Thoughts While Posting Christmas Cards

As I sat engaged in the various tasks of readying Christmas cards for mailing, I began to muse. I weighed how the practice has changed over the years. I noted the number of people I had to cross off my list because they had died. I considered the rising costs of cards and postage. And as my arthritic wrists and fingers protested, I even questioned why we exchange Christmas cards at all.

When I was a kid, I loved to get the mail in the weeks before Christmas to see who had sent us a greeting, what the cards said, and who had to money to send family photos in or as their cards. After everyone in the family had read the cards, Mother placed them along the mantle top over the fireplace in the living room so that any visitors could enjoy them as well. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, taped them around the door frames in her living room. When that space ran out, she moved to the coffee table and a sideboard along the living room wall and from there to the mantle. (I always assumed that the mantle was the place of last resort because of the dangers inherent in having paper products so close to the always hot Warm Morning coal stove that was in front of it. She kept the room so hot that whenever one stood up, he was in danger of passing out from the heat. Indeed, had a Christmas card fallen onto that stove, it no doubt would have been incinerated in mere moments.)

When I got married and my wife and I began receiving Christmas cards of our own, I instituted Nannie’s practice of taping them around the door jambs. We had neither a mantle nor a stove. But over the years, I’ve noticed that the number of cards we receive has steadily declined. To be perfectly blunt about it, we’re losing friends through Death. In looking through our college alumni newsletter, we now know fewer and fewer people in the “Class Notes” section and more and more in the “With the Lord” column. That’s a sobering thought.

But another reason for the decline in the number of cards we receive is that fewer and fewer people are bothering to send out Christmas cards. Have you seen the price of cards today? I’m not talking about the fancy Hallmark variety that you might buy for a spouse but the common, mass-produced, boxed kinds of cards. Knowing that the price gets higher with each passing year, we tried to “stock up” for this year by buying after-season cards right after Christmas a couple of years ago. But then the store went out of business, and there are no other Christian bookstores in the area. Even buying them online is getting outrageously expensive nowadays. And then you have to add the cost of postage. At 50 cents a card, that adds up really quickly even if your Christmas card list isn’t a mile long!

Some churches have begun providing a “mailing” service within their congregations. Some smaller churches have built banks of “mail boxes,” with every member or regular visitor having a designated slot. Friends bring their cards to church and stick them in the appropriate slots. Other churches provide a large, communal mail box. After everyone has deposited their cards, members of the youth groups sort and deliver them to the appropriate families. This definitely helps defray at least the postal expense of sending cards.

I can foresee that in a few years, when both my wife and I are retired and living on a fixed income that is a fraction of what we’ve become accustomed to living on, we’ll have to cut corners everywhere we can. Although in the big scheme of things financially Christmas card costs aren’t a major item, every little expense counts. When that day comes, I hope all of our friends don’t think we’ve forsaken them. Or that we’ve died and they didn’t know it. When that time comes, I guess we’ll just have to pick up our cell phones (if we can still afford a cell phone!) and call our friends to wish them a Merry Christmas. Actually, that’s not a bad idea! Sort of like telling friends, “Don’t come to my funeral to visit me; visit me while I’m still alive!”

But the thought that really bothers me most is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find cards that actually say something. Most of the cards on the market are so generic today, the age of political correctness when everyone is so afraid of offending someone by saying something that might be construed as overtly religious, that they don’t really say anything.

  • “Happy Holidays.” (What holidays are we celebrating? We might as well substitute a blank line and let the recipient fill in the holiday of choice for the word holiday for all that sentiment says.)
  • “May you feel the magic of the season.” (It’s not about feelings; it’s about a Person! And it was a miracle, not magic!)
  • “Peace on earth.” (Great. But you can’t have any real peace without the Person that everyone seems afraid to name!)

That’s why, whenever I find a card with an honest-to-goodness message, I buy it in bulk. If Sam’s sold bulk cards with a real message, I, skinflint though I am, would even be tempted to fork over money for a membership!

Despite the cloudy, troubled thoughts I had while getting my Christmas cards out this year, I’ll still send them with the hope that they, as weak as their message might be, coupled with the few words of my own that I’ve added, will convey the real meaning of Christmas and friendship to those who receive them. And I’ll look forward to receiving those that do come to my own mailbox. And I’ll dutifully tape them to our door jambs. Some traditions are worth keeping, even if it is getting harder to do so.


