Places in the Heart and a Road Trip

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 18, September 9, 2018

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

A couple of years ago, on Memorial Day, my family and I took a detour on our way back to Houston from Dallas. We wanted to see the courthouse in Waxahachie, which is the county seat of Ellis County. It appears in the opening shots of the 1984 movie Places in the Heart,  which is set in Waxahachie in the middle of the Great Depression. Places in the Heart is an amazing film about reconciliation, both its presence and its absence, with a decidedly Christian frame around that theme.

As we drove up to the courthouse, I could hear with the ears of my imagination the words of an old hymn that’s familiar to many of us being sung in a slow tempo:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.

It’s the first thing on the film’s soundtrack as a series of images appear on the screen — the county courthouse; people leaving a church; folks who are poor and homeless; a long, empty dirt road in the country; rusty hopper cars at the edge of town; and a field of bluebonnets that extend all the way to the distant horizon.

Because it was a holiday, the downtown was mostly deserted. So we just walked around the outside of the courthouse, which the author James A. Michener once described in one of his novels as “a fairy tale palace” and “one of the finest buildings in Texas.”[1] Not surprisingly, we walked past a monument on the grounds of the courthouse with a statue of a Confederate soldier at the top of it.

As our two boys walked past that monument without much thought about it, my mind drifted back to the opening of Places in the Heart. With the hymn being sung in the background, another powerful image that one sees are two different families, one white and one black, both sitting down to a meal in their respective homes and giving thanks for the food that is set before them. All of them are dressed in their Sunday best, obviously having gone to worship earlier that morning, albeit within the walls of separate, segregated churches.

As the music fades, the next scene shows another white family doing the same thing. It doesn’t take long for the father to be identified as the local sheriff. He gets called away from his Sunday lunch with his wife and their two children to deal with an emergency down at the rail yard. He takes a couple of biscuits with him, putting them in one of the outer pockets of his suit jacket as he rushes out the door.

By the railroad tracks he finds a young African American boy who had somehow found a bottle of liquor and a pistol. They know one another, and have a friendly conversation. The biscuits and liquor are strange shadows on the Lord’s Day of a kind of holy but incomplete and separate communion.

When the young boy, unsteady on his feet, throws the bottle in the air to try to shoot it, he accidentally shoots the sheriff instead, killing him. Within hours, the young boy would be dead too. Armed white men will tie a rope to him and drag his body through town behind a truck before hanging him from a tree. As the African American singer Billie Holiday recorded in 1939, with lyrics by a Jewish teacher:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Today’s psalm is a different song, assuring us that “the Lord stand[s] round about his people” as “the hills stand about Jerusalem.” It goes on to say that “the scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway over the land allotted to the just.”[2] And yet there are moments in history, in the lives of people we love, and in our own experiences when an honest assessment of the facts on the ground makes that hard to believe. So we cling to the words that follow: “Show your goodness, O Lord . . .”[3] And we add our own words to that prayer, even if we don’t feel brave enough to speak them aloud:

Show your goodness, O Lord, because I can’t see it right now, and I need to see it . . . right . . . now.

More than 4,400 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950 have been documented. Distinct from other acts of extrajudicial violence, these murders were part of a campaign to reinforce white supremacist beliefs and to terrorize black Americans.[4] You can learn more about this shadow side of American history at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

I recently traveled there with Rabbi Oren Hayon of Congregation Emanu-El, Pastor Michael Dunn of First Christian Church, and Pastor Duane Larson of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Our four congregations, of course, are the four communities of faith that border the campus of Rice University. There are details about that pilgrimage of lament in an article in today’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. But I want to share a story that’s not in the article, which I have permission to retell.

My colleagues and I flew into Birmingham, then rented a small SUV to drive down to Montgomery. While Rabbi Hayon was getting the keys to our vehicle, Pastor Larson and I were standing behind it. So we had a good view of the license plate after the hatchback door was closed. Actually, there wasn’t a license plate. There wasn’t even an official looking cardboard temporary license “plate” that you might see on a new car. No, it was just a sad, slightly curled piece of heavy card stock that said “Tags Applied For.” Immediately, I turned to Pastor Larson and said, only half-jokingly:

You know we’re going to get pulled over for that.

Well, as we drove into Montgomery in the dark of night, we did.

The blue lights came on, flashing in the rear view mirror, and we made our way to the brightly lit nearby parking lot of Goodwill, with Rabbi Hayon in the driver’s seat. So the African American police officer found himself shining his flashlight onto us four white guys. After he heard that it was a rental car, I leaned forward in the back seat to explain that we were a rabbi and three Christian ministers who had traveled together from Houston to visit the new lynching memorial. I even told him what I had said to my Lutheran colleague, pointing to him in the passenger seat, that we were almost certain to get pulled over. Soon enough, we were on our way again.

Later, while we were still heading to the hotel, Rabbi Hayon broke the silence with words that were initially addressed to me. He said:

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with the police officer, and I couldn’t help but notice how natural it was for you to self-disclose your religious identity. I would never do that.

So that’s what we talked about as we continued down the road in the darkness. For me, explaining who we were was almost involuntary, lowering my own anxiety and sincerely trying to help everyone, including the police officer. However, the truth is that I’ve never really had to worry about what kind of prejudices another human being might secretly harbor. But I need to be a lot more aware of others who do.

The Book of Proverbs says that “the rod of anger will fail.”[5] But what if it doesn’t in this one particular instance while I’m on the receiving end of it? Proverbs also assures me that the Lord pleads the cause of the afflicted at the gate of the city. But what if I’m too far away from the gate of justice in the land of the living?

That was our collective reflection on the eve of our seeing the lynching memorial. It was an unanticipated but helpful prelude. There are so many articles that describe the visual impact of the memorial that I won’t try to do that here. I’ll only mention a few of the words that are part of a statement of purpose on a wall on the inside:

For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember.

For me, the words of African American theologian James Cone also came to mind. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he reflects on the death and resurrection of Jesus, together with the violent murders of these African Americans, and says:

The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross. . . .

It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor.[6]

 

In Places in the Heart, the sheriff’s widow soon finds herself and her two children teetering on the edge of losing everything. And those who mistakenly thought that she’d be happy about the lynching don’t come rushing to her aide. Eventually, she welcomes into her household an African American named Moses, who knows about farming, and a blind man whose extended family no longer wished to be responsible for him. These unlikely companions, each of them, including the children, at a different place on the margins of society, can only survive together. So they create a community that is nothing less than a true reflection of God’s coming kingdom.

The last scene of the movie takes place inside the white church. In the half-filled pews, the congregation can be heard singing the final refrain of “Blessed Assurance.” After the people sit down, the minister reads the famous words of St. Paul about love in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. During that, a man and a woman whose marriage has been strained discretely hold hands. The unspoken gesture of forgiveness brings with it a physical sigh of relief.

Later the minister recalls the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper on the night before his crucifixion. While he’s speaking, the camera follows each member of the congregation passing the bread and wine to the person beside them. What you don’t notice right away is that the pews are now completely filled. All sorts and conditions of people from the town are there, saints and sinners alike.

And the last thing you see is the sheriff’s widow receiving communion from her children. She passes the silver tray that holds the individual cups of wine to the person beside her, whom we’re surprised to see is her husband. He does the same, passing the tray to the young boy who had shot him. And then you see the boy looking directly into the eyes of the sheriff and saying to him, “The peace of God.”

Robert Benton is the man wrote and directed Places in the Heart, and he was born in Waxahachie. He wanted no other ending to the film and once said this about it:

There are certain things images can explain and words cannot. There is something in the image of the man who has been killed handing the communion plate to the boy who killed him that seems very moving to me in ways I cannot explain.

I had the ending before I ever finished the screenplay . . .[7]

As that final scene of his movie suggests, there are some things that get sorted out in this life and lots more that only get sorted out in the life to come. Nevertheless, sometimes we’re granted a glimpse on earth of things that we believe will only be seen in heaven. The sinfulness of the world seems to keep them beyond our reach.

An example of heaven reaching to earth comes from the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He’s also an African American whose Baptist father came to church with his Episcopalian mother when they were still dating and living in the heart of segregated America in the 1940s. His father watched his mother walk to the front of the church for communion, kneeling beside white people and drinking from the same cup that they did. His father had never seen whites and blacks drink from the same glass or even the same water fountain.[8]

I hope each of us gets a glimpse of that today. There’s room for us all at this Table. By coming to it week after week, I hope we’ll receive whatever courage we need to look at ourselves and the world around us not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. And I hope, more and more, this household will resemble the household of the sheriff’s widow. That’s what the household of God looks like, a place where the doors of the church are open as wide as the arms of the Crucified One.

We are all related through his blood.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James A. Michener, Texas: A Novel (Dial Press: New York, 2014) 1088. Here is the full quote that describes the county courthouse in Waxahachie:

[James Riley] Gordon had built a fairy-tale palace ten stories high, replete with battlements and turrets and spires and soaring clock towers and miniature castles high in the air. It was a bejeweled treasure, yet it was also a sturdy, massive court of judgments, one of the finest buildings in Texas.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:2-3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:4.

