Recent News from PHSSW
Welcome to the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest web page!
"Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug." -- Isaiah 51:1
ANNOUNCEMENTS (1-1-2023): Papers in the 2022 ANNUAL PROCEEDINGS have been mailed to PHSSW members and are now available to others for $15.00 per copy. Contact Dr. Jim Currie if you would like to have one. He can be reached at .
The 2023 annual meeting is scheduled to be held March 24-25 at the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. All are, of course, welcome. If you plan to come to the Friday night dinner and presentation, please let Dr. Currie know.
ALSO, A LIMITED NUMBER OF REPRINTS OF "DOING JUSTICE, LOVING KINDNESS, AND WALKING HUMBLY: THE WITNESS OF SOME SOUTHERN PRESBYTERIAN PASTORS FOR THE CAUSE OF RACIAL HARMONY IN THE 1950S AND 1960S" ARE NOW AVAILABLE FOR $25 EACH. IF INTERESTED, PLEASE CONTACT DR. CURRIE AT THE ABOVE EMAIL ADDRESS.
Currie's Column -- "'A House Not Made With Hands', and Yet..." (November 11, 2022)
In II Corinthians 5:1 Paul writes, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Clearly, he is talking about our earthly life and the life beyond this life.
And yet, the metaphor is an interesting one. While we know that the church is the people, and we know that the early church as the church met in homes, and we don’t want to create idols out of physical buildings, nevertheless for centuries buildings have been set aside for the gathering of God’s people to worship, to learn, to carry out their call to ministry – whatever form that may take. After church buildings have been constructed, there are usually services of dedication in which that space is set aside for the work of the church, the people.
Without wanting to place too much emphasis on church buildings, this column is intended to acknowledge the architectural gifts of those who have contributed to such sacred spaces in the Presbyterian world in the region covered by the PHSSW.
We know of Christopher Wren and how, after the Great London Fire of 1666, he built many of the structures in that city, including St. Paul’s Cathedral (where he is also buried). We know of the architectural gifts of Frank Lloyd Wright and many of the unique buildings he designed in this country, including the Falling Waters house in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
But one person who has been described as one of this “nation’s best unknown architects” is O’Neil Ford. A Presbyterian born in Grayson County, Texas, Ford received his architectural certification by mail from the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He is responsible for the design of several significant buildings belonging to Presbyterian institutions. He was the architect for many of the buildings on the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio, including the Margarite B. Parker Chapel (where Ford’s funeral was held). In San Antonio he was also responsible for many of the buildings on the UT-San Antonio campus.
Besides buildings in San Antonio, Denton, Texas, and on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, Ford created the master plan for the re-designed campus of the Presbyterian Pan American School in Kingsville. The friendship between Ford and the school’s president at the time, Sherwood Reisner, bore fruit when the girls’ school in Taft merged with the boys’ school in Kingsville in the late 1950s. The buildings that resulted in this architectural creation led to a feature in the November/December 1997 issue of the magazine, Texas Architect.
Another San Antonio architect, Marvin Eickenroht, was hired to offer a plan for a chapel at Austin Seminary. His suggestion that the chapel have a Gothic style of architecture led to the decision to use the rear tower of Canterbury Cathedral as the model for the front tower of the Seminary chapel. That building is still the symbol and centerpiece of the Seminary.
Finally, many may not be familiar with the name, Abner Cook. Born on March 15, 1814 in North Carolina, Cook was a self-taught architect and general contractor. After doing construction work in Macon, Georgia for 16 years, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee due to the Panic of 1837. Finding little work there, he moved to Texas in 1839. A Presbyterian, Cook was one of the five charter members of the First Presbyterian Church in Austin (May 26, 1850). Cook donated the lots for the church’s building and also designed and built that building in 1851, located at the time at Bois d’Arc (now 7th Street) and Lavaca. The church has since moved twice from that original location and is now has a lovely campus at 8001 Mesa Drive in northwest Austin.
It should be noted that Cook was also the architect of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, the west wing of the original administration building of the University of Texas (a building which is no longer), and several “Greek Revival” homes in Austin which still stand. In addition, perhaps as an unconscious affirmation of his Calvinist heritage that acknowledged human depravity, he supervised the construction of the state penitentiary in Huntsville.
Many churches have unique designs, some quite simple and others filled with symbols and creative nuances all contribute to a worshipful setting for the people of God – the church. What are some of the unique features of your church building, and how does the building’s architecture reflect the theology of the Reformed tradition? We are grateful for all who contribute to such sacred spaces. The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest encourages everyone to examine and reflect on their church buildings and discover those features that make it an edifice built to the glory of God.
Currie's Column -- "Saints Without Halos" (October 17, 2022)
In 1951 the Rev. Alvin E. Magary, pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, published a book with the title Saints Without Halos. In it are essays in which Magary looks at New Testament figures from a very human point-of-view. He resists the idea of putting these persons on a pedestal and looking at them with rose-colored glasses. He tries to look at them as human beings with flaws that we prefer not to see. HIs point is clear: in many ways they are no different than we are – persons who deal with everyday doubts, uncertainties, fears, anxieties whom God encounters and through whom God works.
