Post Road Magazine #12

The Faith of Our Fathers

Rebecca Dickson

Anyone who grew up in the American West knows that tumbleweeds really do exist, and they really do tumble. The unwinking sun bleaches them a bright blond, and they are barbed and stinging to a kid’s bare legs. They leave their mark. But the metaphoric tumbleweeds of the West, its thousands of wanderers who followed rumors of fortunes at first, and later just pursued jobs that paid a decent wage, left a far more permanent mark than any dried-up plant. My grandfather was of a breed of particular tumbleweed well-known in the West. Mining, farming, and logging drew dreamers and laborers westward, and many people provided services to them, be it by selling them an ax, a can of beans, or a bed with a woman in it for the night. But my grandfather wanted none of this. He followed the other tumbleweeds in order to save them. He cleaved to the hard-line religions that ebbed and flowed with the movement of labor in the developing West, thus his redemption and glory lay not in lucre, but in saving other souls. His faith was unrelenting. It echoes to this day, more than 60 years after his death.

In 1887, my great-uncle Henry left the river bottoms of Pike County, Illinois and started walking west. He left because he was dying of tuberculosis. He had heard that the rarefied air of the West would cure him, so he joined a wagon train and walked to Colorado—there’s never been any mention of a horse. He took advantage of the Homestead Act and the protection from Natives provided him by the U.S. Government and took up a 160-acre plot on Colorado’s eastern plains. And he didn’t die of tuberculosis. A few years later he convinced his father, my great-grandfather, to come west as well, for he also had tuberculosis. Great-grandfather Robert Dickson did come to Colorado, moving much of his family with him, including my grandfather. All of these other Dicksons also had tuberculosis, and all of them got well once they came to Colorado. Miracle of the air? Miracle of God? Unknown. This is known: one Dickson returned to Illinois—his beloved refused to be uprooted for vague promises of salvation in the West. The newlywed couple died together of consumption about 1900.

Great-grandfather Robert took up dirt-farming, as did most of his sons. They grew winter wheat and other crops underneath the extreme Colorado skies. Conditions were harsh, and many homesteaders lost the faith and headed back east. When they did, they often sold their claims to the homesteaders willing to stick it out. My great-grandfather and most of his sons were willing to stick. Robert established his own homestead plot and then bought many other homesteaders’ claims, as did most of his

sons. All they had to do was to stay put—to prove up—and they would be awarded the title to the land after five years. Five years passed and they were still sitting on the claims, so they became the owners of sizeable chunks of farmland at dirt-cheap prices. Their livings were made, especially that of my great-grandfather, for he bought up the most claims. He became an upstanding citizen in the area, and Uncle Henry, his eldest son and the first Dickson to venture westward, eventually became a county commissioner.

Most of Robert’s sons did this. My grandfather Edgar Dickson did not. His father and brothers were farmers and happy enough with that work. My grandfather never cottoned to farming; his calling was to the Lord, and his lord was a more demanding one than many. Edgar Dickson joined the Pillar of Fire church, an evangelical offshoot of Methodism that apparently required church members to turn over all their property to the church. Great-grandfather Robert wasn’t about to see his hard-earned money fall into the hands of charlatans, which was his opinion of the Pillar of Fire. So in his will he cut off Edgar with only 25 dollars—and he gave Edgar no property. Robert died in 1908. Back then 25 bucks bought more than it does now, but it certainly wasn’t enough to rear a family, and by 1908 my grandfather had married and his first child had arrived. His first wife died, and then he married my grandmother, another devout evangelical. Before long there were seven more children. And that 25 dollar inheritance was long gone.

My grandfather’s central profession was as a minister, but it paid so little —if any?—that he was forced to do odd jobs on the side. He and my grandmother ran a small dairy exchange—they’d pay farmers for their milk and sell it to the local community. They also ran a post office for a while, all this in Heartstrong, Colorado, a town that no longer exists. They never made much money to feed those eight kids. But on Sundays my grandfather would preach the gospel boldly and confidently.

In about 1925, my grandfather up and moved his family to Denver, a couple hundred miles to the west across the plains. The Pillar of Fire Church had a large establishment in Denver. There he and my grandmother took up mission work, trying to spread the gospel according to their church. By the late 1920s, economic pressures on agriculture began to undermine farming in Colorado. Poor saviors like my grandparents, who depended on the largesse of others, got hit especially hard as the economy began to shrink. So a family struggling to make ends meet became a genuinely impoverished one.