BACK TO POST That statistic about documented lynchings of African Americans was highlighted at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I was grateful to learn that Forsyth County, North Carolina, where I was raised, isn’t represented by a steel monument at the memorial. However, “other acts of extrajudicial violence” that fall outside the scope of the memorial did take place in the only documented lynching in Forsyth County. Henry Swaim was a white tenant on the farm of Harrison and Ernestina Reid, and he was lynched in 1884 by “a crowd of between seventy-five and one hundred men, many of whom were masked.”

The only reason that I read about this story is because I was checking to see if there really was no documented lynching of an African American in Forsyth County. The surprising discovery is that Harrison Reid is my first cousin, five generations removed. His wife Ernestina was murdered on May 5, 1884, but whispered three times the name of Henry Swaim as the identity of her attacker before she died.

“Swinging into Eternity” offers a thorough account of what happened in this sordid affair and points out that the circumvention of due process was in no way “justice.” It is worth taking a moment to click on the original newspaper report here or within the account linked above about the lynching of this 25 year old man. He pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When someone did and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what that word meant. When he then sputtered out this prayer on his own, repeating it over and over, Swaim was ridiculed by the crowd, a crowd that I’m sure was mostly filled with Christian men:

Oh Lord take me from this world once more!
Oh Lord save this poor sinner’s soul once more!
I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!

Swaim was hanged improperly, so he died of strangulation and, therefore, didn’t die immediately. The rope that was holding him by the neck had to be restrung over a limb on the tree to draw his body “high up above the heads” of the spectators. It remained there afterwards, and “great crowds” came to see it later that same day.

BACK TO POST Proverbs 22:8.

BACK TO POST James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2011) xviii, 161-162.

BACK TO POST Robert Benton, quoted by Aljean Harmetz in “How Endings Have Affected Two Recent Movies,” New York Times, October 8, 1984.

BACK TO POST Michael Curry tells this story about his parents in a YouTube video called “Eucharist” from June 6, 2014.

Learning How to Sing in the World

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 15, August 19, 2018

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

As you came into the church this morning, there were probably a few things that caught your eye, like the brand new, bright yellow lines in the south parking lot and glorious sunflowers shining over the altar on both sides of the cross and festive t-shirts worn by many of our members who will be sent out at the end of worship in groups to serve our neighbors on Serve Sunday. Some of the shirts say “God Thinks You’re Fabulous,” which, for us, is another way of saying that we believe God looks at people, who’ve been created in his own image, with the eyes of Jesus and loves them. We are all forgiven, embraced, and accepted in the merciful arms of our Savior.

But there’s one other thing. Unless today is the very first time you’ve ever walked into this beautiful house of worship, you probably also noticed, and perhaps keep staring at, the baptismal font. That’s the impressive stone bowl on a pedestal where people, young and old, are baptized with water and adopted into the household of God. Yes, it has indeed been moved. That is the truth. The whole truth, however, is that it’s been moved back to where it used to be. So the balance between Water and Word, which is to say the font and the pulpit, has been restored at the front of the church. Now we’ll pass through both of those things that are constantly shaping our Christian life as we come to the Table in the middle to bless the bread and the wine for holy communion. I’ll say more about the baptismal font in a moment.

But, first, a story. The first ordained minister that I can remember at Union Cross Moravian Church in Forsyth County, North Carolina, wasn’t the one who baptized me as a baby but the pastor who followed him. He was the Rev. Edward T. Mickey, and we called him Mr. Mickey, in the same way that Episcopal priests used to be addressed universally in past generations in America. He was just as talented, if not more so, in the realm of music as he was well-read in the area of theology.

Mr. Mickey had once been the Pastor of Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, which is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And that’s where, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1942, he heard the sound of a bicycle come to a sliding, screeching stop at the back door of the church. Riding that bike was a 16 year old boy who saw Mr. Mickey sitting there on the back steps and wanted to know if he was the preacher. He said that he was. The teenager then asked Mr. Mickey if he could teach him how to play a trombone so that he could lead a swing band.

That teenager turned out to be the future actor Andy Griffith, who did learn all about music in that church — how to read it, how to play it, how to sing it. That was a real turning point in the life of Mr. Griffith, who would later major in music in college at Chapel Hill before the start a well-known career in entertainment.

I thought about that story when I read today’s assigned passage from the Letter to the Christians in Ephesus. Although a lot of people reduce these words to a lesson about the virtues of temperance, it’s not meant to forbid those who don’t struggle with addictions from enjoying a festive drink with a little pink umbrella atop the glass. That’s very different than orienting your life around the drunken orgies of the worship of Dionysius, the god of wine, in the Asiatic world of the ancient Ephesus.

In the letter that slowly made its way to that city, those Christians are simply being reminded that their community of faith ought to be oriented around something else, something that is life-giving not only for themselves but also for others:

. . . be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

And is it not here, within these walls, where we learn how to sing in the world? For us, that begins at this font, which the infant Jesus, being held in the arms of his mother, now overlooks and blesses. Can’t you hear, if only faintly, the song of his mother, the song of Mary? Out of the baptismal waters, her words become our own:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. . . .

He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek. . . .[2]

And when we go out these doors to serve others, it’s just an extension of singing this and other songs we’ve learned in one another’s presence. But it all begins, for us, at this font, and I love how the author and pastor Eugene Peterson describes that:

Baptism marks a radically new way to understand ourselves and one another: not by race, not by language, not by parents and family, not by politics, not by intelligence, not by gender, not by behavior. All of these various ways of accounting for ourselves are significant, but none is definitive. Holy baptism defines us as holy, as saints. Baptism is definitive . .

We continue to maintain this identity by keeping company with people who have firsthand knowledge of who we are . . . These same [men and women] embarrass us with their haphazardness, exhilarate us with their joy, offend us by their inconsistent lives, comfort us with their compassion, [badger] and criticize us, encourage and bring the best out of us, bore us with their blandness, stimulate us with their enthusiasm. But we don’t choose them. God chooses them. We keep company with the men and women God chooses. These saints.[3]

The font in a church ought to invite exploration, not be half-fenced off as ours often seemed like it was when it was in front of the pulpit. Now you can freely walk around the entire font. And so not only children are encouraged to come and do that but also adults. If you have little ones, lift them up so they can see with their own eyes the inside of the bowl. Then take a look at the symbols outside that basin and notice, in particular, the eight sides of the base. It’s important for that not to be obscured.

That octagonal shape was a symbol in early Christianity of the resurrection, with the Lord’s Day, Sunday, being not the first day of the week, as we usually think of it, but the eighth day of creation. It reminds us of a new creation, a new song, that began at the empty tomb on Easter morning and that begins, for us, at this font as people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, are baptized, bathed in forgiveness, washed lavishly in God’s grace, named publicly as God’s beloved children.

On Friday afternoon, as I was driving both of my boys to their music lessons, the radio in the car was tuned in to NPR and the first thing that I heard was the classical violinist Yo Yo Ma was being interviewed. Actually, what I heard first was him playing the gently rolling prelude to the first of Bach’s six Cello Suites. Mr. Ma started violin lessons at four years of age, and the first several notes of that prelude are what he learned on his first day. The next set of notes are what he learned on his second day, and so on and so forth. He learned all of it slowly, incrementally.

The music of Bach’s six Cello Suites have been his companion for the last 58 years. That music, like the Book of Psalms in the Bible, is, as NPR put it, “two-and-a-half hours of sounds that map humanity in all its triumphs, joys and sorrows.”[4] Mr. Ma has played that music at the weddings of his friends and also at their funerals. He played it after 9/11 and on very different kinds of celebratory and joyous occasions.

I think that’s a beautiful image of how we learn to sing the right notes throughout the different chapters of our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of our neighbors. And how could I speak of singing on this Lord’s Day without mentioning, with R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Aretha Franklin, who died on Thursday in the City of Detroit?

I loved this title of an article in the New York Times last week: ‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church.[5] Her father was a Baptist minister, and, not surprisingly, she used to sing gospel music in his church. Although the Times piece was about a particular album called Amazing Grace, there’s something about the way Ms. Franklin sang that carried much of that out into the world, even if the words she was singing weren’t religious in any way, shape, or form. There was a sense that we were going to church. And when she sang at the Presidential Inauguration in 2009, she wore a magnificent hat, as though she had dressed for church on that day.

Now some of you are thinking to yourself, “I’m never going to be like Yo Yo Ma on the cello or the Queen of Soul with my voice,” even metaphorically.  So I want to tell you the part of the story about Mr. Mickey and Andy Griffith that usually gets left out. In his own retelling of it, Mr. Mickey said he was sitting on the back steps of the church that afternoon in 1942 at what seemed like a real low point.[6] He had just finished his weekly band practice with his volunteer players, and they hadn’t practiced and didn’t seem very interested. And so he was feeling sorry for himself as he sat there.

In The Player: A Profile of an Art, which is a 1962 collection of reflections by actors, Mr. Griffith wrote these words:

For three years, he gave me a free lesson once a week. Ed Mickey taught me to sing and to read music and to play every brass instrument there was in the [church] band, and the guitar and the banjo besides. I was best at playing the E-flat alto horn.

