Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Friday, August 12, 2016


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter

One of my CIWs, the one for May 22, 2016, entitled “When Bad Theology is Good Theology,” was reprinted in the current edition of Sharing the Practice: The Journal of The Academy of Parish Clergy. That’s the one about the hymn, “In the Garden.”

In it I mentioned my favorite professor at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, H. Grady Hardin, the “H” for Henry.

A lot of southern boys born around the turn of the century were named after Henry Grady. Most of them went by H. Grady.

Henry Woodfin Grady lived only 39 years, but his impact lived long. He was the managing editor of The Atlanta Constitution newspaper in the 1880s, the advocate of “The New South,” helping the Confederate States reintegrate into the United States, urging industrialization of the South, moving forward with hope instead of looking backward with regret.

H. Grady Hardin was a child of that “new” south, the son of a North Carolina Methodist minister who preached forgiveness and reconciliation. It was a natural to name his son for the great progressive editor. [1]

Grady got his B.A. degree [A.B. back then] from Duke and continued on at Duke Divinity School. Toward the end of his first year in seminary, though, his father suddenly died. Since he and his family lived in a parsonage, and there were no death benefits or retirement accounts in those days, Grady’s mother, and his much younger brother, had no place to live. His brother had a heart condition that required his mother to take care of him 24/7, so there wasn’t even a possibility for her to get a job, not that many jobs were available for women then anyway. So Grady dropped out of seminary and took a pastorate so his mother and brother would have a place to live.

He felt the absence of a seminary education keenly. He knew he would always be behind his peers, so he wrote to his friends who were students in the seminaries, like Union and Yale and Boston, and got their reading lists for all their courses. He read all those books, mostly by borrowing them. He said it was years later that he found out no one else read everything on the lists.

A friend persuaded him to come to Texas. He was appointed to a little church on the edge of Houston. Within ten years, that church had four thousand members. Part of it was that Houston grew in that direction. Part was that Grady was a terrific preacher. He looked the part and he preached the part, and he had a wealth of knowledge from all that reading.

When Perkins School of Theology was looking for a new professor of preaching, Dean Quillian said, “The best and smartest preacher I know is Grady Hardin. We should get him.”

So he did, and it was a great hire. Grady was every bit as good a teacher as he was a preacher. But his hire was not without controversy, and you know why. Perkins is a graduate school. Professors in seminaries typically have three year professional degrees, the equivalent of an MD in medicine, plus a PhD. Grady had only an A.B. That’s the way he was listed in the catalogs. All the other professors had many letters behind their names. His was simply H. Grady Hardin, A.B., Duke University.

I actually had classmates at Perkins who not only refused to take classes from Grady but would not even go to chapel when he was preaching. “His education is inferior,” they said. “He has only an A.B. He should not be on a seminary faculty.”

That mystified me. In the church, surely all God’s children are equals, not in talent or ability, but in status. My guess is that Grady Hardin did more good for the church and the world than any or all of those who wanted a caste system for the church.

There are always those who prefer a caste system, even in a democracy, where all are equal “before the law,” and where merit is the only thing that should separate. It’s part of our original sin, that desire for status, some standing that automatically says we are better than others. Even in the church.

At St. Mark’s UMC, one of our Sunday morning events is breakfast. Last week, I was working the line when our senior pastor came through. “Good morning, Reverend,” I said to him. “Good morning, Reverend,” he replied. If anyone overheard, they might have thought we considered ourselves above the hoi polloi around us. But we were just reminding each other, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, Brother.”


1] Many boys born in late 19th and early 20th centuries were named for cultural heroes, national or local. My Grandma Pond named her sons, Ted and Claude and Jesse and John, for young men from their little town of Francisco, IN who had “made good,” ”gone onto bigger and better things,” “made something of themselves.” That included the Presbyterian preacher’s son, so Uncle Johnny got that boy’s name, Hubert, as his middle name. My mother got confused once, though, and said that her youngest brother was named for the Presbyterian preacher’s dog, which is a much better story, so I try to keep it alive, especially with my cousin, David, Uncle Johnny’s son.

No comments:

Post a Comment