As we approach All Saints Day (November 1) it occurs to me that we can look at persons in our lives who have struggled with life and with the faith and who would never consider themselves saints, and yet who persevered in seeking to respond to Christ’s call to discipleship. Here a few examples. From my experience there are many, many more, and I’m sure you know of many yourselves.
Malcolm McRae was a confirmed bachelor who worked for the American Red Cross and was a faithful member of and an elder in a Presbyterian church in central Texas for many years. He cared for his mother who lived with him. In the quiet and humble way he went about his work and his life he reflected a quiet confidence in the faith which guided him. He would not think of himself as anyone special, and yet in his own quiet, dependable way he exhibited the winsome faithfulness of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
A member of First Presbyterian Church in Monticello, Arkansas, Lamar Williamson served as clerk of session of that church for 41 years. In his book ...And a Time to Laugh, Jerry Tompkins records excerpts from the session minutes that reflect Williamson’s iconoclastic humor. What a gift that refreshing sense of humor must have been both to the session and to any presbyter who was charged with examining those session records!
Ray and Sue Schneider were Presbyterians from Michigan. Ray worked as an executive for Shell Oil Company. After their children were grown Sue went back to school to earn a Master’s degree in art history. Both were active in the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Houston until their deaths. Quiet and unassuming, Ray served on the Property Committee, faithfully serving on the mowing team and could be seen riding the church’s lawn mower even in freezing weather. Sue was active in the church’s book group, among other activities. One time after offering a MInute for Mission in morning worship, Sue returned to her seat with, along with her notes, the pastor’s sermon manuscript. When it was discovered, she promptly returned it to a very nervous – and relieved – pastor.
Bill and Mae Bell Boone were an older couple who owned and ran a liquor store in southwest Houston. They said they never joined a church because they thought it might not “look good” for the church. When they were persuaded that it would be perfectly all right for them to join and be a part of Westminster, they were faithful in worship every week, participating where they could. That they were accepted in the life of the church was, no doubt, a reflection on them as well as on the church.
Mary McCue was in a difficult marriage, but she and her husband were determined to stay together. Somehow they made peace with each other. Mary played the piano every Sunday morning for the small Presbyterian congregation in a rural part of east central Missouri. She was soft-spoken and humble. In fact, by looking and listening to her, one would not know that she and her sister came from one of the wealthiest families in the county. While an elder in the church, she never forced her views on anyone, and yet when the church was in a financial crunch, very quietly she made up the difference. She was a class act.
None of these persons will make the history books. Yet I contend that all are saints – with or without halos. And there are many, many more, and I suspect that in this part of God’s kingdom you yourselves can think of many – those quiet, unassuming, humble folks who taught Sunday school or played the piano or organ or who served as ushers or greeters or served on the session or a committee or who knew just the right word to say in a difficult situation. Saints all of them.
George MacLeod was a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland. In the late 1930s he went to the Isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland and, with the help of many unemployed laborers, restored the abbey there. Primarily through MacLeod’s efforts it became a retreat center which is still there today and under the jurisdiction of the Church of Scotland.
Below is a prayer MacLeod offered which would be most appropriate for All Saints Day:
Be Thou, triune God, in the midst of us as we give thanks for those who have gone from the sight of earthly eyes. They, in Thy nearer presence, still worship with us in the mystery of the one family in heaven and on earth.
We remember those whom Thou didst call to high office, as the world counts high. They bore the agony of great decisions and laboured to fashion the Ark of the Covenant nearer to Thy design.
We remember those who, little recognised in the sight of men, bore the heat and burden of the unrecorded day. They served serene because they knew Thou hadst made them priests and kings, and now shine as the stars for ever.
If it be Thy holy will, tell them how we love them, and how we miss them, and how we long for the day when we shall meet with them again.
God of all comfort, we lift into Thine immediate care those recently bereaved, who sometimes in the night-time cry ‘would God it were morning’, and in the morning cry ‘would God it were night’. Bereft of their dear ones, too often they are bereft also of the familiar scenes where happiness once reigned.
Lift from their eyes the too distant vision of the resurrection at the last day. Alert them to hear the voice of Jesus saying: ‘I AM Resurrection and I AM Life’: that they may believe this.
Strengthen them to go on in loving service of all Thy children. Thus shall they have communion with Thee and, in Thee, with their beloved. Thus shall they come to know, in themselves, that there is no death and that only a veil divides, thin as gossamer.
The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest encourages everyone to recall and give thanks for all those who have lived lives of faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ, who did so with grace and humility, calling little or no attention to themselves, and who, like John the Baptist said, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Currie's Column -- "Standing on Shoulders" (September 26, 2022)
In an earlier column the focus here was on stained glass windows and how the gospel story is told in a variety of images. Mention was made of such windows in the cathedral in Chartres, France. One of the windows there depicts the four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) in quite large figures with the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) standing on the shoulders of the prophets but in somewhat smaller figures.
That cathedral was completed in 1194. The windows of Gospel writers standing on the shoulders of prophets were perhaps inspired by the words of Bernard of Chartres, a philosopher, who died sometime after 1124. John of Salisbury, bishop of Chartres (1115-1180), attributes the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants” to Bernard: “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.”
Whether or not our eyesight or vision is acute to see farther than those who have gone before us may not be altogether clear, but what is clear is that, whether or not we are aware of it, we do stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Of course, there are those in our own Protestant and Reformed tradition to whom we owe a huge debt – John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, to name only a few. But we also stand on the shoulders of many others.
