Religion has been an integral part of my life from infancy. My father is a Seventh Day Baptist minister. From the time that he began to date my mother, the two of them, together, were actively involved in Bible study and prayer groups. Bible study, prayer and thanksgiving has always been a natural and essential part of their relationship from the time it bloomed to the present day. In her Memories, Mom describes the reverence that they have shown to each other and to their God from the first day of their marriage:
That night we went back to my apartment, wanting so much to begin our life together with God’s blessing. We each were used to reading our Bible, meditating on God’s Word and praying before bed each evening so it was natural to read it together this, our wedding night, and pray together before retiring. We have continued to do that to this very day. God has blessed us.
Each of my parents has had life experiences from childhood that challenged their faith and deepened it; and, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it has matured into “costly discipleship” and “costly grace.” For my father, that experience was when, as a youth, his newborn sister died, and his parents left to him the task of carrying her body to the funeral home. For my mother, it was when her father became extremely ill and for the next year struggled in and out of the hospital, tended by her mother. At that time, her aunt supervised their home and financially supported them as a teacher; but my mother, as the eldest girl in the family, learned the role of mothering, supported with prayer without ceasing. Her father ultimately lost his leg and she discovered that he was the same father without it.
Prayer was a part of our daily life growing up, not only at each meal, but at the beginning of each long trip by car, usually to visit distant relatives, having none close to us, or to church events such as annual summer conferences. As for us children, we witnessed our mother not only counseling us concerning God’s general intentions that we have life, and that we have it abundantly, serving others; we also experienced her habit of expressing joy and thankfulness not only for the lives of each of us but for all others in our lives and for all of nature. Almost as a punctuation mark to her description of any joy she experienced in her life, particularly in her later writings, she often ended with “God is good.”
Mom was raised in the hills of West Virginia near Clarksburg. That culture was rich in oratory and recitation of a wide repertoire of stories, speeches, poems and song. When I was in kindergarten, at Mom’s suggestion and with her help and encouragement, I memorized the Christmas story as told in Luke. Sabbath School was an important part of each Sabbath (Saturday), and memorization of Bible verses was an important part of that. Depending upon the church that Dad was serving at the time, Sabbath School included either joint opening sessions or closing sessions, at which each class recited for the group verses they had learned; and birthdays of members of all ages were recognized and greeted with song. As I entered adolescence and graduated high school in Rhode Island, one aspect of the Sabbath School experience that had immense impact upon me and my faith was the positive response and encouragement of adults to my spiritual, physical, and intellectual growth. The experience was truly one with “family.”
Unlike many “preachers’ kids” that I have heard of, I never experienced that Dad had greater expectation of good behavior from us than he expected from others, and I never resented the label. As far as I was concerned, these were standards that everyone lived by. Perhaps, I did not know the “fishbowl” experience, because I always felt that I was part of a church family, each of those churches generally being of a rural nature and tending toward that.
We lived three years in De Ruyter, New York, where my Dad served as pastor and was ordained. I was then of preschool, kindergarten and first grade ages. There was a small meeting room among a number of storage sheds to the side of the church which were separated by a driveway from the road, and which circled around the back of the church and then rejoined the road. It had an ornate pump organ, even then considered antique, predating electrical service throughout the country. It was operated by a foot pedal which engaged bellows, which in turn provided an air column that activated metal reeds much in the way that a harmonica is played and with similar sound. Prayer meetings were held in this small, intimate room rather than in the spacious, more formal, sanctuary of the church. I attended these meetings, and I would assume that my other siblings did also. My older sister, Annita, was enthralled with the organ and loved to play it.
After serving for three years in De Ruyter, we moved to Salemville, Pennsylvania, where Dad served another three years. There, I “learned” the books of the Bible by heart so that I could “earn” some kind of a toy representing a bee. I barely met the requirements, if even that. Perhaps someone had pity upon me and considered my feeble attempts to name them in order sufficient so that I would not be left out.
In the fall of 1958, we moved to Ashaway, Rhode Island, where Dad served the First Hopkinton Seventh Day Baptist Church. I started my fifth grade in school that fall. There, I matured and graduated high school.
Our church had a sound system which broadcast through a loudspeaker in the steeple carillon bell recordings each Sabbath Eve (that is, Friday evening, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, which we observed, as they, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). When old enough, I went to the church to play the recordings to mark the beginning of our Sabbath.
In that church I also became a member of the Christian Endeavor which was a nondenominational, national Christian group for youth which met weekly on a local level and also had meetings in regions throughout the country and nationally. At such meetings, guests appeared including Vice President Richard Nixon, then known for his Christian values, and we attended a Billy Graham Crusade held in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
In my junior high and high school days I regularly attended my father’s Bible studies. I was particularly fascinated by the grandfather of a friend, Steve Queen, who I understood to have had prior careers, both as a minister and as a pilot of an ocean going vessel. He spoke with authority and was able to divine hidden meanings within the passages of Daniel addressing the role of Russia as the “great bear,” representing Satan on earth. One of his skills was taking the initial letters of a number of words of consequence, only revealed to him, which spelled certain words of great spiritual significance for the believer and of the great destruction of the earth, as we know it, yet to come.
Generally, throughout the Baptist churches of America, including Seventh Day Baptists, rather than baptizing shortly after birth (also called christening in some other Protestant churches), baptism is reserved for a person who professes his or her faith and is of sufficient age to appreciate the significance of the act. Rather than christening their infants, who were too young to make an informed decision to follow Christ, parents brought their babies to the front of the church in a similar ceremony in which they “dedicated” themselves to raise their child for the glory of God. For us Baptists, baptism was associated with an acknowledgment of mankind’s “Fallen” state and with the need to wash one’s inherited and original sins away through the “blood of the lamb;” it represented a decision to be redeemed from our naturally sinful state. Baptism is so significant to a Baptist that the denomination chose the name to signify their uniqueness and to distinguish themselves from others “who just sprinkled.”
