Category Archives: history

“Wildcat” Morrell, a “Tireless Foe of [Texas] Hardshellism”

This post is for my friends Dorothy and Lela—not because it applies to them, but because they like this kind of post; also my dad, with whom I’ve spent hours discussing this very thing, and who is the pastor of an East Texas hard-shell church.

I’ve been doing a little reading in Flowers and Fruits in the Wilderness by Z.N. “Wildcat” Morrell. Morrell was one of the first travelling Missionary Baptists in Texas, and quite a character: “One of his first Texas activities [after arriving from Tennessee] was to plan a bear hunt with the famed David Crockett.”

The preface tells us that “Morrell was a tireless foe of hardshellism, so prevalent in East Texas at the time.”

Another name for “hard-shell,” is Primitive Baptist. Many of the East Texas Primitive Baptists still proudly wear the name. I’ve told you before how that I grew up amongst these East Texas hard-shell churches. In his book, Morrell often mentions his contemporary Daniel Parker, who founded Pilgrim Primitive Baptist Church, which is one that I attended as a child.

Though Morrell was a “foe” of the hard-shells, he considered them brothers and seems to have spent a good deal of time with them. I may change my mind as I read more, but at this point it doesn’t seem like election or predestination is where he disagreed with them. It was their anti-missionary, hyper-Calvinist, antinomian tendencies that he didn’t like.

Morrell tells of one of his friends “making sarcastic hits at the missionaries and their folly in trying to do God’s work:”

“To this I could only reply, that we missionaries had one decided advantage. While the ‘iron jackets’ [apparently another name for hard-shell] boast of election and predestination, the missionaries are masters of the situation. ‘How is that?’ cries the anti-missionary. We reply, ‘You worship a God that saw the end from the beginning, but left out all the means leading to and accomplishing the end. We worship an all-wise God who ordained the means leading to the end, as well as the end itself; and he has ordained the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe, as a means in his own hands.’”

I like that. So am I a rank arminian?

Becoming King by Troy Jackson

Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader

By Troy Jackson

University Press of Kentucky: 2008

Paperback: February 28, 2011

Troy Jackson, author of Becoming King, says that it was the people of Montgomery who shaped Martin Luther King Jr. rather than Martin Luther King Jr. who shaped the people of Montgomery.

Civil rights advocate Virginia Durr described Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950’s as a place of “death, decay, corruption, frustration, bitterness and sorrow.” And Jackson convinces us that she wasn’t exaggerating. Blacks were oppressed, intimidated, and abused, and they were ready for change. Durr wrote: “I think the Negroes are stirring and they won’t be held down much longer.”

Through Jackson’s thorough research and extensive quotes, we come to know and appreciate many of the African-Americans working for change in Montgomery before King arrived—those like E.D. Nixon, a Pullman Porter and “tireless fighter for justice,” and his secretary, “a local seamstress” named Rosa Parks. Along with Nixon, there were other courageous men like Vernon Johns, pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist church, who posted the title of an upcoming sermon on the church billboard (which was only a block from the State Capitol): “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Alabama.” But Jackson shows that it was the women who were most essential to the movement:

“Though many black men in the city were just as frustrated with the racial status quo, they had more to lose by being outspoken. Whites believed they had much more to fear from black men, and therefore they responded more quickly, and often violently, to any who got out of line. As whites fixed their attention on black men, several black women were stirring the waters of racial change in Montgomery.”

When the young Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Montgomery in 1954 to replace Johns as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he didn’t plan to lead a civil rights movement. But plans change.

Claudette Colvin, a student at Booker T. Washington High School, refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in March of 1955. When an officer tried to physically move her, “she fought like a little tigress” and was arrested. Soon after, Rosa Parks was also arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat. Jackson writes: “After a little more than a year in Montgomery, Park’s arrest thrust King into the front lines of a local movement for civil rights.” The bus boycott began. “Because the people of Montgomery were willing to walk, King had the opportunity to lead.”

The newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which elected King as president, led the boycott for the next thirteen months. Jackson gives a detailed account, telling the good and the bad, and correcting the idea that it wouldn’t have happened without King. It was Nixon’s idea, and the working people carried it out. “King brought the refined dimension required,” but never took any credit for himself:

“If I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”

The locals responded to the boycott with threats, legal action, and violence. King’s house, along with Nixon’s and several others, was bombed. And the city government wouldn’t budge until the U.S. Supreme Court found bus segregation unconstitutional. Even then, Jackson says there were minimal gains for the local blacks:

“The U.S. Supreme Court decision supporting integrated buses in the city proved more of a victory for King and the burgeoning civil rights movement than it was for the Montgomery African-American community.”

While “King became the face for the national struggle for civil rights,” the conditions in Montgomery worsened. Violence increased, and lots of those who took part in the boycott lost their jobs. Many had to move, including Rosa Parks.

In the introduction to Jackson’s book, Clayborne Carson writes:

“By acknowledging that the bus boycott had only a limited impact on the lives of Montgomery’s black working class, Becoming King is a necessary correction to romanticized versions of Civil Rights progress and Great Man historical myths.”

When King announced that he was leaving Montgomery in 1960, a Dexter member wrote: “The history books may write it Rev. King was born in Atlanta, and then came to Montgomery, but we feel that he was born in Montgomery in the struggle here, and now he is moving to Atlanta for bigger responsibilities.”

E.D. Nixon put it less politely: “If Mrs. Parks had gotten up and given that cracker her seat you’d never heard of Reverend King.”

We can’t say whether Nixon was right or not, but Jackson makes it clear that it was in Montgomery that King became the leader we remember. Jackson’s work is as engaging as it is important, and I highly recommend it.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the University Press of Kentucky in exchange for an honest review.

God’s Almost Chosen Peoples by George C. Rable

God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War

By George C. Rable

The University of North Carolina Press: November, 2010

George C. Rable says that during the American Civil War, “Loyalty to the nation could not be separated from loyalty to God.” This was the case regardless of which “nation” one was part of. Both sides believed they were doing the Lord’s work. A lack of patriotism equaled a lack of faith, or even atheism. “One could be a good citizen without being a Christian, an Indiana Baptist association conceded, but one could not be a Christian without being a good citizen.” At the same time, in his address to the Georgia General Assembly, Confederate preacher Benjamin Palmer said: “Our cause is preeminently the cause of God himself, and every blow struck by us in defense of his supremacy.”

During church services, it was common to “confess” the sins of the nation, though these sins were mostly attributed to the other side. While the North pointed to slavery and rebellion as the cause of God’s wrath, the South blamed it on the Yankee’s “atheism” and oppression:

“Lincoln, like the Egyptian Pharaoh, had hardened his heart against eleven states that sought to leave the house of bondage.”

Preachers throughout the Union and Confederacy found no shortage of Old Testament stories to represent their plight: the Exodus, the division of the twelve tribes (used skillfully by both sides), Israel’s battles with the Philistines, the Southern David fighting the Northern Goliath (less popular after Union victories), and so on.

Rable shows how religion was even used to justify slavery. In a sermon preached in Savannah, Stephen Elliott called slavery a “divinely guarded system, planted by God, protected by God, and arranged for his own wise purposes.” Calls for abolition were clear displays of the godlessness of the North.

This assurance on the part of both sides that theirs was the righteous cause helped justify hatred. One Alabama preacher claimed a “deep Christian and inextinguishable hatred toward the demons of the north….it is doing God service to kill the diabolical wretches on the battlefield.” Horace Bushnell, a Congregationalist Minister from Connecticut, asked a soldier whom he met on the road, “Killed anybody yet?” When the officer was not sure, Bushnell replied, “Time you had, that’s what you went out for.”

Though Rable records a lot of rhetoric and hypocrisy, he also gives plenty evidence of true religion, both on the battlefield and at home. There were some ministers who refused to be political and continued to preach nothing but the Gospel, while their congregations served in whatever way they could. Some, such as the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, tirelessly rendered aid and showed love to soldiers from either side. And though the war hardened some, it had a sanctifying affect on others. One soldier wrote:

“There is something irresistible in the appeal which the Almighty makes, when He strikes from your side, in the twinkling of an eye, your friend and comrade.”