In our own region of the country I think of persons like Sumner Bacon (first Cumberland Presbyterian minister laboring in Texas in 1828), Daniel Baker (Presbyterian evangelist who started churches throughout Texas and founded Austin College), Melinda Rankin (a 19th century American Protestant missionary in Mexico and south Texas), Dunbar Ogden (Presbyterian pastor who was the only clergyman to accompany nine African American students to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and who was subsequently forced to leave his church in Little Rock), James Skinner (who left his relatively secure pastorate to start Tex-Mex school for Mexican boys in Kingsville, Texas which later became the Presbyterian Pan American School), Berta Murray (president of Pres-Mex school for girls in Taft, Texas which later merged with Tex-Mex), Rachel Henderlite (the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).
Numerous other giants on whose shoulders we stand could be listed: Hubert Morrow, a leader in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church; Sylvester Larned, organizing pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans in 1818; Granville Sydnor, pastor in Ferriday, Louisiana from 1964-68 who stood up for the civil rights of African-Americans and against the KKK; Thornton Rogers Sampson, the first president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (1902); Cyrus Kingsbury, 19th century missionary to Native Americans in Oklahoma; Cyrus Byington and Alfred Wright, 19th century missionaries to the Choctaw Native Americans in Oklahoma; Claude Williams (Cumberland Presbyterian minister who pastored for a time in Arkansas (Paris and Fort Smith) in the 1930s and worked for fair labor practices and equal treatment of African Americans); James H. M. Boyce (the organizing pastor of the Gregg Street, later Pinecrest Presbyterian Church in Houston, a largely African American congregation); and on and on and on.
Who are some of the “giants” on whose shoulders you and your church stand? While it is true that our challenge is to live and labor in the present with an eye to the future, it is also the case that we cannot faithfully do that without knowing about those on whose shoulders we stand and who have paved the way that has enabled us to be where we are.
In the current Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, there is a line in a hymn that captures something of this debt to those who have gone before us and our responsibility as we move forward. The first stanza of Hymn #320 “The Church of Christ in Every Age” read thus:
The church of Christ in every age, beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.
We claim our heritage, but at the same time we test it. We may or may hold to the same views of those who have gone before us, but we claim and test them with gratitude for their service and sacrifice.
The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest encourages individuals and churches to claim and test their heritage and to do so with gratitude acknowledging those on whose shoulders we stand.
Currie's Column –– "Kevin" (November 2021)
This column and the work of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest normally try to draw attention to significant persons, places, congregations, and institutions that either reflect or contribute to the Reformed tradition and heritage in this part of God’s kingdom. There are many, many stories that need to be told of such contributions. But today I want to tell a story about someone who will not appear in any history book for having great theological insights or for having done anything of great importance, and yet, as a part of the Church of Jesus Christ, he made a significant impact on my life.
I first saw Kevin Smith at a Mo-Ranch Men’s Conference in the late 1990s. He came with several members of his church, First Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, Texas, a group that came with some regularity. The men from the church I served usually sat behind his contingent whenever there was a plenary session in the auditorium. We had no idea that 10-15 years later our paths would cross again when I became the pastor of his church in Pasadena. Kevin was mentally handicapped.
By the time I first saw him at Mo-Ranch, Kevin was pretty much integrated into the life of the church. It had not always been that way. He had a rough life. Having been abused by his father, then watching his parents divorce, and later discovering that his older brother had died of a drug overdose, Kevin had gotten into trouble with the law. Thanks to one of my predecessors, Rev. George Kluber, Kevin was released from jail. Kevin became devoted to this compassionate pastor.
Then, there are the people of the congregation who surrounded Kevin with love and direction. One, in particular, Dick Fifield, became Kevin’s guardian and carefully oversaw Kevin’s financial situation. The Fifield family not only befriended Kevin but they considered him part of their family. The men of the church took him to the Mo-Ranch Men’s Conference. Other members provided transportation to and from Sunday worship and other church activities, one of whom, Ruth Askine, was particularly supportive.
Kevin was able to work. For 18 years he worked at Wyatt’s Cafeteria. He also worked at HEB grocery store. Often he would go to the mall and offer his services wherever needed. He seemed to make friends wherever he went.
When I arrived on the scene, Kevin and I remembered each other from Mo-Ranch. We would go out to lunch periodically. In worship he would sit on the very front row, usually by himself. At certain services he wanted to sit with me in the chancel. When he did so, I suspected he simply wanted to be seen as an integral part of the church. Occasionally, when I suggested that he might want to preach, he would let out a huge laugh. Sometimes he would ask me what my favorite season was. Before I could answer, he would let me know that his was Christmas. How he loved the Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service! His favorite “song” was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. When this piece was sung at the conclusion of the Easter morning worship service, all who wanted to do so were invited to join the choir in the loft to sing it. Kevin would join me and others as we joined that magnificent chorus. Kevin couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but that didn’t seem to matter to him or to anyone else.
Kevin died of cancer on October 12 of this year at the age of 67 years. In his final years he lived with Maria Villarreal and her family. He was considered a member of that family too. Over the years Kevin had lots of families, most of which made a positive contribution to his life. The church was one of those. He loved the church and was an important part of the life of that congregation. One of the purposes of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest is to remind us all that the church is filled with unsung, and perhaps unnoticed, contributors to our life together. No doubt, there are examples like Kevin in your congregation. In this season perhaps we should be especially mindful of such persons, for Jesus, the head of the church, said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:12). Kevin helped me understand that a little better.
