That’s Odell Hallmon telling a jury in Winona, Mississippi, that Curtis Flowers confessed to killing four people in a local furniture store in 1996. Now it’s Hallmon who stands accused of killing three people in a town 20 miles south of Winona.
The difference is that Doug Evans, the DA who prosecuted Curtis Flowers 6 times before getting a final conviction, won’t have to create a case out of thin air to convict Hallmon–there is actual evidence. You can find more about Hallmon’s role in convicting Flowers here.
But it gets worse.
In the first of the six Curtis Flowers trials (no capital case has been re-tried six times) Hallmon testified that Flowers had confessed to the murders when the two men were cellmates in the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi.
In the second trial, Hallmon reversed himself. He and his sister Patricia had learned that a reward of $30,000 was being offered to anyone giving evidence leading to a conviction in the case and they wanted to cash in. So, when Hallmon and Flowers were locked up together, Patricia told Odell what to say and how to say it.
Then Odell, by his own account, got out of prison and was forced to live with a mother and a sister who were angry with him for turning on the family. So Odell recanted his recantation and hasn’t budged since.
But it gets worse.
The state’s case against Flowers is entirely dependent on the testimony of Patricia Hallmon (she goes by several names, but we don’t want to further complicated this Byzantine story). This isn’t obvious on first blush because the state put up several witnesses who testified to seeing Flowers on the fateful morning when four innocent people died at the Tardy furniture store. But Patricia gave Doug Evans and his associates precisely the story they were looking for. Her testimony established the template on which everything else rests.
A janitor at a clothing factory testified that his gun was stolen out of his glove compartment the morning of the murders and ballistics tests suggested that the bullets fired at the furniture store could have come from the make of gun the janitor described. But since the authorities figured Flowers as the gunman long before they had a shred of evidence associating him with the crime, they needed to tell a jury how he pulled it off. And that’s where Patricia comes in.
Patricia Hallmon told investigators that she had seen Curtis Flowers leave his house early, early in the morning, return an hour or so later, then head out in the direction of the furniture store shortly before the killings went down.
The state’s “investigation” of what came to be known as “the Tardy murders” was based entirely on Patricia’s timeline. Police officers went door-to-door along the route Patricia’s testimony required, first from Flowers’ home to the clothing factory, then from Flowers’ home to the furniture store. Testimony makes clear that potential witnesses were shown a picture of Curtis Flowers and a handbill advertising the $30,000 reward.
Most of the folks who lived along these routes were exceedingly poor. For them, $30,000 was a princely sum–more money than they had ever earned in a single year or, in most cases, any given two or three year stretch. Still, it took a full year to find enough witnesses to make the case. True, they all disagreed on what Curtis was wearing (as in, there is no overlap in their descriptions whatsoever), and none of these people (Patricia Hallmon excepted) came forward of their own volition. But they were willing to say what the state needed them to say: “I saw Curtis Flowers on his way to the factory.” “I saw Curtis Flowers in the vicinity of the furniture store.”
I could elaborate on the credibility issues dogging the various witnesses, but this post isn’t about them. (If you want more, you can find my voluminous blogging on this case here.)
Now you see why the case against Flowers stands or falls with the credibility of Odell and Patricia Hallmon.
Did this delightful brother-sister act spill the beans on Curtis Flowers as good-hearted citizens eager to do the right thing; or did they create their stories out of whole cloth because there was $30,000 on the table and they knew what the authorities wanted to hear?
Subsequent events don’t merely tilt in the direction of the second option–it is now obvious that Patricia and Odell are psychopathic liars whose testimony at trial can’t be taken seriously.
The link above may be the only public record of Patricia’s legal problems and, even when the story was briefly noted in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger no questions were raised about Patricia’s credibility as a witness in the Flowers case.
And little brother Odell is charged with committing three brutal murders (and attempting a fourth). Since the suspect has turned himself in, a surviving victim may live to tell her tale, and Hallmon possessed a simple motive (he got out of prison in August and after nine months, his girlfriend sent him packing) Doug Evans and friends won’t need to summon more testimony from the ether.
Meanwhile, Curtis Flowers remains in Parchman prison awaiting his date with the executioner as his attorneys take his appeal to the federal level.
