Madonna of the Sawdust Trail

For all the rigors she endured, the evangelist's wife of yesteryear deserves a memorial.

Miriam Wood, author of books and numerous magazine articles, is a regular columnist for the Review.

Dear Shepherdess: Miriam Wood has been researching evangelistic experiences of the Seventh-day Adventist Church during the twenties, thirties, and forties in preparation for a book she is writing and hopes to see published soon. Miriam became so enthusiastic about the fantastic contribution of "evangelistic wives" that we have a series of articles from the overflow of her research to share with you during the year telling of the contributions these wives have made.

Those of you who have served in this era will have many nostalgic thoughts as you recall your own experiences. Those who are younger will enjoy a backward glimpse of our dedicated and hard-working generation and how intensely we believed in the message. In whatever age group you are, may you continue happy in the service of the King. With love, Kay.


The tired old adage that "behind every great man there is a woman" was never more true than in the case of the women behind the young evangelists of the twenties, thirties, and forties. These women were in a very special category; they deserve no less than a monument similar to that of "The Madonna of the Trail."

It is doubtful, however, whether a mere sculptor could capture the total essence of their contribution. An evangelistic wife would have to be shown hitched in double harness with the man she had promised to "love, honor, and ——"; she would have to have a Bible in one hand, a small hot plate in the other, a scrubbing cloth in another, a washboard or washtub in another, a sewing machine in yet another, another two hands placed on the keyboard of an old piano, an empty purse in another—how many hands does that add up to? On her face there must be sculpted a determined smile, and clinging to her skirts several small children. Perhaps this would-be statue could be titled, "The Madonna of the Sawdust Trail." But even such an unlikely memorial could not do her justice. Monuments are cold modes of expression to convey what life for those wives was all about.

At this time in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the usual route into the ministry was by graduation from a four-year college theology course. Along with the planned academic curriculum, the college faculty members took it upon themselves to supervise the selection of the future wives of the young hopefuls. While these faculty members were inordinately interested in all the campus romances—even obnoxiously so, at times—no other group came in for such an avalanche of advice as did the ministerial students. When one of the latter showed up at a Saturday-night program or picnic with the same girl twice in a row, this was the signal for the faculty members to put the hapless girl under the scrutiny of their magnifying glasses, metaphorically speaking. If she were found "wanting" in any way whatsoever, the would-be evangelist very likely would find himself called into the office of the concerned teacher and a painful interview might ensue.

Unbelievable as it may seem in today's late-twentieth-century world, the most important question usually asked about a girl who had gained the attention of a ministerial student was "Can she play the piano?" The reasoning behind this question was simple. There would be no money to hire a pianist for future tent or hall efforts. America, and all the Western world, was in the grip of a severe financial depression during a great deal of this period. In addition, the membership of the world church was small and tended to be com posed of moderate- to low-income families. It was a time of "making do." Therefore, wives were expected to per form at the keyboard with the skill, if not the dash, of a Liberace. Of course the future wives would never receive any salary for their musical prowess, but then, they would never receive a salary for anything they did. On some campuses, a girl who was an outstanding musician would become understandably skittish when a ministerial student out of the clear blue sky indicated a sudden interest in her, especially if this was his senior year and the embryonic minister hadn't "gotten his act together" by having made his selection of a companion.

We would not want to leave the impression that other qualifications were not expected. Certainly whether or not the girl was a "good Christian" came into the picture very decidedly, with "good Christian" usually being equated with complete conservatism in dress and deportment. Girls from moneyed families were usually thought to be poor risks for the ministerial student; they would "naturally" be used to a higher standard of living than the minister could ever provide. Interns usually were paid the princely sum of $18 per week for the first year or so, with a one- or two-dollar-per-week increase in subsequent years.

Obviously this deep interest of the faculty was sometimes helpful, some times not. Female students who had had personality clashes with teachers could count on being "blacklisted" in the matrimonial sweepstakes as far as the ministerial students were concerned. Yet the wonder is not that a few of these marriages were unsuccessful. The wonder is that the great majority of them were highly successful and that the girls who married the eager young evangelists accepted their thankless role with incredible grace and skill and humor.

It is probably hopeless to attempt to portray the way we were then to the young people of the late twentieth century, nourished as many young women are on the philosophy that "you have your career and I have mine" and never the twain shall meet. The twain never do meet, in all too many cases. In the time frame we are discussing, the ministry was our career. Husband and wife were a team. There was no joy so exquisite for a young wife as seeing an evangelistic tent packed to capacity while her hero eloquently and fluently explained the doctrines of the church. Nor was there any agony more intense than sitting at the back and hearing him flounder through a subject that he hadn't yet mastered. They worked and suffered as one.

