“Every man knows that he understands religion and politics, though he never learned them; but many people are conscious they do not understand many other sciences, from having never learned them.”
Jonathan Swift, paraphrased in the Letter of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son (March 25, 1751)
“Carefully avoid an argumentative and disputative turn, which too many people have, and some even value themselves upon . . . and when you find your antagonist beginning to grow warm, put an end to the dispute by some genteel badinage.”
Letter of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son (Nov. 5, 1765)
Theological and political debates at the Orthosphere are only sometimes argumentative, disputative and warm. The prevailing tranquility in these parts is partly owing to our civility, partly owing to our personal modesty, and partly owing to our prudent use of cooling doses of “genteel badinage.” This tranquility is creditable because, as Swift somewhere said, every man is jealous of his own religious and political opinions. A man who is grateful to be corrected on a practical point in natural science will, as it were, fight like a tiger to defend his religious and political cubs.
Here are a couple of instructive examples from my neighborhood in Texas, a century and more ago. The first appeared in the Navasota Examiner, April 18, 1895, and relates a theological debate that grew overly warm at a church in Iola, twenty miles east of here. The incendiary question was whether grace must be evidenced by works or may be fully present in an unreformed sinner.
“News reached here of a killing at a negro church in Iola precinct in the north end of this county. The preacher, whose name is not given, delivered a sermon in which he said ‘the negroes must quit their lying and stealing and try to act like white folks.’ After the sermon was over one of the church members said: ‘That is no sermon; negroes won’t stop lying and stealing, till there is no negroes.’ In the trouble which followed one negro was shot twice, one shot entering his mouth and the second scattering his brains over the crowd of churchgoers. Up to the time of the shooting the men had been good friends. It is not known whether any arrests have been made.”*
The second instructive example comes from Lyons, which is twenty miles west of here and was at one time home to God’s Church of the Ark of Safety. The story may in fact relate an episode in the early history of that unfortunate church. The theological debate began on Sunday, July 8, 1894, and was renewed the following day. The theological questions over which the parties grew warm was, firstly, what the correct method of Christian baptism might be, and, secondly, the deference and respect due to a man of God. Here is how the story was first told in the Brenham Daily Banner:
“For several days a negro preacher, Sandy Lyons . . . has been at Lyons holding a series of meetings. Sunday evening he baptized his converts and had something to say about the Methodists, to one of the Methodist sisters, who told him to shut up. In reply he made an ugly reply to her from the pulpit, so the men took it up and it looked like war Sunday night, when sticks, knives and pistols were shown.”**
You may be wondering, but I believe it was a coincidence that the preacher and the town shared the same name. A subsequent article reveals the “ugly reply” with which Rev. Lyons answered the objections of the outspoken Methodist sister.
“The particulars of the above case were: as the preacher was immersing a candidate some anti-Baptist women made remarks against his mode of baptism, when he said: ‘Hush up; you haven’t as much sense as a rabbit.’”***
Rev. Lyons may have been alluding to Leviticus 11:6, in which the rabbit is said to be unclean “because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof,” but he was more probably rebuking the anti-Baptist woman in what the Galveston Daily News called “the latest modern style.” Likening a dimwit to a rabbit was indeed a popular simile at the turn of the nineteenth century. This quote from that article in the News throws additional light on the controversy.
“Yesterday Rev. Sandy Lyons was baptizing some parties at a tank [i.e. a stock pond]. His discourse was doctrinal. He was interrupted several times by a woman in the congregation, whom he proceeded to excoriate in the latest modern style. This gave great offense to the woman’s friends. This morning Verge Jones, the husband of the woman, Jim Scott, Paul Taylor, and Doc Harris went for the purpose of interviewing Rev. Lyons. They met him and told him they would like to talk to him. He advised them to stop and talk at a distance. They continued to advance. Lyons drew a pistol and fired four shots, one of which took effect in Paul Taylor’s leg, another struck the horse Taylor was riding. Here the interview ended.”†
The disinterested citizens of Burleson County wisely declined to take sides in what I am no doubt alone in remembering as the Great Religious War of Lyons, Texas. When Rev. Lyons was brought to trial for shooting Paul Taylor and his horse, the jury was hung and the man of God was not. When the obstreperous Methodist women, one Mrs. Ann Jones, was brought to trial for disorderly conduct, she was acquitted on what appear to have been First Amendment grounds.††. The good people of Burleson County were of the opinion that Americans have a Constitutional right to heckle at baptisms, as well as to liken each other’s theological opinions to those of rabbits.
*) That issue of the Navasota Examiner has not survived, but the story was reprinted in the Brenham Daily Banner (April 24, 1895), p. 2.
** Brenham Daily Banner (July 11, 1894), p. 3.
***) This account was first printed in the Caldwell News-Chronicle, but is here extracted from the Brenham Daily Banner, August 12, 1894, p. 3
†) Galveston Daily News (July 10, 1894), p. 5
††) Galveston Daily News (Aug. 15, 1894), p. 2