When I was sixteen, I joined the church, together with my mother and daddy. . . . I was very happy with the Moravians. All the other band members accepted me. They didn’t ever make fun of me.[7]

Those lessons were mentioned in Andy Griffith’s obituary in The New York Times, along with the painful memory of having been called “white trash” as a child.[8] The band members at the church, including Mr. Mickey, embraced him with the love of Jesus. They showed him what the love of Jesus looks like in the world around us, what the love of Jesus looks like in our lives, not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. That’s the real music he was learning there — the music of divine love.

And that’s what each of us can share with others, the song that each of us, being filled with the Spirit, can sing in the world beyond these walls. . . today.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ephesians 5:18-20.

BACK TO POST “The Song of Mary,” The Book of Common Prayer (The Church Hymnal Corporation: New York, 1979), 65.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2010), 83-84.

BACK TO POST Mary Louise Kelly and Tom Huizenga, “Yo Yo Ma, A Life Led with Bach,” NPR, August 17, 2018. See also the transcript of that interview.

BACK TO POST Wesley Morris, “‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church,” New York Times, August 17, 2018, 216-217.

BACK TO POST Edward T. Mickey, Jr., “The Andy Griffith I Know,” The Wachovia Moravian, February, 1968.

BACK TO POST Lillian Ross and Helen Ross, The Player: A Profile of an Art (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), 216-217.

BACK TO POST Douglas Martin, “Andy Griffith, TV’s Lawman and Moral Compass, Dies at 86,” New York Times, July 3, 2012.

“Death Strikes Thrice”

69 years ago today, on Monday, August 1, 1949, the front page of the local newspaper in Lumberton, North Carolina, highlighted the opening of the town’s tobacco market on the following morning and included a map of other tobacco markets throughout the Carolinas and Virginia. There was also an update about the planned restoration of Tryon Palace, which was the official residence of the royal governor in New Bern when North Carolina was a royal colony under King George III. Another long article noted the death of J.C.B. Ehringhaus, who served as the Governor of North Carolina during the Great Depression and “often said he was proud of the fact that no public schools had to close during [that] period and teachers continued to get their pay.”

That front page also had a brief article from the Associated Press. Earlier that same day in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, someone who’d been a rural teacher before the Great Depression had “died of a heart attack just after she arrived at the home of her parents.” Her mother had died at 6:00 a.m. that Monday morning, and her father had died over the weekend on Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. That former teacher was my grandmother, Clara Tucker Willard. She was survived by my granddaddy, who was a tobacco farmer, and their eleven children, including my daddy, who turned 15 years old days later. Surely this was a death caused by the emotional stress of a broken heart, weighed down by unexpected grief. It’s such a sad story to imagine.

The next day, on August 2, a double funeral was held for my great-grandparents at Union Cross Moravian Church. That’s also the congregation where I was raised in the Christian faith and where my daddy, like his grandparents, is buried in God’s Acre, which is how Moravians have referred to their graveyards since coming here from Germany in the 18th century. Then, on August 3, my grandmother was buried in the graveyard of the Primitive Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina, where my granddaddy would be buried. May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Because of my grandmother’s Moravian heritage, my daddy and his ten siblings grew up listening to the radio broadcast of the sunrise service at God’s Acre for the Salem Congregation in Winston-Salem early on the morning of Easter Day each year. On their tobacco farm on Willard Road in Guilford County, they would’ve heard the voice of a Moravian minister proclaim in the darkness that the Lord is risen, and they would have heard brass bands playing antiphonally throughout God’s Acre as the gathered crowd walked there from Home Moravian Church.

Finally, they would have heard over the radio that great throng singing chorales like this one about their Christian faith as the sun rose brilliantly in the eastern sky:

I give thee thanks unfeigned,
O Jesus, Friend in need,
For what thy soul sustained,
when thou for me didst bleed.
Grant me to lean unshaken
upon thy faithfulness,
until I hence am taken,
to see thee face to face.

Patriotism, Piety, and Romans 13

In my lifetime, I’ve been a member of both the Republican and Democratic parties. I am an Eagle Scout and proudly served as an Assistant Scoutmaster during my years in college. My ancestors were Patriots and Loyalists, members of the established Church of England and dissenters, including Puritans in Plymouth Colony. I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, which presumes to call its cathedral in Washington, D.C., the National Cathedral and includes Independence Day on its church calendar.

I have participated in plenty of “state religion,” having preached numerous times on the Fourth of July at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, and having both organized and presided over an interfaith prayer service in that same historic church on the morning that Governor-Elect Tim Kaine was sworn into office in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2006. Yet I understand why Mennonite and Amish Christians reject these expressions of state religion and refuse either to salute the American flag or to say the Pledge of Allegience. They don’t want others confused about the fact that their first loyalty is to God and that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted passages from the Bible, including Romans 13, in defense of the President’s immigration policies, which until recently included the separation of children from their parents after crossing the border. People can and do have a variety of opinions about immigration policies, and those opinions should be debated in the public square. However, unnecessary separation of children from their parents and the invocation of the Bible to justify that isn’t something that should be done in the name of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth extended a special welcome to little ones, asking his followers to do the same, and reserved harsh words for those who would put a stumbling block before them.

Nevertheless, the words of Romans 13 remain a source of anxiety among those who struggle with the idea that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” and that we should quietly be “subject” to them.[1] So I thought this sermon on Romans 13 from several years ago might be helpful to some folks in light of current events and the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. Here’s what I had to say about it:

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper for the Nation, July 5, 2015

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)

Yesterday was obviously the Fourth of July, otherwise known as Independence Day. And I doubt there’s too much confusion this morning over the meaning of our most popular national observance. Last night there were fireworks and cookouts and gatherings of all kinds, both public and private, to celebrate not only our national independence but also the individual liberties that we enjoy as American citizens.

Those ceremonies and rituals take on added significance in cities like Williamsburg, Virginia, where I once served on the clergy staff of Bruton Parish Church. In that congregation, which dates back to 1674, one can’t help but feel the weight of American history while just sitting in the pews there. It’s one of those places where the history of the church is very much intertwined with the history of the nation.

But that can also be confusing, right? Today, for example, is the Lord’s Day, a holy day that begins each new week on the calendar of the Church Universal. This is time set aside to worship the living God. That’s always our highest purpose for being here. Even in those years when the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday, it’s still the Lord’s Day. That takes precedent. But there’s often a temptation in those moments to confuse something of great importance — national honor — with something of the greatest importance — divine honor. And our failure to distinguish between those two categories of importance can easily lead us into the greatest sin of all — idolatry.

Let me give you an example.

I spent one summer during divinity school at home in North Carolina. While I was there, an old college friend called me up. He had been asked to preach a sermon on the Fourth of July in a rural church of another denomination. Thinking that would be a really great way to observe the holiday, I drove out into the middle of nowhere in order to worship with that small congregation. I knew that my friend would give thanks for our independence as a nation and proclaim our dependence upon God’s grace. So I walked into that little church expecting to encounter God.

But I was shocked to discover that, outside the sermon itself, God had been forced to observe the holiday by taking the afternoon off. And that’s because every symbol of the transcendent, anything that might have pointed someone to God, had been visually obliterated by the Stars and Stripes. If the preacher had been replaced by a politician, it would have been a perfect display of Americana.

And that’s my point. It would have been a completely different experience in the town square. But inside that little church it seemed almost cartoonish — as though we were looking to Captain America rather than Jesus, “the Captain of [our] salvation,” as he’s described in the Letter to the Hebrews.[2]

As a minister of the gospel, I’m called to remind us to love the right things in the right order. God always has the first claim on our life and our loyalty. Many years ago, a stranger gave me a simple image for that on my way to a conference down in Orlando. Traveling south from the Carolinas on the I-95 corridor is like going into a funnel as all the traffic begins to converge on the State of Florida. I’ll always remember a small pickup truck that passed me on the interstate there. It had a cover over the truck bed and a homemade message on the window above the tailgate. The message was actually a short list:

1. GOD

2. USA

3. FSU [i.e., Florida State University]

I took that as the driver’s personal revision of the old slogan: “For God, for country, and for Yale.” However, I thought this stranger had improved upon the old slogan because he had clearly ranked these different claims on his life and his loyalty. To make them all equal would be to create an unholy trinity and to adulterate the worship that properly belongs to God and God alone.

1662 Book of Common Prayer (1762 edition)

How then are faithful Christians to understand the relationship between love of God and love of country? Simply put, how are we to understand our own relationship to the State?

One answer has already been given in this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. The opening verses of chapter 13 would seem to suggest that Christians are subject to ruling authorities in all places at all times under all circumstances.

But the absolutizing of Paul’s words in that passage has caused severe difficulties in the past. It contributed to a crisis of conscious in the 18th century among Anglican clergy serving the American colonies at the time of the Revolution. After the Revolution, in the 19th century, it was used to claim that chattel slavery in this new republic was ordained of God. In the 20th century, it diminished the resistance of German Christians to the Nazi regime. And it even served as a divine endorsement of apartheid policies by the white supremacist government in South Africa, which only came to an end in the early 1990s.[3]

Part of an 1850 editorial in a North Carolina newspaper about “The Fugitive Slave Law.”