Many of the wives wrestled with great feelings of guilt, since it was the experience of nearly every one of them to be told at one time or another, "Be careful or you'll be a hindrance to your husband." This was the most deadly threat of all, the most dreaded eventuality. The wives worked tirelessly and endlessly to ensure that this would not be the case. They curbed their tongues. They prayed for help. They withered under criticism and blossomed under praise—in addition to all the other activities we have mentioned. They never received a cent for their work. In addition, they were lucky to have one new dress per year, and might not have had that were it not for kind parents.

Remembering it all, Bobbie Jane Van Dolson says, "Why do ministers choose the wives they do? ... It seems a little frivolous—perhaps daring, or even presumptuous, is a better word—that a newly graduated theology major would take the hand of his 18-year-old-just-turned- sophomore sweetheart and say simply, 'Darling, I love you. Please marry me.' Just like that . . . though really, not 'just like that.' In our case, both Leo and I came from praying families and were familiar with the guidance gained through prayer ourselves. And now, after thirty-plus years of happy living, we know God planned us for each other. But if ever there was an un promising, unsuitable, unthinkable wife for an aspiring young evangelist, I fit the description."

And Bobbie Jane had to run the piano gamut. "The teachers at college recognized my deficiencies from the start. 'My dear fellow,' the men's dean said to Leo, his tone clearly betraying his dismay, 'does she play the piano?' Leo blinked and took a slight tumble from cloud nine. During the months of our courtship he had been so preoccupied with love alone that he really had no idea. 'I don't know,' he said, and then added vaguely, 'but she probably does.' "

She adds, with understandable humor, ' 'And to this day he has never found out that I actually don't!"

But in spite of the well-known hazards of marrying a future evangelist, the girls who became wives felt themselves enormously lucky and favored of fate—and they also felt put upon at times.

"I had always wanted to be a Bible worker and had made such preparations during my college days," says Evelyn Delafield. "But to be so fortunate as to be married to a minister was beyond my happiest dreams!"

She wasn't alone in that feeling. Berniece Gackenheimer felt the same way. "As a girl I used to daydream that some distant relative would find me and share a fortune with me. I welcomed the opportunity to walk the half mile of dusty or muddy road to the mailbox each day, so I could think over this exciting dream many, many times. And God fulfilled my dream, though not in the form I had envisioned. Surely when He took one girl, among eight children, of Scandinavian immigrant parents who homesteaded in the Dakota prairies, and destined her to become a minister's wife, that was the beginning of a miracle in itself! lit wasn't a distant rich relative but my partner for life that I met while at Broadview College, and with him I was destined to share another kind of for tune."

Adding to the list is Nellie Vandeman, who had come to Emmanuel Missionary College (now Andrews University) straight out of a Beloit, Wisconsin, high school and years of being a lukewarm Christian. It wasn't long before she was very much aware of a young ministerial student who was already active in evangelism. Even when it became obvious that her awareness was reciprocated, and when it became even more obvious that a pretty serious interest was developing, Nellie wouldn't admit it even to herself. "How could he ever select me?" she says smilingly today. "Why, I didn't even play the piano!"

The simple act of accepting a date with a ministerial student changed the course of Kay Dower's life. When she was a young nurse at Washington Missionary College (now Columbia Union College), young Reggie asked her to attend a student effort he and others were holding in Capitol Heights. Kay really wasn't that interested, for she'd heard that the nurses had to give health talks sort of to "pay their way." Only when Reggie assured her that she would not have to give a talk did she accept his invitation.

"I attended the meeting with him, and I've been attending meetings with him now for more than forty years," states Kay. Looking back, she sums it up with wry humor: "There have been times when I thought his only needs were for a laundress to wash his clothes and a cook to prepare his meals—and I knew he loved me most when I was out raising the Ingathering goal!" But she wouldn't have traded for a different kind of life. "Even now I enjoy Ingathering," she says, "and have found service, not self, to be so very satisfying in working be side my husband."

Lorraine Henri stoutly insists that she didn't "make" her husband a success, as apparently some wives may feel. "I never doubted that I had married a successful minister-evangelist," she declares. "He was a successful worker at the time of our marriage. He'd been in the ministry for two years at that time. I see very little change in him today from what he was then—always kind and helpful." So Lorraine has not had to wrestle with guilt feelings, since C. D. Henri was already launched when they joined their lives. Others have a different story.