Currie's Column (February 2021) - Wearing History - Dr. James S. Currie
Felippa Trozelli, an antique jewelry appraiser, once said, “You can’t really understand history until you’ve worn it.” While she was, no doubt, talking about jewelry and other apparel, I think her statement has meaning for those of us interested in those who have gone before us.
Not until we try to walk in their shoes and, as impossible as it may seem, to live in their times, will we truly begin to appreciate their stories. We must try to “wear” history. For example, what must it have been like to be in Alton, Illinois on July 21, 1836 when Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister and newspaper publisher, was murdered and his printing press destroyed because he was an abolitionist? Or in East St. Louis, Illinois in July 1917 when a race riot broke out, killing several and destroying property? In the same month there was a race riot in Houston, Texas. Four years later much of the Greenwood section of Tulsa (known as “Black Wall Street” because of its prosperity) was burned down when Dick Rowland, a young black man, was falsely accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a young white woman, in a downtown elevator.
How do we wear that kind of history? What was the church’s response to these events? At this time the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest is scheduled to hold its annual meeting April 23-24 at First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa. Assuming we are able to meet then, we will hear a keynote address by Dr. Hannibal Johnson, an expert and author on the 1921 massacre in Tulsa. In addition, we will hear from others on discrimination against Native Americans in Oklahoma and how the church has responded. Any and all are welcome to attend. These will be attempts to “wear” history, to put on the clothes of persons whose situation was far different from our own. If you would like more information about this gathering, feel free to contact me at .
Clearly, racism continues to be a part of life in America. One way to wear history is to be in conversation with, and to listen to those who are directly affected by this scourge, be they African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, or Anglo Americans. What must it have been like to have your belongings seized and have your family sent to interment camps in this country during World War II, as many Asian Americans experienced? What must it be like to be stereotyped by others before you even leave your home?
How do we wear history? Another way is to see how some saints have responded to such discrimination. One collection of such stories is found in the book, Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly: The Witness of Some Southerns Presbyterian Pastors for the Cause of Racial Harmony in the 1950s and 1960s. If you would like a copy from the PHSSW, contact me at . The cost is $25.00 which includes shipping and handling.
We are called not only to make history, not simply to learn about history, but to wear history, to try to discover what it must have been like to live in different times, with different challenges, in a different culture. It is an enriching exercise as we offer gratitude for all those saints who have gone before us who showed the love and justice of Jesus Christ.
Currie's Column (December 2020) - The PHSSW Over 43 Years - Dr. James S. Currie
In 1998 Fred Heuser, the director of the Department of History of the PCUSA wrote, “I remain more convinced than ever that a church that forgets its past loses its future.” In an address delivered at the 1981 annual meeting of the PHSSW William Miller quoted words from a letter of Henry Van Dyke, Presbyterian pastor and man of letters, “the value of history resides not only in the light which rekindles, but also the fire which it brings.”
The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest was organized in 1978. Beginning in 1979 annual meetings were held with presentations being made at each gathering. Presentations were to be saved and published by the Society. With few exceptions that has been done, even up to the present. In even-numbered years the annual meeting is held in Texas, while in odd-numbered years the Society’s gatherings alternate among the three other states that make up the Synod of the Sun.
One of the features of the PHSSW is that we are not only an agency of the Synod of the Sun, but we also relate to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, so the presentations reflect that tradition’s rich history.
In recent weeks I have had the privilege of typing up the titles of each presentation as well as the names of the presenters. This index provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the powerful witness to the gospel Presbyterians have made in this part of God’s kingdom. From histories of individual congregations to the unique contributions of individuals, men and women, to the stories of missionaries from the four state region to the establishment of institutions like colleges and universities, seminaries, children’s homes, and secondary schools, to the contributions of Native Americans, Latinos and Latinas, African Americans, and Chinese to controversial developments (such as the Central High School integration crisis in 1957 and the 1906 “divorce” in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church) to the stories behind choirs and choir directors, even stories behind stained glass windows and church architecture.
What a rich fabric Presbyterians – Cumberlands and PCUSA – have woven, and continue to weave! If the Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise and the pandemic is no longer a threat, the PHSSW will hold its 2021 annual meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa where the focus will be on the theme of race, in general, and the 1921 race massacre in the African American community of Greenwood and discrimination against Native Americans, in particular, and what role the church played in responding to discrimination.
The psalmist wrote, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage” (Psalm 16:6). That is certainly true for us Presbyterians. Do you have a story that needs to be told? It could be about the founding of your congregation and the saints who sacrificed much to see it happen? Or perhaps there are individuals “way back when” whose story needs to be told. Maybe there’s a story behind your church’s architecture. Research it, write it down, share it. Send it to me, so that we can let others know about it.
If you would like to be a part of the PHSSW and its work, membership is $20 per individual and $25 per couple per year. If your church would like join, it’s $100 per year. In return, you will receive printed copies of that year’s Annual Proceedings which will have the presentations that were made at that gathering. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at or 832-566-9082. My mailing address is: 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.
