About the only thing my parents had in common was a feeling that the church in which they had been raised had let them down.
My father was a descendant of New England Puritans, with some French and Scottish blood thrown in. He was born in Iowa, grew up in Minnesota and arrived in Saskatchewan in 1908 at the age of 17. The family was Wesleyan Methodist, but a series of mergers brought most Methodists into one fold and then in the 1920’s they became part of the new United Church of Canada. My dad told of a service he had attended in Edmonton in the early years of the United Church. As the preacher spoke, it became evident that he didn’t believe the creation account, the virgin birth of Jesus, or much of anything else in the Bible. Dad walked out of that church into the street and wept. After that he tried to avoid ever setting foot in a United Church again.
My mother was of pure Low German descent. Her grandparents came to Canada in the great migration of the 1870’s. There is a story in our family that her grandfather learned to read and write English and discovered that the bishop of the Old Colony Mennonite Church was using money that belonged to the congregation for his own benefit. Great-grandfather was thereupon excommunicated and joined the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church. I’m sure there would be a different story from the other side, but this is the story that I have been told.
Mom was born in Manitoba and grew up in Saskatchewan, the sixth in a family of 14 children. She was the last one in the family to learn High German, which was the only language used in the Sommerfelder Church worship services. Mom often spoke of how she felt that the church had abandoned her younger siblings.
In her later teens she joined a group of other young people in a catechism class. They were supposed to learn the catechism by heart. After the catechism classes were finished, they were to answer the questions of the catechism before the congregation. I believe this took place over several Sundays. Mom was the only one of the group to memorize the whole catechism. As they always sat in the same order, the others calculated which questions they would be asked and memorized only those answers. One of Mom’s cousins sat beside her. The morning they were to begin answering the questions before the congregation this cousin told Mom, “I don’t have my answer memorized, so when the bishop asks my question, just speak up and answer it for me and no one will know the difference.” Mom agreed to this subterfuge. All went well until the bishop came to the person after Mom. The anticipated sequence was now broken and he had not memorized the answer to the question he was asked. Somehow it all worked out and they were all baptized.
My parents were married in the Alliance Church in Moose Jaw, but did not affiliate with any denomination. I remember that we once attended a service in a rural school house. I suspect my father was not pleased as we never went again. One time we attended an Ernest Manning crusade in Regina. When I was nine, my father arranged for me to be baptized in a private ceremony in a Lutheran church.
That same year, we moved to a farm on the outskirts of Craik. There were three churches in this town, United, Catholic and Anglican. My father decided that we needed to start attending church and the Anglican Church was the only good choice available.
A catechism class was planned for the following winter and my father decided I should join. There were four other boys my age in the class and we spent a number of months studying, not memorizing, the Anglican catechism. I still remember the definition of a sacrament: “An outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual grace,” and think that is the best definition that I have heard. The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in the spring of 1953.
We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began. The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman. He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted. Then he told us: “When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore. When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before. They came just as easily as they ever had! When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you, that will change nothing inside of you. To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you. You will need a change of heart.”
This happened 57 years ago and I may not have the words exactly as he said them, but this was the essence of his message to us. The fact that I remember that message so clearly must indicate the impact those words had on me, even though the fruit did not appear until many years later.