Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (6/19) — Chapter Six, Rose (4/4)

TIMBERLEY HAS COVETED this wild white rose ever since the first time we saw it a couple of years ago on a walk around the block. (Photo by Timberley G. Adams)


BOONE, N.C. (Nov. 12, 2019) – We got our first measurable snow this morning in Boone. When we left our Rutherwood house around 7:30 a.m., icy granules had just started bouncing off the Gray Goose. By the time we reached the Boone city limits a few minutes later, honest-to-goodness snow was falling.

We’d left home about an hour early because for the first time in years we didn’t have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to plow through the snowy roads around Boone. The Gray Goose is front-wheel drive, with no snow tires or chains—which weren’t needed here this morning, though one should always be prepared.

We arrived on campus earlier than usual so that we wouldn’t have to trudge up the hill to the Education Building in the 1-4 inches of snow that had been forecast. Where do we park? It doesn’t matter. Parking anywhere at ASU requires an uphill trek to wherever you might go. We just didn’t want to do it in too much snow.

I STOPPED TO REST by this sweetbriar rose Tuesday morning as we trudged up the hill to campus in the first real snow of the season.

Trudging anywhere in any type of weather is hard enough for me nowadays—even on level ground. At least the route we take from our usual parking lot on King Street passes a patch of wild sweetbriar roses that sprang up along the sidewalk halfway between our minivan and our campus destination up the hill.

That’s usually where I tire out—there beside the wild roses, whose small pink blossoms are long gone, but whose thorns and hips are easy to see. “Ah, wildness!” as my spiritual buddies Henry Thoreau and Waldo Emerson might say. Or was that dramatist Eugene O’Neill? Or the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam?

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, / A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness— / Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” That’s from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat. It’s the young protagonist’s favorite poem in O’Neill’s play Ah, Wilderness!

By the way, the large plot of Knock Out hybrid rosebushes growing next to the King Street parking lot still has a smattering of red in it, though the blossoms there are faded and frost-bitten now. In their prime, those roses were pretty enough, I guess, but they had no fragrance, no airy sweetness, no soul.

I much prefer our purple heirloom rose, with its delicate beauty and tender fragrance. Or Dolly Parton, our yellow hybrid tea rose, who doesn’t smell as good as her namesake, I’m sure, but is almost as pretty in her own rosy way. Or the big white blooms of the wild rose we pass on Walker Street in Morganton.

Appropriately enough, quiet, dead-ending Walker Street—one street over from our busy Morehead—is where we walk when we take a notion to get some exercise. We walked around the block a couple of weekends ago—well, Timberley walked, I trudged, as usual—and we checked on that wild white rose.

Timberley has had her eye on that rose and has schemed ways to get a rooted cane or cutting of it ever since two summers ago when we happened to pass while it was in bloom. On our latest visit, we met a neighbor lady who had already rooted cuttings from that very bush and offered us cuttings next spring.

Neither she nor Timberley knew for sure exactly what kind of wild rose it is. I was praying that it was a rambling rose, because I knew that this last part of the “Rose” chapter would deal with wild roses, and that it would be easy to free-associate a rambling rose with so many things—songs, movies, whatever.

But, no, it couldn’t be that easy. Nothing ever is. Back home, I did some research about wild roses and learned that the one growing on Walker Street is probably a climbing rose, which has large, white, single blossoms. The ones that Timberley photographed two summers ago looked so beautiful and smelled so soulfully sweet.

Ramblers. Climbers. Wildness. How do I relate those things to life, or, more specifically, to the “higher laws” of living? And, for that matter, what are life’s higher laws? Am I talking about religion? If so, am I referring to organized religion or personal spirituality? Or do higher laws come from our government?

As a Baptist minister’s son, I tend to think of everything in terms of right and wrong, but I also look at those same things in terms of fairness and unfairness—separate levels of personal judgment that often conflict, especially where religious teachings are concerned. What is right sometimes isn’t what is fair.

Different people have different bottom lines. Thoreau said, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Now, I certainly want to be loved—by at least one person, anyway. And I want enough money to live without difficulty. I don’t particularly care about fame. And, yes, truth is most important.