David’s Principles of Good Writing

The best writers, writing teachers often say, are avid readers, and high on their reading lists are great writers, those who stand as exemplars of what good writing is. So it stands to reason, if one wants to become a good writer, one should read the works of great writers and follow their examples.

I realized while reading the other day that one such great writer is typically overlooked as a writing exemplar because his name is generally associated not with writing instruction but with religious instruction. That’s too bad because writers can learn a lot of important principles about not only spirituality but also writing from the psalmist David.

Consider, for example, only one of his psalms, perhaps the most famous one, one known among even non-religious people: Psalm 23, which is often called “The Shepherd’s Psalm.”

If you type that entire psalm as a Word document and then run that software’s spelling/grammar check feature, a box pops up showing the “readability statistics” for the piece. I did that, and what I discovered was an eye opener.

The entire psalm (in the King James Version) consists of only 118 words in 6 paragraphs. (For you Twitter aficionados who must worry about such things, it contains 478 characters.) David averages one sentence per paragraph (or verse) and 19.6 words per paragraph. The words he chose to use average 3.9 characters per word. In readability, the psalm scores 85.2 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale; is, according to the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level chart, on the 4.6-grade level; and he used no passive constructions, only active voice.

So to what principles of good writing do all these statistics point? Well, I identified at least three, but you might discover even more upon careful study.


David shows that you can say a lot without using a lot of words. Only 118 words, but how much deep content they contain! They have been comforting millions of people down through the ages, and they continue to do so today.

We writers should never try to fool people into thinking we’re profound by piling on the verbiage. The older I get, the more I’m coming to conclude that those who are the most verbose aren’t really the smartest people on the block. If a writer’s central message is well thought-out, he or she should be able to communicate it concisely and succinctly. The root of the word concise is cis, which means “to cut out.” So “make every word count.” “When in doubt, cut it out!”


David wrote this psalm so simply that the average fourth-grade student can understand what he intended to communicate. The sentence structure is simple; the words are short (typically one syllable and less than four letters) and simple. But the message they communicate is deep, profound, emotional, and effective.

Too often, I’m afraid, writers try to impress readers with their alleged superior knowledge by using big words and complex sentence structure when simple terms and simple structuring can communicate just as (or perhaps even more) effectively. Never try to convince readers of the profundity of your thoughts by the obscurity of your vocabulary or the complexity of your sentence structure.

Producing writing that is brief and simple is not easy. It takes a great deal of thought and often many drafts before one gets it just right. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was tasked with revising the text of an eighth-grade history book. I quickly discovered that the reading level of the original text was twelfth grade! Reducing it to the eighth-grade level required shortening paragraphs, restructuring sentences, and using shorter words. It was hard work! But it can be done. We should do the same with our writing. Put your writing “on the bottom shelf,” where everyone who reads it can understand it.


And this leads to the third principle of good writing that we can learn from David’s psalm: humility. David was not only a talented writer but also a mighty king, a great warrior, and an able administrator and logistician. Yet, he was, more importantly, a humble writer. He knew that his writing talent came as a gift from God. He always remembered that he was just a simple shepherd who had been called by God to lead a great nation. He acknowledged that everything he accomplished, including his voluminous writing of most of the psalms, was a direct result of his being blessed and used by his God. He never took upon himself the praise that rightly belonged only to God. In himself, he was nothing. But God chose to use him to be a blessing, through his writings, to generations of people.

Do you have a gift for writing? Recognize that it is not due to anything within yourself; it is a gift from God. Also, acknowledge that, having that gift, you are accountable to its Giver for what you do with it, the uses to which you put it. So use it aright. “Use it, or lose it.”

These are just three principles of good writing we can learn from Psalm 23. You can probably come up with others. If so, share them with us in the comments section. But look beyond even those writing principles to discover the even more important life lessons it holds for the spiritual side of your life. If it’s been a while since you’ve read that psalm, why not read it again with a “fresh set of eyes.” (An excellent help in such an endeavor is Phillip Keller’s book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.) I look forward to hearing from some of you about what you glean from your own examination of David’s writing.