As mentioned above, others found the war not so sanctifying. When upbraided for swearing, one Baptist minister turned captain replied: “The Lord has given me a furlough until this damn war is over.”

Most, however, were never Christians to begin with. Rable says estimates suggest that no more than 25% of Union armies and around 1/3 of the Confederate forces were Christians. But who can number the faithful? One thing is sure: there was enough drinking, gambling, cursing, and dancing on both sides to keep the tract presses running and the missionaries praying.

Rable examines every aspect of religion during the Civil War, showing both the good and bad without apparent bias. And if his book lacks in any area, it’s not in the research; there are almost two hundred pages of bibliography and footnotes. This is a work that would be difficult to dispute, as we hear directly from those who were involved. Rable quotes letters, diaries, sermons, and speeches from soldiers, mothers, preachers, and nuns.

Whatever Rable’s religious background, he shows an excellent understanding of church history, theology, and denominational distinctions. He also displays a thorough familiarity with the Bible. We can trust that he knows what he’s talking about.

My difficulty with this otherwise great work is the repetition. Though there is a loose chronological progression, the writing is mostly made up of short anecdotes and quotes that, after a while, sound the same. In the first chapter we learn that both sides believed God was on their side, both saw their victories as favor and their defeats as judgment, both twisted Scripture to justify their cause, both looked for providence in every blink of a gnat. And, though illustrated in different ways each time, we hear the same themes throughout each chapter. But Rable throws in enough new material and interesting quotes to keep us reading; in the end we’re glad that we did.

God’s Almost Chosen Peoples will be most enjoyable to history lovers, and is essential for those who have an interest in the American Civil War. But it will also be valuable to students of religion, as it provides an in-depth look at the state of religion during the most difficult period in American history.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from The University of North Carolina Press.

Virgil Aulds’ Barber Shop

In 1980, downtown Joshua was still on Main Street, which a few decades before had been part of the main road from Cleburne to Fort Worth.  Most of the businesses were on the west side. The Owl Inn Café was where you could find the old timers (who still said “Josh-u-way”); it was the only restaurant in town other than Dairy Queen.  White’s Auto was next door. Over the years, whether I was fixing my bike as a kid or my pickup (as a big kid), I gave them a lot of business. And more than once they got me back on the road with no more than a promise that I would pay when I could. Mott’s five and dime was where we got our school supplies, toys, candy, and other essentials. I hadn’t heard of Wal-Mart. And last on that side was B&W supermarket. The only thing I remember about B&W was the peach Hi-C that Mama bought and the smell from the meat counter in the back.

Right across the street from B&W, between the volunteer fire station and Ray Watson’s TV repair, was Virgil Aulds’ barber shop. Virgil was the classic barber—a little plump, mostly bald, with a dry sense of humor. He teased my little sister and me without mercy. The floor of his shop was checkered, and the furniture consisted of old vinyl chairs and the tall, copper-colored pole ashtrays. I remember two pictures that hung on the wall. One was the familiar picture of two little boys wearing overalls with the caption, “You been farming long?” The other showed a surprised looking barber holding a razor over a customer whose head was sitting in his lap with the caption, “Mistakes do happen.”

Sitting on a board that was placed across the arms of Virgil’s barber chair is one of my earliest, and favorite, memories of Joshua.  Mama would drop me off after school while she went across the street to buy groceries (except for meat; she would wait until the next trip to Burleson for that). No need to give Virgil any instructions. There was only one “boy’s haircut,” unless you wanted a flat top. After his clippers pulled out all but a quarter-inch of my hair (and a little patch a couple of inches long right on top), Virgil would pat hot shaving cream on my neck and nick me up with his razor. He occasionally interrupted his talk with the old men, usually talk about the crops and rain, to tell me to sit still. After that he rubbed some green water on my head, gave me a piece of Super bubble, and took my three dollars. If we were lucky, we would have some change to get a glass bottled coke out of the chest cooler, and then my sister and I would run across the street to B&W.