It has to be understood that Paul wrote those words during the early years of Nero’s reign as emperor. The imperial government had not yet persecuted Christians living in Rome. And Paul was certainly not going to counsel Christians to hasten their own persecution. So, in this case, the State’s toleration of Christianity nurtured Christianity’s benevolent view of Roman imperial power. But there are other voices in the New Testament also speaking to the question at hand.

Toward the end of the first century, the Book of Revelation foresaw the inevitable clash between true allegiance to God and coerced allegiance to the emperor. The latter involved an act of worship in the emperor cult as a sign of ultimate loyalty to the State. However, for Christians, that kind of loyalty, the kind expressed in worship, can only be given to God. The Führer of the Third Reich would demand that same kind of ultimate loyalty, forcing German Christians to make a choice.

So, in this context, Roman imperial power was seen as demonic. It was to be resisted because it sought to usurp the place of God in the life of the Christian. This is the opposite view of Romans 13. But these two views do have something in common. They share a message conditioned by particular circumstances. And that realization brings us to a third and final answer to our question about love of God and country.

This third view represents a via media, a middle way. It comes from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which are two volumes by the same author. Here one finds a general deference to the ruling authorities unless their actions directly conflict with allegiance to God. Here the Church stands at a critical distance from the ruling authorities. In other words, the Church must be ready to respond to the State in a manner determined by the State’s own actions.

At times the Church will be chaplain to those in authority. Perhaps you watched on television President Ronald Reagan’s state funeral at the National Cathedral. At times the Church will be challenger to those in authority. Maybe you’ve heard about the time that President Lyndon Johnson was sitting in the pews at Bruton Parish Church while the Rector, Cotesworth Lewis, wondered aloud from the pulpit about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although it should be noted that news reports made it sound like that was the theme of the whole sermon, which it wasn’t.

At all times the Church thus seeks to serve the good of our society, loving our neighbors, even debating them, for the sake of the gospel. We should be grateful that the American experiment in liberal democracy embraces such a dialogue. Far too many of our Christian brothers and sisters endure suffering in countries where there is no freedom to speak to those in power on behalf of “the least of these.”[4]

For two years my brother lived in one of those countries on the African continent. He worked for the State Department in the land-locked and poverty-stricken country of Chad. There he oversaw the buildings of the American embassy in the capital of N’Djamena. The people who lived in that city were forbidden from even catching a glimpse of their president being driven through the streets.

My brother had a fairly large staff drawn entirely from the local population. At some point he realized that one of the few women on his staff was clearly the person who was most likely to get things done. So, acting like a good American pragmatist, my brother appointed that women as his most important supervisor.

However, the men quietly protested that this was not how they did things there. And my brother responded by saying, “Welcome to America! When you walk into this compound you’re walking onto American soil. And this is how we do things here.”

What I would like to suggest is that the image of an embassy is a good way to think about the role of any parish church in America. When you walk through the doors of the church into this sacred space, you are walking onto the soil of the Kingdom. It is the place where heaven and earth touch as we join our voices with Angels and Archangels. It is the place where the power of God transforms ordinary bread and wine into holy food, and ordinary men and women into holy people. It is truly an outpost of another country, a heavenly one. And we are citizens of that heavenly country. Here we are invited to catch a glimpse of the One whose Kingdom this is, and to bring the burdens of the nation and the world before the throne of grace.

I think that understanding of the Church disengages us in a healthy way from endless debates about how “Christian” America really is (or ought to be). Quite frankly, I’m less concerned about preserving an appearance of “Christian-ness” in the civic life of America, like a bouquet of flowers that’s soon tossed aside, and I’m more concerned about preserving a depth of “Christian-ness” in the daily life of the Church, like a meal that sustains us each day across a lifetime of joys and sorrows.

Some of you may be familiar with the name of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus. He was a conservative Roman Catholic priest who often commented on the role of religion in American public life. While I didn’t always agree with his opinions, I did and still do agree with his critique of America as a Christian nation.

Here’s what he wrote about that:

I count myself among the many Christians, perhaps the majority of Christians in America, who have the gravest reservations about the idea of “Christian America.” It makes sense to speak, always cautiously, of America as a Christian society in terms of historical forces, ideas, and demography. But no society is worthy of the name of Christ, except the society that is the church, and then it is worthy only by virtue of being made worthy through the grace of God in Christ.[5]

In making that observation, I believe Father Neuhaus was loving the right things in the right order. That’s why my hope on this Fourth of July weekend is that we will render thanks to the Almighty for the freedom to worship, that we will exercise that freedom week in and week out here at Palmer, and, most importantly, that in our worship we will always respect the sovereignty of the One who reigns over not only this nation but all the nations of the earth. “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”[6]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 13:1.

BACK TO POST Hebrews 2:10, King James Version.

BACK TO POST Charles H. Talbert, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Romans (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 307. Talbert’s presentation of the biblical material covered in the next three paragraphs takes place on 295-298.

BACK TO POST Matthew 25:40.

BACK TO POST Richard John Neuhaus, “Democratic Morality: A Possibility,” an unpublished paper noted by Stanley Hauerwas in “A Christian Critique of Christian America,” in The Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) 470.

BACK TO POST I Timothy 1:17.

Mr. Mickey and Andy Griffith

There’s a great website called The Bitter Southerner that recently featured an article entitled “The Weird History of Hillbilly TV” by Gabe Bullard. It talks about all sorts of things from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Duck Dynasty,” including the fact that the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, although unmentioned, were both taking place while Andy Taylor was sheriff in the fictional small town of Mayberry.

No less than four photographs of Andy Griffith, who died in 2012, are part of that article. That made me smile for two reasons. First, because I was raised on reruns of the black and while episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Yes, I’m among those who consider the color episodes of that show, including all things related to “Mayberry R.F.D.,” to be heretical. But I also smiled because of a connection to Andy Griffith.

That’s because the first pastor whom I remember during my childhood at Union Cross Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was the Rev. Edward T. Mickey, Jr. After he had retired from Union Cross, he was elected to be a bishop of the Unitas Fratrum, which is the name of the worldwide Moravian Church.

Photo Credit: NCSU Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials

We called him Mr. Mickey, in the same way that Episcopal priests, believe it or not, used to be addressed in past generations in the United States. Mr. Mickey wasn’t only an ordained minister in the Moravian Church but also a very good musician. His grandfather, in fact, had been the leader of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band during the Civil War. It was from Mr. Mickey that I first learned that liturgy in our worship on Sundays isn’t a meaningless repetition of words but a beautiful act of prayer. He also directed the children’s choir in which I sang at Union Cross.

One of my first memories of Mr. Mickey is of him interrupting our practice of the song “This Is My Father’s World” to ask us if we happened to know what “the music of the spheres” was. He explained that it referred to the harmony of the movement of the planets in our solar system, which were created by God. I loved that thought. Another time he talked to us about part of a missing finger of his. I was so relieved he mentioned it because I could never take my eyes off of it when he directed us.

When I was older, I would sometimes help my daddy mow the grass at the church, which was on a fairly sizable piece of property that was bordered on two sides by tobacco fields. The white riding mower that I first used to do that was a gift to our church from Andy Griffith. He had shown up at the parsonage one day, asking to see Mr. Mickey and wearing a large hat that covered his face as he looked down at the ground. He was there to surprise an old friend who had set him on the right path.

Mr. Mickey had once served as the Pastor of Grace Moravian Church in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, which is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There a teenager by the name of Andy Griffith came to visit him, wanting to learn how to play the trombone. Here’s how that teenager later remembered that experience in The Player: A Profile of an Art, which is a 1962 collection of reflections by actors:

For three years, he gave me a free lesson once a week. Ed Mickey taught me to sing and to read music and to play every brass instrument there was in the [church] band, and the guitar and the banjo besides. I was best at playing the E-flat alto horn.

When I was sixteen, I joined the church, together with my mother and daddy. We had been Baptists, but it was all Protestant anyhow, so it didn’t make any difference. I was very happy with the Moravians. All the other band members accepted me. They didn’t ever make fun of me. When Ed Mickey had a call to serve another Moravian church, somewhere else in the state, I became the leader of the band until the church could bring in a new preacher. A lot of the people used to point to me and say, “There’s our next preacher.” I was beginning to get that idea myself. The preacher was the cultural leader of the whole town.

Those lessons were mentioned in Andy Griffith’s obituary in The New York Times, along with a painful memory of having been called “white trash” as a child. The band members at the church, including Mr. Mickey, embraced him with the love of Jesus.

Mr. Mickey recommended Andy Griffith for a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he began his college studies with the intention of becoming an ordained minister in the Moravian Church. He changed his major to music, however, becoming a teacher instead and spending his summers as an actor in “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama on Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks.

The rest is history . . .

Bright Star and a Family Tree Secret

When my wife Carrie and I purchased our tickets for the musical Bright Star, which was written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, we were both excited to hear the music but had no idea what the storyline would be. After we settled into our seats at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s partly set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during the post-war 1940s with flashbacks to 1923. I grew up in the Old North State within a short drive of those mountains, and we had our honeymoon in Asheville, where the musical also took us after some family drama in the plot that was inspired by a true event. And I had discovered a shadow of that secret in my own family tree.