Thank You, Military Veterans!

As we approach the Veterans Day weekend (and the actual date on Sunday, November 11), we owe a great debt of gratitude to everyone who is a military veteran for helping us maintain our freedoms. Perhaps no one said it better than one of those veterans, Charles M. Province. (Please note that when he uses the term soldier, we should also add the words sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman because every veteran of every branch of our military played his or her part.)

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”

Veterans, we offer our humble but sincere thanks for all you have afforded the rest of us.

The Project that Birthed Death and Life

On this date in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a secret project that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and ended World War II. But it also led, in the long term, to the birth of a city and numerous other projects that resulted in countless prolonged and enhanced lives.

On October 9, 1941, President Roosevelt signed off on what became known as the Manhattan Project. It was a military operation the likes of which the United States and the world had never witnessed. It was cloaked in secrecy. It was empowered by the national government to take the farm lands, homes, churches, and grave sites of countless individuals, families, and church congregations in numerous small, tight-knit communities in the hills of East Tennessee for the purpose of building enormous facilities for the manufacture of the world’s first atomic bomb.

Not unlike the situation that occurred to the Cherokee Indians more than 100 years earlier and to the residents of hill communities in the nearby Norris community a decade earlier, the residents of Bear Creek, Scarborough, and numerous other small communities were given mere weeks to vacate their ancestral homes so that the government could erect the facilities of three super-secret “reservations” where the components of the bomb would be built. Those locations were code named X-10, Y-12, and K-25.

Thousands of workers were imported into a thrown-together, prefabricated city that became known as Oak Ridge. And they lived and worked within the confines of guard towers and barbed wire fences as long as the work continued. They could not talk about the work they did, and informants ratted them out if they did. In fact, most of them had no idea of the larger product of which their work was a part. Only after the bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they learn what they were producing. And even then, few really understood it all. (Although I seldom read fiction, I recently read a novel titled The Atomic City Girls by Denise Kiernan, and its descriptions of life within the Secret City and its plants is spot on.)

The products of all those thousands of employees’ labors resulted in the deaths of a conservative estimate of 225,000 people (150,000 at Hiroshima and 75,000 at Nagasaki). But it also saved the lives of inestimable thousands of American servicemen who would have been killed if the United States had been forced to invade the home islands of Japan to end the war. Moreover, perhaps millions of lives have been saved, prolonged, or enhanced since that time through the civilian uses of nuclear energy that resulted from the ongoing studies of nuclear power.

I grew up only a few miles from Oak Ridge. During the Cold War (especially during the Cuban missile crisis), my life and the lives of my school classmates were directly affected by the potential threat to the facilities at Oak Ridge, which were deemed close enough to our community to affect us. Civil defense drills became a part of “normal” life in our school. We were even issued “dog tags” for identification following any enemy attack. I still have my dog tag as a reminder of those perilous times. (I wrote about growing up during this time and working there in “Living in the Shadow of the Atomic City,” Blue Ridge Country, May-June 1998.)

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I, too, would be one of those workers at the Oak Ridge plants, but I was. For seven years, until the end of the Cold War and the defense cut-backs of the Clinton years, I was a senior technical editor there. Many of the restrictions described in Kiernan’s novel were still in place even at that late date.

But my work was not focused on bombs and destruction. Rather, much of my work there dealt with the peace-time uses of nuclear energy and the transfer of the technology developed during the Cold War to civilian industrial uses. Just as many of the gadgets we use today are the result of the space program, many of them are also the result of the nuclear defense program at Oak Ridge.

Although we still have swords, we also have plowshares. As President Reagan termed it, “peace through strength.”




Tell Them While You Can

This week marks my wife’s third week of school already, not counting the week of in-service training, and the stories she shares when she gets back home every night are a mixed bag. Some are just downright funny. For others all I can do is shake my head in amazement, either at how tech-savvy today’s kids are or at how they do or say things that we’d never have dreamed of saying. But all of them bring back memories of my own days in school. Back in the “good old days,” eons and eons ago, back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, in those days when nobody had any fun at school (or so we often thought then).