But the easiest way to piss me off is to treat me unfairly. So I guess fairness—not justice, necessarily—but fairness, in a Golden Rule sort of way, is my bottom line. To treat others as you want to be treated is part of every major world religion and, at the same time, transcends religion. It is pure existentialism.

REV. JOHN ADAMS, my father, in the pulpit of his second pastorate, Asheville Street Baptist Church, in the mid-1950s.

Well, it seems I’ve made a tangled-up mess of this essay about wild roses. I had intended to write about how pastors like my father who served in small churches and, better yet, Methodist preachers who don’t stay anywhere very long are like wild roses—like ramblers or climbers, anyway. Just like the rest of us.

I’d wanted to write about Dad’s 25-year ministry, which began in the early 1950s at Mountain View #2 Baptist Church near Morganton and ended in the late 1970s at Piney Grove Baptist Church near Lenoir. In between, he pastored Asheville Street Baptist Church in Morganton, Towanda Community Church in Towanda, Ill., Zion Bible Church in Zion, Ill., and Brookwood Baptist Church in Morganton. So was Dad a rambling man?

Even though he drove Ramblers, Dad probably didn’t see his ministry that way—as rambling from one pastorate to another. He saw each calling as just that, God’s call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to small evangelical churches in North Carolina and Illinois. He saw himself as a fundamentalist Christian and even attended the inaugural World Congress of Fundamentalists in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1976.

WALKER TOP BAPTIST CHURCH, overlooking Morganton from high atop Burkemont Mountain, was established in the mid-1800s.

I’d seen some photos on Facebook of Walker Top Baptist Church, posted by an old friend who as a teen used to ride his motorcycle to the tin-roofed log church and cemetery located at the crest of Burkemont Mountain in the South Mountains of Burke County. The Facebook photos reminded me of the Christian movie Sheffey, about 19th-century Methodist circuit-riding preacher Robert Sheffey, a definite rambler.

Rev. Sheffey, called the “Saint Francis of the Wilderness,” had served in the mountains of Appalachia not far from here. My connection to him, though, was that the feature film Sheffey, based on Jess Carr’s biographical novel The Saint of the Wilderness, was released in 1977 by Unusual Films, the cinematic arm of Bob Jones University, where I briefly attended that same year. Sheffey was a big deal at BJU. I was told that Unusual Films had used Walker Top Baptist Church as a model for one church in the film.

Around that same time I actually knew a Methodist preacher who had started his ministry as a circuit-rider, though in the mountains of northeastern Georgia. He was Dr. Frank Moorhead, a retired United Methodist Church pastor and district superintendent who in the mid-1970s had moved from Atlanta to the Yadkin Valley community in Caldwell County. Not only did he attend Piney Grove Baptist Church while my dad was there, Dr. Moorhead also gave my high school class’s baccalaureate sermon in 1977.

DR. FRANK MOORHEAD (left) and Principal Kenneth Roberts watch the Class of 1977 file into their seats at the school’s June baccalaureate service. (Hibriten High School yearbook photo)

According to The Memoirs And Valley Thoughts Of Frank Moorhead, published by The Printing House of Lenoir in 1983, Dr. Moorhead’s ministry began in 1934 with the three small churches of the Ousley Chapel Circuit in Dekalb County, Ga., and ended in 1974 as director of the North Georgia Conference Council on Ministries. During his 40-year career, Dr. Moorhead pastored three of the largest Methodist congregations in Georgia—LaGrange Methodist Church in LaGrange, where he received his honorary doctoral degree from LaGrange College, a Methodist institution; Peachtree Road Methodist Church in Atlanta; and Marietta First Methodist Church in Marietta, an Atlanta suburb. Rambler? Climber? Both?

I should say here that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a rambler or a climber, whether we’re talking about wild roses or preachers or, oh, I don’t know, ordinary people (as if ministers aren’t regular human beings). What’s the old saying—the cream rises to the top? And then there’s, we rise to our level of incompetence, as Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull explain in the 1969 best-seller, The Peter Principle. I am in no way trying to suggest that moving up any career ladder means the climbers are in any way insincere or undeserving, or that workers who, by choice or not, ramble without added reward from one field to the next are any better or worse than their more prominent and more influential peers.