Will the Mississippi press connect the dots connecting Odell and Patricia? Will reporters reexamine their blase assumption that Flowers must be guilty? Will the court system consider any of this to be legally relevant? (Don’t laugh, there’s a good chance they won’t).
Almost 80 percent of white American evangelicals plan to vote for Donald Trump, a twice-divorced womanizer who made his name building and gilding casinos. A man who insults Hispanics, Muslims, African Americans, women, and anyone else who disagrees with him. A man who rejects foundational Christian principles such as love for enemies, radical forgiveness, turning the other cheek and unqualified hospitality.
Let’s admit right off the top that if the vote was restricted to white people Trump would win in a cake walk. In mid-July, 66 percent of registered white voters were planning to vote for Trump, and in some Southern states the figure is close to 90 percent. So, white evangelicals are no more pro-Trump than white folks generally.
Still, shouldn’t we expect that, strictly on moral and theological grounds, disciples of Jesus Christ, red and yellow, black and white, would pass en masse on a man with Trump’s résumé?
No, we should expect nothing of the kind.
For all its apparent diversity, American evangelicalism is dominated by two theological systems, both of which are uncomfortable with the radical words of Jesus.
The Reformed river is fed by John Calvin, a brilliant biblical theologian who ruled Geneva with an iron fist in the mid-16th century. Calvin’s God was sovereign and unchanging (the theological term is “immutable”). If God told Joshua to massacre the Amalekites, man, woman and child, who are we to quibble? However things may appear to a flawed and fallen humanity, Calvin taught, God’s decrees are just and true by definition.
A sovereign and immutable God has one limitation: he can never change his mind. The New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus could not be substantially different from the Old Covenant bequeathed to Moses. The genocidal carnage of Joshua and the Sermon on the Mount may appear irreconcilable, but God can’t change the rules without changing his character. So, Jesus and Joshua don’t just share a name; they share a theological vision. They have to. The unchanging character of God demands it.
When your theology forces you to reconcile Joshua and Jesus, the New Testament teaching on enemy-love, non-resistance, unqualified hospitality and radical forgiveness become inconvenient.
The only popular alternative to Calvinism in American evangelicalism is dispensationalism, a systematic attempt to account for the divergent traditions within the Bible without surrendering the principle of biblical inerrancy. Although God does not change, dispensationalists say, he occasionally changes the rules.
Old School dispensationalists like C.I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer had a clever solution to the Joshua-Jesus problem. The kingdom teaching found in Matthew, Mark and Luke (including the Sermon on the Mount) were never intended for the Church. Jesus came into this world to establish the kind of earthly kingdom anticipated by the Old Testament prophets, but Israel refused to cooperate. The Church, according to this interpretation, is a kind of Plan B, or “parenthesis,” that will persist until the church is raptured to heaven and the millennial reign begins on earth.
Everything Jesus said about non-violence, enemy-love, and turning the other cheek was never intended for “the Church age,” Scofield and Chafer taught, but will be in full force when Christ sets up his thousand-year reign.
You will be relieved to learn that some Calvinists (like Russell Moore) and some Dispensationalists (like Darrell Bock) are trying to find a middle ground between Reformed and Dispensational theology that makes more room for the teaching of Jesus. Neither Moore nor Bock will be voting for Donald Trump in November and that’s what you would expect. The closer you get to the Savior, the harder it becomes to embrace the Donald. You can love the man, forgive him, struggle to understand him; but you can’t vote for him.
Unfortunately, Russell Moore and Darrell Bock are evangelical outliers. The rhetoric flowing from popular, made-for-TV evangelicalism has assumed a desperate quality. America will only continue to be exceptional if she continues to be Christian, preachers say. If not, our beloved country will become a toxic slough of secularity — Sweden writ large.
It’s the children of light versus the children of darkness and somebody has to lose.
The premonitions of doom issuing from the religious right are reminiscent of Psalm 44, which begins with a celebration of God’s victories in the days of Joshua:
Through thee we push down our foes; through thy name we tread down our assailants. For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But thou hast saved us from our foes, and hast put to confusion those who hate us.