But we really did have fun. At least I did. I actually liked school. Once I got past those first couple of weeks of first grade, when I cried all the way to the school bus and finally “dried up” just before arriving at school.

The Bible tells us that we should remember not only what we’ve learned but also from whom we learned it, and, thankfully, I can still remember those people.

First grade. Mrs. Zachary, bless her heart! I think she must have aged five years that year, trying to teach this slow learner how to tie a shoe. She used as a prop (I guess the correct term is “teaching aid”) one of her husband’s big old work shoes, which she had spray painted gold. The shoe itself was as stiff as a bronzed baby shoe (another thing people did back in the dark ages), but the laces were soft and pliable. I struggled and struggled to learn how to tie that shoe. I think they passed me to second grade when I finally mastered that one task just to be rid of me.

Second grade. Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Taught me to be responsible by giving me responsibilities and expecting me to finish the job and do it right.

Third grade. Mrs. Bailey. Always chose me to go downstairs to the cafeteria twice a day to get her a hot cup of coffee. (I think it had something to do with my grandmother working in the cafeteria.)

Fourth grade. Mrs. Porter. She had the year before suffered a heart attack, so she was still moving slowly. I think that example helped calm us boisterous kids down a bit and encouraged us to take life a little more slowly and calmly. But more importantly she helped me understand that sometimes in life you might be falsely accused and, rather than fighting for one’s rights, it’s sometimes better to suffer a material loss in order to maintain a friendship. I never got to keep the pocket knife that had been given to me by another student, but I was able to keep him as a friend, and I have several even better pocket knives today.

Fifth grade. Mrs. George. Old Mrs. George. She taught me to love reading and history. She also began my lessons in not worrying about what people thought about me if I was doing something good. Old as she was, she got down in the floor in that flowing floral (“old woman”) dress of hers and did situps in front of the class to demonstrate the importance of exercise to good health. She admitted that she was old, but she was also fit!

Sixth grade. Mrs. McMillan. Like Mrs. Kirkpatrick, she taught me responsibility by giving me responsibility. It was partly her recommendation that got me selected to be on the elite safety patrol team. She also was instrumental in my selection to win the coveted Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizenship Award. I still have the medal and lapel pin for that award.

In middle school, we began to change classes and had many more teachers, so it’s harder to remember some of those people and what they taught me (or failed to teach me). But many of them have a special place in my heart. Because I was shy, the most introverted of introverts, they never knew of the impact they had on my young life. I wish I could have told them.

Let that be a lesson for any younger readers. If someone–a teacher, a preacher, a youth leader of any sort–has made a positive impact on your life, tell them so while you still can. Thank them. Write them a note (thereby engaging in a vanishing art while thanking them). They might even be pleasantly surprised that you turned out better than they feared you might!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Twice- (or More Often) Told Tales

Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are to be tested, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Such is similarly the case with stories, especially stories that involve one’s family. Some family stories are good for one or two tellings, but a few stories are to be told over and over again. They are, like the title of a set of books that I was given as a child, Stories that Never Grow Old. And they should be told and retold so often that one’s children can tell them accurately to their own children, and their children’s children to their children.

They do not have to be long, elaborate, detail-laden stories; they might be mere passing incidents. But, told and retold, they become part of family lore and potentially carry with them strong family values. That’s how the children of Israel passed their religion from one generation to another with the purpose “that the generation to come might know” (see Psa. 78:1-7).

For example, when our daughters were young, my wife and I were driving in the city with them one day. We were driving the speed limit, but when a traffic light that we were quickly approaching turned yellow, I couldn’t stop safely, so I sped up ever so slightly and sang out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”

In response to my daughters’ curious inquiries of “What was that?” and “What did you mean, Daddy?” I told them about Fred, a college roommate who was a cinema major/speech minor. Fred had a lot of speaking assignments for his classes, and he practiced all of them before the mirror for hours on end. One night, when I was trying to study int he room, he was practicing an excerpt from James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” As he practiced, he was increasingly dissatisfied with his rendition of one particular segment, and he kept repeating it in attempts to get it right–the right sound, volume, tone, and intensity of feeling. In fact, he repeated it so often that I had that part of the story memorized as well as he did by the end of the evening. And I’ve never forgotten it.