Currie's Column (October 2020) – Letters - Dr. James S. Currie
Jo Ann and I recently moved from an apartment to a house. As is true in most moves, people come across items they hadn’t seen in years, things they thought had been lost, things that were not lost but had been forgotten. In this most recent move, once again I came across some letters I had forgotten that I had. Most are letters to or from family members, letters that are now 80-90 years old. Collections of letters have become their own genre. In Scripture we have some of the letters of the apostle Paul.
In church history we know of the letters between Abelard and Heloise in the 11th century. Today we have published letters of theologians to colleagues, friends, and family (e.g., Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), political leaders (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln), public letters (e.g., MLK, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), and, of course, many of our own personal letters.
One of the most iconic letters in this part of Presbyterian country is one that James Skinner wrote in January 1914 to S. Brooks McLane. Skinner had just started Tex-Mex, a Presbyterian school for boys outside of Kingsville, Texas, later to become the Presbyterian Pan American School. McLane was young and interested in a teaching job. In the letter Skinner minces no words about what to expect. He challenges McLane to come if he wants, but also to expect hard work. (Skinner’s letter can be found in the “Introduction” to Planting Trees: A History of Presbyterian Pan American School). The school has now begun its 109th year. I believe that work and the work that continues today contributes to building up the kingdom.
Some letters are worth keeping, and while many are probably not, they all reveal something of the times in which they were written. Some letters can have a powerful impact on us. I have one that was written to me from one of my parents while I was in graduate school that made a huge influence on me in a good way. I keep that letter and read again occasionally. Many letters are filled with news that may be interesting and a reflection of the times, but occasionally a letter is written that holds profound meaning for us. This one does that for me. I think it reflects something of what the kingdom is like.
Paul’s letters, the letter of John to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, and others in the New Testament offer hope, encouragement, instruction, and challenge to those early Christians and to us. Have we lost the art of writing letters? Today we have become accustomed to emails, twitter, and text messaging. Will any of those be preserved? Are any of those worth preserving? Are there letters that over the years have been important to you? What will future generations find when they look for evidence of the written word? I wonder if they will find evidence of the kingdom.
Currie's Column (August 2020) - "The Wonderful, Powerful, Magnificent Spirit of History" - Dr. James S. Currie
In the Acknowledgements to his memoir Walking with the Wind John R. Lewis closes with these words: “Finally, I am forever indebted to the wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History. I was touched by that spirit long ago, and I have followed it ever since. I only hope and pray that my journey will continue to be blessed.” In that phrase “the wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History” Lewis captures the dynamism of being part of history. This man who spoke at the March on Washington in August 1963, who was beaten within an inch of his life in Selma, Alabama in 1965, and who was imprisoned many times understood that he was involved in something important. Perhaps one can even say that he felt called to be part of a movement for the cause of justice that had national significance. Of course, he went on to serve that cause in the Congress of the United States for 34 years.
Might there be a sense in which the Spirit of History, in retrospect, could be understood as the work of the Holy Spirit? We rarely see the work of the Spirit at any particular time as such, but surely, with hindsight, that work can be discerned. The first disciples only began to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds through the retrospective prism of the resurrection. History gets bad press when we think of it only in terms of names, dates, and events in the past. If that’s all it is, then of course it would be boring.
Our appreciation for the the cause of civil rights over the past 60 years can only be enhanced when we begin to examine not only the plight of persons of color over the previous 300 years in this country, but also how our own attitudes have been shaped by those events. In his account of the massacre of African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois in July 1917 Harper Barnes reviews the previous 150 years of unrest and racial bias in this country (see Barnes’ book Never Been a Time). In May 1921 a similar massacre took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. No doubt, there were people of faith who over the years fought on the side of the angels in seeking justice and reconciliation (the PHSSW’s 2021 annual meeting will be held in Tulsa and will be devoted to the issues of that event; see also the book Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly: The Witness of Some Southern Presbyterian Pastors for the Cause of Racial Harmony in the 1950s and 1960s).
Henry Ford is credited with saying, “history is more or less bunk.” That only illustrates the disconnect between present and past that John Lewis resisted. In the May 26,1910 issue of The Christian Century Robert Speer, that great Presbyterian authority on missions, wrote: “The worst disloyalty to the past is to mistake it for the future. Very great and glorious that past has been, but that past will have failed to teach its lesson for us, that past will have failed to fulfill its mission in the will of God, if it binds [people] forever in the chains of its institutional forms, if it has not made them ready for larger and completer things, and led them on to such a unity as Christ himself, we must believe, longed for while he was here and waits for now where he is gone.” At the head of those remarks are the words: “For freer minds, rooted in but not enslaved by the past.” Our goal is not to re-create the past, let alone live there, but rather to learn from it as we move into the present and the future.
In his novel/play Requiem for a Nun William Faulkner has one of his characters say, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We study Scripture and church history and theology precisely because we are part of that “wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History.” We are part of that story, and that story has not only shaped us, but it informs our understanding of the issues we face today – issues of race relations, immigration, economic justice, among others. We are not called to return to days gone by. Rather, we are called to move into God’s future understanding that we cannot do so responsibly without having a profound awareness of “the wonderful, powerful, magnificent Spirit of History.” May our lives also be blessed as we move into God’s future.