My grandfather’s reaction to this was to deepen his faith. He continued his ministry and began to travel the West, trying to save the lost lambs. He moved the family to Chugwater, Wyoming and preached there for a year. He moved the family again to Ogden, Utah and took on the daunting task of convincing Mormons that their notion of god was all

wrong, that his church had the only real key to heaven. After several years there, Edgar took up an interest in Aimee Semple McPherson, an evangelical minister who traveled the West in the 1920s and ’30s by automobile, preaching the gospel. Edgar wanted to pack up the family and follow her as she crisscrossed the West. That’s when my grandmother stood up to her husband. She told Edgar to go, to follow Aimee Semple McPherson if he wished. She would stay put with the children, and she’d be there when he came back.

I’ve always wondered how that conversation unfolded, given that both of them believed it God’s plan that woman should be subservient to man. But maybe my grandmother forgot that rule in the chaos of uprooting her large brood of children one or two times per year.

In any case, my grandfather let his wife have the day: they stayed put for several more years in Utah.

As there were many souls to be saved in the 1930s, my grandfather continued to preach the gospel as he understood it. His was a harsh understanding of the Lord, but it was straight-forward. There was good and there was bad, and most humans were of the bad lot, so of course they were headed toward hell. Drinkers, carousers, and non-believers of all stripes were equally doomed. This is the central message that my grandfather delivered to listeners day in and day out. For it wasn’t just on Sundays that he expressed the Word. By then the Depression had left millions of Americans homeless and hungry. My grandparents ran a mission to save a portion of the homeless and hungry who passed through Ogden. For the price of listening to my grandfather’s sermon, they received a bowl of soup, a cup of coffee, and a cot. There were plenty of customers. How many converts? Unknown.

What is known is how little financial reward the Lord vouchsafes to his chosen ministers of the Word. One would think that the Lord God would reward his most faithful lambs more richly for their devotion. I’ve wondered whether my grandfather ever pondered this, for there could not have been a more faithful lamb than he. By all accounts he believed deeply in what he was saying; by all accounts his sermons shook the timbers of the halls where he preached. And by all accounts he was an impoverished man, his family only slightly better off than the down-andout men who wandered into the mission at night, drawn by the aroma emanating from a kettle of soup.

Starting at the age of five of so, my dad tried to help. This was when the family first moved to Denver. He would search the unpaved streets for bits of cardboard or string. He would turn them into a junk dealer who would give him a couple pennies for his efforts. My dad, whom I like to imagine as a chubby five-year-old, though a surviving photo and the family’s poverty belie this, would trot home and give the money to his mother. And on certain days, my five-year-old father made more money than

his father did. When he was a bit older, my dad did odd jobs and sold newspapers. He was one of the boys yelling out the headlines on street corners, hoping better-off readers would be interested in the news. My dad would continue to do this through his teenage years. I have inherited the diaries he began to write at age 15 in 1935. By then, my dad was often making more than his father did—and giving a good portion of his wages to his parents in order to help feed his six younger brothers and sisters.

Throughout all of this, my grandfather’s sermons continued.

When my dad was 16, and when the family had moved back to Denver—my grandparents took over yet another mission—he got an even better-paying job than selling newspapers: he began to work at a dairy. And suddenly he was making far more than his father was, so much so that he could no longer justify going to school. The family of nine (the eldest daughter had left home by then) often did not have enough food to eat—this the diaries make clear. And so my dad left school and began to support the family.

And still the sermons continued.

All of his adult life, my father would shake his head when considering his own father: he never understood how a man with so many dependents could be willing to work so hard for so little financial gain. He never understood how his father could allow his own kids to go hungry in order to try to save the strangers who shuffled into their mission each day. My dad made sure his kids had enough. I never once had to go to bed hungry. As a kid, my dad often did.

