Pietists in the Battle of Life
The immigrant pietists I knew in the '30s and '40s had strong convictions about Bible prophecy as it focused on the Middle East. We heard that we were living in the "last days" and that Jesus could come back momentarily. Scholars who showed a lack of concern for the "signs of the times" in this "day and age," or who talked of a-millennial or post-millennial interpretations were openly criticized as being "luke-warm" or, worse, apostates. A pre-millennial orientation was common.
The Reverend Gustaf F. Johnson especially comes to mind. He had very definite views on what the Bible foretold about Middle Eastern events. My first contact with "Gust F.," or "Texas Johnson" as he was known, was in 1936 at Hagerman Lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was my second year as a camper at Covenant Point Bible Camp. Gust F., 63 at the time, was camp pastor and his presence on the campground was felt as soon as he drove up. He was a large, well-dressed man, with a commanding voice and a grandiloquent style. Though ten-year-old boys think about softball, swimming, fishing, and girls, I must admit, Gust F. caught our attention.
I could tell that the people from the Stambaugh Covenant Church were pleased to have such a great Covenant evangelist on the grounds. When we asked who this important-looking, stout man was, they answered, with pride, "He's from the Tabernacle in Minneapolis, Minnesota and travels all around the country holding prophecy conferences. God is really using him. We are fortunate that he would come."
In those days, the evening meetings were open to the general public. Parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins, pastors, Sunday School teachers, and friends all sat behind the rows of youthful campers. We all listened attentively, mesmerized by Pastor Johnson's dramatic style of presenting the Gospel in prophecy form. The charts and maps he used simpliTied things, and we were able to see just where China and Russia were and what they would be doing in Israel in the last days. He was so convincing and powerful that when he gave the invitation to be saved, most of us hit the "sawdust trail." None of us wanted to be the one left in the field when the other was taken up at the rapture. The invitation was not given in a harsh, angry manner, but rather, in tender, pleading, even melodious tones. His emphasis was more on being with the Lord and united with your departed loved ones than on "hell and brimstone." You just wanted to be along with the redeemed multitude on that great morning.
Here is a sample of his preaching which has been taken from a recording of one of his sermons:
When the Lord comes, it will be morning for God's people, a day of most glorious meeting, but for you who do not know God, it will be night, a starless night of distress and separation. In your home, there may be several who love the Lord; they will soon be taken from you. You should, even tonight before they retire, bid them a fond farewell. Thank your elderly parents for their tenderness, for all their sacrifices and for all the prayers they have sent up to Heaven for your salvation. Kiss the aging lips once again; soon they will cease to warn you. Give the dim eyes a hasty glance; they have shed many tears for your sake. Soon it will all be ended.
The Scriptures speak of three different ways the truth of God will be received. It speaks of jeering scoffers who will ridicule the whole idea. It does not pay even to talk with such. Their appearance only proves that the last days have come. But the Lord speaks of servants who do not exactly wish to deny the return of the Lord. They hit upon another way out when they say, "My Lord tarries." Such our Lord calls evil servants. Be not like them, for their end will be with the hypocrites. There is a third way to receive the blessed truth and that is to love his appearing. He who does this, cries with John, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus."
In thousands of ways, the Evil One tries to turn the eyes of the believer from the blessed hope. There is so much that must happen before the Lord is to come, it is argued. If so much must happen before the coming of the Lord, how then could Paul await him during his lifetime? But does not the Scripture speak of signs, it is asked? Yes, it speaks of signs of the end of the age, but not of the coming of the Lord. The Lord will come as a thief in the night and a thief sends no messages ahead of him. We should also notice that those signs which the Scriptures said will precede the end of the age already have appeared. One may assuredly ask, has a single one of these signs not been included? The world situation is so desperate that men of the world are themselves uneasy. Crime is increasing at an alarming rate. The apostasy is progressing with great strides. The wildest heresies go forward with power. Surfeiting surpasses anything that has previously been heard of or seen. And slumber in the Christian church has reached a terrifying stage. When they slumber all around you, when you yourself begin to grow weary, then, just then, it is that the glorious day is near. He is verily coming soon. Blessed are you if you are awake.
As the years went by, it became clear to me that much of what Gust F. had predicted from his biblical sources, simply was not coming to pass. I was called into the army in 1944 and, as a soldier, I could not relate to the idea that I was a player in those "wars and rumors of wars" he had told us about so convincingly. I thought of war and my involvement in it in secular terms, as an armed conflict through which we were trying to conquer and disarm two aggressive powers, the Nazis and the Japanese. An apocalyptic understanding of war as a final showdown during which the rapture was to occur was irrelevant to me — a combat engineer trying to figure out where Hitler's troops had buried land mines and set their booby traps.
