Somewhere on this blog I wrote briefly of my adventures within my mother’s religion. Those few sentences didn’t begin to tell the story. I told about reading everything I could get, and finally questioning the basis for their attractive, but ultimately fanciful, interpretation of scripture. To be fair, I should note that they have quietly moved away from that in the last two decades.
I remain fascinated by what they write. Some of it is spectacularly well done. Some of it is … not. But, let’s move back to when I was twelve and interested but full of questions. I borrowed, purchased in thrift stores, begged, everything that I could find and read it carefully, sometimes two, three or four times. I read things that tickled my fancy, that made me laugh with pleasure – and that were just stupid. In the Law of Moses a system of Cities of Refuge is established to protect accidental man-slayers from revenge killing. (Ignore the questions that may arise about revenge killing. They’re not relevant here.) So, I’m happily reading an article published in the 1950s that finds prophetic fulfillments in this bit of Old Testament history. In the middle of it is a reference to Josephus, the Jewish historian. Josephus added details not found in the Bible. Fine. The article suggested that these bits from a secular historian might themselves have prophetic fulfillments.
That, dear hearts, raised all sorts of questions. No one particularly wanted to answer them. I called my uncle who shares that faith and who had associated himself with it back in the very early 1950s. He gave me a frank and surprising answer. “There is no basis on which to find a prophetic fulfillment in anything Josephus wrote. The author was wrong to suggest that, even if he did it in a tentative way.” It turned out that my uncle knew who the author was even though the articles are published anonymously. (They follow the old Brethren practice of publishing anonymously.)
This is not the response I got from those in authority within the congregation my mother attended. What radiated from them was distaste that I had asked the question. Apparently, in their view a young child should ask her parents (in this case, my mother) and not bother her betters with uncomfortable questions. One of them told my mother as much. Out of the gaggle of what? Twelve if I remember right … elders, only one bothered to take me into the church library, find the reference, read it and say essentially what my uncle had said.
There were many more incidents like this, each of them insignificant in itself, but collectively disturbing. I read an article published by them in the early 1960s. It was footnoted. I think there were ten footnotes, all referencing secular histories. I lived in the public library and a friendly reference librarian helped me send for the first reference. Within days a book on Bible laws arrived, and I read it. I found the pages referenced. ALL of the footnotes came from that one work. They did not READ the others. They cited them as if they had. This is dishonest. If I had been caught doing that on a school assignment (Yes, I was 12-13, but I was also a Junior in High School and taking AP classes) I would have seen my paper marked with a Fail.
You have no idea the reaction I got when I raised this issue. I teach children who are as I was. Some adults have a tendency to see them as an irritant, as impertinent, rude, aggressive. (Some are, of course, but most are not.) So I have some after-the-fact sympathy for their clergy. (They deny having a clergy. This is a lie, a self deception. Their elders fill the office and do the work of any clergyman. Calling it something else does not change what it is.) My sympathy is limited. Two of those men were abusive; one of them hauled my mother and me into a back room and spent almost forty minuets scolding us both, my mom for allowing me to ask questions and me for having asked them. Finally, my mother looked him in the eye and said, “She’s a child. You’re an adult. Perhaps you should act like one. If you don’t have an answer, say so.” She took us out of the room, found their presiding elder and read him “the riot act.”
I stopped asking them questions. If you think that ended my difficulties, you’re wrong. One of these men – call him George – took it upon himself to criticize everything about me. He accused me of wearing “sluttish” clothes. I wore very modest clothes. The dress in question came to a few inches below my knee, but it had a slit that went maybe two inches above my knee. My mother, bless her, put this undereducated moron in his place.
That didn’t work, right? So he asked my mom if I snuck out at night! You may think that came from nowhere. However, his daughter had snuck out and had a sexual relationship with a boy from school a few years before. He lost his standing over that and had just gotten it back the year before. He transferred on to me his daughter’s behavior. Me? The only man I ever had sex with is Knobby Knees and we're married! This event went to their body of elders who sent two of their number over to our house and interviewed me. One was Mr. Good Elder, the other was Mr. Bad Elder. They probably got this off some cop show on TV.
My mother put it bluntly to them that they had better stop the harassment from George or she’d call the church’s central authority and complain. This visibly startled the two elders. They met with George. George transferred to a neighboring congregation within weeks. Things were better? Right? ... Wrong.
Elder Jerry was a touchy feeling person. My uncle is very good at hiding his feelings, but it didn’t take much to see that he saw Jerry as slime. He had good reasons for his feelings. Elder Jerry couldn’t keep his hands off the women and girls, including me. After a Sunday service he cornered me back by the church bulletin board. I literally had my back to the wall. He kept touching my arm and shoulder. Finally I said, rather loudly, “Stop touching me!” He did. He had no choice. He was suitably embarrassed.
I might have been young, a virgin, but I wasn’t stupid. I watched this predator. He never had sex with the women in the congregation as far as I could tell, but he had sexless prolonged flirtations with two of them. It almost ruined a marriage. The rest of the elders were not blind to this, and eventually they did something. While he was more discreet, he did not stop.
Another thing this monster did was to undermine and attack other elders who he saw as more talented or more respected than he was. Since, I have traced his activity back for four decades. He has a long history of trouble making, of working to get other elders removed from their appointments. This finally caught up with him and he was removed from his assignment. About four years later he was reappointed, but, while he may be more cautious, he has not changed. He continued to peruse some of those he attacked for years. The man is a parasite.