All his life my dad dreamed of being rich. Nothing unusual there, not in an American. But he wanted to do more than merely pay off the bill collectors—he wanted to provide scholarships for needy kids, to show up at some skinny poor kid’s house on Christmas Eve with a sack full of presents. He wanted to find a kid who was selling newspapers on the street and buy all the papers, then give the kid a big tip. He wanted to do this long after it was illegal for children to hawk newspapers on street corners; he dreamed of doing something like this until the last weeks of his life, when that dream was long impossible. This because my dad shared some traits with his father—he was in part a dreamer who wanted to save humankind. But he was also a pragmatist who knew he must attend to this world we know here on Earth. I don’t know where this pragmatic side came from—perhaps in some measure from his mother, for though she shared her husband’s lofty dreams, she did have the sense to see that wandering the West with a large family made a bad situation worse. Roots, she must have realized, would help. And though they never did stay put in one house long—my father said they moved to avoid paying the rent, and his diaries make clear that he wasn’t kidding—they didn’t leave Denver again after 1935. The rest of the West would have to save itself.

My grandfather’s sermons continued for the duration of his life. But they failed to have the desired effect on his own kids. Though he thundered throughout their childhoods, all eight of his children rejected his evangelical Christianity. Of those who had any alliance to a church, they attended one so different than their father’s that if a man can spin in his grave, my poor grandfather must most certainly be a whirling dervish. Only one of his children, after decades of heavy drinking and two children by different and unknown men, joined a church my grandfather would have respected. My aunt embraced fundamentalist Christianity and sobriety in the last years of her life. Up until then, a bar was her place of worship.

One of Edgar’s sons committed suicide after years of difficulties; he did several stints in mental hospitals and jail for abusing his wife and child. Another son turned out to be a homosexual who embraced atheism when young—that he was also the most generous and the most financially successful of all Edgar’s kids certainly would not have excused his abominable lifestyle in his father’s eyes. Another son abandoned his first family with a lie (he had his mother tell his wife that he had been killed), leaving two pre-school-aged boys without a provider and with a woman he claimed was a prostitute; he also was an alcoholic, and he was a mean drunk. Another son had a good soul, but he also was drawn to the bottle; more damningly, he could not abide his father’s notion of the Lord and eventually joined a New Age church. Two other daughters left the state when young, effectively divorcing themselves from their God-fearing family.

My dad did not reject the religion of his father until later, after his father had died. While in his 20s, my dad studied to be an evangelical minister, too. And he also wandered the country a bit. He did not abandon his offspring and never embraced the bottle or any other crutch. He lived a life he could countenance as he neared his end, and he faithfully supported his kids—financially when they were young, and emotionally until the day he died. So I was lucky. My grandfather would say that the Lord saved me. I don’t see my grandfather’s lord in my salvation at all.

My dad rejected his father’s faith while he was in college. He had spent two years in the military during the Second World War; he returned with the right to buy a house with the GI Bill and the right also to go to college with government help. My dad figured that an education was worth having, so he got his GED, then enrolled at Denver University. In 1949 or so, in a science class, a discussion about evolution arose. My father, the good son of a Pillar of Fire minister, declared that evolution was wrong; the world was 6000 years old and no older, and we humans did not descend from chattering monkeys. His science teacher argued this for a bit, then challenged my dad to an in-class formal debate on the topic. He told my dad to prepare for the event, which would happen the following week. My dad did his research—for hours he poured over the

available books and articles on evolution; he also carefully read the Bible’s account of creation along with various religious treatises. On the day of the debate, my dad was designated the first to speak. He stood up in front of the class, then announced that after carefully looking into the matter from both sides, he couldn’t defend his father’s story anymore, that is, he no longer believed that the Earth and humanity came to be as the Book of Genesis says it did. He didn’t believe the world was 6000 years old. This Earth is as old as the theory of evolution predicts it is, he reported, and we evolved from apes. And then he sat down.

I’ve often wondered how the other students in the class and their teacher responded to that announcement. My dad said that when he first argued with this science teacher, he was fully convinced that he was in the right, that the Lord God had created the world in a week several millennia ago. And I know for a fact that my dad could argue persuasively and at length. Those present in the class that day must have been flummoxed by the swing from firm and articulate conviction to an entirely opposite stance. I asked my dad about the shift several times: what prompted it to happen so suddenly? He would shrug. He couldn’t remember—when I asked such questions, the event was decades behind him. Perhaps it was the growing troubles with his wife, the first woman my dad married; their proper Christian marriage would dissolve a few years later, after his god-fearing evangelical wife left him numerous times. Or perhaps my dad was just getting older—he would have been 29 at the time, already a father of two and putting himself through school without help from anyone but Uncle Sam; maybe his father’s authority was losing its moral force.