Currie's Column (June 2020) – Today's Communion of Saints – Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary
In Hebrews 11 we find what has been called the roll-call of the saints. From Abel, Abraham, and Moses through Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel, we are reminded of all those men and women who testified to and suffered for their faith in the good news of God’s love and faithfulness. In light of recent events in this country it is worth our time to recall many in the Presbyterian Church in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas who by their lives testified to a gospel of love and grace in times of racial tensions and violence, often at great cost to themselves.
*On May 31, 1921 there was a massacre of African Americans in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa and its pastor, William Kerr, provided shelter and a safe haven for many of those African Americans.
*In 1946 in Ada, Oklahoma the Rev. Mitchell Epperson, pastor of the Presbyterian church there, was forced to resign because he and his family defended the rights of an African American teenager to check out books from the local public library. It took Epperson two years to find another call.
*Little Rock, Arkansas became a hotbed of racial tension when in September1957 nine African American students sought to enter Central High School. Rev. Dunbar Ogden, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, was the only white clergyperson to accompany the students to school. They faced a torrent of angry white persons shouting abusive epithets, some even spitting on the students. Presbyterian pastors Marion Boggs and Don Campbell were among those who preached sermons on racial justice at the time. In the meantime, Ogden was asked to leave his church, finally receiving a call to Huntington, West Virginia. One of his sons committed suicide as a result of his family’s support of the integration of Central High School.
*From 1964-1968 the Rev. Granville Sydnor served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Ferriday, Louisiana, home town of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Jimmy Swaggart, and Howard K. Smith, among others. Sydnor stood up to the KKK and often received phone calls threatening him and his family. Sydnor remained firm in his convictions, resisting segregation in all its forms. In 1968 he and his family moved to Minden, Louisiana.
*In April 1925 the Rev. James H. M. Boyce became the organizing pastor of the Gregg Street Presbyterian Church in the Fifth Ward of Houston. In 1950 the congregation moved to a new building across from Wheatley High School and adopted a new name – Pinecrest Presbyterian Church. In 1955 Boyce was elected the first black moderator of Brazos Presbytery. After more than 35 years of ministry there, Boyce died on December 31, 1959. He was succeeded by Rev. David Shipley in 1960 and then by Rev. Ed Triem in February 1968. Triem remained there until his retirement in 1998. Among the strong lay leadership from that congregation over the years have been Nellye Joyce Punch, Rebecca Howard, and Sharon Darden.
*”And time would fail me to tell” of Floyd and Selma Tate, Rev. John and Lib Minter, and Carrie Walker at University Presbyterian in Houston (an intentionally integrated church), Rev. Bob Walkup (Starkville, MS and McAllen, TX), Rev. Louise Row (Presbyterian pastor in Jasper, TX at the time of James Byrd, Jr.‘s death), among many, many others. As we make history today, may we do so knowing that others who have gone before us have given faithful and often costly testimony to Jesus Christ and the gospel of love, justice and truth.
(Some of the stories cited above can be found in Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly, edited by James S. Currie, copyright 2014).
Currie's Column (April 2020) - "Dr. Not Afraid" - Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary
His name was Eugene R. Kellersberger. He was one of many American missionaries to what was then called the Belgian Congo, and has since then been called Zaire, and that today is simply known as the Democratic of Congo. Between 1903 and 1970 there were 65 missionaries from Texas who went to labor in the Belgian Congo. In those years there were others from other states, including 14 from Arkansas, 12 from Louisiana, and two from Oklahoma.
Kellersberger was born August 6, 1888 in the little community of Cypress Mill, Texas which lies on Farm Road 962 just east of Highway 281, between Johnson City and Marble Falls. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1911, he enrolled at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, earning his M.D. in 1915. The following year, under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, he left as a medical missionary with his wife, Edna Bosche, for the Belgian Congo.
Working in Bibanga, Kellersberger treated more than 10,000 cases of African sleeping sickness, caused by the bite of an infected tsetse fly. His wife, Edna, contracted that disease and was forced to recuperate, first, in London while Eugene completed a course in surgery at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, and later in Texas with the couple’s two daughters. Unfortunately, while staying with her children with her father, in October 1923 she was shot and killed by her father’s estranged wife. In 1930 Kellersberger remarried to Julia Lake, a traveling representative of the PCUS Board of Christian Education.
While continuing his work in Bibanga, Kellersberger became an authority on the treatment of leprosy. Because of his willingness to touch leprosy patients, he became known in the community as “Dr. Not Afraid”. He developed into such an authority on the treatment of leprosy that in 1940 he was asked to become the president of the American Leprosy Missions, located in New York City. So, after 24 years of work in Bibanga, Congo, he moved to NYC where he worked for 13 years. He retired to Florida in 1957 and died in 1966. He is buried in the place of his birth, Cypress Mill, Texas. Inscribed on his gravestone are the words from Romans 8:37 – “More than conquerors through him that loved us.”
Among other Texans who served as 20th century missionaries to Congo were Thomas Chalmers Vinson (evangelist, 1912-1928) and Glenn and Betty Murray (evangelists, 1939-1974). Theirs is a powerful legacy of responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the great physician, that these and many others have left us. For that, and the labors of so many others, we are grateful.