In the musical, sixteen-year-old Alice Murphy, who sings “If You Knew My Story” as an adult, meets young Jimmy Ray Dobbs in her hometown of Zebulon. The town, by the way, is a real place that’s named for the Confederate Governor of North Carolina, Zebulon B. Vance. Jimmy Ray’s father, Josiah Dobbs, who represents the Old South, is the mayor and a successful businessman. He believes Jimmy Ray needs to marry someone with a higher social status and that college would be a waste of time when he should really be helping with the family business in order to run it one day.

Things get complicated when Alice becomes pregnant. Josiah arranges for that fact to remain a secret, forces Alice to give up her child for adoption, and promises to take his own grandchild to the adoption agency. On the train ride, however, he does something terrible to ensure that all of the problems he envisions for his son will go away forever. But his plan doesn’t work, and the child grows up, loved by others. There’s more to the story in the musical, but this context is sufficient for my story.

As I heard the words “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” being sung, I wondered if my great-great-great-grandmother Cornelia Dunevant would have heard the voice of “Royal George” Williamson running through her mind. Cornelia was a complete mystery to me as I researched my family history. She never got married, but did give birth to at least three daughters, including my great, great grandmother Telula Dunevant, who was born in 1855. Cornelia would have been about 17 years old at the time. Telula later married William Cook at 19 years of age, and the best clue to the identity of her father appears on her marriage certificate. She listed her mother as Cornelia and her father as Weldon Williamson, who was a wealthy planter’s son.

Until this week, that reference was the only hint that Weldon might be the father. One of the reasons that I had earlier decided to take the AncestryDNA test through Ancestry.com is because I hoped that it might offer a bridge to confirm a few things in my family tree that were probably true but not proven to be true. Over time, as more close family members, together with more people in general, take the same test, one is added to DNA Circles that point to a shared connection with a common ancestor. A couple of days ago, I was added to the DNA Circles for both Weldon and his father. While those connections are still described as “emerging” at this point, waiting to be strengthened as more people are tested, it’s stunning nevertheless.

Weldon’s father had a nickname, “Royal George,” and owned 142 slaves in Caswell County, North Carolina, according to the 1850 United States Federal Census. When Telula was born, Royal George would have been about 67 years old, and his son Weldon would have been about 23 years old. Royal George died about a year later, and I noticed something interesting about his will. Many of my other relatives from this time period open their wills with either a passing reference to God or a stated desire for a decent Christian burial. There’s not one word about any of that in Royal George’s will. It’s all business, including instructions about what to do if his four children by his second wife object to how he wants to divide their inheritance.

From the bottom of the first page of Royal George Williamson’s will: “If this rule of division is objected to on the part of my children by my second wife then I direct that the value of their property obtained as aforesaid shall be ascertained [and they shall receive an equal share of my estate less that value].”

And there was a lot to divide. The account documents for his estate include more than 30 pages, partly because so many people owed him money. At the time of the next United States Federal Census in 1860, Weldon is listed on the slave schedules as owning 27 slaves. Many if not most of those enslaved Africans presumably represent part of the “property” that Weldon inherited from his father. Weldon also inherited Royal George’s family home called Melrose. He had apparently put his relationship with Cornelia behind him and married another woman, Nancy Johnston, about a year after the birth of Telula. “A man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do” to succeed, according to the fictional grandfather in Bright Star. “A man must protect his family and preserve his good name,” he sings, although what he’s preserving is an illusion.

Yet just as the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, so too does personal tragedy. Nancy died less than a year after she and Weldon were married. After her death, Weldon sold Melrose to one of his brothers. 68 days after the death of his first wife, Weldon married his second wife Mary Bethel. By 1880, he was a widower again and had moved with his children to Danville in Southern Virginia. He married his third wife Elizabeth Hammond in 1881, and by the turn of the century he and his family were living in Asheville. Weldon died there in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1901.

Traditionally, Christians have called the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible the Preacher.  At the very end of that book, the Preacher implies that a light will be shined on “every deed . . . including every secret thing.” For the Preacher, that is God’s judgement. Or maybe it’s just the reality that truth dispels our darkest night and sets us free. Perhaps all of that is the same thing, allowing us to loosen a little our tight grip on the memories of the past that burden our hearts.

I don’t know how that worked itself out in the hearts of Cornelia, Weldon, or Royal George. What I do know is that Telula lived her life, loved by her children, who put these words on the headstone of the grave where she is buried beside her husband:

FAREWELL, DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER SWEET
THY REST. GOD TAKES THE LIVES HE GAVE.

For many people, the family that finally embraces them and accepts them is the community of the church that embodies the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross. I hope Telula and her mother and her father experienced that, too, on this earth. And I hope Royal George will experience that in the life to come, reconciled with his children, his grandchildren, including Talula, and the men, women, and children he enslaved, whose lives were just as important in the eyes of God as his own. All of them, and all of us, need to know that love remains in spite of the wrongs we have done to others and after the wrongs others have done to us. This I believe.

Click here for a series of reflections on a different slave-owning ancestor.

Facing Death in the Midst of Holy Week

Like many Southerners, even as an adult, I always referred to my father as “Daddy.” He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the last years of his life and died ten years ago today on the eve of Palm Sunday. So that year I observed Holy Week in a different and more profound way than ever before. It was intensely personal and accompanied with many tears. Death, the enemy of life, is cruel. I miss him still.

After returning to North Carolina, I touched Daddy’s body and kissed his forehead and said prayers before his cremation. I selected a simple wooden urn for his ashes. I made sure that his ashes were placed directly into it without any plastic bag or metal identification tag, only a layer of cotton between the ashes and the wooden panel that was screwed into the bottom. And I requested that the dirt at the graveside be visible, not hidden under a roll of artificial turf. These things, these realities, were meaningful to me as a priest and, more importantly, as a son.

My brother worked at that time as a private contractor in Iraq. Weather conditions delayed his departure from there, which in turn delayed Daddy’s funeral. That was transformed into a strange blessing, however, since the funeral was held on Good Friday. On a holy day set aside to remember the death of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we also remembered the death of one of his sheep, one of his lambs.

The contrast between the weather in the Old North State and the North Star State was a bit extreme on that day called good. In North Carolina, everything was in bloom. But the back yard of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota, where I served as the Rector, looked like the photograph below, which was taken on the same day. It was symbolic of my own experience at the time. The warmth of the sun back home was a glimpse of the glory that shall be revealed. Those who were in the “Deep North” will remember a magnificent snowfall that year on Easter Day!

Inside the church of my childhood, I recited the Moravian burial liturgy and sang familiar chorales with the congregation. I carried the urn in a procession from the church to the graveyard, which is called God’s Acre, as a brass band played more chorales outdoors. I placed that urn directly into the ground, returning Daddy’s remains to the earth. I picked up a shovel and, together with my brother, filled the grave with dirt in the presence of our mother, our relatives, and our friends. That final act of love was a powerful experience for me and for many who witnessed it.

The chorale sung at the end of the Moravian burial liturgy, just before the graveside benediction, is a beautiful summary of the Christian faith that Daddy and I shared:

The Savior’s blood and righteousness
My beauty is, my glorious dress;
Thus well arrayed I need not fear,
When in His presence I appear.

Needless to say, presiding at the Great Vigil of Easter on the next evening at my Episcopal parish in Minnesota was emotional for me. It was, however, one of the highlights of my life as a priest. That’s when the faithful of the world, and the faithless too, are reminded of the night in which Jesus passed over from death to life. That’s when we look into an empty tomb but do not dwell there. That’s when tears are wiped away from the faces of those who mourn. As I wrote down the following words for the back of Daddy’s funeral bulletin, these other things, these other realities, filled me with a hope that is firmly anchored in God’s promises:

“The people to whom I owe my life are unforgotten. They are present to me, because in their love I became free and can breathe in wide spaces. Unforgotten for me are people to whom I am bound in affection and respect. They have entered into my life, and I perhaps a little into theirs. Unforgotten for me are the dead whom I miss. They are always especially present to me. Nothing that has been, is no more; everything that has happened remains. We cannot make anything undone, not the ill, but not the good either. What was lovely and successful, and the happiness we have experienced, no one can take from us, neither transitory time nor death.”

These words of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann at the end of his autobiography, A Broad Place, describe our own lives and also the life that we have remembered this morning. Although memories faded for Clyde over the last several years, those experiences are nevertheless unforgotten. They are not lost because God has embraced them for him as surely as God now embraces him for us.

This we believe.

This is the joy of Easter.

The Lord is risen indeed!

Snow White and the Ten Commandments

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 4, 2018

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . . (Exodus 20:1-2)

Yesterday, my wife Carrie and I enjoyed spending the afternoon with some friends at the Hobby Center downtown for the musical Memphis. The lead male character is a fictionalized version of the pioneering disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. As a DJ, he introduced black music to a wider — and whiter — audience on the radio. Down the road, and beyond the scope of the musical, he would become famous as the first person to play on air a recording of Elvis Presley. That young Elvis would be taken around town by this white man to complete his musical education by meeting African American club owners and music stars.

