew previously, it’s not remarkably different from many others I do know. So what has changed? There are perhaps two reasons for my different response.

First, the writer might have changed. Gilbert King might just be that good of a writer. He did win a Pulitzer Prize after all. Maybe he  has just reached into my mind and touched all the right synapses to stir my heart like these things never have. (Should I be bothered that it took a white man’s account to stir me, a white man?) Frankly, I don’t think that’s the explanation.

Second, the reader has changed. I’d like to think that I have been a caring and empathetic person for all of my adult life. I’d like to think that I never would have taken the ordeals faced by people like Moore lightly. In reality, I’m pretty sure that I can think those things, but I’m not sure that I’ve always felt them as deeply as I should.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to expand his hearers’ vision of who their neighbors were. Like that expert in the Law, I might ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps my neighbor is simply the person whose suffering I cannot witness without being moved. Perhaps my neighbor is Harry T. Moore.

The Key to Happiness Is Not in Your Head

It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.

Those are the words of Dale Carnegie, the super bestselling author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve mentioned Carnegie a couple of times recently due to just finishing an audiobook biography of the man. The author of the book refers to Carnegie as a “Self-Help Messiah,” which, as you can imagine, really grabs my attention.

Raised by parents who espoused “stern Protestant beliefs,” a phrase that the writer throws out probably a dozen times, Carnegie leaves the farm and heads to New York City to find success. And he finds success, eventually hitting it big by teaching public speaking courses and then, in the 1930s, publishing the book mentioned above. After the Second World War, he would write another huge-selling book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Like many popular self-help writers and speakers, Carnegie has a great deal of wisdom to impart. We can do worse than to follow many of his suggestions, like taking a genuine interest in other people rather than trying to get them to take an interest in us. But that whole “messiah” thing is where I have to draw the line. To illustrate, let’s look at the quotation above.

What is important? Is it our possessions? Our knee-jerk reaction is to say, “no,” but is that really how we live? Was it how Carnegie lived? The same can be said on the other fronts that Carnegie names above. It’s not “where you are,” right? If he really believed that, then why did he leave his parents’ farm?

The power for success, Carnegie argues, here and elsewhere, is in positive thinking (to swipe Norman Vincent Peale’s phrase). You can Think Yourself Rich–to use a title of a much later book–in Carnegie’s worldview.

There is some truth to all of this. Certainly we should avoid what Zig Ziglar called “stinking thinking,” but is “what you think about” really the key to “It”? Is the answer to the great question of the universe all down to the power of the mind?

How ironic it is that Dale Carnegie, the precursor to many of the self-help gurus to come, people like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, and Oprah Winfrey, would die at the relatively young age of 67 of Alzheimer’s Disease. This man essentially put his faith in his mind, and his mind was what failed him before the rest of his body.

Carnegie apparently abandoned his parents’ “stern Protestant beliefs,” only hanging onto a fuzzy spirituality cloaked in vaguely Christian vocabulary. Essentially, he had faith in faith, which ultimately meant having faith in himself.

What matters more than what you have, who you are, or what you think is whose you are. That is the essential difference between Christianity and every humanistic ideology. And what a difference it proves to be. Want to stop worrying and start living? I have a different Messiah for you. Here’s what He said about worry:

Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . .  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.–Matthew 6:25, 33

The Great American Novel

A young man sets his sights on writing a successful novel. He pours heart and soul into it for some time, crafting a moderately capable story that blends a fantastic view of history with certain religious and social themes popular in his day. Does he have a best seller? He shares it with some family and friends. They read, and they take it seriously!

“Where did you get this story?” they ask. Rather than admitting that he wrote it by candlelight in his free hours, he creates a far-fetched story of an angel leading him to discover ancient writings. This wouldn’t be the first time that such a thing had happened. Long before Dan Brown suggested that the story for The DaVinci Code was actually drawn from legitimate ancient documents, Nathaniel Hawthorne claimed to find a mysterious embroidered letter “A” in the attic of the custom house in Salem, Massachusetts. And a few decades before him, Washington Irving attributed his account of “Rip Van Winkle” to the historical inquiries of the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker.

So our young author, who set out simply to write a novel that might earn him a bit of coin and some notoriety, determines to see how far he could push this story. He begins to elaborate on the account of his story’s coming into being. An angel visited him by night. And years earlier he encountered God in the woods. He was led to a hilltop to dig up long secreted plates of gold, etched in an unknown language–or maybe it was a known language. He needed to translate these plates, which involved a singularly complicated process. (Hebrew could have been so much simpler!) This was turning into a great yarn, a bona fide publicity stunt.

Is it possible that Joseph Smith, as he sat down to write The Book of Mormon, actually intended to craft a novel, joining James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Brockden Brown as the earliest of American practitioners of this popular art form? Is it possible that this book, now nearly 200 years old, was essentially a sort of April Fool’s stunt?

While it is pretty much impossible to take the Book of Mormon seriously as scripture, it would be far from the worst nineteenth-century American novel. It could even be seen as prefiguring such works as Ben-Hur, stories that use the Bible as a starting point but that then wander over the hills and far away.

Maybe Joseph Smith set out to deceive from the first word, but maybe not. In the end, it really doesn’t matter much, but the idea is intriguing to consider.