Then there was Elder John. Elder John had been a country-music musician of indifferent talent. He was an uneducated hick. This church has its own schools. They like to think of them as equivalent to college. They are not. (More on this in a few). So John was elevated to clergy status, having no real sense of spirituality and not even the most basic understanding of the Bible. Elder John believed it was wrong to read anything but his church’s books and magazines. He didn’t even read the newspaper. One of the women in the church shared my interest in history. She bought a small box of books at a yard sale. We were away, and she didn’t want to leave them on our porch just to sit for a couple of days. So she dropped them at Elder John’s house since he lived about four blocks from us.
Elder John was displeased. He brought the books to the next Sunday meeting and gave them to me with a lecture on how I shouldn’t read any of them. They were all “un-theocratic,” un-Godly and they’d corrupted my already corrupted mind. I ignored it all, took the books from his hands and handed one back to him with a sweet smile. “This one is more appropriate to you,” I said. It was Dr. Spock’s book on parenting. He threw it away. I was maybe 14 or 15 when this happened.
There were more insidious and dramatic things, but many of those did not come my way except secondarily. But they spoke of abuse of power, of overweening pride, of dishonesty. Privacy issues should probably keep me from telling most of those stories. One concerned a conversation between two of their upper-level traveling ministers. I was with my uncle at a rather large convention. It was away from where most everyone from our congregation attended, but it was the one to which we were assigned. So I knew no one. He worked at what was called the Volunteer Service desk. At mid-day he took some papers (a report of some sort I think) off to one of these guys. They acted as if he weren’t there, refusing to acknowledge him at all, even though they knew who he was and why he was there. They were talking about which congregation gave them the most money, who fed them well, who gave them what perks. They were trading assignments after the convention, and greed was the topic.
I thought these men were in that service to build up the faith of others. They were in it for exotic vacations, money, and reputation. I never looked at another traveling minister of that faith without wondering if they were like these two men.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that this church did not educate its elders in any meaningful way. Those that were talented were autodidacts. I remember two of these. One was an ex-air force mechanic (World War 2) turned civil servant. He had a daughter my age, and I spent hours in their house. He was modest, informed, hard as a rock when he had to be, but a very gentle man. And he loved the flock. He stood as a barrier between me and the fools that populated their elder body. He was never intimidated by my questions and he never refused to discuss things, never shoved me off on someone else. The closest he came to that was over an article in their principal magazine. I had a question over the phrasing of one paragraph. I asked him about it (it was something about women; don’t ask me what. It’s been too long.) and he re-read it. His answer was, “I don’t know.” Now, I love that answer. I’ve used it enough myself. It’s honest.
This church has traveling ministers. Half the congregation seems to live in abject fear of them. I understood that with a few of them, but mostly they were just people, often likeable people. So traveling Elder Will shows up for his visit. I’d forgotten about my question, but Elder Civil Servant had not. He motioned me over, introduced me to Elder Will, and said, “Rachael had a question.” He repeated it to Elder Will. Elder Will had a ready answer. All the details of the question and the answer are gone out of my head now. But the kindness of these two men to a young woman in need of answers was notable.
They were exceptions. In my experience their elders were self-centered, ignorant in areas where they were supposed to be knowledgeable, and often cruel and dictatorial. Between issues of rational doctrine and elder behavior, by the time I was fourteen I was well on my way to looking elsewhere.
Each church has a bible school meant to train elders and evangelists in a kind of Continuing Education program. It has been reduced in clock hours to a nearly meaningless amount. But when I attended it was longer. A student is assigned material to research and then present as a short dialogue or talk or reading. Some of their officials suggest that this is equivalent to college. Pfffuttt!
However, it can be, or at least could be when it was longer. If one thoroughly researched each assignment, wrote it up, kept a record, then one could really learn something. My uncle is a college graduate. He teaches. He taught at this school too. He was really, really good. I’ve pawed through is notebooks. He has what is essentially a commentary on the Bible housed in three ring binders. These are filled with his personal notes, quotations from sources, photocopies of research material, articles and such, all scribbled up. The binder with his notes on the Psalms containes a series of fresh translations. He denies having the ability, but he obviously does. So, one can derive from this school a really first- class education. But almost none of them do. Most of those enrolled don’t even read the material until they have an assignment.
I was enrolled for several years, until I was eighteen. I enjoyed the school. By then I’d learned not to ask any questions. I wrote them down, making great lists of them, then researching them myself. Sometimes I agreed with church doctrine. Sometimes it seemed very wrong.
I attended as long as I was under my mother’s roof. I owed her that respect; besides I did get benefit from attending. After a while I just ignored the grief. I refused to listen to the elders when one of the mentally diseased among them wanted to make some issue. I am honest enough to tell you if I deserved what I got. I did not deserve any of the complaints, especially being called a slut over a four or five inch slit in a skirt. None of these men were my father, though Elder Civil Servant came close in my affection for him. I did not owe them respect in the face of abuse.
These men were cowards of first rank. They were unprepared to answer my questions. Worse, they saw honest questions as a challenge to their authority. My ultimate question was, “from where do they get their authority.” They would have answered from God. Their actions showed any authority they had to be self-derived.
This does not tell much of the story. I can't see telling things that are someone else's personal business. I went looking for knowledge ... and for the love Christians are supposed to have for one another. I found some knowledge but little of the affection one would expect.