“The story you are about to read actually happened, every last detail of it. As the plot unfolds, my hunch is that you’ll need to remind yourself of this reality more than once.” So Rebecca Nichols Alonzo opens her book The Devil in Pew Number Seven.
Her hunch was right.
Rebecca tells the story of a man who harassed—no, terrorized her family for several years as she was growing up.
Rebecca’s father was the new pastor of a small church in Sellerstown, NC, in 1969. He found that one man, a Mr. Watts, held key positions in the church even though he was not a member. Recognizing Mr. Watts’ “stranglehold” on the church, Pastor Nichols “made changes to end his dominance” (p. 48).
Mr. Watts did not take his loss of position well, nor the pastor’s difference of opinion over issues like the style of the new church roof. Mr. Watts started acting up in church from pew number seven, making faces at the pastor while he preached, tapping on his watch, walking out and slamming the door loudly before the sermon was finished.
The Nichols family started receiving threatening anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night and unsigned letters. One letter promised the pastor’s family would leave “crawling or walking, running or riding, dead or alive” (p. 54).
Then followed several incidents of escalating attacks: home invasions while the family was away, which one time included water in the fuel tank and oil in the water pump; shots fired at the outside walls; dynamite set off near the house.
The Nichols family, the neighbors, the church, and even the police knew who was behind these attacks, but no one could prove it. Some of the incidents occurred while Mrs. Nichols was pregnant and then while the family had a newborn.
Finally events came to a tragic head. (It’s no spoiler to say this since it’s mentioned in the first chapter).
The rest of the book tells of the long-term effects these years had on the family and the necessity of learning to forgive those involved.
Rebecca was a child when much of this happened, but she read her parents’ journals, newspaper reports, court documents, and interviewed several people from the town.
It’s hard to fathom how far this man went to drive out the pastor. Rebecca’s father felt he couldn’t leave, because that would mean Mr. Watts would again assert his dominance over the church if Pastor Nichols left. The pastor and his wife also believed and modeled for their children “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
I first heard of this book from my friend Lou Ann. But I kept passing it by on my TBR list because I thought it might be too hard to read. I finally listened to the audiobook nicely read by Pam Ward. Then I checked the book out of the library to see the pictures and read the afterword.
The book was not hard to read or listen to. Rebecca doesn’t sensationalize the violence. She begins with the climactic incident, but then backtracks to tell how her parents met, were called to the ministry, how they came to Sellerstown, and other “normal” occurrences.
Some of my favorite quotes:
With a few rare exceptions, everyone in Sellerstown was related to one another in some way. Which is why at times, shotguns in hand, they watched out for one another. The Sellers kin are true salt-of-the-earth people . . . although some were saltier than others (p. 31).
I knew [God] said in the Bible that He’s a father to the fatherless and to the brokenhearted. I was both, so we had a perfect fit. There was one more insight I came to embrace. I needed God more than I needed to blame God (p. 235).
I didn’t ask for this abrasion on my soul to be a part of my life; it just is. Now, day by day, I have the choice to forgive the two men who took so much from me, or I can choose to wallow in a toxic brew of bitterness. True, I forgave . . . a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t have to forgive him again and again . . . (p. 250).
I’m the one who remains in jail if I withhold God’s grace by failing to forgive when wronged (p. 251).
My one critique is that the author seems to belabor some points overmuch. For instance, with the first threatening phone call, a little more than a page is spent on describing what happens inside the phone when it rings, explaining how phones in those days didn’t have optional ring tones and couldn’t be left off the hook without setting off a warning tone, how her father couldn’t take the phone off the hook anyway because a country pastor was “on call” 24/7 just like a country doctor was. Maybe this was supposed to build suspense with three rings leading up to the first threat, but it just seemed extraneous and a touch irritating. But, this is a minor criticism and for the most part doesn’t hinder the story.
Sometimes the circumstances were hard to read about and illustrated how “truth is stranger than fiction,” But I highly recommend this book. Ultimately it’s about God’s grace and strength through the most difficult of times.