In the musical, set in the segregated South of the 1950s, one of the main things that’s painful to watch is the racism that provides tension throughout the story. However, as if that’s not enough, there’s a jarring dissonance in Memphis between Christianity as it’s meant to be, like the image in the last book of the Bible of “a great multitude which no [one] could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne” of God, and old rules about how good Christian white people were supposed to act in the South.[1] It was an inversion of the biblical image in which a perversion of Christianity reinforced the walls between the races.

I’ve been wrestling with that same dissonance within my family tree over the last six months or so. As some of you heard me share during a recent Faith Forum on the theme of reconciliation, my wife strongly suggested to me last summer that I should find something else to do in my spare time other than checking the latest political news constantly. Fair enough, I thought. So one night when I was having trouble falling asleep, I decided that it might be a fun distraction to explore the past through Ancestry.com. And it was fun to discover in my wife’s family tree a truly delightful scoundrel who spent some time as a prisoner at the Jamestown Colony and four Unionist hell-raising cousins in my family tree who broke out of jail multiple times in Confederate North Carolina, barely escaping the hangman’s noose the last time.

But I didn’t expect to meet Daniel Hackney, Jr., my great, great, great, grandfather. He became a Baptist deacon in 1833 in Chatham County, North Carolina. After the Civil War, he was licensed preach in 1866 and then ordained as a minister of the gospel in 1871. He, too, was a Unionist throughout his political career as an elected representative in North Carolina’s General Assembly during the 1840s and 1850s.

But Hackney was a pro-slavery Unionist, believing, like many of the conservative politicians of his day, that secession would ultimately be the surest and quickest path to the destruction of the institution of slavery. That, of course, is exactly what happened. So I guess we can all agree he was right about that one thing at least.

The 1860 United States Federal Census included slave schedules that reveal the fact that Hackney, just like his father before him, owned slaves. It doesn’t include their names because they are simply counted as property under Hackney’s name. 14 in total, most of them children, including a one-month-old baby. 13 were black, one was biracial. There were eight males and six females. None were fugitives or had been manumitted. Together they lived in three slave houses. The dissonance between that harsh reality and Hackney’s complete devotion to the work of Baptist churches after the war without seeming to regret the past is astonishing, although it’s important to acknowledge that he would have been raised not to hear that.[2]

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That sentence introduces what we Christians traditionally refer to as “The Ten Commandments,” which we’ve been reciting together at the beginning of our liturgies each Sunday throughout this season of Lent. But the Bible itself refers to this collection not with that familiar title but as “The Ten Words” or “Decalogue.” Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, that sentence is neither an introduction nor a prologue to everything that follows but stands alone as the First Word.

As an aside, yes, there’s more than one way to divide up this familiar-sounding text into ten parts. In fact, there are three different ways to count those Ten Words. I’ve already mentioned the traditional Jewish way that counts the first sentence alone as the First Word before moving on to count not having other gods and not making idols, together, as the Second Word. Roman Catholics and Lutherans also combine no other gods and no idols as their First Word and split the commandment against coveting into not coveting a neighbor’s spouse as the Ninth Word and not coveting a neighbor’s possessions as the Tenth Word. Anglican, Orthodox, and Reformed Christians keep all that coveting together as the Tenth Word and count not having other gods as the First Word and not making idols as the Second Word. Got that?

So counting to ten can be more difficult than we often imagine! Back in 2006, Lynn Westmoreland, who’s a member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia, co-sponsored a bill that would have declared the Ten Commandments to be “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstones of a fair and just society” and also would have required them to be clearly displayed in the United States Capitol. He believed people needed “to understand and to respect” these commandments. But when Westmorland was interviewed about this, he stumbled when he was asked,

What are the Ten Commandments?[3]

“Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmmm.” And then he admitted, “I can’t name them all.”[4] Now to be fair, as my wife told me, that’s like asking Americans to name the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. You might come up with Sleepy, Bashful, and Sneezy, while completely unable to recall Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, and Doc.

The issue with Westmoreland wasn’t the fact that he stumbled when he was asked to list the commandments. After all, there are different lists. Rather, it was the sanctimonious way he wanted to impose this on everyone without fully embracing it himself. And make no mistake about it, these ten words are spoken directly to Jews and, by extension, to Christians who accept the Hebrew Bible. They presume a redeemed and worshiping community like the one that surrounds us right now.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That First Word in the Jewish reckoning isn’t a commandment at all. Rather, it’s a “statement of who God is and what God has already done for Israel.”[5] That one sentence really summarizes most of the Old Testament — using God’s revealed name, “I am Yahweh your God,” and reminding us of that God’s liberating actions, which are not merely anchored in the past but are a continuing reality in the lives of God’s people from generation to generation, including our own.

It’s easy to miss the plain reading of the text that God didn’t just bring those people from long ago out of the land of Egypt, God brought you . . . and me out of the land of Egypt. God brought us out of bondage. As Christians, we might say with the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”[6] This God brings life out of death, good out of evil, and sets us free. Each of us needs to be set free from something.

Occasionally we get to see that deliverance in dramatic ways in the world around us. I’m grateful, for example, that people in the 1860s saw the end of the institution of slavery throughout the United States and that people in the 1960s witnessed the Civil Rights Movement. America’s original sin was enshrined in the words of the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person. And I hope the shadows of that, which linger in our own time, will one day be dispelled by the light of God’s love — the same love that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ, who healed the afflicted and, from the cross, forgave his tormentors. Those in bondage to hatred aren’t really free, even if they seem to be.

But I know that even if a miraculous shift like that happens in our society while I’m still on this earth, the dissonance between my personal life and the words of the Decalogue will remain and never go away. That’s part of living, breathing, and being human. That’s part of knowing that we need to be forgiven and embraced and loved. And it’s important for me, spiritually, to listen for that dissonance, even if I’ve been taught not to hear it or the people around me don’t want me to acknowledge it.

I thought about that while reading Larry Parsley’s review of the novel Godric, which was written by Frederick Buechner. The book takes its title from the name of the story’s main character who observes that “nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.” Parsley says that “Godric’s early life breaks most of the Ten Commandments.” Eventually, however, he settles into the life of a Christian hermit whom people, for whatever reason, seek out for healing. And this is how Parsley’s review ends:

In Godric’s latter days, an obsequious monk named Reginald of Durham is dispatched to write Godric’s hagiography. As Reginald tries to pretty up the often ugly past of his subject, he justifies himself: “. . . for the sake of him who is himself the Truth, I leave some small truths out.” But Godric opposes the literary airbrushing techniques of Reginald at every turn. When Reginald tries to tell Godric his name is Saxon for “God reigns,” Godric corrects him and says his name literally means “God’s wreck.”

Over the course of reading this book, I was struck by my deep and persistent temptation to serve as my own Reginald, to tell stories of my life in such a way that the ugly parts are excised and the good parts are magnified. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I, too, am “God’s wreck.” Thankfully, though, I am God’s. And sometimes, God even moves through me . . .[7]

I don’t know about you, but I love the oddly comforting image of being God’s wreck. That’s something I share with my great, great, great grandfather and why it’s o.k. to talk about his life not as I wish it to be but as it really was. It’s o.k. for me to be honest with God about my own life too. God hears the dissonance, even the parts that I do not, taking those notes and composing something new that’s beautiful and eternal.

And that’s the invitation each one of us has received today — to bring our true selves to this Table, to be fed here, to be loved here, to be forgiven here, knowing that God will one day right all wrongs, those done not only to us but also by us. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9 (Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST I also didn’t realize until last month that the same dissonance is present in the history of my alma mater, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Founded in 1834 to educate Baptist laity and men entering the ordained ministry, and named Wake Forest College in 1838, it was originally located near Raleigh in the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. According to Twitter’s @WFUHistory, which highlights the six-volume History of Wake Forest College:

In 1860 Wake Forest was given the estate of Mr. John Blount for sale, which they sold for $12,153.19 Confederate dollars. All the money was invested in Confederate bonds, which were worth nothing by the time the college reopened in 1865. Of this $12,15319 over $10,000 came from the sale of Mr. Blount’s [16] slaves by The Board of Trustee’s Treasurer, Mr. J. S. Purefoy. The money from his estate was to be part of the college’s endowment.

BACK TO POST Bob Allen, “Baptist Congressman Can’t Name Ten Commandments,” Ethics Daily, June 22, 2006.

BACK TO POST Allen.

BACK TO POST William Johnstone, Exodus 20-40, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2014) 23.

BACK TO POST Robert Jenson, quoted by Stanley Hauerwas in “How to write a theological sentence,” ABC Religion & Ethics, September 26, 2013.

BACK TO POST Larry Parsley, “‘A Broth of False and True’: Frederick Buechner’s Godric,” Mockingbird, February 28, 2018.