Suddenly, without a hint of transition, the mood changes:
Thou hast cast us off and abased us, and hast not gone out with our armies. Thou hast made us turn back from the foe; and our enemies have gotten spoil. Thou hast made us like sheep for slaughter, and hast scattered us among the nations.
Or, to quote Donald Trump’s paraphrase, “We never win anymore.”
Psalm 44 was likely written about the same time the book of Joshua assumed its present form: shortly after a remnant returned from Babylonian captivity to a heap of ruins that once was Jerusalem.
Books like Deuteronomy and Joshua were written to answer the “why” question. God told us to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan down to the last sucking infant; but we made our peace with the infidel, marrying their daughters and worshiping their gods.
In Ezra and Nehemiah, the returning exiles divorce their foreign wives and build a big wall around Jerusalem, a line of demarcation between saints and sinners.
Old Testament texts like Joshua and Nehemiah get more attention in America’s white evangelical churches than the words of Jesus. The man who talks about recovering American greatness by building a wall is speaking a language conservative white Christians can understand.
No one was surprised when John Wayne’s daughter, standing at a podium in front of a wax statue of her sainted dad, endorsed Donald Trump for president. You didn’t have to explain the symbolism to the Donald.
Way back in April, Barack Obama told a CBS reporter, “The single most important question I’m asked these days from other world leaders is ‘What’s going on with your elections?’” I don’t rub shoulders with world leaders, but my Canadian friends have been plying me with similar questions. “Why,” they ask “does a singularly horrid man like Donald Trump have a decent shot at the most powerful elected office in the world?”
This is extremely good news. Some things are too important (and subject to abuse) to be relegated to the private sector: corrections and health care are two striking examples. Kudos to the Department of Justice for making the right call. Private prisons have always been a humanitarian disaster.
“We are at least two different countries — a conservative, largely white, somewhat older, largely Christian country with a center of gravity in the South and Midwest and a progressive, multiracial, younger, increasingly secular and multifaith country with a center of gravity on the coasts and in our big cities. These countries do not understand each other. Or like each other. At all.”
As deep divisions over LGBTQ inclusion surfaced at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C., I found myself asking if Gushee’s portrait of division might apply to the CBF as well.
The CBF, if you’re wondering, was created in 1991 when a highly organized group of fundamentalists imposed its will on the Southern Baptist Convention. Like Israel in Babylonian captivity, the CBF has been defining and re-defining itself ever since.
The flash point at the Greensboro meeting was the CBF’s 2000 decision to prohibit the intentional hiring of non-celibate gays and lesbians by the “denominetwork.” Here’s the most offensive portion of that statement:
“The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does the CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.
“As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness.”
Then, in case that sounded a bit too much like the fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention, a proviso was appended:
“We also believe in the love and grace of God for all people, both of those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not.”
When the CBF formed in 1991, 44 percent of Americans believed that homosexuality should be illegal while 48 percent were in favor of legalization. We aren’t talking about same-sex marriage here; the issue was whether gays should be outlaws. Nine years later, when the CBF’s hiring guidelines were adopted, the numbers had shifted slightly, 54 percent being in favor of legalization while 44 percent still wanted to outlaw consensual same-sex activity.
In 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed the idea of same-sex marriage while 35 percent approved; fifteen years later those numbers have flipped with 35 percent in opposition and 57 percent in favor.
In short, a statement that sounded “safe” in 2000 now sounds harsh, antiquated, out of touch and, well, hateful.
What caused the sudden explosion in support for gay marriage? Three things come to mind. First, a portion of the gay rights movement concluded that the old “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” rhetoric, however therapeutic it might be for those within the LGBTQ community, wasn’t working for straight America. Instead, we have been treated to portraits of “normal” looking, middle-aged men and women who have been living in committed same-sex relationships for decades and are longing to get married. Who would want to rain on a parade like that? Not me. In an age when lifelong commitment can be hard to find, these people were committed.
Secondly, as the LGBTQ community gradually emerged from the closet, straight Americans suddenly realized that brothers, sisters, great aunts and Janet in accounting were gay. This personalized the issue. We liked these people and wanted to see them happy.