Today there are many in this country who are exemplifying courage as they risk their own lives, responding to the coronavirus pandemic. They, too, have earned the moniker “Dr. Not Afraid”, a name that is not at all restricted to those with an M.D. The story of Kellersberger’s life and service can be found in two works by his daughter, Winifred Kellersberger Vass. One is in her book, Dr. Not Afraid (published in 1986 and again in 1999). The second is in a presentation she made in March 1986 at the annual meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest. In the latter she also summarizes the work of several other Presbyterian missionaries to Congo.
Currie's Column (December 2019) - A Gentleman and a Scholar - Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary
Thornton Rogers Sampson was born in Hampden Sidney, Virginia on October 9, 1852. His father was a professor of Hebrew at Union Seminary in Virginia. When Thornton’s grandfather learned that his own son decided to enter the ministry, he is quoted as having said, “Well, the Church may have gained a good preacher, but the devil has lost the best dancer in Virginia.”
Thornton attended Hampden Sidney College and the University of Virginia, graduating from U.Va. on July 3, 1873. It was there that he decided to study for the ministry. His first theological studies took him to New College at the University of Edinburgh. After a year there, he went to Leipzig, Germany where he undertook a study of Hebrew. In 1877 Sampson went to the American College in Beirut where he hoped to learn Arabic. Upon returning to the States in 1878, he entered Union Seminary in Virginia and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of East Hanover. In that same year he was ordained in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Most of us who have heard of Thornton Rogers Sampson know that he was the first president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The Seminary was officially established in 1902, but Sampson had labored the preceding two years raising funds to hire a faculty and provide some financial support for students. Between the time of his ordination in 1878 and his coming to Austin Seminary, Sampson worked as a missionary in Greece for twelve years (Athens for seven years and Salonika for five). After a stint in Europe and a tour of Presbyterian mission stations in Asia, Sampson and his family returned to the States in 1892. For two years he served as the Foreign Missions Secretary for the Synod of North Carolina. He then accepted a call to serve as president of Fredericksburg College in Virginia.
In 1896 Sampson received and accepted a call to serve as president of Austin College in Sherman, Texas. From 1884-1895 the Presbytery of Central Texas and the Synod of Texas supported an attempt to start a Presbyterian seminary in Austin. Dr. R. K. Smoot, pastor of First Southern Presbyterian Church in Austin, and Dr. R. L. Dabney, professor at the University of Texas (and formerly at Union Seminary in Richmond), provided the leadership for the Austin School of Theology. However, in 1895 the work of that school had to be “suspended” due to Dabney’s blindness and the inability of Dr. Smoot to run the school alone. In 1900 Sampson was prevailed upon to leave Sherman and move to Austin. His efforts bore fruit and the doors opened in the fall of 1902.
Due to the efforts of many saints who followed Sampson, Austin Seminary has continued to prepare persons for the gospel ministry for over a century. Due to health reasons Sampson resigned as president in 1905, but continued to teach. In addition, his interest in and support of public education led the state of Texas to call him in 1914 to serve as the executive secretary of the Conference for Education in Texas. Sampson continued his work at the Seminary while, at the same time, taking on this new labor.
In the summer of 1915 he and his wife went to Colorado for a vacation. She stayed in Denver while Sampson went on to Estes Park where he enjoyed fishing and hiking in the mountains. On a fishing trip in Rocky Mountain National Park he never returned. He was last seen on September 2. His body was never recovered, but 17 years later, on July 9, 1932 his skeleton was found. Fluent in seven languages, committed to the idea and ideals of education, and profoundly interested in the world mission of the church, Sampson left a legacy that is rich. As we make our own history today, we do well to give thanks to God for those who have gone before us who, like Thornton Rogers Sampson, planted seeds that continue to bear fruit today.
(Much of the information for this column came from the 1917 book, Thornton Rogers Sampson: A Life Sketch, by Arthur Gray Jones, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, San Antonio from 1895 to 1921).
Currie's Column (June 2019)
WHAT’S YOUR CHURCH’S DNA? Dr. James S. Currie, Executive Secretary Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest (email: )
In 1953 two British molecular biologists, James Watson and Francis Crick, developed a model that described the genetic structure of the hereditary material in each of us. The double helix became the name for that model and the hereditary material became known as our DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid.
At the annual meeting in February of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest, the host pastor, the Rev. Dr. Lacy Sellars, delivered a superb presentation on the history of First Presbyterian Church in Hot Springs. The other presentations were equally fine, but one reference Lacy made has stuck in my memory. He talked about the DNA of that congregation. With all the talk these days about tracing our own personal genetic identity and ancestry using DNA evidence, I found it fascinating to think about the DNA of our faith, our theology, our congregations.
As Christians, we certainly trace our faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As Presbyterians, we trace our theological roots to the 16th century reformers – John Calvin, John Knox, Heinrich Bullinger, Huldrych Zwingli, and Theodore Beza, to name only a few. Twentieth century theologians in this Reformed tradition include such persons as Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr.
What is the DNA of your congregation? What are the special emphases or characteristics that describe the witness your church makes? For some, it may be fine preaching. For others, it might be an outstanding music program. Perhaps there is a special outreach effort to meet the needs of your community. Or maybe it’s an education program that takes seriously shared learning at every age. The art and architecture of your church building may tell the gospel story in a unique and powerful way. The DNA of some congregations includes an interest in and involvement at the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly level. Then there are some churches that simply exude a spirit of joy and welcome to all who come through their doors. And this is not an exhaustive list.
