Tag Archive for George W. Truett sermons

(Digital Collections) Farmers’ Wives, Insane Asylums and Dr. G.W. Truett’s Sermons of the 1940s

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The Texas State Lunatic Asylum in Austin ca. 1875, courtesy the Austin Public Library. Dr. George W. Truett ca. 1940, image via Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX.

George W. Truett was an unrivaled master of the preacher’s art for telling an engaging story, for drawing parallels between the Bible’s cast of characters and his contemporary audience, and for recalling passages of Scripture at the drop of a mic. But even he wasn’t above falling prey to passing along misinformation, and in at least two recorded instances in the early 1940s, Truett used a “fact” he believed to be true to help illustrate the points of his sermons. Normally, this wouldn’t be worth pointing out, but the nature of the “fact” is so striking, so strange that it seemed like a fun source for this week’s blog post.

“We are told the alarming thing …”

In the middle of his May 4, 1941 sermon on “The Cause and Cure for Discouragement,” Truett underscores his point about the body’s need for rest and diversion with a story of Jesus encouraging his disciples to take some time to eat and get some rest (likely from Mark 6:31) with an eye-opening statistic. (Click below to listen to the archival audio.)

Truett tells his flock that going about life in a “treadmill way” without distractions or goals (“horizons” and “outside views” in his parlance) leads to insanity. His exact words: “We are told the alarming thing that the wives of tenant farmers […] more of them in proportion are in the insane asylums than any other group in the country.”

That’s a mighty bold assertion, especially in a time when in-patient mental health treatment – a.k.a. a trip to the “insane asylum” – would have carried major social stigmas and a good possibility of taking part in new treatments like electroconvulsive (electroshock) therapy, two prospects that would have been enough to deter most “tenant farmers’ wives” to work very hard to avoid such a trip.

This 1941 assertion wasn’t the only time Truett would use this story. In a sermon on July 5, 1942 on the subject “‘Hope Thou In God’,” Truett relays the same statistic, with a slightly different wording.

Here, a year after its first appearance, Truett hedges his bets a bit with his introduction: “You saw that announcement some time ago, widely heralded, that the largest number of people in our insane asylums in the country [are] [t]he wives of tenant farmers.” He then repeats his assertion that the reason for this is the “treadmill of daily experience, no new visions, no new horizons, no fresh challenges.”

In both sermons, Truett draws a direct – albeit tenuous – connection between the lack of “fresh horizons” and “monotony” and the onset of madness in the wives of tenant farmers. He does so by relying on having been “told” an alarming thing and on an “announcement some time ago.” Is it possible to track down the source of this information, and, if so, to verify or refute it?

The Tenant Farmer of Truett’s Day

Before we examine the “widely heralded” announcement in depth, it’s important to take a moment to familiarize ourselves with the kind of person about whom Truett is speaking. When we think of poor farmers in this era, one series of images comes immediately to mind: those of the “Migrant Mother” taken by Dorothea Lang in 1936.

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Alternate image from the “Destitute peapickers in California” series (also known as the “Migrant Mother” photos) by Dorothea Lang. Photo via the Library of Congress.

It is important to note that the family pictured here is not a tenant farming family; they are explicitly identified as “migrant” farmers, or farm laborers who move from place to place, working the harvest of each season depending on the type of crop and location where it was planted. They are transient by nature. A tenant farmer, by contrast, usually worked on land leased from a landowner, using tools and labor he supplied himself (as opposed to a sharecropper, whose only contribution was his labor; the tools and land both belonged to the landowner).

Tenant farmers, therefore, could be said to occupy a rung of the agricultural ladder a couple of steps higher than migrant farmers and sharecroppers, but their lot in life was not much better. They were still beholden to a landowner, gave up large portions of their profit (or harvest) in exchange for the right to work someone else’s land, and the likely drudgery and routine of their daily life was occasionally punctuated by the dramatic fear that came from a failed crop. In short, their lives were difficult, day-to-day affairs: the perfect setting for many to develop crippling mental illnesses.