To be fair, our words and actions are the best outward measures of our true intentions in any endeavor, whether personal or professional, but only if those same words and actions are, as the sworn oath goes, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In other words, we can’t judge anyone else’s soul, only our own. Public words and deeds, however, are another story altogether. That touches on the law.

In my research over the past week, I learned about another Methodist minister who—like Rev. Sheffey, Dr. Moorhead, and also my father, a Baptist—served a number of congregations, not just one or two churches over a long ministry. And, oddly enough, I found this man, a former pastor of my home church, through the words of my hometown’s most famous son, Sen. Sam Ervin of Morganton.

LONG BEFORE THE WATERGATE hearings made Senator Sam a household name, he was one of Morganton’s favorite sons. He gave this signed photo to my father-in-law, Nat Gilliam.

Another old friend referred me to the Southern Oral History Program at the UNC Center for the Study of the American South. I searched the program’s extensive database and found the 14-page transcript of an interview that author Ben F. Bulla did with Senator Sam on May 3, 1981, for a biography of former U.S. Sen. B. Everett Jordan of Saxapahaw. Jordan, it turns out, was a son of the Rev. Henry Harrison Jordan, who was pastor of First Methodist Church in Morganton from 1910-1914. The interview is interesting even though it deals a good bit with politics.

Besides the fact that the two future senators were boyhood chums in Morganton—something I didn’t know until I read this interview—I enjoyed Sen. Ervin’s comments about Rev. Jordan: “Everett’s father, as I understand, studied law, and was licensed to practice law, and practiced law for a little while then felt he was called to preach, and abandoned the law for the ministry. He was a very fine preacher, very eloquent. He preached here for four years, like most Methodist ministers, then moved on.”

After telling a humorous story about teenager Everett Jordan getting caught shooting craps at the local recreation center, Sen. Ervin guessed that his friend’s minister father probably never learned about the indiscretion, adding that Rev. Jordan “was not, to any great degree, a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher; he had a tendency to preach on the kinder aspects of religion, like love and services to others and things like that, instead of trying to scare the devil out of people.” Sen. Ervin held Rev. Jordan in high regard.

MORGANTON FIRST METHODIST pastors are honored in a gallery of photos outside the church fellowship hall.

In February 1962, three decades after Rev. Jordan’s death, Sen. Ervin entered into the Congressional Record a lengthy newspaper article about the minister and his four sons—Frank, Everett, Charles and Henry—whose “impact … on education, government, and religion will be felt forever in our country,” Ervin said. Published in the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel in October 1961, writer Chester Davis noted that Rev. Jordan filled Methodist pulpits in what was called the Lenoir Circuit, then in Ramseur, Kernersville, Walkertown, Mocksville, Henrietta, Marion, Morganton, Salisbury and finally Gastonia.

“Henry Harrison Jordan believed that the Lord helped those who first helped themselves,” Davis wrote. “He believed in hard work. When he built a church or a parsonage … he was the man who first climbed the ladder and started to drive the nails. He figured that once he started, his congregation would come up the ladder and join him.” So the good Rev. Jordan was both a rambler and the finest kind of climber.

Through the magic of technology, I visited the graves this afternoon of all four ministers—Rev. Adams, Dr. Moorhead, Rev. Sheffey and Rev. Jordan—and I read their respective tombstone epitaphs: “Absent from the body / Present with the Lord” – “A Methodist preacher for 60 years” – “Fully consecrated to God’s service, he preached the gospel without money and without price and has entered his reward. The poor were sorry when he died.” – “He lived not for self but others.” Find A Grave is a great resource.

The free website even let me leave a virtual flower at each grave. I chose what was called a “Realistic Rose” for each man. The blossom looks kind of pink. Then again, it may be white. I’m not even sure of its type. It could be wild, I guess. But it surely has a soul.