It was the summer of '46 and I had just been discharged. I came back to Covenant Point for a young people's retreat in which Dean Eric Hawkinson was the main speaker. I wore my uniform that day. I was thankful to be home, in that my engineering battalion had been scheduled to leave Germany to effectuate the invasion of Japan, when suddenly the war ended. I remember it was a beautiful Hagerman Lake day.
We sat around talking about spiritual discipline, the Christian life, God's will, and other topics. "Hawkie," himself a soldier in the First World War, turned to me at one point and asked what I thought about the morality of dropping the A-bomb on the Japanese. It was not a Gust F. kind of question! Though I had not read the still-to-be-written Paul Fussell article, 'Thank God for the A-Bomb," I did have similar feelings, The bomb ended the war abruptly, and I was thrilled not to have to fight in Japan, happy to be enjoying life above the ground.
We talked that day about war, but a paradigm shift had occurred from the way Gust F. had talked to us about war at this same Bible Camp a decade before. War was for us old soldiers, for Hawkie and me anyway, not a part of an end-time scenario, but a horrible, quasi-moral experience. It became clear to me, that though force must always be united with justice, one never relishes the use of force, whether conventional or unconventional.
Then there was a third important pietist, Dr. Nils Lund. Lund had been Gust F.'s target for many years, in that he was an example of the learned scholar who was, from Gust F.'s perspective, oblivious to the real truths of biblical prophecy. In my classes with Lund, I heard that biblical Israel had forfeited its rights to the promises of God; the New Israel, the Church, had become the recipient of those promises and all the literal, end-time scenes must be rethought. I learned, too, that one must always be aware of the people in concrete situations to which the various books of the Bible were directed — that God did not "shoot over their heads" to give people in the 19th and 20th centuries materials for charts and time-schedules.
One day in 1952, Lund stopped me on the sidewalk, talked for a while and then, to my surprise, said, "Would you like to have a coke and talk some more?" I was amazed that this old world figure even knew the word "coke." We went to the "Caf," he paid for my drink and informally he shared some of his ideas on the meaning of the book of Revelation which he had studied since the early '30s. He had just completed the manuscript for a book, Studies in the Book of Revelation, and was excited that it was being published by Covenant Press. I found out that Revelation was not future-oriented, but was a message of hope to Christians in AD 95 who were suffering persecution because they would not call Emperor Domitian their "Dominus et Deus." To quote briefly from his 1953 book, which, by the way, I highly recommend:
.. . . The book (Revelation) is a liturgical document, which was written to be read in public and to be read in toto at one time.... When we read this book from the early church, we should visualize a congregation on the eve of a great persecution. These Christians are gathered to receive aid and comfort that will help them to overcome in the impending struggle with the Roman Empire. The book was written to convey such encouragement as was needed.... The book is addressed to a definite situation.... But the visions also describe one who is greater than all of them and shows how he and his church will win the ultimate victory. Through the clouds of battle on earth, now and then, gleams break forth from the heavenly world. That world, though hidden by the mists of the struggle, is, nevertheless, real. Christians are already its citizens and share in its glory, even while they are struggling to realize its ideals in an imperfect world. Although they go down in the battle — and they are not promised escape — the cause for which they die will live after them and at last triumph over all evil. (pp. 13, 249-250)
Lund reminded us in class of the tenacity with which certain viewpoints and customs are held in the Covenant. He said change will come, but it takes time. Some people are like those brown oak leaves that refuse, come high winds and storm, to fall during the cold winter. But, with the coming of spring and the flow of new juices in the stems, even the resolute leaves have to give way. And so it is, he said, in the Spiritual realm! Old, stubborn ways of looking at things finally change.
The millenarian battles the pietists fought as they tried to be faithful to the Word are, I take it, mostly old hat for us. Does anyone worry anymore whether the rapture is before, or during, or symbolic; whether the pre-, mid- or post-tribulationists have it right? Even Hal Lindsey, who was big in the '70s, now seems to be writing religious pop psychology. It's not good, but then anything is better than his older stuff!
Three pietists within one fellowship. One caught my attention as a kid; two held it during my years of academic preparation. Scores of other pietists have been a part of my growing environment. Thanks be to God for the inspiration of these who broke the trail and cut away so much underbrush. We have profited from their experiences, their devotion, and their passion for truth as they saw it. Though the pietists of another day inspire us, we must individually find our own sources of strength, hope, and character as we make our own tracks.