We stand under God’s authority to honor our parents.
As i sit at my desk writing, a number of eyes gaze down on me. They look out from several icons, three pictures of John Henry Newman, and a small ceramic figure of Saint Edward the Confessor.
This is all very august and alarming, this cloud of witnesses. I sometimes fancy that they are saying to me, “What are you doing?” or more narrowly, “What are you thinking?” or worst of all, “What are you?”
But ranged around the alcove where my desk sits is a frieze that is more alarming yet. In it are five huge photographs, and the gentlemen who look down on me from them are my father, his father, his uncle, and his two grandfathers.
Now it would all be very well if the interest here were merely genealogical; it is heady to point to power and glory in one’s forebears: but I do not belong to one of the families that can do much of that; there are no Cabots or Lodges or Winthrops there. So it is not a gallery of the noble and renowned under whose eyes I sit.
Or rather, not the renowned. But not noble? On two accountings at least I ought to reconsider that. First, being a Christian, I stand under the authority of the divine law that enjoins us to honor our fathers and mothers. That may seem an oddity, indeed sheer mindlessness, in this era of orgiastic self-analysis, which eagerly and remorselessly begins by rooting one’s own “problems” in one’s parents’ shortcomings, thereby dismantling any honor supposed to attach to them. But for any serious Jew or Christian, a most solemn interdict lies across this path (see Exod. 20:12). Whoever it may be who bears the responsibility for pointing out a man’s faults, it is not his son.
But also on a second accounting I rescind the hasty comment that these fathers who look down on me are not among the noble. Oh, to be sure, you will not find them in Debrett (the list of peers). But their names and achievements are in a higher register, one kept with complete faithfulness by angels—at least so one might gather from the visions of Saint John the Divine.
What achievements? And in what way am I, middle-aged myself, obliged to pay honor to my fathers under this ancient and divine command?
No doubt a man may do this in any number of ways. Four occur to me: I can remember them; I can give thanks for them; I can follow their example; and I can speak of them, especially to my children.
Once more one feels obliged to protest rather awkwardly here, since the whole enterprise is so embarrassingly anachronistic. How is an activity like this to be kept alive when the thing that is dinned at us all with dazzling and deafening iteration, by every kilowatt and decibel available, is that we cut loose? To be authentically ourselves (we are told), we must not only declare our independence from whatever is past: we must positively disavow it. Whatever our fathers espoused or embodied is to be avoided like the pestilence. We must be “now” people (the adverb has, alas, apparently been dragooned into service as an adjective by the breathless zealots of contemporaneity. Alas for the poor word; alas for English syntax; alas for the sensibility that can spawn horrors like this).
But how shall I remember my fathers? Two of the five gentlemen looking down on me from above my desk I do not remember at all: they are the two great-grandfathers. Of these two, I know almost nothing of my father’s paternal grandfather except that I bear the surname he passed on to his posterity. But that is a heavy thing. What is a name? What is a good name? It is rather to be chosen than great riches.
What makes a name good? As far as the history books go, it would seem to be a matter of the bearer having exhibited some great valor or intrepidity or integrity or service to humanity. For most of us, the only throng witnessing what we are making of our name will be not the jostling multitude with klieg lights and video cameras, but only the host of saints and angels; but when you come down to it, that is as venerable a company as any we will find in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, or even in the audience at the Oscar presentations.
So, what duty do I owe to this man of whom I know next to nothing, this man with the high stiff collar and the thoroughly “manly” profile (that was a Victorian word, since rejected by more timorous generations), and the eyes in which you seem to see great gentleness and great reticence dancing oddly with great wit and humor—an amusing and fugitive business that I can see looking out at me now, more than a hundred years later, from the eyes of my brothers and sisters and their children.
I know more about the other great-grandfather, Henry Clay Trumbull. His eyes twinkle quite unabashedly, and an immense beard cascades down his chest. He was a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and he seems to have had a hand in bringing the Sunday school movement to America during the nineteenth century. Christians who trace their religious lineage back through mainstream evangelicalism to good fundamentalism (the Moody-Wheaton-Dallas-Columbia Bible College-Scofield Bible-Sunday School Times connection, so to speak) know his name, if they are old enough. He was “illustrious” (another nice old word), and people looked to him for strong leadership and faithful teaching, which he gave.