When I went through the caution light, the situation reminded me of Fred’s story line, and I instinctively repeated it aloud. After I had told the story to the girls, I used the phrase every time I went through an intersection on a yellow light. They soon became so familiar with it from my repeated recitation that they started saying it before I could.

The other day, one of my daughters told me of an incident that occurred as she and her husband were driving in their city. They had almost entered an intersection when the traffic light changed to yellow. Reflexively, she cried out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”

Her surprised husband looked at her strangely and asked, “What was that outburst all about?”

Suddenly realizing what she had done, my daughter burst out laughing.

“What made you say that?” her husband pressed.

Between fits of laughter, she explained the whole backstory of the exclamation. Now he knows. The story is spreading.

My sons-in-law are getting used to such things as they happen often in our family. Just as they’ve become used to saying, in chorus, “We were meant to be here!” whenever we’re out shopping and find a parking spot close to the store when the parking lot is crowded.

I recounted that lengthy explanation as an illustration of how family stories, legends, and even values get passed from generation to generation. That particular incident is inconsequential, but some family stories are critical to an understanding of who we are as a family, how we got to where we are today, or what makes us tick as a family.

What stories do you have to tell your descendants? Tell them! And then retell them–over and over again. Your family will, in turn, tell them again. “That the generations to come might know. . . .”



A Flood of Memories from a Photo Archive

I got sidetracked last Friday and, consequently, didn’t get a single thing marked off my to-do list. I’m normally more self-disciplined than that, and one part of me felt deep guilt for my getting off track and being so unproductive. Another part of me sought to justify my distractedness.

Time and opportunity to do what was on the to-do list are irretrievably gone. Yet, what I did instead proved enjoyable and might even find future productive applications. I’ll let you, my readers, be the judges.

One FaceBook group I follow is called “If You Grew Up in Halls. . . .” It’s dedicated to reminding those of us who grew up in the little community of Halls Crossroads just north of the Knoxville, Tennessee, city limits, of what life was like there “way back when.” Because of the city’s proximity and economic importance to Halls, a lot of Knoxville history is also included in the posts. One member regularly posts photos from “the good old days,” and each invariably prompts numerous comments and shared memories from people.

I recently asked the photo poster where on earth he found all of those old photos. He directed me to the web site of the Calvin M. McClung Digital Collection (, which hosts at least ten different collections of historic photos. Just out of curiosity and not intending to spend much time there, I clicked on the first collection in the list, the Thompson Photo Collection, the works of James E. Thompson, one of Knoxville’s early professional photographers. I found more than 8,000 photos from pre-World War II Knoxville, and that’s where I spent most of the rest of my day.

Do you know how long it takes to go through that many photos, even on the fly? And I looked at every single one of them. Some of them I merely glanced at; others I studied closely. A few I looked at a second or third time. And I learned so much about Knoxville that I never knew. I reminisced a lot. I even found myself longing to return to those days of yore.

I found a few photos from the late 1800s. The oldest, I think, dated from 1876, the end of Reconstruction. No photo went beyond 1939. Most were from the 1920s and 1930s.

I counted photos of at least fourteen hotels in the heart of the city during the Twenties and Thirties, including the Andrew Johnson and the Farragut, which were there when I was a kid and still are, but also the Atkin, the Ramsey, the Watauga, the St. James, and many others. They were elegant hotels with guest rooms the size of three or four of our typical modern motel rooms or larger, complete with their own spacious sitting areas. These hotels had grand ballrooms that looked like replicas of something from the Palace of Versailles. Huge marble-columned and -floored lobbies with spacious, well-furnished sitting areas and long, ornate registration desks. Interestingly, many of those hotel lobbies featured strategically placed spittoons for the convenience of guests who indulged in the filthy habit that made such vessels necessary.

Among the photos were several of what was at the time called the “Million-Dollar Fire,” which destroyed several blocks of the downtown. Other photos of that part of town revealed crowded streets and sidewalks, such as I recall from my own youth before the downtown declined. (Like many other dying downtowns, Knoxville has been trying to revive its heart and restore those “glory days.”)