Missing Person Report

A girl stands at the depot waiting for the train that will take her away from home. She glances over her shoulder, hoping to step onto the coach before being seen by anyone who knows her. Down the track, the exhaust from a steam locomotive marks its approach. She might just get away without being seen.

Yesterday, I mentioned that I visited Pilot Grove, Missouri, but I didn’t say what took me there. My mother was born near that town. Her mother’s family, going back to 1820, lived in the neighborhood. Another branch of her family came to Cooper County, Missouri in the early 1850s, directly from Germany. I headed to Pilot Grove to do some research on these segments of my family.

One of the fascinating bits that I gathered yesterday was the will of Christian George Oswald, one of those who came from Germany. Christian is a solid American success story. He arrived, worked hard, and bought his own farm. Then he bought more and more land, eventually giving those properties to his children upon his death. Christian was busy in that regard. Five of his six sons are pictured below. He also fathered four daughters. It’s one of them that perhaps stepped onto that train.

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The guy pictured at the far left above is Sherman Oswald, my great-grandfather. When his father died, Sherman received a somewhat curious inheritance: 9/10 of the 80 acres on which he then lived. Why 9/10? The other tenth was given to his eldest sister, Elizabeth, with a stipulation: “if she is located within two years.”

Whatever happened to Elizabeth Oswald? She appears on the 1870 census, aged 11. She’s not in the Oswald home in 1880, and there’s no other Elizabeth Oswald elsewhere who matches her details. I had always assumed that she died, but if Christian thought she might be located within two years, then she wasn’t known by the family to be dead. She also was apparently not known to be married since they referred to her as an Oswald. At least 23 years after she failed to appear on the census, Christian still held out hope she would come back.

I presume that Elizabeth left home, probably in less-than-cordial circumstances. and never looked back. Her mother died in 1869. Dad remarried in late 1870. One can imagine various reasons why a teenaged girl in the mid 1870s might have headed out of town.

We can hope that Christian behaved like the father of the prodigal son, eagerly scanning the road for his child to return. It’s the stuff of Hallmark movies and sentimental stories that all parents are eager to bring their wayward child home. The ones I’ve know with wandering kids have felt that way. But I don’t know about Christian Oswald. Is his giving of the equivalent of eight acres compared to everyone else’s 80 a clue? Or was he simply being realistic about the chances of her returning?

I like to think of this old man, in the declining days of his life, surrounded by children and grandchildren, constantly pining for the one who was missing. Whatever happened to Elizabeth Oswald? I’ll probably never know, and I’ll probably never know how eager Christian was for her return. But I do know that there is one who will always leave the 99 to reclaim the one.

More than Beard Envy

The man in the photo is Alexander Snider, my great-great grandfather. Born in North Carolina on 23 March 1826–I must remember to get a card in the mail!–he moved with his father, Philip Snider, to the hinterlands of southwestern Missouri in 1844, marrying Mary Ruth Wommack three years later. A history of Greene County, Missouri says that the Sniders arrived

when the county was sparsely settled, neighbors were far apart, game and wild honey abounded. He built a small cabin upon the farm where he now lives.

In fact, that sparseness of settlement was sufficient that other than Mary Ruth’s family, no one else lived within a mile of the Sniders for quite some time.

I admire Alexander, where some of my ancestors I simply tolerate. He wasn’t an exceptionally distinguished fellow, although his brief obituary describes him as “one of our oldest and most respected citizens.”

Alexander SniderIt’s not just the beard that I admire about this man, although you have to give him credit for a magnificent stand of whiskers. Instead, I admire him for some more significant character traits.

At the age of thirty-six in 1862, Alexander and his musket showed up for military service as he joined the Enrolled Missouri Militia where he served for more than six months as a corporal. Six months of militia duty is not extraordinary, but it demonstrates that this man, past his peak and with six children to support already, came when he was called. There’s no evidence that Company F. of the 74th E.M.M. ever saw any real duty, but we do know that he stood when summoned.

Similarly, he attended Mt. Comfort Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the years after the war until his death. Not only did he go to a church that was an inconvenient distance from his home, but he served that church as an elder, mentioned several times as taking on various lay duties for the congregation. In the church’s records, Alexander’s line does not give a date at which he “Ceased to Act” or moved elsewhere. Instead, a one-word note describes his separation from that body: “Dead.”

Alexander Snider would have presumably spent a good amount of time following a team and plow across his farm. By the time he shuttled off this mortal coil in 1900, mechanization of farming remained something in the future.

That history mentioned above describes him as “one of the leading men of Jackson township” while the obituary concludes by naming him “an old landmark in this part of the country.” Alexander Snider was not a man bound to appear in Who’s Who. But he was a landmark, a dependable figure who provided stability in the community.

We could all do worse than to be known as a landmark, a sort of living Ebenezer. In 1 Samuel 7:12, after leading the Israelites to a victory over the Philistines, Samuel raised a memorial stone:

Afterward, Samuel took a stone and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, explaining, “The Lord has helped us to this point.”

Alexander Snider’s life, it seems, stood as such a marker, encouraging others and showing them the way. By and large, those who came after him seem to have followed that track. If I envy anything, it is that legacy. But the beard is nice, too.