There were years while I was growing up that I thought I was too cool to get my hair cut at Virgil’s, but eventually I came back. The haircuts weren’t as good as they had been, but since I wore a cap anyway, I could live with them. What made me go back was the barber and the atmosphere. Joshua was already changing. I began to see the value in the things that hadn’t changed, and I wanted to hold onto them. Virgil’s shop was exactly the same as it had been for years. And, besides cutting my hair, he usually had a good word of advice for me. It turned out he was much kinder and wiser than I realized when I was a kid.

One day I was sitting on the curb in front of Virgil’s shop waiting for him to open. His good friend Earl came up from the mechanic shop a block down. “Whatcha doing boy?” he asked. “Waiting for Virgil,” I answered. “Virgil’s not coming back, son. He’s had a stroke,” he told me. I drove the pickup to Fort Worth that day to see Virgil for the last time.

Little is left of the Joshua I grew up in. Even our football field has been replaced by a huge, college-like stadium with Astroturf and big screens. “Town” has moved from Main Street to 174, where there are lots of restaurants, but no Owl Inn Café.

The old barber has been gone for years; I sometimes wonder why he made such an impression on me. There are a lot of people from Joshua who I don’t remember at all—even many of my teachers. But I can’t go into Joshua, or smell hair tonic, or chew a piece of Super bubble, without remembering Virgil Aulds. Though I’m sure that he wouldn’t have thought so, he is part of the history of my town, part of my childhood, and part of what shaped me.  And he reminds me that we never know how someone will remember us, or what kind of influence we might have on others.

And the Pilgrim Church Story Continues: A Comanche War Chief’s Ties to the Primitive Baptists

Quanah Parker never lost a battle to the white men.

Daniel Parker led a small group to Texas to establish Pilgrim Primitive Baptist church. Elder Parker’s nine year old niece, Cynthia Ann Parker, and her parents, Silas and Lucy Parker, were among the group.

The Parkers started their church, and they established and settled at Fort Parker (near present-day Groesbeck, Texas).

May 19, 1836, was an important day in Texas history.  A war party of around 500 Comanche Indians raided Fort Parker. Many of the Parkers were killed, but Cynthia Ann was taken captive. The Comanches took her and her dog to the uninhabited West Texas plains, hundreds of miles from Fort Parker. Cynthia Ann lived with the Comanches for the next 25 years and married Chief Peta Nocona. Together they had three children.

In 1860, Chief Nocona led a raid in Parker County (where we currently go to church), and then headed back for the plains. Sam Houston, then governor of Texas, ordered Texas Ranger Captain Sul Ross to pursue. The Rangers met Nocona and his party in present-day Foard County. What then took place is now called the Battle of Pease River.

After a fierce fight, the Comanches fled. The facts aren’t clear after this point (assuming that they are up to this point). Was Chief Nocona killed? Sul Ross claimed to have ordered his execution after taking him captive. Nocona’s son (Quanah Parker), however, says that he escaped and died of illness years later. I believe Quanah. One thing is certain: Cynthia Ann and her infant daughter were taken by the white men, or “rescued,” as the Sul Ross party claimed.

The Rangers noticed that their captive had blue eyes, though she didn’t seem to understand English. After a long period of questioning, she patted her breast and said, “Me Cynthia Ann.” Against her will, she and her daughter were forced to return to her white relatives in Weatherford. Cynthia Ann’s daughter, Prairie Flower, died of illness. Cynthia Ann, grieving over her husband and children, died a few years later.

Two of Cynthia Ann’s sons escaped the battle of Pease River. One was Quanah Parker. Quanah became the last chief of the fierce Quahadi (Antelope eater) band of Comanches. During the late 1800’s, when many of the Indians were giving up and moving onto reservations, Parker and his band refused to quit. Along with groups of Kiowa, Cheyennes, and others, Quanah fought the Texans at famous battles like the battle of Adobe Walls. You might remember the Adobe Walls from Lonesome Dove.