My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part X

After the end of the Civil War, my great, great, great grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., no longer “owned” 14 human beings as “property.” Their new status as free persons had been guaranteed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863, and freed slaves within the borders of states in rebellion and by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, and abolished slavery throughout the United States. Hackney, a former politician and former Confederate Home Guard officer and now also a former slave owner, would spend his post-war years devoted to the work of Baptist churches. He had served as a deacon at Love’s Creek Baptist Church in Chatham County, North Carolina, since 1833. But he was granted a license to preach in the Sandy Creek Association of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1866. Eventually, he was ordained as a preaching elder in that association in 1871, serving as a pastor, without seeming to regret the past or even noticing its dissonance with Christian faith, until his death on December 28, 1884.

My great, great grandfather David Williard and his brothers, having been drafted to fight for the Confederacy, returned home to Forsyth County, North Carolina, after the war to resume farming. These men born to Moravian parents didn’t own slaves before secession, so nothing about that reality changed afterwards. However, the economic ruin that had been wrought by the rebellion was obviously different. And so was the psychological trauma of having participated in wartime violence that their Moravian grandparents and great grandparents would have found abhorrent as members of an originally pacifist Christian community. A line had been crossed. They were now Americans who happened to belong to the Moravian Church (or Primitive Baptist churches), and not Moravians who happened to live in America as in previous generations.

Elkanah, William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard — my second cousins, fourth removed — returned home to Yadkin County, North Carolina, after remaining Unionists throughout the war and actively opposing the Confederacy in the Old North State. It was suggested that they were members of a secret resistance movement known as the H.O.A. or Heroes of America. There was a warrant for the arrest of William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard and 11 other Unionists for murder “with malice aforethought” after an attempted arrest that led to a shootout with state militia. And Elkanah Willard, who can be seen in this photo with his prophet-like beard, was the subject of conversations with North Carolina’s wartime governor and chief justice because of his brash defiance of the authorities. Even though the arrival of the Union army ensured that the murder case would not be pursued, it’s astonishing these brothers just resumed their old lives.

So my ancestors represented at least three of the groups of people who were living in the “Quaker Belt” of the central piedmont of North Carolina during the Civil War: The wealthy who encouraged young men to volunteer to fight in a war that would mostly benefit slave owners; the yeoman farmers who were drafted into the Confederate army, many of whom deserted or resisted passively; and those who actively rebelled against the rebellion for the sake of the Union. However, when monuments were raised in the 20th century in Chatham and Forsyth Counties to commemorate the historical events of 1861 to 1865, the speeches that accompanied their unveiling glorified ordinary citizens who stepped forward to fight for the Confederacy with patriotic zeal, ignoring, in a real sense, all three of these groups.

The monuments themselves ignore these same groups and the African Americans who were enslaved by the rule of law, beginning with the Constitution of the United States, with the imagined blessing of God in the Bible. Those slaves were the human subject of “property rights” that Christian people like Hackney wanted to protect for themselves and their own economic gain by talking about the equal rights of states rather than individuals. However, African Americans were very much on the minds of men who gave speeches that praised these monuments before cheering crowds.

After 20 children unveiled Chatham County’s new Confederate monument before a large crowd in Pittsboro, North Carolina, on August 23, 1907, Chief Justice Walter Clark of the North Carolina Supreme Court was introduced as the guest speaker for the occasion. In his remarks, which the Raleigh Times newspaper published, Clark suggests the possibility that the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution “to secure the rights of the newly emancipated colored people” was not adopted legally.

Clark would later give the 1920 commencement address at St. Augustine’s School (now St. Augustine’s University) in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s a historically African American educational institution that was founded in 1867 by the Episcopal Church for the education of freed slaves. Unbelievably, his remarks included these words:

 It is true that our colored people wear “the shadowed livery of the burnished sun” and there is no social equality between the races, but the latter condition exists in every country where there are two or more distinct races of people. The colored people do not wish social equality, and the white people would not tolerate it, and there the matter ends. It is not a matter of debate, but is settled and not a cause of strife like the divergence in language, in religion, in national aspirations which exists in nearly every other country. . . .

There has been some times complaint as to what is known as the “Jim Crow cars,” which are established by law. At the North, where there are few colored people in proportion to the population, the railroads cannot afford to furnish separate cars for them. With us, where nearly one-third of the people are colored, and probably one-fourth of the travelers by rail, it is better for them and the whites that separate cars should be furnished for them. The real objection is that sometimes these cars are inferior to those furnished the whites. This is contrary to the law, which requires the same rate to be charged for fare and the same and equally good accommodations furnished for both races. When this is not done it is not because of the law, but in violation of it, and the remedy is by application to the Corporation Commission to require better accommodations.

As to suffrage, which I do not intend to discuss in any way, I think that the wiser heads among the colored people have discouraged any attempt to intermeddle in politics and that the colored race has lost nothing but gained much by abstaining from doing so against the wishes of the white people, notwithstanding the decision of the United States Supreme Court that the “Grandfather Clause” is void.

Forsyth County’s new Confederate monument had been unveiled in Winston, North Carolina, on October 3, 1905. The guest speaker that day was the Honorable Alfred Moore Waddell, Mayor of Wilmington, North Carolina, who said, “I thank God that monuments to the Confederate soldier are rapidly multiplying in the land.”

Wadell had been a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate cavalry and was a United States representative during the 1870s. He also participated in a coup d’etat known as the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, when white Democrats overthrew the legally elected officials of the city and expelled black Republican leaders. Emboldened by Democratic election victories in the fall of 1898 throughout most of North Carolina, an armed white mob seized control of the city. Before sunset, they had forced the mayor, the board of aldermen, and the chief of police to resign.

Waddell, who began his term as the Mayor of Wilmington under these violent and racist circumstances, had made clear his unvarnished white supremacist views in a statement before the election that was published in the Constitution newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 21, 1898. This was part of the intimidation of African American voters that, together with at least one city precinct in which the ballot boxes were stuffed, contributed to the wide election margins by white Democrats:

So I do not believe those monuments truly reflect or honor the historical events of 1861 to 1865. They certainly are not honest about the white supremacist ideas that undergirded the celebrations after they were erected. Not even General Robert E. Lee thought these “enduring memorials of granite” were a good idea. He wrote a letter in 1869 to decline an invitation to return to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with officers who had participated in the battle there for the purpose of marking on the ground where such memorials should be placed. This is how he ended his letter:

I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered. Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a historian, civil rights activist, and the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also known as the NAACP, and wrote these words in 1931 in a publication of the NAACP called The Crisis:

The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments, — the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to explain on its war monuments, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter on a North Carolina monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”

Last summer I happened to read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times newspaper that was written by a self-described “black daughter of the Confederacy.” Her name is Lisa Richardson, and, like me, she’s the descendant of a Confederate soldier. The difference, as she notes in her essay, is that she finds herself in that category most likely “through coerced sex and rape,” which was tolerated within the institution of slavery. Also like me, a victory for one side of her family meant defeat for another side of her family. In Richardson’s case, however, the end of the rebellion brought an end to the institution of slavery and, therefore, freedom to her slave ancestors. With her, I rejoice that the rebellion did not succeed in its aim to deny that freedom to millions of human beings whose ancestors came from Africa. With her, I lament that white supremacist ideas have survived the fall the Confederacy, emerging renewed as those statues were dedicated and, sadly, continuing into our own day:

History isn’t being erased, but it is being corrected. Relocating a Confederate statue to, say, a museum, is an acknowledgment that we see the naked emperor; we see through the contorted logic that it is possible to separate the Confederacy from the institution of slavery . . .

As for my Confederate ancestor, [Jeremiah Dial, who enlisted in the 31st Regiment, Arkansas Infantry,] I consider him without bitterness. He was a man of his time, his family, his community and his culture. He probably wasn’t particularly evil — just an ordinary man, without the advantage we have: [more than a century and a half’s] perspective on the Civil War. I have met a few of his white descendants — my cousins — and we regard each other with genuine affection.

To those who would keep Jeremiah Dial frozen in time, forever trapped at the moment he chose a cause on the wrong side of humanity, I believe you do him a disservice. To those who use him as an excuse to fly the flag of modern-day anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry, you have no right.

To all the bronze Confederate soldiers, in whom I see the image of my great-great-great-grandfather, I would extend this grace. Without resentment or rancor, I would move them into museums and there tell the story of their lives. I would end their utility as flashpoints for racism and division, and, once and for all, allow them to retire from their long service as sentries over a whitewashed history.

I’m grateful that recent scholarship is filling in the gaps in the history of the world that surrounded and shaped the opinions of both my slave-owning and non-slave-owning ancestors in the 19th century. In 2014, for example, Cambridge University Press published Rebels against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists by Barton A. Myers, and McFarland & Company published Civil War in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt: The Confederate Campaign Against Peace Agitators, Deserters and Draft Dodgers by William T. Auman. I’m also grateful that I’ve been able to learn details about the connections that my great, great, great grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., had to the institution of slavery, both personally and politically, thanks to the resources of Ancestry.com and its affiliates. Even when I disagree with them, it’s amazing to read his thoughts about the events of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s in local newspapers.