Finally, we are gradually realizing that sexual orientation is not a choice. When I graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1978, only 13 percent of Americans believed that some people were born with a same-sex orientation. I was part of that 13 percent largely because I had the privilege of studying Christian ethics under Paul Simmons. By the time the CBF released its ban on hiring gays and lesbians, a full 40 percent of Americans understood that orientation was not a choice. Among college educated people the figure was closer to 60 percent.
Leading voices within the Southern Baptist Convention continue to inveigh against the gay rights movement, but we have witnessed a significant shift in tone. Even Al Mohler, who once reveled in vivid depictions of gay debauchery in wicked San Francisco, is no longer talking about homosexuality as a self-selected “lifestyle.”
We have said to people that homosexuality is just a choice. It’s clear that it’s more than a choice. That doesn’t mean it’s any less sinful, but it does mean it’s not something people can just turn on and turn off. We are not a gospel people unless we understand that only the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ gives a homosexual person any hope of release from homosexuality.
Russell Moore isn’t convinced that even the gospel can affect a “release from homosexuality.” “The utopian idea if you come to Christ and if you go through our program, you’re going to be immediately set free from attraction or anything you’re struggling with, I don’t think that’s a Christian idea,” Moore told reporters when Exodus Ministries gave up on gay reparative therapy in 2014. “Faithfulness to Christ means obedience to Christ. It does not necessarily mean that someone’s attractions are going to change.”
Mohler and Moore argue that persons “suffering” from same-sex attraction can be incorporated into the church of Jesus Christ so long as they remain celibate. That kite won’t fly, and the leadership of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship knows it. If same sex attraction is a fact of birth it must reflect the creative intention of God. The Creator doesn’t make mistakes.
Has the CBF devolved into mutually suspicious camps? I don’t think so. But we are divided on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion and, to the extent we find ourselves at cross purposes we fit the definition of enemies — at least on this one burning issue.
And what do Christian enemies do? We love one another. It’s easy to love people who agree with you, Jesus tells us, but you must love those who disagree with you. Even when they call you names and question your motivation. Forgiveness isn’t enough; we must love our enemies the same way we love ourselves. And if we can’t pull it off the first time, we keep trying until we get it right.
And that’s what the Illumination Project proposed at the Greensboro gathering is trying to achieve — loving conversations that shed more light and produce less heat than when less deliberative religious groups take votes on LGBTQ inclusion.
But for dialogue to have a chance certain conditions must be met.
First, we must suspend our anti-gay hiring policy immediately even if we don’t have a replacement handy. There is currently no clear consensus among us and our policies should be consistent with this deep uncertainty. But can we all agree that the 2000 statement no longer speaks for us?
Secondly, in obedience to Jesus, we must stop accusing our opponents of bad faith, cultural conformity or homophobia. All participants in this dialogue are seeking the mind of Christ and we must proceed accordingly.
More than anything else, we need to hear from members of the CBF who belong to the LGBTQ community. We need to hear their stories and listen to their dreams. We’ve got to let these people testify.
The most recent Pew study reveals that, by 10 percentage points, women are more likely to favor gay marriage than men, that white non-Hispanic Americans have “evolved” on the issue far more than African Americans and that college educated Americans are three times as likely to accept same-sex marriage as those with a high school education.
Pew also reports that, although gay marriage may be a settled matter in New England and the Pacific states, a slight majority of Southerners remains opposed. While 60 percent of urban Americans favor same-sex unions, the number drops to 40 percent in rural areas and there are many small towns in the South where supporters of same-sex marriage keep their opinions to themselves.
If the CBF wishes to become a truly international, inter-ethnic, inter-regional and interracial community of faith we must listen to a multiplicity of voices and that multiplicity of voices must listen to one another. For as long as it takes. And it may take a long time.
Finally, we can’t talk about LGBTQ inclusion without talking about the Bible.The religious leaders of the day found a principle of radical exclusion in their Bibles. Jesus read the same Bible and discovered a gospel of radical inclusion. Who are we listening to?
I know very little about my family history, partly because it is so complicated. My ancestors came to Canada and the United States from Scotland, England, Sweden and Germany (and who knows where else). It’s easy to get tangled up in the roots of so many family trees. My forebears arrived in North America penniless. No one remotely famous is related to me (with the possible exception of Judge Roy Bean).