In the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Ashaway, as in many Baptist churches, in the front of the congregation under the floor of the “stage” lies a large walk-in “tub” or baptistery which can be revealed beneath removable floor sections. In Ashaway, it would have been approximately 4 feet wide, 8 feet long and 4 feet deep. The bottom of this receptacle was sufficiently deep that the pastor, typically holding a handkerchief (hopefully unused) over the mouth and nose of the candidate announced, “[Candidate’s name] I baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” simultaneously leaning the candidate back to immerse him or her in the water. Perhaps recognizing my own faults, I expected that this holy immersion would yield a new being, filled with the love and purity of God. I felt that immediately. Sabbaths were the day that we would have a big meat dish, of course with mashed potatoes and canned vegetables or fresh vegetables from the garden, and if there were anyone visiting at church that day who did not have a place to eat, Mom invited them to join us around our large table (large enough to hold our family that, during the time at Ashaway, grew to include the pastor, his wife, their nine children and any invited guests). I recall no time that there were too many people to sit at the same table. Well, that day following church I felt that I was a new person and the world was in perfect order . . . That is, until the middle of the afternoon. I don’t recall what precipitated the collapse, but I was playing with others that afternoon when someone “falsely accused me” concerning my participation in poor play with the other kids. The halo disappeared and I was returned to the world that I knew before, that being no more fair, nor I more protected from it through the act of baptismal immersion and rebirth.
In the Christian home that I was raised in, not unlike other Christian homes, one favorite Bible story of adults was that told in Matthew 18:3 when Jesus taught, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn around and become as young children, you will by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” We were taught that was the coveted and profound faith of a child: a humble, dependent child. As I grew older, and as I questioned my inherited faith, I discovered this story could be, and was at times, used as a defense against inquiry, as though living the Christian life meant not only shutting out “worldly pleasures” that diverted the Christian’s attention to cultivation of the spiritual gifts, but also the application of practical and intellectual inquiry today into a world of 2000 years ago. Until graduation from high school, I was immersed in a religious world that for me was primarily based upon Scriptures and their correct interpretation, and not upon emotion or any other experience of personal relationship with God or a sense of the divine. I felt secure in my family in the sense that whatever I needed would be provided, but I had little expectation beyond that. As I look back on those days, my faith was that my basic needs would be met, that I would survive, but that I should not expect to thrive. Other than the baptism experience described above, I cannot say during those years from childhood to graduation from high school that I at any time soared with faith or that I felt any special connection with a sense of a personal God or of the person of Jesus.
One summer about the time of my senior year in high school I had an experience associated with religion that was not positive, but rather filled me with a sense of manipulation and betrayal. An evangelist was conducting a week of revival services at a nearby church. Mom, Dad, and perhaps one of the older children attended the first night. I attended with Mom and Dad the next night. After the preachin’ and the singin,’ he asked us to sit. Then came the prayin’. That began with a long, passionate invocation of the presence of “the Lord;” he praised the power of the Lord and fervently prayed that the Lord prepare our hearts to feel “His” presence. Then, having stirred the passion in our hearts for the Lord, his own passion dissolved into assurance. The evangelist then, in the quiet following the impassioned storm, asked each of the congregation to close his or her eyes and bow their heads. When he had us in the palm of his hand, he asked whether we had been yearning for calm and peace in the storms of life that assailed us and he asked each person in the room, when only he would see, to raise their hand if they would like him to “pray” for them. If I was nothing else, I was sincere and trusting. I knew that I could use the support of prayer in my life and so, with my own eyes closed and head bowed I raised my hand. When the evangelist had quietly uttered his “Amen,” he asked the congregation to sing the traditional evangelistic closing, Just As I Am, as he asked those who had raised their hand to please file to the front of the church where he would meet with them. I arose expecting to join others. “Those” he had said. But, I was the only one standing. Oh, did I feel betrayed. I had thought it was between him and me. I thought I could trust him and now I felt like his trophy, to be triumphantly displayed with all his other trophies of souls saved by his preaching other nights, here and there. Already standing for all to see, I felt obligated to follow through as he requested and proceed to the front of the church.
I had already been baptized and I had already “been saved.” But to protest that at this point would only have drawn further attention to me, so I simply went along with it. At the close of the hymn, the evangelist passed me off to one of the local parishioners of that church who was to be a my “counselor.” That person took me to a small room to tell me what this ought to mean for me and how to follow by commitment to my church. I played along and then got out of there. Mom and Dad were waiting for me in the car. On the drive home, they said nothing of the experience, that I recall, and I saw no reason to protest it. Prior to that experience, I had been mesmerized by persons who spoke with assurance of the truths that they had been able to divine from Scriptures. I was fascinated with Pastor Meredith, the old sea captain, when he was able to discover a sacred truth by taking the first letters of several words in the selected Scripture to comprise a word which unlocked of the truth. It was not until much later that I realized that our present translations of the Bible are not the words of the Lord originally “handed down” to the writers of it.
Growing up, Mom was always pleased when we kids learned certain harmonized group songs such as “White Coral Bells.” Although Dad was not one to show his emotions, she and we knew that he was also pleased by it. As I grew older into adolescence, Annita and I sang duets in church. In time, we became a trio, then a quartet, and ultimately we were referred to as the “Wheeler children.” We sang at various church functions and on a radio broadcast from the Baptist Church in Westerly, Rhode Island.
I knew what was right, which just happened to be what I had learned from my parents and the church community. I had no reason to question it.
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