From my point of view, there is nothing to fear about shining a light on the shadows that have been ignored for too long. As for this particular series, this is probably my penultimate post. I’m pondering a final post that imagines a conversation, centered on reconciliation, between me and Hackney. However, that will necessitate some time and some prayer to do honestly. So perhaps it will appear in a future season of Easter. That would seem appropriate since I am, like Hackney was, an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The promise of Easter is that God will one day make all things new, including the conflicted and sin-wearied hearts of Hackney and me with our prejudices, our imperfections, and our many mistakes. As the First Letter of John in the New Testament reminds those of us who are called Christians:

If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts . . .

To that, I say, “Amen, amen, and amen.” The Lord is merciful to all. This I believe.

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.

My Slave-Owning Ancestor, Part IX

My great, great, great grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., was appointed to chair a public meeting at Love’s Creek Baptist Church in Chatham County, North Carolina, on August 29, 1863. That was nearly two months after the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Hackney, a former politician, owned 14 slaves, served as a deacon at Love’s Creek Baptist Church, and was 3rd Lieutenant in Chatham County’s Home Guard. His report about that meeting was published in the September 10, 1863, issue of the Fayetteville Observer newspaper in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

After Hackney and other speakers addressed the assembly, those present declared “full confidence” in the Confederate government and “abiding faith” in Divine Providence. They expressed their opinion that “a reconstruction of the Union is a thing impossible” and disapproval of so-called “peace meetings” in various parts of the Old North State. Finally, they resolved that it was their duty “to sustain the President of the Confederate States and the Governor of North Carolina, in the discharge of all their constitutional duties.”

I have other relatives who were just as unwavering in their convictions as Hackney was, only not for his cause.

On November 10, 1862, Henry W. Ayer wrote his official report to Governor Zebulon B. Vance of North Carolina about war-related manufacturing contracts in Forsyth County. His letter ends, however, with a dire warning about Elkanah Willard, whose name comes from the father of the Prophet Samuel in the Bible. This Willard is my second cousin, fourth removed, and lived in Yadkin County, which is adjacent to and west of Forsyth County. Here’s what Ayer said about him, and note that Richard M. Pearson was the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court:

I am authorized and requested by Chief Justice Pearson to lay before your Excellency the following facts, There is a man in Yadkin county near Mount Nebo . . . named Elkanah Willard, who openly defied the law, first, By rescueing his brother who is a conscript (he himself is not) from a guard who had him in custody by a display of arms and open force. Secondly, by putting Capt Fleming and the men accompanying him at defiance, in such a way that they were obliged to shoot him down or rush upon him armed as he was at the iminent danger of their lives The Capt says he could have shot him down or at the risk of his life have attempted to arrest him but as he was a man of most desperate character and has 5 older brothers as bad as himself, the better plan he thought was to let him alone — It is the opinion of the well affected neighbors in order to avoid bloodshed that the best policy would be to send an officer with 12 to 15 armed men — to arrest him, supposing that this display of force would let them see their resistance was hopeless and that they would surrender without opposition Whereas it tampered with and not put down at the start it may result in some dreadful evil. The effect of armed men in the neighborhood, would be wholesome in many ways, as there is some disaffection in that part of the County. This man Willard has said he would rather join the Federal Army than ours — The above statement are facts, vouched for by Judge Pearson. Any thing else coming to my knowledge will be promptly reported to your Excellency.

That same year, 1862, Elkanah Willard was indeed arrested for speaking in favor of the Union and rescuing a draft-dodging brother. But that was only the beginning. He was eventually released from custody, legally or illegally, before his next escapades.

15 men gathered in the Bond Schoolhouse, named for a Quaker and near the Deep Creek Friends Meeting House, in Yadkin County on the night of February 11, 1863. That group, which was evading the Confederate draft and making plans to cross over to Union territory in Tennessee, included William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard, who were three of Elkanah Willard’s brothers. Their number increased to 16 early the next day when another member of their party joined them with a newspaper. Anxious to hear news of the war, they forgot to post a guard. So they were caught by surprise when at least 12 members of the state militia, having been tipped off about their hiding place, rode out to the schoolhouse to arrest them. The shootout that ensued left two men killed on each side, two men wounded among the Unionists, including Benjamin Willard, and no one in custody after the state militia withdrew.

According to one recollection, “the Willard boys did most of the shooting.” The next day, February 13, they were named along with the other 11 surviving Unionists in a warrant for the arrest of all 14 of them for murder “with malice aforethought.” A few days later, four of them — but none of the Willard brothers — were in custody. That’s the context for attorney R.F. Armfield’s letter to Governor Vance about this incident and how it fit into political debates about the Confederate draft, which was extremely controversial in North Carolina because that draft was not controlled by the state. So states’ rights were, ironically, being trampled upon by the First Congress of the Confederate States of America for the sake of immediate necessity.

After summarizing details of the shootout, Armfield ended his letter to Governor Vance with some cautionary advice. Although the governor was strongly opposed to the Confederate draft on the basis of states’ rights, he zealously rounded up deserters and returned them to their regiments in the Confederate army. That would bring him into conflict with the chief justice of the state supreme court, who did not believe that the governor had authority to do that. So Armfield wrote:

But my principle object in writing this letter is to ask you what we shall do with those four murderers we have and the others if we get them? Suppose we try them for murder, do you not believe our supreme court will decide the conscription act unconstitutional and thus leave these men justified in resisting its execution? I believe they will, and tremble to think of the consequences of such a blow upon the cause of our independence. It would demoralize our army in the field and bring the first horrors of civil war to our own doors and then perhaps subjugation to the enemy, which no honorable man ought to want to survive. . . . I hope you know I am conservative for the rights of the citizens and the States, but for my country always, and for independence at all hazards.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Chief Justice Pearson had the four men who were being held in custody released on a writ of habeas corpus. He believed their detention was illegal. The General Assembly of North Carolina would keep trying to increase the governor’s authority in what would become a continuing legal battle with the state supreme court. So these would not be the last arrests made in this particular case.

More than a year later, in the summer of 1864, three of the 14 surviving Unionists, including William Willard, were captured as they tried to cross the mountains. Those three men were taken to the Yadkinville jail in Yadkin County. But they were rescued in a jail break by a group of armed men, led by Elkanah Willard. The editorial from the Weekly Confederate newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina, that concluded my last post in this series began with a description of that jail break and claimed that my Willard cousins and others in league with them belonged to an organized resistance movement known as the H.O.A. or Heroes of America.

The New York Times multi-year series Disunion included a post on the shootout at the Bond Schoolhouse called “Blood in the Carolina Hills.” That post contains this interesting sentence: “It proved harder to keep the Willards jailed than to keep a beagle in a pen.” It also offered a description of the work of the Heroes of America:

The [H.O.A.] undermined the Confederacy primarily by encouraging and aiding draft resisters and deserters. An “underground railroad,” operated in cooperation with abolitionists, led deserters and conscripts to safety in Tennessee and Kentucky, where many enlisted with the Union. The organization’s badge, a red string attached to a coat lapel or a home’s threshold or window, gave the Heroes the nickname the Red Strings. The device was adopted from the biblical Book of Joshua, in which a woman in Jericho concealed from capture two Israelites on a reconnaissance mission, then helped them escape by lowering them down the city wall on a red rope. They promised that on their return as conquerors, she and her family would be protected by a “scarlet thread” she was to fasten to her window.

After the Yadkinville jail break, Elkanah, William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard joined a large party of men with arms and ammunition stolen from the Home Guard and, on July 10, 1864, headed toward Tennessee to try to reach the Federal lines there. This group divided into two companies, each one led by an individual “who had from time to time been successful in piloting many conscripts across the line.” While one of the companies arrived safely on the other side, the other one, which included my Willard cousins, was surprised and attacked by the North Carolina militia.

Although many of the men in that company were killed, the Willard brothers were captured and taken to Camp Vance, which was six miles outside of Morganton, North Carolina. They escaped from Camp Vance but were captured again.

At that point, Elkanah Willard was sent to the Morganton jail, from which he escaped on his own. And his brothers were sent to the Forsyth County jail, from which a sister helped them make a daring escape.

The report about that jail break by the Winston Sentinel newspaper in Winston, North Carolina, was republished in the Daily Conservative newspaper in Raleigh on January 31, 1865. As seen above and to the right, it appeared right below a call for prayer and thanksgiving in a proclamation by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Here’s a 1906 account of this final jail break story:

The last place [William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard] broke jail was Winston [in Forsyth County, North Carolina]. A sister of the Willard boys secreted an auger and a chisel upon her person, left her home in Yadkin county and went to Winston and after undergoing a rigid examination by the jailor, she was permitted to go up stairs to see her brothers. When she left the jail she left the auger and chisel with them. With the auger and chisel, they bored and cut out of the jail and made good their escape, and avoided being shot or hanged, as a detachment of state militia had been ordered there to take them out and hang or shoot them, and arrived the day after they escaped.

Soon after this the welcome word “peace” was heralded from Florida to California, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. And they like thousands of others, at the close of the war, returned to their shattered homes penniless. All indictments against them was nole prosceivied [sic].

In other words, the murder case involving William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard and the other 11 men who had been at the Bond Schoolhouse during the shootout with members of the state militia would not be pursued after the Union army arrived.

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.