But my ignorance is largely a function of indifference. As a boy I lived in Yellowknife, an isolated mining community on the shore of Great Slave Lake in the Canadian Northwest Territories. It was 1,000 miles south to Edmonton, the nearest city, and our summer vacations consisted of interminable road trips through the Prairie Provinces of Canada visiting relatives. I had the grandparents and the aunts and uncles sorted out pretty well, but beyond that circle everything got fuzzy. Most of my relations were strangers to me, but my great aunts knew who I was and insisted on kissing me full on the mouth.
But at the tender age of 63, I am suddenly fascinated by my ancestors. A few months ago, while in Canada for a funeral, I was given a big red book called Biehn/Bean Family of Bucks County, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada 1700-1986. The author drew on a wide range of sometimes conflicting source material, but the basic outline of the story is pretty clear, and it explains a lot.
My Bean ancestors were Anabaptists — Mennonites, to be more precise — and they moved frequently to escape religious persecution. Anabaptists weren’t satisfied with the half-measure reforms proposed by John Calvin in Geneva or Martin Luther in Wittenberg. They wanted a radical reformation of the Christian church and they weren’t asking for anyone’s permission.
The Anabaptists wanted to throw out practices and beliefs that couldn’t be squared with the New Testament, in general, and the Sermon on the Mount, in particular. They practiced foot washing (a sign of humility instituted by Jesus); they either held all property in common or encouraged the generous sharing of community resources; they restricted baptism to believing adults; they said they were competent to interpret Scripture apart from church authority; they called for complete religious tolerance (even for Muslims, Jews and atheists), and, following the clear teaching of Jesus, they rejected violence in all its forms.
The warring branches of European Christianity embraced one common premise: the Anabaptists must be exterminated. In the early decades of the 16th century, religion was the glue that held society together. Because uniformity of belief was considered essential, heresy was viewed as subversive, dangerous and devilish.
Until recently, church historians dismissed the Anabaptist movement as a regrettable aberration. “Generation after generation,” Franklin Littell lamented in 1958, “the Anabaptists have been called up for trial by the historians, the words of their accusers have been heard, and the persecuted forerunners of the Free Churches have been sentenced to oblivion without having an opportunity to speak in their own behalf.”
Mercifully, things have changed. Originally seen as a homogeneous movement, the Radical Reformation is now understood as a rich tapestry of reform movements that disagreed with one another as much as they agreed. In recent decades, a neo-Anabaptist movement has taken hold, especially in North America and Great Britain. Writers like Stuart Murray and Greg Boyd have argued that the rapid breakup of “Christendom” casts the Radical Reformation in an entirely different light.
The Anabaptists taught that Christianity went wrong when, in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Once the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ joined hands with the kingdoms of this world, the liberating and demanding words of Jesus (especially the call to non-violence) became an embarrassment. In a post-Christendom world where Christianity is but one religion among many, can we finally take Jesus at his word?
And if we want to grapple with the words of Jesus, the Anabaptists can help us. They’ve been grappling with Jesus for half a millennium.
My ancestors trace their faith back to Michael Sattler and the Swiss Brethren. Like Martin Luther, Sattler was a Roman Catholic monk (he may even have been an abbot) until the Peasants’ War overwhelmed his monastery in 1525. Sattler joined a branch of the Anabaptist movement known as the Swiss Brethren, was re-baptized in 1526 and burned at the stake in 1527.
At the conclusion of his heresy trial, the charges against the ex-monk were read aloud: denying that the body and blood of Christ were literally present in the bread and wine of the Mass; a rejection of infant baptism; a refusal to worship Mary and the saints; and a rejection of oath taking, warfare, extreme unction and communion in one kind. Sattler, moreover, “had left the order and married a wife.”
To say that Sattler was burned at the stake is gross understatement. “Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner,” the sentence of execution read. “The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.”
This sentence was executed to the letter and by the time the gruesome procession arrived at the place of execution, it is doubtful that much of Sattler’s body remained to be burned. In a touching show of mercy, Sattler’s wife, Margaretha and several other Anabaptist heretics were drowned before their bodies were consigned to the flames. The irony was intentional.
