Several years ago I was in Anamosa, Iowa—a typical small town whose claim to fame was that it was once the home of an artists’ colony founded by Grant Wood. You are probably familiar with Wood’s famous painting American Gothic in which Wood intended to depict an Iowa farmer and his daughter (not his wife as is commonly assumed).
Sandy and I spent an afternoon visiting the shops along main street which was populated by quaint little shops and antique stores. After enduring several of these stores I began to look for a place to retreat while still feigning an interest in whatever caught my wife’s attention. We turned a corner and I found it, a used book store! Sandy is as excited about old books as I am about antiques so we both heaved a sigh of relief knowing we could each enjoy some browsing time unhindered by a bored spouse.
You have to understand the mindset of a bibliophile to appreciate the joy of exploring a used book store. I remember well the bookshop in Seattle where I found a complete set of Lange’s commentary (30 volumes) for $20 and the little store in Montana where I bought a copy of Henry Sweate’s commentary on the Greek text of Mark—for fifty cents!
This particular bookstore was memorable because it was there that I picked up an old, heavy tome entitled Historical Sketches of Iowa Baptists (c. 1886). I almost passed it up as they wanted $2 for the book which, upon first perusal, appeared simply to be the dreary records of church statistics, pastoral moves, and financial statements. It sat on my desk for several weeks before I picked it up and realized what I treasure I had.
The author, known only by his initials S.H.M., was a man I would have liked to have known. He had a sharp wit and a warm heart. As he recorded all the mind numbing facts and figures about Iowa Baptist churches he would insert a comment, a wry observation, an exhortation, an hilarious aside, and even a painful pun here and there. I found myself combing through page after page of minutiae just to find his hidden gems.
On page 227 he records this from 1869:
Rev. D. N. Mason has resigned at Cedar Falls, and they are without a pastor though they report 30 baptisms this year. How sad it is that just after a revival of religion, and oftentimes when there has been a large in-gathering, needing the greatest care, then the minister has to leave, and the lambs are left to the wolves! Is it the fault of the minister? or of the Church? Or of both? Is it not true that while in modern times we magnify the first part of the Great Commission, “Go, and make Disciples,” we have too much overlooked the second part, “teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you”?
Reading between the lines, I suspect S.H.M. knew more about the situation in Cedar Falls than he was willing to commit to his historical record. Still, his point is well taken. I am convinced it is something Churches would do well to consider 150 years later.