When Quanah finally surrendered (without ever losing a battle), he moved into a house, adopted many of the white ways, and even became involved in politics, becoming friends with the likes of Charles Goodnight and Theodore Roosevelt. He died in 1911 and is buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

A few years ago my wife and I lived in Motley County (Matador), Texas. Motley County lies in the plains of West Texas, and has changed very little (other than fences) since the Comanches roamed the hills. (The Comanches supposedly brought Cynthia Ann to Motley County after their raid on Fort Parker.) Mary Mason was our neighbor while we lived there. Mrs. Mason was 93 years old with a terrific mind. I loved visiting her and hearing her stories. Her father had been one of the first settlers in Motley County, a member of the Texas legislature, and a friend of Quanah Parker.

I said in the last post that it was easy for a boy to imagine that only a few generations had passed since Daniel Parker came to Texas from Illinois in his covered wagon. But as I sit and type this on a computer in what was Indian Territory just 150 years ago (70 miles west of Parker County), it’s hard to believe how true that is.

The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great, by Benjamin Merkle

Benjamin Merkle’s The White Horse King is a fast moving biography of Alfred the Great.

Danish Vikings terrorized Europe during the ninth century. They preferred targets that offered the least resistance and the most loot. The island of Britain was ideal. By the time Alfred became king of Anglo-Saxon Wessex in south west Britain, most of the island was conquered and under Viking rule.

The White Horse King tells how Alfred the Great defended Wessex. Fortified towns, strategically planned roads, and a new system to ensure a continuous army were all developed. But Alfred didn’t stop at that. He believed that wisdom and piety in his noblemen, soldiers, and citizens were essential to freedom. Scholars were hired, Christian writings were translated, books were distributed, and rewards were given to those who made progress. These efforts led to a “literary renaissance” and a transformation of worship and daily life.

With stories of Viking longboats moving up river to an unsuspecting village and detailed accounts of fierce battles where “spears cracked, shields split,” and “axes crashed down, cleaving helm and skull,” The White Horse King is hard to put down. Like most good biographies, the book is inspiring. It is also a great lesson in the history of England.

At times the author is repetitive, but that never kept me from eagerly turning the page. Detailed descriptions of gruesome violence may bother some readers; my wife asked me to stop telling the stories. But the author only included these when necessary, and there are relatively few. I learned much from the White Horse King, and I loved reading it. If you like history and biography, you will too.

Benjamin Merkle is a Fellow of theology and classical languages at Saint Andrews College and a contributing editor to Credenda/Agenda.

I received this book through the Thomas Nelson Book Review Blogger Program.

Beware of False Conversions

Hastein was a Danish Viking who led raids from the 850’s through the 890’s. His men looted lands in Europe and Africa, praying primarily on Christians but also Muslims.While terrorizing Italy, the leader thought it a worthy goal to plunder Rome. But he knew that the walls of the city were too strong to be stormed, so he came up with a plan to fool the trusting Christians.

A messenger was sent to the city bishop. The messenger explained that the Vikings had fell on hard times. They were hungry and tired, and their leader was mortally wounded. He desired a Christian baptism before he died.

The bishop welcomed the group into the city, allowed them to buy supplies, and stood as the sponsor at Hastein’s baptism. The Vikings returned to their ship until evening, when they sent another message to the bishop that their leader, who desired to be buried in the city, had died. The bishop sent a procession to escort the grieving Vikings back into the city.

Once in the church, while the bishop was reciting mass, the “dead” chieftain rose up with his sword and hacked the bishop to death. At this the Vikings all pulled their swords from under their robes, let out a war whoop, and commenced to slaughter everyone, including the children, who were in the church. They then raided the sleeping city and returned to their longboats with their spoils.

The Vikings, as always, were proud of their cunning until they learned that it wasn’t Rome that they had sacked. They had missed their mark by about two hundred miles and attacked the city of Luna.

Though this is an extreme example, it still makes the point that there are those who make professions of faith and receive baptism for insincere reasons.

* This story was taken from the White Horse King by Benjamin Merkle.

Five Cities that Ruled the World: Douglas Wilson

In Five Cities that Ruled the World, theologian Douglas Wilson takes readers through the life of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York.