Remembering those beginning years, Louise Carcich says, "Immediately after Ted's graduation from Atlantic Union College we went to the New York Conference office in Union Springs, New York. Preparation for camp meeting was in progress, and we were told to help pitch camp and assist in other ways be fore Ted went on to his first evangelistic assignment." Immediately Louise was given the word that the wives were expected to help the cook prepare the meals for the working crew of preachers. They (the wives) must also get the rooms and tents ready for the campers.

"My assignment was to work with a Bible worker, the two of us women carrying heavy mattresses from the storage house to the cabins and rooms. I thought that I could speed things up by carrying some of the mattresses by myself; I was young and strong, after all. And I really did quite well with the first two."

Alas for the impetuosity of youth! With the third mattress, Louise got her foot caught in a deep hole and suffered a severely sprained ankle. Not only was she incapacitated, but the Bible worker had to stop her own mattress-carrying and find large pans in which to heat water and with fomentation cloths ad minister hot and cold packs to the badly swollen and discolored ankle. Louise would never have expected Ted to stop his manual labor to administer any sort of comfort. Quite the opposite.

"All the while I was crying, with such thoughts going through my mind as 'What a hindrance I am instead of a help. I'm not helping my husband one bit!' " And the more those thoughts crowded into her mind, the more Louise cried.

Another sufferer with "the guilts" was Nellie Vandeman, who felt that though she had had nothing to do with George's having dropped out of school and marrying her—he had already made his decision to get into the work and not wait for his degree—she would be forever blamed if he didn't get back into college where he belonged. "I always felt that unless he finished his education I'd be blamed for it, but George was very strong-minded—still is—and until he made his own decision there was nothing I could do about it," laments Nellie.

But all the worries and the trials faced and triumphed over brought with them in many cases a definite philosophy and a sense of peace. Stronger women emerged, with convictions of their own. They had learned to cope. They could face what had to be faced. And they could still smile.

"Variety is certainly the spice of life to a preacher's wife, and adaptability must be one of her strongest virtues," says Berniece Gackenheimer. "Mine was no exception. As happens to many workers' children, ours had to be hurried through supper and dressed, sometimes in nightclothes, and taken to evangelistic meetings night after night. Baby-sitters were quite out of the question; no funds for such luxuries. Besides meetings, there was the Dorcas work, welfare center, disaster kits, classes in home nursing and nutrition, first aid—and I always cooked for Junior Camp."

Looking back on this formidable lineup, Berniece is fully content. "Riches come in many ways—in our children, for instance, and our homes."

The sense of permanent commitment that most of the wives made to their husbands and their lifework is pin pointed by Lorraine Henri as of para mount value. "There were several of us engaged girls at Oakwood College in 1943. We had sought counsel and advice in order to be better prepared for the role of a minister's wife. There never was entertained a thought that it wouldn't work out, that it wouldn't last forever. It just had to! This was it! This was for life!"

(To be continued).

 

Prayers from the parsonage

by Cherry B. Habenicht

Thoughtful gestures, cordial visits, and cheerful notes take little time as separate acts, but I'm forced to set limits as I interact with more people. Where should I draw the line? Within the church or without? With friends or with strangers? Is it better to concentrate on a few close relationships or to maintain many on a surface level?

Dick is studying the Bible with a family he'd like to invite for dinner. The head deaconess wants me to accompany her on a hospital call. My best friend asks whether I'll visit a lonely widow. And a neighbor suggests I talk with the divorcee down the block. Each request offers potential for new or strengthened associations.

"Wherever there is an impulse of love and sympathy, wherever the heart reaches out to bless and uplift others, there is revealed the working of God's Holy Spirit."—Christ's Object Lessons, p. 385.

May the Spirit who inspires also direct, leading me to people who most need friendly interest. Often least attractive or most insecure, they probably are not individuals whom others flock to help.

Some deeds are nice; others are necessary. Please guide me in the most effective use of my talents. To deliver a loaf of homemade bread to each home or to organize a Story Hour for the neighborhood children? To organize a shower for the new mother or to offer an after noon of baby-sitting? To join the singing group that visits Sunset Manor or to chat personally with each elderly resident?

If only I could reach out to everyone! Since that is impossible, I'll let You tell me who and where, when and what, that I may reveal Your love most effectively.


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Miriam Wood, author of books and numerous magazine articles, is a regular columnist for the Review.

February 1979

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