Truett’s audience would have been very familiar with the kind of person to whom he referred when he described a “tenant farmer’s wife.” In an era when a large percentage of people still worked the land for a living, and having come out of the Great Depression (and with a World War looming on the horizon), Truett’s parishioners would have had no problem conjuring up the mental image of an overworked mother, living on an isolated farm somewhere in the hinterlands, nothing to look forward to except the addition of more children to the family and a routine existence built on repeating the same tasks day after day in a race to avoid destitution. It is not a pretty picture on its own, but where did the added specter of mental illness enter in?

The Possible Nexus of the Story (and its Refutation)

Thanks to a couple of clues in Truett’s sermons – like the use of the phrases “some time ago” and “widely heralded” – it is possible to conclude that Truett is drawing upon something that was popular in the general consciousness, at least enough so that his audience would be more likely to nod in recollection at his story than to stare uncomprehendingly at the reference. But we must keep in mind that Truett had been preaching for the better part of five decades at the time of these recordings, so his frame of reference for stories like this is likely much longer than those of the average person in the sanctuary that day. Truett had also spent a great deal of time over his career going to remote areas like farms and cattle ranches and preaching to the people there, so the idea of isolated women suffering mental breakdowns would have likely been more familiar to him than to other pastors.

Thanks to the power of Google Books, we were able to track down what may be the source of this story. In 1874, an edition of The Farmer’s Magazine was printed that included a letter written by a Rev. John Storer. Published under the headline “The English Labourer in Canada,” the letter writer sets out to support and refute the claims of a Mr. Arch, who wrote an article on the life of a typical laborer (farmer) in British Canada. Along the way, Storer writes the following:

I have been credibly informed that a large proportion of the female inmates of the lunatic asylums are farmers’ wives, whose reason has been impaired by incessant toil and anxiety of mind, and this is notoriously the case in the States, as the statistics of the New York State Lunatic Asylum and many others will show.”

Setting aside the fact that Storer cites no authority for this assertion (merely saying that he has been “credibly informed”), the wording of this sentence almost perfectly mirrors the kind of language Truett would use in his sermon almost 70 years later.

This article – or something like it – must have been widely disseminated enough to necessitate a refutation, and it got one in a big way courtesy Dr. George G. Groff. In 1908, Groff read a paper at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture titled, “Who Go Mad? Insanity Not a Rural Disease.” In it, he gives us a clue to the pervasive nature of the “tenant farmers’ wives in the asylum” trope.

Frequently, views widely held, and zealously propagated by earnest writers and speakers, have yet no basis whatever in fact. Such is the belief that insanity is especially a disease which attacks people who live on farms and in small country villages. […]

The statement is varied in many other forms: ‘Two-thirds of the inmates of our lunatic asylums are farmers’ wives’; ‘Statistics positively show that the largest group in our insane asylums are farmers’ wives.’ A popular lecturer at our Chautauquan assemblies repeated the same thing over and over again during the past summer. The above statements have been made during the year by two of the best known American women of letters, probably without their ever thinking for a moment that they are without any foundation.

Groff also says that the women’s tendency to “this dreary state of things” is not from “want of money, but want of opportunity and the must-be-so-because-it-always-has-been-so attitude which limits her horizon.” (Emphasis added.) He goes on to refute the assertion of major numbers of farmers’ wives in Pennsylvania’s asylums by citing actual patient totals for the state asylums from “recent reports,” including the occupation and family status of male and female patients alike. Of 1,653 married women patients, 38 were either wives or widows of farmers, for a total of 4% of the population – far below the 2/3 cited by popular speakers of the day.

Finally, Groff makes his own assertion as to the improved health (mental and physical) enjoyed by people who live in the country as opposed to the early 20th century’s crowded cities.

There is no isolation. There is freedom, splendid freedom from servile care where the wind blows free over range and forest, and if the multitude of humble bread getters in the cities could only be brought to realize the advantages of country life, the tenements would show a surprising depopulation. In the country, the rich find greatest recreation and the extremely poor a better living than they could glean from the world elsewhere.

