The Devil in Pew Number Seven

“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.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was a freed slave who became a well-known speaker for abolition and women’s rights.

She was born Isabella Bomefree (or Baumfree—I’ve seen it both ways) in a Dutch community in New York. She spoke only Dutch until around age 9, when she was sold for $100 at an auction along with a flock of sheep. She was sold a total of four times over her lifetime. She endured hard work and excessive physical punishments until her last master promised her freedom a year before the state of New York promised emancipation in 1827. However, he reneged on his promise when a hand injury kept Isabella from her usual work output. Isabella took her youngest daughter and fled to an abolitionist family, the Van Wagenens, who paid her master for her services for the rest of the year so she could go free. Her master then illegally sold hr son, whom she’d had to leave behind. The Van Wagenens helped her sue her former master, and Isobella became one of the first Black women to successfully win a case against a white man.

Isobella had a major religious experience soon afterward and felt God wanted her to “preach the truth,” and she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Her religious views were somewhat muddled. She had never learned to read or write, so her only knowledge came through what she heard. She asked people to read the Bible to her without commentary, but they invariably started explaining as they went along. Finally she found some children to read to her. She had some visions and for a time got in with some folks who believed Jesus would come back in 1843-44. She was a little confused as to just who Jesus was:

She conceived, one day, as she listened to reading, that she heard an intimation that Jesus was married, and hastily inquired if Jesus had a wife. ‘What!’ said the reader, ‘God have a wife?’ ‘Is Jesus God? ‘ inquired Isabella. ‘Yes, to be sure he is,’ was the answer returned. From this time, her conceptions of Jesus became more elevated and spiritual; and she sometimes spoke of him as God, in accordance with the teaching she had received.

But when she was simply told, that the Christian world was much divided on the subject of Christ’s nature-some believing him to be coequal with the Father-to be God in and of himself, ‘very God, of very God;’-some, that he is the ‘well-beloved,’ ‘only begotten Son of God;’-and others, that he is, or was, rather, but a mere man-she said, ‘Of that I only know as I saw. I did not see him to be God; else, how could he stand between me and God? I saw him as a friend, standing between me and God, through whom, love flowed as from a fountain.’ Now, so far from expressing her views of Christ’s character and office in accordance with any system of theology extant, she says she believes Jesus is the same spirit that was in our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the beginning, when they came from the hand of their Creator. When they sinned through disobedience, this pure spirit forsook them, and fled to heaven; that there it remained, until it returned again in the person of Jesus; and that, previous to a personal union with him, man is but a brute, possessing only the spirit of an animal.

She became well-known as a speaker, worked for various causes, eventually met Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and others.

One of Sojourner’s most famous speeches was called “Ain’t I a Woman.” But there are different versions of it around, and no one knows which is closest to her original words. A Frances Dana Barker Gage transcribed the speech to sound as if it were written by a Southern ex-slave, and that became the most famous version. Yet Sojourner was born in NY and spoke Dutch in her early life, so it’s unlikely she had a Southern accent and phraseology. The speech also speaks of thirteen children, when Sojourner had five.

When looking back on what slaves endured, it’s hard to fathom how and why people thought the way they did and treated their fellow humans so cruelly. In describing the poor and unhealthy living conditions one master placed her family in:

Still, she does not attribute this cruelty-for cruelty it certainly is, to be so unmindful of the health and comfort of any being, leaving entirely out of sight his more important part, his everlasting interests,-so much to any innate or constitutional cruelty of the master, as to that gigantic inconsistency, that inherited habit among slaveholders, of expecting a willing and intelligent obedience from the slave, because he is a MAN-at the same time every thing belonging to the soul-harrowing system does its best to crush the last vestige of a man within him; and when it is crushed, and often before, he is denied the comforts of life, on the plea that he knows neither the want nor the use of them, and because he is considered to be little more or little less than a beast.