Wilson covers the history of the world from Melchizedek to 2009 in five brief and fast moving chapters. With the skill of an experienced teacher, the author highlights the important events while passing over insignificant and boring details. Each chapter concentrates on one city: its origin, its uniqueness, its weakness, its greatness, its influence, and, in most cases, its decline. But whether the city is still strong, as is New York, or has exceeded its “lifespan of greatness,” as has Rome, each still profoundly influences our world today.

This is no ho-hum text laden with seemingly unrelated facts and dates. Wilson’s history is filled with interesting and amusing anecdotes and humor. But the work is still serious and accurate. What role did each city play in the history of the church? How did freedom and liberty, or the lack thereof, lead to the greatness, or fall, of each city? How did the ideals and philosophies of each city affect the rest of the world? And how do they apply to us today? Wilson also weaves Scripture into each story, and he ends by looking forward to that final great city, the New Jerusalem.

If you are interested in secular or church history, then this book is for you. But you don’t have to be a theologian or historian to understand or enjoy it, and you certainly don’t have to be either to benefit from it. We know more about the world today by knowing more about the world of yesterday. Five Cities that Ruled the World will whet the appetite for a deeper knowledge of history and Scripture. I recommend it.

Update: You can read my interview of author Douglas Wilson here.

The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield

A stained glass window in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands as a reminder of the Guinness family’s charity and compassion. Beneath the scene of a saintly figure ministering to the poor are the words of Jesus: “I was thirsty and ye gave me drink.”

In The Search for God and Guinness, Stephen Mansfield tells the story of Arthur Guinness, his business, and his descendants.

Mansfield begins his book with a short and excellent history of beer, and especially its popularity among the church fathers. The rest of the book focuses on the family and their business. Historians often group the Guinnesses into three classes: the brewers, the bankers, and the Guinnesses for God. Mansfield says this division is inaccurate and theologically misleading. It implies that only those who were in professional ministry served God. But the author shows that whether they preached or brewed, the Guinnesses honored Him. Their faith was displayed through unprecedented generosity which improved the lives of thousands, and continues to do so to this day.

The Search for God and Guinness is an excellent and inspiring work based upon thorough research. The author’s interest in his subject is contagious. His writing is strong, clear, and a pleasure to read. And the theology in this book is sound. I enjoyed the book and recommend it, especially to readers interested in history and biography.

You can order The Search for God and Guinness here.

Primitive Baptist Sunday School

This is not the specific church remembered below, but it is another that I went to with my parents and grand-parents as a very young boy.


Great-Grandmother and Grandpa took Mama and me to church. Mama and Grandmother sat with the ladies in front of the pulpit. Grandpa sat with the men to the side. Since there was no Sunday school and usually no other children, I would play in the kitchen or outside.The kitchen and restrooms were added sometime after the one-room frame church was originally built. A window looked from the kitchen directly into the pulpit. I could lie on the old pew inside the kitchen and look at the back of the man who was preaching. A rhythmic, sing-song voice characterized hard-shell preaching. Those that didn’t have it were pitied; having the proper rhythm was a sure sign that someone was called to preach and particularly filled with the Holy Spirit (so the thinking went).

The service would consist of over an hour’s worth of singing from Benjamin Lloyd’s hymnal. There were no notes in the book, only words. You had the tunes memorized. And they were sung at a very, veryslow pace. Singing would be followed by the prayer and then preaching. A typical sermon lasted at least an hour.The church had a large old cemetery full of trees. It was the perfect place for a young boy to wander around and catch lizards. (One time I caught a snake, and another time I found a baby opossum). On spring days all of the windows in the church would be open. The sound of hymns being sung a cappella would carry to the back of the cemetery or a good way into the woods, where I might be tramping through the mud to find and eat huckleberries.

When the sounds of preaching and singing stopped, I knew it was time to head back to the building. We all gathered around a long, plywood table in the kitchen. If it was warm, we would be outside. One of the men would say a blessing that sometimes resembled a sermon; they seemed to last at least half an hour. Then we would eat a traditional East Texas pot-luck lunch: usually fried chicken, greens, dumplins, potatoes, and a few things unidentifiable. After we ate and cleaned up we would say goodbye to each other, usually with hugs, and then we would part. So much for a day at church.