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All of this is not to take away from Dr. Truett’s main point, however. People need a life of fulfilled expectations, of new challenges and things to aspire toward, if they are to truly flourish. They are to take time to rest their minds and bodies, to seek God’s direction for their life and to apply themselves toward the betterment of their fellow man. And Truett can also be granted a certain measure of grace in his citing something that was taken for common knowledge in the early 1940s. After all, it was highly unlikely that he would have read the General Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for 1908, and he didn’t have the advantage of typing the phrase “tenant farmers wives insane asylum” into a search tool that scours trillions of pages’ worth of data in nanoseconds.

Still, while it may be an effective public speaking tool to take two minutes to paint a vivid mental image – like a desperate farmer’s wife sinking slowly and inexorably into madness, alone and overwhelmed on the fringes of a wild and hostile continent – the facts in this case simply don’t bear out Truett’s thesis. Fortunately, his primary source material for the rest of his sermons – the Holy Bible – is something he had quoted reliably for his entire adult life, and he uses it to great effect for the remaining 30 minutes of each of these preaching masterworks, preserved forever in vinyl and digital format for the world to hear.

You can hear the two sermons mentioned in this post, as well as dozens more, in the George W. Truett Sermons Collection via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections.


Works Cited

The Farmer’s Magazine, 1874 in a letter by a Rev. John Storer and published under a headline “The English Labourer in Canada.” (Read the original article via Google Books.)

General Bulletin, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, 1908. Article titled, “Who Go Mad? Insanity Not a Rural Disease” by Dr. George G. Groff, sanitarian. (Read the original article via Google Books.)

 

 

(Digital Collections) A Double Inspiration: The Tragic and Triumphant Lives of Judge Quentin Corley and Frank G. Coleman

As the work to post the audio of the final years of Dr. George W. Truett’s long career continues apace, I was generating a transcript for his sermon of January 3, 1943 when a story caught my attention. Truett uses a fair number of what I privately call his “modern day parables” to help illustrate his points. Often taking the form of inspirational (or, at times, admonishing) tales drawn from his years in the ministry, they tend to recount stories of anonymous people he’s encountered over the years (“a prominent business man,” or “one of the leading citizens of this state” and the like) whose circumstances illustrate a point he’s driving home in the message.

The wording of this particular story was so striking as to seem outlandish; I admit, for a moment I wondered if Dr. Truett was inserting a tale woven from whole cloth just to see if his audience was paying sufficient attention. The transcript of this story will illustrate the basis for my skepticism:

“We’re to make the best of a so-called accident. A man in this city, years ago, had his arms ground off in a mill. But the young fellow, undaunted, fixed him up some steel arms and went on with his studies and his work, diligently, and became one of the most prodigious toilers of our community, and came to a great judgeship and set a great example of fortitude and high behavior, enough to thrill any man capable of being thrilled by heroic behavior.”

“Sweet creamery butter!” I said to myself. “This has all the makings of a direct-to-cable inspirational movie of the week! Gruesome accident? Check! Hardworking young man refuses to give up, stays focused on his goals? Check! Man acquires high position, inspires humanity? Check and check! How is it that I’ve never heard of this man before?”

It turns out that while Dr. Truett may have gotten a (fairly major) detail about the story wrong, the actual story of Quentin Durward Corley was certainly remarkable enough to inspire both Truett’s use of his life story in a sermon and, later, the life of one of Baylor’s most remarkable graduates.

The “Armless Wonder” of Dallas

Corley was born in 1884 in the town of Mexia, Texas, a rough-and-tumble oilfield town about 45 minutes’ drive from Waco. According to this well-written blog post about Corley’s life, he worked as a bookkeeper and stenographer after graduating from high school before striking out for a career in civil engineering.

His life made a major shift in 1905, however, when he fell off of a train in Utica, New York. The accident left him without his entire right arm and the left arm from the elbow down. What could have been a life-ending circumstance instead served as a source of inspiration for Corley, whose amazing life was only just beginning.

Displaying a strength of will – and cleverness – rarely seen in this or any other decade, Corley set about finding a way to overcome his limitations. He invented – and later patented – an artificial limb for his left arm that featured interchangeable elements such as eating implements (a knife), a simple hook and a pincer.