Of the practice of selling slaves’ children, Isobel said:

She wishes that all who would fain believe that slave parents have not natural affection for their offspring could have listened as she did, while Bomefree and Mau-mau Bett,-their dark cellar lighted by a blazing pine-knot,-would sit for hours, recalling and recounting every endearing, as well as harrowing circumstance that taxed memory could supply, from the histories of those dear departed ones, of whom they had been robbed, and for whom their hearts still bled.

Isabella’s parents, as well as several older slaves, were granted their freedom in their last years when they could no longer work. But then they had no place to live and no way to care for themselves. So the slaveholder was not being generous, but rather relieving himself of the obligation to provide for people who could no longer produce.

In 1850, Sojourner began dictating her memoir to a friend named Olive Gilbert, who added her own commentary and observations. Olive’s opinion of Sojourner was:

Through all the scenes of her eventful life may be traced the energy of a naturally powerful mind-the fearlessness and child-like simplicity of one untrammelled by education or conventional customs-purity of character-an unflinching adherence to principle-and a native enthusiasm, which, under different circumstances, might easily have produced another Joan of Arc.

I listened to this book through Librivox. Librivox is free because all the narrators are volunteers. I am thankful for their service, but they vary in skill, not just in narrating, but in basic reading. So this was not the most enjoyable audiobook experience. But I am glad to be more acquainted with a name I knew very little about. I looked up certain passages in the online version here.

I’m counting this book as a classic by a person of color for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

Book Review: True Strength

I don’t read many celebrity biographies or memoirs. But we had seen Kevin Sorbo in a couple of things, then noticed he starred in Christian-based movies the last several years (he portrayed the atheist professor in God’s Not Dead). And he seems to have become more outspoken about his Christian faith on Twitter and Facebook. I became interested in his story. So when I saw his book, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal—and How Nearly Dying Saved my Life, come out on a Kindle sale, I got it.

He grew up in Mound, Minnesota, with small-town values and a strong work ethic. He got some modeling jobs to help pay bills in college, then starting acting in commercials. Soon he got the starring role in three Hercules movies, which then transitioned to a TV series, becoming one of the top shows in its day.

Just as things were going well, Kevin noticed a lump on his shoulder. It turned out to be not cancer, but an aneurysm. A chiropractic maneuver released hundreds of blood clots in his arm and a few in his brain, triggering three mini-strokes. At first, the doctors’ main concern was saving his arm. But Kevin experienced a host of symptoms, from vision loss to lack of balance to buzzing and vibrating in his brain to headaches. The only treatment seemed to be physical therapy and time. Doctors called his health crisis “one in seventy-five million.”

Both because Kevin was a private person, plus he and the producers didn’t want his Hercules persona to be tarnished, the full extent of his condition was not made public. He filmed the rest of the series with minimum camera time, creative use of a body double, and plots that worked around his situation.

Kevin talks about faith in the book, but there’s no real conversion point or switchover. It’s more like he reached back for the faith he had been brought up with and started praying and relying on God to see him through. He rejected the “hellfire and eternal flames of misery on us sinners” that his childhood pastor preached. That in the Bible, but his pastor seems to have used it as a club to beat over people’s heads rather than an invitation. Kevin did believe in a “loving, forgiving God” and acknowledged that:

Before my illness I was fully preoccupied with the material side of life. Moving at the speed of light, I ignored the spiritual side, the unseen. God created this world, but I was determined to live in it to the fullest, to get the most out of it. I figured He would want that

Through his illness, he realized:

My illness made me special—in a way that I never wanted nor expected, yes, but if I was to be special, then I was going to do something with that gift. I wasn’t a half-god or any part god. I was a mere mortal, with human limitations and problems, but I was determined not to behave like a victim anymore.

His dear wife deserves an MVP award: they were engaged when Kevin’s illness struck, and she was his main support all through it.

There are some crude spots in the book, some sexual encounters (though not explicit), and a bit of bad language (though some of it is disguised comic strip-style with keyboard characters).

Even though our situations were very different, my experience with transverse myelitis helped me identify with-some of the neurological issues and the long recovery.

It was also interesting reading about some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film industry.

I appreciate Kevin’s sharing his story and wish him and his family all the best.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)