Compromise and oppression
In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia brought the wars of religion to an end with a crude compromise. The official religion of each principality was the religion of whoever ruled the region. Religious non-conformists (so long as they were Roman Catholic, Reformed or Lutheran) were to be tolerated. The Anabaptists were left out in the cold, lumped together with Jews, Turks and other infidels.
Facing horrible persecution, my Mennonite ancestors exchanged their native Switzerland for the relative safety of the German Palatinate, a region that had been decimated by the wars of religion and needed skilled farmers to work the land. They were barred from entering most professions, they couldn’t marry outside their faith and they were relegated to the countryside, but, like the Jews with whom they were frequently compared, they were able to subsist.
Gradually, the noose of oppression tightened once again. Mennonites were subjected to a steadily worsening burden of taxation. Their land could be confiscated by anyone willing to pay the original purchase price, generally a fraction of the market value of the property.
By 1739, Johannes Biehn had had enough. He gathered his family, abandoned his modest farm and sailed down the Rhine to Rotterdam. My ancestor was following a familiar script. Pennsylvania Quakers, fearing that their distinctive beliefs would be overwhelmed by a flood of European immigration, reached out to potential allies. Agents from Pennsylvania discovered the Mennonites living in the Palatinate and wooed them with glowing stories (mostly true) of life in a Pennsylvanian paradise were all faith traditions were respected. It sounded like a good deal, and it was.
After making a brief stop in England, Johannes Biehn and family crossed the Atlantic to the New World. Immigrant ships were impossibly filthy and crowded and the passengers often subsisted on starvation rations. Children and the elderly were the most vulnerable and, according to family legend, the Biehn family lost an infant daughter during the passage to America (hardly a rare occurrence).
According to one family historian, Johannes Biehn and the rest of the Mennonite passengers feared that they were being starved so there would be plenty of food for the crew. In a shocking departure from the doctrine of non-violence, passengers commandeered the ship and locked the captain in a makeshift brig. A quick inspection confirmed their suspicions; plenty of food was on board.
Safely in Philadelphia, Biehn and the other Mennonites reverted to form by forgiving the captain and allowing him to return to England with his crew.
Like most Mennonite immigrants of the mid-18th century, my Biehn ancestors began life in the New World as indentured servants. After swearing allegiance to the British king they negotiated terms with established residents. In most cases, the price of passage was paid in exchange for seven years of free service. The contract of indenture stipulated that, when the seven years ended, each member of the family received two suits of clothing and $50, enough to purchase a modest farm.
Whether in Europe or America, Mennonites largely kept to themselves. The first generation of Anabaptists was evangelistic, but dungeon, fire and sword quickly forged a tradition of silence. Mennonites like Johannes Biehn weren’t out to convert the world; they just wanted to be left in peace so they could follow Jesus.
In 1688, several recent converts to the religion of William Penn found themselves in a moral dilemma. Quakers owned slaves, a practice Mennonites abhorred. Four men signed their names to an anti-slavery manifesto and begged their religious leaders to adopt its provisions. The statement goes on for several pages, but here’s the gist:
There is a saying that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or rob men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not alike? Here is liberty of conscience, which is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of the body, except of evil-doers, which is another case. But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against. In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience sake; and here there are those oppressed which are of a black colour.
Mennonites empathized with African slaves because they were intimately acquainted with oppression. Anabaptist piety revolved around the Bible (in German or Dutch translation) and a Martyrs Book chronicling the horrific deaths of hundreds of heroes and heroines of faith. Since they were prevented from witnessing to their faith (their tongues were often removed or bolted to their jaws prior to execution), Anabaptist martyrs spent their last days composing hymns that survived as priceless relics. The ghastly details of Michael Sattler’s execution have a familiar ring for anyone familiar with the Southern tradition of lynching in which hanging was often proceeded by unspeakably cruel torture.
The Radical Reformation unchained the same demons on display in the Jim Crow South in the age of lynching. We must understand that, whether we be Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians or Southern Baptists, our spiritual ancestors were terrorists in the most literal sense of that awful word. They used dungeon, fire and sword to make the very thought of resistance impossible. The miserable methods used to stamp out a nascent Christian movement in the pre-Constantinian period have been employed repeatedly by faithful Christians desperate to secure their place in the sun. Christian non-violence is incompatible with power politics.
