My great-grandfather, Calvin Berry Pierce, was a strapping man who wasn’t particularly patient, so my dad told me during one of our front porch conversations many years ago.
Therefore, I’m living proof that a less-than-positive trait can travel at least four generations.
Known as C.B., or the singular syllabic “Cebe,” he was one of 11 children born to John Calvin and Lydia Harvey Pierce. He spent most of his life in the northwest corner of Georgia near Lookout Mountain where my roots run deep.
Families like mine started settling these lands, usually coming from the Carolinas, after the federal government forcefully and tragically removed native Cherokees and reallocated the stolen property through land lotteries after such legislation passed in 1831.
Born in 1857, Cebe was nearing his 6th birthday when the bloody Battle of Chickamauga occurred in those surrounding and familiar fields and woods in September 1863.
His mother’s obituary noted the family “had gone through the hardships and trials of the Civil War,” and I’ve long wished for details.
When I asked my dad about his grandfather, he shared one story that probably is a good mixture of truth and embellishment.
Like in many rural settings at the time, the community of Rock Spring, Georgia, (often called Rock Springs) held an annual brush arbor revival when the crops were finished for the season.
Expectations for attendance were quite high. So C.B. did his civic and spiritual duties by attending each service.
One of Rock Spring’s more notable sinners came to one of the revival services, my dad said in passing along family lore. Every effort was made to bring this lost soul to salvation.
So, the revivalist preached long and hard, longer than C.B. had hoped. And when the invitation was extended, the invitation was really extended.
Verse after verse after verse; plea after plea after plea.
Some of the holier churched people gathered around the local lost target of their evangelistic zeal, praying aloud that he might acknowledge his sins (whatever they may have been) and give them over to Jesus.
Yet, their most fervent efforts didn’t seem to be working toward the desired end.
Finally, C.B. Pierce had enough of waiting on the Spirit and took matters into his own strong hands. Dad said his grandfather walked over and picked up the unconverted man in his big arms and carried him down to the front.
He placed the reluctant-to-repent man squarely on the mourner’s bench and said to the preacher in a booming voice that could be heard across Walker County, “He’s down here now, damn it. Save him.”
While being a Christian witness was highly valued in the community, C.B. had pushed past any acceptable evangelistic practice as well as acceptable church language.
My dad said that, shortly thereafter, his grandfather took off for Texas. I’m not sure the move was related to the revival incident.
But hearing that story for the first time, I joked that our ancestor’s more aggressive approach to converting assumed heathens might have been better appreciated on the new frontier.
Unlike many who went westward to settle the lands beyond the Mississippi River, ol’ C.B. returned home at some point. He was buried in the cemetery at Rock Spring United Methodist Church following his death in 1940.
It’s doubtful his purported and likely isolated missionary effort that one warm August night was what Jesus had in mind with his parting words in Matthew 28 that became known as the Great Commission.
But perhaps some lessons can be learned from the legend of C.B. Pierce and the incident at the protracted brush arbor service, whether the story could stand up to historical scrutiny or not.
First, one must wonder what made the unrepentant man a “sinner” as opposed to the redeemed. Then, as now, we tend to devise our own convenient lists of what counts as sin and what does not.
My guess is that the real ledgers were probably more balanced than the evangelizers could ever realize or admit.
Second, we must be careful to not assume that others can only experience God in the very same ways that have been meaningful to us. Such assumptions are often arrogant and misleading.
Had Moses insisted his encounter with God is the method and model for everyone else, we’d all be looking around for flaming shrubbery that never burns up.
Had Paul limited God’s revelation to his own experience, we’d be staring into the sky each day in search of a blinding light.
Surely, the God who packs more wonders into creation than we have yet discovered relates to humanity with creativity, versatility and individuality, beyond any one person’s divine encounter.
And while we certainly are called to lend helping hands, it doesn’t seem that God needs or wants our impatient or even well-intended coercion of the assumed unconverted.
Introspection, rather than outward judgment, seems more needed, allowing each of us to make our own way to the mourning for our sins.
At least that’s what I’ve picked from contemplating this family story that can’t be independently verified but is too good to not be passed along to the next generation.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.