Faith Works 9-17-16
Decency and decorum and faithful living
My great-aunts, who were a sort of extra uber-grandparents to me and my brothers and sister growing up, had a very precise and certain sense of decorum. Things had to be a certain way, and to not be that way was indecent, "wasn't done."
They surely taught me enunciation (as did my mother, who got some of that from them herself), and table manners, and how to behave in public. Not that my parents didn't tend to such things, but the great-aunts lived in and took us to the big city, where the restaurants we visited and the sights we saw were not what we had in Indiana.
What those extra pieces of silverware were for, and who stood up when or held which chair for whom: they knew all that and how to tip, too.
They were devoted members of churches out of the same religious tradition in which I minister, and while they moved a number of times, they tended to look for congregations of that sort. I probably associate the Disciples of Christ with them more than is strictly accurate, but the truth is that quite a few of us grew up in this denomination surrounded by the spiritual sisters of the great-aunts.
Part of what made us a culture and set of social traditions that attached themselves to a Protestant Christian practice of our faith is that we were a frontier tradition, starting in pioneer communities, moving out with the plough and the log cabin, then sprouting in small towns and rural villages, pushing on into county seats, and only lastly emerging or being planted in urban settings.
One of the great-aunts' books (they lived together most of their lives, elderly maiden ladies who chose schoolteaching when it required the unmarried state, a rule which changed long after they had any thought of changing their state), I have my own copy of today, as a reminder, and a warning. "Evils of the Cities" by T. De Witt Talmage, D.D. This stern parson (his engraving facing the title page) preached a warning to all the fine folk of the countryside who might themselves, or sadly their children might find their way into the "evils of the cities." Primarily, cities were . . . indecent. Indecency, it seems, is the main reason cities were built in the first place, at least according to this book. Indecency around every corner and through each doorway.
Granted, most of the warnings are about East Coast cities, and the book was published in Chicago in 1909; Dr. Talmage served in Brooklyn, which clearly he believed he was keeping a moral and bucolic refuge in the hills beyond New York City proper. Brooklyn was more of a suburb then, the trolleys only just getting there in his era, making the local Trolley-Dodgers a crew worth naming a base-ball club after.
My great-aunts came from the farms and one-room schools of downstate Illinois to Chicago to make their way, and I never heard if the book was given them as a warning on departure, or purchased ironically by them in an old book shop after arriving. But it sums up what marked my mother's family, and in many ways my denomination in that era: social advancement was important, and even necessary, and could be honorable if it was done decently.
To curse and swear and spit and drink were perhaps ways to get ahead in the shop, on the Main Streets and Broadways of growing middle America, but the Christian way of temperance, chastity, and deferred gratification were not only the path of divine blessing, but the surer and more secure path to the social heights as well.
Candidly, decency has been a two-edged sword for us. While Christianity has affirmed its unique gift of chastity since the earliest days of our faith, the larger bundle of "decency" has picked up a great many hats and girdles and neckties along the way. The first big church fight I remember from my youth was over the propriety of putting married women's first names in the directory (i.e. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Doakes, vs. Mr. and Mrs. Joe and Esmerelda Doakes… they settled it by putting Mr. and Mrs. Joe (Esmerelda) Doakes which, of course, satisfied no one).
Cleanliness is next to godliness is the old phrase – also not in Scripture, albeit beloved of John Wesley – there are many practices that are good that are not necessarily an index of faith in God, pro or con. Whited sepulchers, et cetera. I hope you'll bear with me as I carry this theme over into next week's column as well!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he still has a tendency to say "sir" and "ma'am" even when people ask him not to, and let's not even talk about holding doors and chairs. Tell him your ingrained habits at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.