I discovered many photos of streetcars. My grandfather had for a while been a conductor on such a streetcar, so I found myself zooming in on those photos to see if I could identify him in any of them. Alas, I couldn’t.

But the photos that most captured my attention and brought back the most precious memories were those of the S&W Cafeteria. Although it was started in Knoxville in the late Twenties, it  was still thriving when I was a kid. And it was far different from the cafeterias of today. The S&W had class! From the revolving door at the entrance to the fixtures to the wait staff, it was a classy place. It had the ambiance of elegance all about it.

Once through the revolving glass door, one stood in a marble-columned, high-ceilinged, shiny brass-furnished lobby. A large scale stood directly ahead of the entering customer. (I suppose the idea was to weigh oneself before and after dining?) To the right of the scale was where the waiting line began, but it ran the length of the right-hand wall, the dining tables being on the left, all the way to the rear. The serving line was along the back wall, just in front of the kitchen.

A wall running down the center of the restaurant, from behind the scale nearly to the serving line, divided the ground floor into two dining areas. The walls were floor-to-ceiling mirrors, probably 12 feet tall or higher. The mirrored walls gave the place a bright, spacious appearance. Every table, some for two and others for four, were covered with clean, pressed, white table cloths and white cloth napkins. The tile floor was waxed to a high gloss.

Where the waiting line began, a set of stairs led to a lower level, where the dining atmosphere was slightly less glamorous. It was for office workers who wanted merely a good, quick lunch so they could rush back to work; they would not be lingering over conversations or soaking up atmosphere. The ceiling downstairs was a bit lower, but the food was the same as that served upstairs. One just had to carry his own tray.

Upstairs at the end of the serving line, where customers paid for their meals, uniformed waiters grabbed customers’ trays heavy-laden with china, glasses, silverware, and food and drinks and balanced them precariously on their forearms and palms. The waiters raced to the diners’ desired locations on the main floor at tables or upstairs on the mezzanine at either tables or booths. They quickly removed the dishes of food from the trays to the appropriate place settings, never dropping anything or making a mistake as to which customer had which meal because they were watching closely as the customers arrived at the cashier’s station. They took the ladies’ cloaks and held the chairs out for them to be seated. Finally, they stood quietly at attention, to the side and out of the way, arms at their sides and with one hand held inconspicuously palm up, awaiting their tips. Looking back now, I think that the courtesy of S&W waiters makes even the friendliness of Chik-fil-A employees seem almost like downright rudeness by comparison.

Our family often made the trip “uptown” on Saturdays, arriving by 10:00 a.m. and making a day of it, stopping at the eye doctor’s office and shopping at Rich’s (later becoming Miller’s) Department Store before hitting the stores along Gay Street in the main business district. (It had that name, by the way, long before the word and its meaning were hijacked.) By noon, the sidewalks were teeming with people. I still can smell the fumes of the diesel exhausts from the KTL buses as they passed the milling shoppers while plying the city streets, and I can hear their low growl as they accelerated through the heavy traffic.

And at lunchtime we ate at S&W. We always ate in a booth upstairs on the mezzanine . Mother preferred the cozy privacy of a booth over the “out-in-the-public” tables. (We kids also were less likely to embarrass her there.)

The cafeteria featured a live pianist (later organist) who played during service hours. He or she even took requests. I recall on one of my birthdays the organist’s playing “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window” just for me, even creating a bark-like sound on the organ at the appropriate spots in the song.

Those 8,000 or so photos brought back memories that could potentially produce writing material for numerous pieces for years to come. And I haven’t even mentioned the photos of trains and historic railway stations or vehicles or gas stations. Or the photos of local law enforcement smashing illegal stills. And each photo has its own unique story–or more.

So was the time that I spent (or misspent) last Friday really wasted?

And to think that I still have only nine more collections of such photos to peruse! When will I ever find time to work?

Learning from the Trail of Tears

Today is the Trail of Tears Commemoration Day, the recognition of a national tragedy.