In any case, my dad divorced himself from his father’s booming and dooming apocalyptic sermons. By the 1960s he had embraced a tolerant version of Christianity with the central tenet that one really should do unto others as one would be done to, thus my father’s religion did not condemn anyone. So there were no thundering words haunting my childhood.

Not so with my dad. He would remember his father’s words and images all his life. In his final weeks, I asked him what he remembered of his dad, for as my dad was dying, he was of course thinking of his life and family: what was his favorite memory of his father? He said he didn’t have one. I was surprised by this; my dad had never spoken ill of his father before. But then I realized that he had never spoken lovingly of his father, either. Over the years he had said that he respected his father’s dedication, but could not respect his parenting method—which was to leave his eight kids to their individual fates while he ministered to the souls of strangers. When my dad said he had no favorite memory of his dad, I thought of my deceased uncle, my dad’s brother who could be a mean drunk but was a pretty good guy when he left the booze alone; at a holiday party years before, when I asked my uncle about his father, he had

laughed. He said that the old man sure knew how to beat sense into his kids. He said nothing else of him. My dad often talked of a trick he learned while young: whenever his dad reached for his belt in order to deliver punishment to his eldest son, my dad made sure there was a book hidden in the seat of his pants. He would grin conspiratorially as he confided this to me, and wink. But I never needed the advice; my dad never used a belt on me.

In my grandfather’s defense, my dad said his own father was an exceptionally honest man who was loyal to his wife and mission all his life. And my dad’s cousins loved their Uncle Edgar. He supposedly brought them candy when he visited them on their farms in eastern Colorado, and he was full of jokes and laughter.

But my dad said nothing of his father’s laughter to me—not that day when I asked about his favorite memory of his father, nor during any of the taped interviews I did with my dad in which he talked about his life. “So if you don’t have any good memories of your father,” I asked of my dad that day as he was dying, “what do you remember of your father?” “I remember his sermons because they scared the hell out of me.” As my dad said this, he was leaning forward in an armchair, his elbows on his knees, his chin sunk on his hands. His eyes were focused on the floor.

My dad then told again the story of being five years old or so. His family was still living in eastern Colorado. One evening the skies lit up into a glorious red and gold sunset; my little daddy was at first awestruck by its beauty. And then a horrible thought occurred to him, or perhaps his father happened to be giving a sermon, for he suddenly knew that the world was coming to an end. It had to be, for all the conditions were just as his father so loudly and frequently predicted they would be—the sky would be of vivid hues, on fire with brimstone as the good Lord ended existence for all humankind. The many sinners and unbelievers would soon be cast into eternal torture, the few saved would rise to see their god. My little daddy began to scream uncontrollably and ran toward the house, trying to escape the wrath of his father’s god. His mother rushed outside to see what was the matter, and he wailed that the world was coming to and end, that God was fulfilling his promise. My dad was inconsolable that night. I imagine that only the sun’s arrival the next morning, perhaps with birds singing, calmed him.

Perhaps that memory, that perversion of the meaning of a glorious sunset, helped my dad surrender the excesses of his faith during his science class in 1949.

When my dad last told me this story, he had less than three weeks to live. At age 84, this was his remaining memory of his father. There apparently was no other memory—fiery sermons were all that was left of a man so impassioned by his faith. “There must have been humor to your father,” I said that day to my dad. “You’ve got a fine sense of humor, and

there must have been love, for you’re so loving.” But my dad shook his head. That ’s not what he remembered. Which left me wondering this: on that day when a five-year-old came rushing inside screaming of impending doom because he saw a pretty sunset, did it give my grandfather pause? Did his son’s terror prompt him to soften the imagery in his next sermon?

And another question of this man who was so hell-bent on salvation: would he have wanted to be remembered that way?

But maybe he would have. Fear is one of the most powerful of all emotions—only hatred, anger, and, on a good day, love can unseat fear. To leave a terrifying legacy—perhaps that was the goal. Terror can prompt faith, redemption. That it also can cause mayhem and warfare perhaps seems unimportant. In any case, terror is remembered.

Whatever my grandfather’s intent, whatever the depth of love for his family, the booming sermons had their effect. The body long gone, the missions long closed, the fear-inspiring words remain. •

Rebecca Dickson has recently received two awards from the Sierra Club for her writing, editing, and activist work. She has also published on Jane Austen, Kate Chopin, and the Second World War. She teaches writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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