He died some decades before I was born, but he existed for me not only in photographs in family houses but also in the stories kept vigorously alive in the family by the formidable array of grand-dame great aunts, all of whom were his daughters and all of whom seemed to be looking at you through lorgnettes, even though they weren’t. The main thing about this family seems to have been its explosive violence, which was always saved in the nick of time by merriment. Do not imagine bitter shouting matches such as you might see in TV soap operas: rather, there would be loud and frenzied bursts of polysyllabic frustration, vexation, or rage, going off like a Roman candle, and, like a Roman candle, dissipating in a shower of coruscating harmlessness.
Once, for example, when my father’s father was courting the young lady who was to become his wife (my grandmother, that is), he heard a stentorian bellow from upstairs. Hastening up in the greatest anxiety, and expecting the apocalyptic worst, he found my great-grandfather (his father-in-law to be) dancing in rage in his study, demanding to know why books always fell to the left when they flopped over in the shelves. This sort of thing has furnished generations’ worth of hilarity at family gatherings for us, not least because we all see this very volatile elixir boiling through our own veins. But it may be that same elixir, purified and made holy, that made this man so energetic and uncompromising a champion of godliness.
My father’s father, Philip Howard. Sr., I knew until he died when I was 11. He was terribly infirm, having had at least one severe stroke before I was born, and he was almost blind into the bargain. So my recollection of him is of his shuffling about, being cared for with infinite solicitude by my aunt, his daughter. Even to my young eyes, there was a tragic irony in seeing a napkin being tucked at dinner under the chin of this man whom the Christian world seemed to think, and whom I knew, was a great and noble man.
When he laughed, though, I saw decades of hearty male camaraderie, and of his beloved hiking and fly fishing in the mountains of New Hampshire, all coming out in their sheer, hardy good health and vigor. He seemed to move in an almost palpable aura of what I can only describe as the particular sanctity one associates with the orthodox past of Philadelphia Presbyterianism: gentlemanly, civilized, gracious, urbane, sober, and merry.
It is a brand of churchmanship that does not exist in our own time as far as I know, but I am glad to have seen it. My grandfather knew intimately all the early fundamentalists, in the days when there was no stigma other than orthodoxy attached to that word. It was only later that it came to be associated with the rather hectic, tawdry, and semi-Manichaean piety for which it seems to be blamed nowadays.
The fourth picture above my desk is of my father’s uncle, Charles Gallaudet Trumbull. He was the one son in the huge family of daughters over which my great-grandfather reigned. I remember seeing him once or twice in my infancy, but my main impression of him is from family stories, the earliest of which is of his smashing, as a small boy, a closet door to splinters.
One of his sisters had locked him in with the pledge that she would let him out the instant she heard his cry for release. The catch was that, once she had him locked in, she proceeded to run shrieking about the house with her ears stopped up so that she could not hear him, thus technically keeping her word. (They were taught a fierce standard of truthfulness in that family.)
It may be pointed out that his bursting with such violence from this entombment is to be attributed to a terrible plague of claustrophobia which gripped, and still grips, the entire family. I and my daughter still eye tight places nervously. This great-uncle became famous in the sector of American Christendom of which I am speaking on a two-fold accounting. For one thing, he was instrumental in importing from England the so-called Keswick teaching, which also went under the name of the “victorious life.” His two pamphlets, “The Life that Wins” and “The Perils of the Victorious Life,” were influential beyond all calculating in the life of early twentieth-century American evangelical piety. Second, he was for many years the editor of The Sunday School Times.
But this needs a paragraph to itself, since that journal is indistinguishable from, and indeed almost synonymous with, four of the five men of whom I am speaking (the only one not included being my father’s paternal grandfather, a physician whose interests did not lie along these lines). The Sunday School Times began in the mid-nineteenth century, and lasted just over a century. During its heyday it enjoyed an eminence probably unknown by any journal nowadays. It had a reputation for absolute integrity and trustworthiness, and for editorial purity, and for wise and sober Christian common sense that would be as out of date now as the statesmanship of Lord Palmerston.
My great-grandfather was the first editor, his son (my great-uncle) was the second, and my father the third (rather like Henry I, II, and III, whose reigns seemed to span century after century). My grandfather, Philip E. Howard, Sr., was president of the company. It was a dynastic affair to be sure, but no dynasty was ever less “dynastic”: there was nothing imperious or megalomaniacal about any of these men, strong though they were. I really do think that I have been given some glimpse of what is meant by that odd scriptural comment about Moses—the giant Moses—being meek, since I have known men like that—my forebears.
Which brings me to the last of the five, my father, Philip E. Howard, Jr. He was, I think, the meekest man I have ever known. Not the weakest: the meekest. There had been funneled down to him all these generations of orthodoxy and conviction and integrity, plus a passionate love for the outdoors and a wry humor. I suppose almost everything I think about God and the world and existence—especially about contemporary existence—has been shaped by my inheritance, and most especially by my father.