The seeds of what culminated in the near-annihilation of several entire tribes of Native Americans, most notably the Cherokees, were planted in the soil of the sinful souls of fallen, materialistic men. Settlers had always moved west, coveting the opportunity to settle the fertile Indian lands, but that temptation was intensified by the discovery of gold in northeast Georgia, the heart of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokees had been transformed into a peaceful people, their last military conflicts with the settlers occurring about the end of the Revolution. They were, in fact, foremost in what were known as the Five Civilized Tribes. They had, thanks to the genius of Sequoyah, developed their own alphabet (syllabary) and written language. They published their own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. They had formed a democratic form of tribal government based in large part on America’s own founding documents. And many of them had embraced education for their children.

This much is readily admitted by secular historians. What they downplay or ignore is the dramatic role played in all of these civilizing actions by the Christian missionaries and teachers who ministered among the Cherokees. Many individuals and Christian denominations had a hand in making the Cherokees the civilized people they were. Among those people were

  • John Gambold, Abraham Steiner, and Gottlieb Byham–Moravians
  • Evan and John Jones–Baptists
  • Joseph Miller and William McMahon–Methodists
  • Gideon Blackburn, Cyrus Kingsbury, and Samuel Worcester–Presbyterians


These ministers founded numerous missions among the Cherokees, including those at Park Hill, Mulberry, Brainerd, and Springplace. Part of the work of those missions was education, so one might say that the Cherokees were among the earliest participants in the Christian school movement!

The Cherokees even had their own preachers, including the first native Baptist preacher, Kaneeda, and the more renowned Jesse Bushyhead.

But then the State of Georgia, desiring the Cherokees’ gold and land, began imposing its laws on the sovereign Cherokee Nation. The peaceful Cherokees patiently tried to resolve the problem diplomatically. But they were divided over how to counter their enemies’ efforts. Some, led by John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, wanted to negotiate a treaty with the U.S. government, surrender their lands (for a price), and move west. john-rossOthers, led by John Ross, wanted to resist legally as long as they could. Within that group were a few who favored hiding in the mountains and even resisting with force if necessary. Even the various missionaries were divided over the issue.

Then two of the missionaries were arrested and imprisoned, allegedly for living and working within the Cherokee Nation without a license from Georgia’s governor. Underlying this official charge, however, was the fact that they were helping the Indians oppose the theft of their lands and their forced removal. The missionaries appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in the 1832 ruling in Worcester v. Georgia, they won.

John Ross

andrew_jacksonPresident Andrew Jackson, however, disagreed with the ruling and refused to do his constitutional duty and enforce the ruling. “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” he crowed. The Court, of course, has no power of enforcement, and the Georgians, ignoring the Court, took the Cherokee lands. Then the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was enforced, bringing about the Trail of Tears.

Historians disagree about Jackson’s motives. Some point to his history as a ruthless Indian hater and fighter and conclude that he was trying to exterminate not only the Cherokees but also all other Indians. Others say that he foresaw the terrible bloodshed that would result from the continued presence of the Indians within white society.

Only God knows Jackson’s true motivation. The fact remains, however, that an entire nation suffered, both Christians and non-Christians. An estimated 4,000 people, especially the youngest and the oldest, lost their lives during the arduous trek. And some of the missionaries went with their congregations and shared their sufferings and deprivations. And many other tribes were also caught up in the relocation.

trail-of-tearsThe Trail of Tears is not something of which we can be proud. It should, however, be instructive. Some Cherokees thought, It can’t happen here. We’ve adopted the white man’s ways. We’ve even accepted the Christian religion. Others thought, It could happen, but it won’t. Our leaders won’t allow it. God won’t allow it. But it did happen.

Similarly, the German people didn’t think that a Nazi takeover could happen, but it did. Christians and Jews alike thought that such intense persecution as the Holocaust couldn’t happen. But it did. Hardly any natural American or Japanese-American thought that forced relocation of a race could happen, but it did.

And in our nation today, many people believe that we could never lose our freedoms. “It couldn’t happen here–we have the Constitution.” Germany also had a constitution, as did the Cherokees. Constitutions can be changed quickly and catastrophically. In fact, there’s a positive-sounding but very dangerous movement afoot to call a constitutional convention, but that could backfire, being used by devious forces to “fundamentally transform America.” If men were angels, maybe they could be trusted. But men are not angels.

Freedom is fragile. The lessons of history–including those afforded us in the events leading to the Trail of Tears–tell us to beware. “Eternal vigilance is ever the price of freedom.”