I grew up singing Faith of Our Fathers, a hymn about standing strong “in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.” The hymn was written by Frederick William Faber, an English Catholic. Protestants sing the hymn (or at least we used to), but it was inspired by the sins of British Protestants. We owned the dungeons, we lit the fire, we wielded the sword.
So I was also pleased to learn that the combined force of Quakers and Mennonites kept Pennsylvania from declaring war on the Indians or the French until 1756, the year in which the pacifists lost control of the state’s politics. The French and Indian War (as it is known in the United States) worked out well for the British and (as the Acadians of Louisiana will tell you) badly for the French, and horribly for the native population.
The American Revolution placed the Mennonites of Pennsylvania in an impossible position. They had sworn allegiance to the king, a commitment they would not lightly renounce. But the Mennonites weren’t pro-British Tories bound to the status quo; they were opposed to revolution on biblical grounds (see Romans 13) and because they opposed violence. A non-violent revolution, had such a thing been contemplated, would have been acceptable.
Where Mennonites were numerous and their non-violent ways well understood, accommodations were usually made in times of war. But in towns where Mennonites were few in number, their refusal to bear arms looked like cowardly sedition. If Mennonites would not fight, they should at least be prepared to serve as fire fighters, medics and to assist “in suppressing insurrections of slaves or other evil-minded persons during an attack.”
Following the war, all residents of Pennsylvania were asked to renounce loyalty to the British crown and swear allegiance to Pennsylvania as an independent state. Moreover, those who had refused to bear arms were forced to pay steep fines. A few Mennonites were willing to pay up, but virtually all refused to take the oath of allegiance and those who succumbed were excommunicated.
On the move again
Once again, Anabaptists were being treated like a suspect minority out of favor with the larger society. As taxation increased and the price of farmland soared, hundreds of Mennonites made their way north to the wilds of southern Ontario in Canada. It was an opportunity to begin again in a country desperate for experienced farmers who were eager to break new land.
Johannes Biehn Jr. was 2 years old when his family arrived in Pennsylvania and 63 (my present age) when he headed north with his family. In Ontario he was known as “Old John Bean.”
I’m not sure why I was raised Baptist instead of Mennonite. My grandfather, Wilber Eusebius Bean, moved from Ontario to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, in 1914 and promptly married Caroline Carlson, a recent arrival from South Dakota. Caroline’s family, as the name suggests, was Swedish, and I know next to nothing about her ethnic and religious roots (perhaps some of my relatives can help me here). My grandmother was in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease by the time I was born, so I never really knew her and, until now, I have given her family story very little thought.
Wilbur Eusebius Bean was known to his friends as “Bill.” He cut hair for a living and ran the beauty parlor next door to his barber’s shop. I don’t know when Grampa Bean became a Baptist, but I suspect the switch was part of his transition to Saskatchewan. Johannes Biehn Sr. came to America with several other Mennonite families. When his son journeyed to Canada 61 years later he too was part of a mass migration. When Wilbur Eusebius Bean headed west to Saskatchewan he was on his own. Anabaptist faith isn’t for individuals; it can only be lived in community.
Grampa Bean was never comfortable with religious talk. He counted the money at the Baptist church, but was more interested in curling and raising prize gladiolas than the fine points of theology.
But although I was raised Baptist I have always been drawn to the Anabaptist tradition and the simple “follow me” of the human Jesus. Maybe it came from reading too much Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Maybe it was my fascination with the non-violent spirituality of the civil rights movement. Maybe it was Glenn Stassen’s ethics classes at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Maybe it was marrying a woman who loved my Anabaptist heart as much as I loved hers.
But the seeds of my Anabaptist faith were planted, unintentionally perhaps, by Baptist parents who, in their own quiet way, were always searching for a faith bolder and deeper than anything their religious environment offered.
Is faith a biological inheritance? Certainly not. But I learned to love the spiritually of my ancestors long before I knew their story. Reading about old Johannes Bean is like looking in a mirror.
Faith of our fathers living still In spite of dungeon, fire and sword.