I don’t think he was aware of doing any particular “shaping” other than passing on faithfully, as thousands of generations of godly fathers have done since Abraham, the counsel of God. Or to put it another way: the thing which was supreme in his mind, taking precedence even over his responsibility as editor of The Sunday School Times, which weighed on him cruelly, was raising his six children to love and serve God.
As it happens, he accomplished this—we are all past middle-age now, and all remain within the pale of conservative orthodoxy, which is no credit to us: there is a heritage to which we are accountable. But not for one minute of his life would he have predicted success on this front. He prayed most earnestly for all of us at least twice a day, but first during his morning prayers. These began at five o’clock and included one to two hours of Bible study, Scripture memory work, some systematic reading in Matthew Henry’s Commentary (a seventeenth-century work), and then prayer. He prayed for his responsibilities, his friends, missions, Christians all over the world, and then his family.
We all knew we were prayed for by name. Once in a while if I happened to have tiptoed downstairs early and his study door was open, I could see him kneeling at the chair in his study with a blue afghan over his shoulders. I do not know what images young boys form of their fathers these days, but I for one cannot be grateful enough for this one.
I am sure that a good deal of his influence on his children came in the form of his own tastes and inclinations. To the eye of the 1980s, he would look austere and distinguished, although he never thought of himself as either. He wore dark blue or gray wool three-piece suits, dark ties with tiny dots or designs in them, and long, black, silk socks. He thought of himself as ungainly, and would regale the family with tales of his pratfalls and maladroitness. Social situations made him uneasy: he became edgy in the neighborhood of loud, back-slapping male bonhomie, or too much female burbling.
He loved to sit down at the piano like a great spider and play his favorite hymns, which ranged from William Cowper and Isaac Watts to “Praise Him! Praise Him!” or “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.” His soul turned to ashes in the presence of any sort of religious tomfoolery such as the high jinks of cheap preachers and the treacly words and worse melodies of the “choruses” that dominated fundamentalist piety in the forties (my earliest recollections). We never heard him scoff or rail at anyone’s piety, but we knew that a great deal of what was abroad agonized him.
And yet he remained absolutely faithful to the embattled minority of conservative Protestants known as fundamentalists who struggled and lived for biblical fidelity in those very dark days of the modernist ascendency. I myself would guess that one reason none of his six children has ever been inclined to leave the faith is that we had nothing to despise or rebel against in what we saw in our father (and, I may say, in our mother).
He loved very simple pleasures, too. The days of our upbringing were the decades of depression and war, so there was not much chance for luxury and waste in any event; but the simplicity of his tastes and preferences had a purity and integrity about it that was exquisite. He was an amateur ornithologist, so we all grew up in a world in which black-capped chickadees, winter wrens, tufted titmice, and hermit thrushes were important inhabitants, and you cannot go far astray with that crowd. He could imitate the songs of these birds almost perfectly, and if there are any residual and remote echoes of Eden left in our poor world, it must be these songs. Here again, his influence on our imaginations was not something he calculated.
Early in these brief reminiscences I mentioned four ways in which a man might pay honor to his fathers. In these comments I have touched on the first and the last of these ways, namely remembering my fathers and speaking of them. As for the second and third, those I must try to do myself, day by day. Insofar as I give thanks for these men it is a salutary discipline for my own soul, for it is an offering enjoined on me by the Most High, and all such offerings come back to the offerer multiplied a thousand fold.
The real rub comes in the third item: following their example. Alas. What a farce for me even to presume to place myself in this lineage. Ah—but that is not a matter of choice. My fathers, like everyone else’s fathers, are part of the given data, like the century in which one is born or the color of one’s hair. Well, then, heaven help me to follow their example well enough so that 30 years from now, if my own son has pictures like these five over his desk, he may not be ashamed to add a sixth.
Epithalamion For John And Betsy Genesis 2:21–23
As God removed the archetypal rib
for metamorphosis, John, so did he hone
from you some temporary joys
(from discipline he makes delight)
so that he might
give you back Betsy, bone of your bone.
And Betsy, waking from your
wife-initiation, knowing now truly,
for the first time, who you are,
remember, how, when the Lord God spoke,
that curving, warm bone woke
into a woman!
Lord, let now your word leap down
again, lift the old curse, restore
Eden, and innocence, and say once more
Good! Will you, who made one like
yourself and from that one made two,
join them in one again?
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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