The Course of History Turns on “Little” Things

Battle of Perryville KYThis week of August 8-14, 1862, marked a major milestone and turning point in the War Between the States that is often overlooked or minimized. This week marks the 154th anniversary of the beginning of the ill-fated Confederate invasion of Kentucky.

Kentucky had started the war proclaiming its official neutrality. Although it did not join the Confederacy, neither did it want to participate in the subjugation of its Southern neighbors. In reality, the people of Kentucky were deeply divided. Both sides’ armies invaded and despoiled the state, and both sides engaged in recruitment activities and set up training camps there. The state became the site of vicious partisan warfare that included many acts allegedly sparked by the desire for personal revenge (e.g., the private war waged by Champ Ferguson along the Kentucky-Tennessee border).

The Confederacy’s invasion came as a preemptive measure. If they had not invaded, it’s likely that Union troops soon would have done so. The Ohio River was the direct supply line for all Union forces in the Western Theater, and Louisville, Kentucky, was the key to that route. The side that controlled Kentucky controlled the river.

Strategically, the Confederacy had three goals that it hoped to achieve by invading Kentucky. First, it hoped to pull Union general Don Carlos Buell and his forces away from Chattanooga, which he was threatening at the time. Second, it hoped to elicit the support of Kentuckians for the South. Third, in conjunction with two other armies (the northward movement of the Army of Northern Virginia and the westward movement of Confederate troops in western Virginia, coordinated with the foray into Kentucky) to gain significant victories that would convince France and Great Britain to recognized the Confederacy diplomatically.

Don Carlos BuellBraxton BraggEdward Kirby SmithLeft to right: General Don Carlos Buell (USA); General Braxton Bragg (CSA); General Kirby Smith (CSA)




Tactically, the ultimate failure of the Confederate invasion of Kentucky turned on much less lofty circumstances: the failure of the Confederates to gain the expected support of Kentuckians, foot-dragging and poor decision-making by Bragg, the desperate search for water in a drought-parched land, and an acoustic shadow that prevented the sounds of battle from reaching those whose movements needed to hear them.

Kirby Smith, commander of Confederate forces in East Tennessee, initiated the invasion on August 14 after consultations and planning sessions with Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, near Chattanooga. Smith took Cumberland Gap and moved into Kentucky. Bragg moved through central Tennessee toward Kentucky, but Don Carlos Buell, fearing that Bragg was moving against Nashville, hesitated. When Bragg bypassed Nashville and Buell, it became a race to see which army could get to the Ohio River first. Bragg was supposed to join forces with Smith, take Louisville, recruit troops, and bring Kentucky into the Confederacy.

Bragg succeeded in drawing Buell away from Chattanooga. But then several “little” things intervened. Bragg delayed the race of his army by pausing to set up a Confederate governor and attend his inauguration. Buell won the race to Louisville.

Although the Confederate army had won a decisive battle at Barbourville earlier, it became desperate for water, which it finally found at Perryville. There the Confederates had a “chance” encounter with Union forces (like the “chance” encounter that Lee would later have with Meade at Gettysburg) that technically ended in a draw but that Buell claimed as a Union victory and that Bragg perceived as a defeat. That’s where the “acoustic shadow” prevented Buell from hearing the raging battle although it was occurring less than two miles from his headquarters. Thus stung, unable to drum up support from the Kentuckians, and seemingly unable to maintain his supplies, Bragg returned to Tennessee. The Confederacy was never again a serious threat to the Union in Kentucky.

Seemingly little things can make a huge difference in life as well as in warfare. Examples of this truth are replete in the history of the Confederacy. (You can read about many of them in my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, published by McFarland & Company and available at But they are also evident in everyday life.

The Bible warns against despising “the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10). It pays to attend closely to the “little” details in life because big things–both good and bad–can result from them.

Sage Advice from General MacArthur

MacArthurHow would General Douglas MacArthur have responded to terrorism and ISIS? Here is an excellent article from a MacArthur biographer and historian suggesting how the iconic general might have responded. And it shows how presidents from Truman to Obama have ignored his advice–to the detriment of our nation and at the cost of thousands of American lives.