Judge Quentin D. Corley drives his automobile with the aid of his self-designed prosthesis. Courtesy the Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

If all of this seems far-fetched to modern readers accustomed to our medical wizardry springing forth from laboratories, clinical studies and pharmaceutical manufacturers, it is helpful to remember that Corley came of age only a generation or so removed from the end of the most catastrophic conflict in American history: the Civil War, in which thousands of men returned to their homes maimed and scarred, many missing limbs following gruesome battlefield amputations. It is reasonable to assume that during his childhood in Mexia, Corley would have been exposed to such men at least once a year during the annual Confederate reunions held there between 1889-1946. These gatherings of former Rebel soldiers were major events for the city, and it would seem likely that Corley would have seen and even interacted with amputees at these events, so his experience with artificial limbs may have been more frequent than that of an average citizen.

After studying law at the firm of Muse & Allen in Dallas, Corley was elected justice of the peace in 1908 and was rewarded for his work by being elected county judge in 1912. Corley proved himself a capable administrator and arbiter of the law, earning accolades from his voters and the nickname “Armless Wonder,” a shockingly un-PC moniker to modern audiences but no doubt offered in a spirit of respect by those he served in the 1910s.

Corley’s story would be inspiring enough if it stopped at this point, and, in fact, that is probably how Dr. Truett would have known it to end. What he might not have known – despite a relationship with Baylor University that stretched back to the late 1800s and a lifelong closeness with the school – was how Judge Corley’s life would directly impact that of another young man who faced similar challenges and dreamed of similar successes.

“Baylor Students Complain Over Nothing … How Would They Do If They Were Hindered as Frank Coleman?”

Frank G. Coleman was born without arms and only one leg. This fact opens a rather blunt – but no less inspiring – piece in the January 26, 1926 issue of the Baylor Daily Lariat. The reason for the piece is Coleman’s place on the ballot for judge in Bell County, Texas, where he practices law in the city of Temple. Coleman was a 1925 graduate of the Baylor Law School and, by all accounts, led a remarkable life prior to finding himself in the running for county office.

A look into previous coverage of Coleman’s story in the Lariat fills in some of the details. A “Freshman” edition of the Lariat from March 3, 1921 – which was edited by Coleman, incidentally – includes a write-up of his life captioned, “Frank Coleman First Armless Person in Baylor.” It goes on to detail his early life and disposition – “one of the happiest and best-liked fellows around the University,” who apparently gave himself the nickname the “Finless Fish” during his first year – and tells of his first encounter with Judge Corley.

Profile on Coleman from the “Lariat” of March 3, 1921.

Coleman was a user of Corley’s patented prosthetic arms, and in the spring of 1918, Coleman joined him for a tour of government hospitals housing disabled veterans of the First World War. Intended to “[bring] new hope to disabled veterans by showing them how, though maimed[,] they could become useful, happy citizens,” the younger man discovered an interest in becoming a lawyer, perhaps due to Judge Corley’s own story of triumph over adversity. Coleman would enter Baylor Law School and graduate in 1925. He returned to Temple to practice law.

He appears in the pages of the Lariat again in 1926, with a story that details his appearance on the Democratic primary ballot for judge of Bell County. Unfortunately, his presence in the historical record, at least in terms of Internet-accessible materials, seems to end here. I have been unable to find any evidence of the results of the 1926 election or of Coleman’s later life, though I will document any future findings as updates to this post.

Coleman poses with members of the Bell County Club, from the 1922 “Round Up.”

Coleman and his fellow Law Club members, from the 1922 “Round Up.”

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The intertwining stories of Dr. Truett, Judge Corley and “Finless Fish” Coleman are an example of the ways in which a single twist of fate – a misstep from a train in Utica, NY – can affect the lives of countless others, even at a distance of more than a century. Corley’s early patents in prosthetics led to advances in the field that would bring us today’s carbon-fiber artificial legs and remarkably realistic prosthetic arms. Coleman’s inspirational story would bring comfort to wounded veterans and encourage his fellow Baylor Bears to greater heights of academic and personal achievement.

And the story of the judge with the “steel arms” told by Dr. Truett to his audience of parishioners on the first Sunday of a new year would be recorded for prosperity on a 16” transcription disc that would find its way to Baylor’s Texas Collection and, eventually, to the world via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections.