Questioning the Truths I Was Taught
by Clyde McCulley | 20 February 2020 |
I grew up a Seventh-day Adventist in the south in the 1950s. My mother was a faithful church member. My father was not. I went to a one-room church school for my mom, but each morning I ate bacon and drank coffee for my dad. I guess I was a “backslider” before I even knew there was such a thing.
My mother made sure that I went to church each Sabbath, and then home to “keep the Sabbath” all afternoon. As Sabbath evening approached, we would go into our little town and sit in the car at the curb and watch the clock as the seconds slowly ticked by until the exact minute that the sun went down. Then we jumped out of the car and headed into the stores. We had perfectly “observed” the Sabbath!
We were dirt poor. My mother kept house for a lawyer and his family in order to have money to pay my church school tuition. She always paid her tithe. She tried hard to faithfully follow God’s will. I admired her for her beliefs, but I also had questions. I would ask her about some of the things they taught in Sabbath school and in the church school classes.
Her answer was always the same, “Now Clydie, you should never question the things that are in the Bible.” She told me that the preacher said that the Bible is God’s word and “not one jot or one tittle” has changed. I listened, and tried to believe her. I realized that she was doing her best to keep me grounded.
We were taught Uncle Arthur versions of the Bible stories: Jonah’s living in the stomach juices of a whale’s belly for seven days and surviving, Daniel in the lion’s den and surviving, the Red Sea’s opening up and Moses and the people of God crossing the sea and surviving—and on and on. They were exciting and they entertained me.
I remember asking her if the story in the Bible where it says Jesus turned water into wine really meant wine, or if they mistakenly used that word when they meant grape juice? She didn’t know how to answer, but reminded me again to never question the Bible.
The Lord’s Supper
My mother was elected head deaconess of our church. She was proud to serve the Lord and took the job very seriously.
When the quarterly Lord’s Supper came around, she asked me if I would like to help her prepare for it. I was happy to help. We put metal wash basins in two rooms, one for the men and one for the women. Each basin had a hand towel with it.
Mother and I filled the tiny little glasses with Welch’s grape juice, and had everything ready to go. Sabbath came, and after the sermon everyone went to their respective rooms for the foot washing.
My job was to pour warm water in each of the wash pans. In the ladies room, I noticed that the women did not remove their stockings before they washed their feet. This bothered me. I thought back to the original Lord’s Supper how Jesus washed the disciple’s feet because they were dirty from walking the dusty streets, and not because it was just a ceremony. I also realized that there were no women at the original washing, so I guessed it was okay for them to keep their stockings on.
Later the bread was broken, the “wine” passed to the parishioners. When the service was over, my mother and I had to wash the wine glasses, and the wash pans. There were a few glasses of grape juice left in the serving tray that had not been used. I loved Welch’s grape juice. Being poor, we seldom had money to splurge on bottled grape juice. My mother told me to pour the unused grape juice down the drain. I asked, “Why should we waste it?” She explained that it was sacred, so we couldn’t drink it even though the service had ended. I said, “Mom, I never get to drink Welch’s grape juice and I think the good Lord will not hold it against me if I drink it!” I quickly swallowed the four tiny glasses of juice and Mother got a horrified look on her face. She was sure that I was going to be struck down by lightning! But I was not. Finally she regained her strength and just shook her head. We finished the washing and cleaned everything.
In the 1950s, the South was still very segregated. The SDAs had white and “colored” churches. The “colored” attended their churches, and the whites theirs. Never did the two mix by getting together for anything. I asked my teacher why. She explained that, “The colored Adventist folk sing differently than we do, they kind of jazz it up a bit, and we whites don’t think that is the way the good Lord wants us to sing.”
So that settled it for me. I stayed in the white church and enjoyed “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross” or “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses …and He walks with me and He talks with me.” Those songs certainly did not seem too jazzy, so I was sure the Lord really appreciated them.
How Big Is Heaven?
As I grew older I learned about heaven and angels and how great it would be when the 144,000 of us made it to the pearly gates, where we would become like the angels. They described streets of gold and a city made of diamonds and silver. This did not sound attractive to me at all. I loved hills, woods, streams and dirt. Things made of diamonds and gold weren’t interesting to me as a child.
As for the 144,000, I knew that our little town in Arkansas had a population of about 10,000, so I calculated that heaven would be about fourteen times larger than our town. That did not seem like a lot of space for all the Adventists in the United States, especially when you considered all the poor heathen we prayed for each week who lived in the “foreign fields.” I couldn’t understand how heaven would hold everybody—unless those heathen we prayed for weren’t gonna make it to heaven, and possibly some Adventists wouldn’t, either.
I asked my church school teacher about this, and she said, “Well you had better ask the preacher, because they learn all those answers in the seminary.” I wasn’t sure I could ask him, so I didn’t. I just kept wondering.
Heaven and Sex
One day I asked my teacher about angels. I wanted to know if there were male and female angels. Her answer was that they were neither male nor female. That really confused me.
As I grew a little older, Kenny, my friend, and I were walking down Shady Grove Road near my house in the country when I looked up and saw a small black cloud about the size of a man’s hand in the sky. It scared me nearly to death. I thought, “Jesus is coming!” I just knew there had to be some sin that I had not confessed in my prayers.
But there was one thing that I was more concerned about than some forgotten sin. It was sex! I had been hearing about this thing called sex, and I knew that it was something between a husband and wife. I was eleven years old and had not experienced sex! I did not want to go to heaven and play harps all day while knowing that I had been denied having even one sexual experience. I wondered how there could be a just God if he was going to make 144,000 of us Adventists all sexless!
I was relieved when the cloud suddenly disappeared and the sky was again a beautiful blue.
The next day I asked my teacher about my concerns about not having sex in heaven, and she almost died! She turned forty shades of red, and again told me to ask the preacher. I could not tell from her expression whether she was angry with me or about to have a heart attack! (The teacher was an older, never-married woman; in retrospect, I’m not sure she fully understood what I was asking about.)
We were also taught that someday, Armageddon was going to happen. This scared me, so I paid close attention. The preacher told us about Armageddon in church services, as well as in evangelistic meetings he held in a large tent. I think he thought this would scare some to Jesus. He also gave out free Bibles to those who attended his tent meetings. He succeeded in convincing six sinners to come down to the front of the tent and accept Jesus and be baptized. Now our little church had six more members. Hallelujah! said the congregation! We all headed for the river for the baptism.
My older brother and his wife invited Kenny and me to attend the circus, which had just arrived in our town. I was excited to go. This was going to be a big event for me, something that I had dreamed about doing some day.
The circus had a large three-ring tent that held many people. During the lion and tiger act, the wind suddenly started to blow hard, and the tent began to shake. All of a sudden, the tent lifted several feet off the ground and fell on the crowd. The lights went out and everyone started screaming, fearful that they were going to be eaten by a lion. Somehow Kenny and I were able to crawl out from under the heavy tent canvas and get under a circus truck parked alongside the tent. We were praying like the dickens for the Lord to save us. Eventually my brother found us and we headed home.
The next day, I was excited to tell my teacher and the other school kids about my frightening experience. My teacher got a concerned look on her face, then went to the bookshelf and took out Ellen White’s book, Education. She read to me about how Jesus does not want you to attend places where the “worldly” attend. She then said, “Jesus was teaching you a lesson by having the tent blow down so you will understand your responsibility as a Christian!”
I was blown away by her remarks. I felt a horrible feeling of guilt because I had caused the people who attended the circus pain and sorrow, as well the big expense the circus had sustained because of my foolishness. I didn’t realize I had such power.
Her response has left a bad taste in my mouth to this day.
Dinosaurs and Pictures
A neighbor friend and I were visiting the town library, where he showed me a book about dinosaurs. There were illustrations of what they might have looked like, as well as photographs of actual fossil footprints in slabs of stones in Texas.
This was something new to me, so the following day I asked my teacher about whether there were dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. She looked at me kind of funny and asked why I wanted to know. I told her about seeing the illustrations. She told me they were just drawings from man’s imagination. I told her that I saw photographs of huge fossilized dinosaur footprints. I asked her if dinosaurs were created on the sixth day of creation too, and if so, where are they now? She had no idea how to answer. I tried to help her by telling her that maybe Noah did not let the dinosaurs know that he was loading the boat and they all drowned. I could see that her head was reeling, so I let the subject go. (I had no idea that I was on the verge of questioning the six-day creation account.)
As a child, I loved art, and I was creative. I got a new set of paints for Christmas. The next Sabbath, I told my Sabbath School teacher about them and that I was going to spend Sabbath afternoon making beautiful paintings. She looked at me and said, “God does not want you doing something like that on the Sabbath.” I was stunned. I said, “The Bible says you should not work on the Sabbath; it does not say anything about painting beautiful pictures.” She just looked at me and said nothing, but I am quite sure that under her breath, she was muttering, “Lord, help me to save this wayward boy.”
There were a number of things I questioned when I was a child. I really wanted answers. I know the teachers meant well and tried their best. Most of my teachers (we had a different church school teacher each year in our one-room schoolhouse) did not have a lot of education. Things were simpler then, and that was the way most church members wanted it. They thought it was best not to confuse things by using “forty-four dollar words.”
I am sure that some of them were frustrated with me, but I have forgiven them.
Clyde McCulley taught art in Adventist colleges from 1967 to 1980. He is author of The Boy on Shady Grove Road, a humorous memoir of growing up in the Arkansas countryside and attending Adventist one-room schoolhouses. He lives with his wife, Susan, and their cat, Shadow, in Portland, Maine. His website is clydemcculley.com.