I have had the privilege of serving churches whose DNA has included one, two, and more of the characteristics that describe the life and service of Christian discipleship. What are some of the DNA characteristics of your congregation? Who are some of the persons who over the years contributed significantly to the life and service of your church? It might be someone who goes about quietly making a difference, or it might be someone with a larger voice. Has someone written the story of your church and its DNA? It could be fun as well as important. I’d be interested in such stories. Feel free to share them.
Currie's Column (April 2019)
A PRESBYTERIAN QUIZ James S. Currie, Executive Secretary Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest
In recent weeks I have been receiving in my email box unsolicited “trivia quizzes”. I don’t know where the origin of these quizzes, but it is fun to take them. All are multiple choice questions. Some of the answers I know, but many I don’t know and have to guess. Some are right, and some are wrong. No judgment, no ridicule. And I learn something almost every time. I thought it might be fun to try this out on our knowledge of Presbyterian history in the Synod of the Sun. All four states in the Synod are covered in these questions. Don’t worry about wrong answers. There’s no judgment here. It’s simply an attempt to have fun and maybe learn something new. The answers are at the end. So here goes.
(1) What is the oldest Presbyterian congregation in Texas? (a) Houston (b) Galveston (c) Clarksville (d) San Augustine
(2) When was Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary founded? (a) 1883 (b) 1902 (c) 1895 (d) 1910
(3) From whom did the Presbyterian church purchase Mo-Ranch? (a) J. Paul Getty (b) the Roman Catholic Church (c) Exxon-Mobil (d) the widow of Dan Moran
(4) How many Presbyterian colleges are there in Arkansas and what are they? (a) two – the University of the Ozarks and Lyon College (b) one – the University of the Ozarks (c) None (d) one – Hendrix College
(5) Who was the only local clergyperson to walk with the Little Rock Nine students at Central High School in 1957? (a) Will Campbell (b) Don Campbell (c) Dunbar Ogden, Jr. (d) James Mosley
(6) Who was the first Presbyterian to preach in Arkansas? (a) Cumberland preacher John Carnahan (b) W. H. Roberts (c) Marion Boggs (d) Richard B. Hardie
(7) The first moderator of the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) in 1861 came from Louisiana. Who was he? (a) John C. Barr (b) Benjamin M. Palmer (c) Benny Benfield (d) Bob Stalcup
(8) At the beginning of the 20th century Presbyterians in Louisiana were part of what Synod? (a) the Synod of Mississippi (b) the Synod of Texas (c) the Synod of Arkansas (d) the Synod of the Sun
(9) Having served as associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Shreveport, this church historian died in 2016. Who is he? (a) Benny Benfield (b) Huey Long (c) Lloyd O’Neal (d) Spencer Murray
(10) Where were the two main Presbyterian colleges in Oklahoma in 1910? (a) Norman and Tulsa (b) Muskogee and Durant (c) Tulsa and Oklahoma City (d) Wewoka and Broken Arrow Oklahoma
(11) Presbyterians have, historically, established educational institutions that ministered to Native Americans as a result of the Trail of Tears. One was located outside Idabel, and another was outside Hugo. Name them. (a) Wheelock and Goodland (b) Dwight and Kingsbury (c) Durant and Wheelock (d) Kingsbury and Goodland
(12) How many presbyteries are in Oklahoma? (a) five (b) two (c) four (d) three
Bonus Question: Where was the 2019 annual meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest held? (a) Austin (b) Shreveport (c) Tulsa (d) Hot Springs
Answers: (1) – (c) Clarksville; (2) – (b) 1902; (3) – (d) the widow of Dan Moran; (4) – (a) two – the University of the Ozarks and Lyon College; (5) – (c) Dunbar Ogden, Jr.; (6) – (a) Cumberland preacher John Carnahan; (7) – (b) Benjamin M. Palmer; (8) – (a) the Synod of Mississippi; (9) – (d) Spencer Murray; (10) – (b) Muskogee and Durant; (11) – (a) Wheelock and Goodland; (12) – (d) three. Bonus: (d) Hot Springs
Currie's Column (February 2016)
Following a recent worship service one woman commented, “The person sitting next to meet said that she wishes we would sing more traditional hymns.” Within five minutes another woman observed, “The words to today’s hymns were wonderful!” And the debate over church music, in general, and choice of hymns, in particular, goes on. Whenever a new hymnbook is published, the embers of controversy over which hymns are included and which are excluded are stoked once again.
I grew up on “the old red Hymnbook (actually, it’s burgundy). It’s still one of my favorites as it includes many fine hymns which did not “make the cut” in subsequent hymnals. In a couple of generations we have had The Worshipbook, The Presbyterian Hymnal, and now Glory to God. I was stunned to read recently that “more hymns have been written in traditional forms in the past generation than in any other period in Protestant history, with the possible exception of the last several years of Charles Wesley’s life” (John D. Witvliet’s Preface to A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne VanDyke, p. x).
Although the adjustment has taken time, I find myself liking “Glory to God” more and more. Not only does it include many more hymns (over 850 hymns with some old and some new), but many of the new hymns are also set to familiar tunes. In addition, the growing linguistic divers
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