The Hardin-Simmons University 2014 Winter Commencement Address By Travis Frampton, Ph.D.
Travis Frampton, Ph. D.
Professor of Biblical Studies,
Associate Provost and SACS Liaison
This morning I want to tell you a story I hope you will never forget. It’s the story of a man of very humble beginnings who went on to do amazing things after he graduated college. We’ll call our protagonist Barlow. His father, William, was a farmer; his mother, Clarissa, he had no memories of, for when he was five months old she was thrown from a carriage, hit her head on a stone wall, and died.
Barlow was the youngest of five children; the oldest, Harvey, became a farmer like his father, whereas Edward, Julia, and Amanda each became school teachers. It was Edward and Julia who reared Barlow when he was a child. Later in life Barlow recalled that if it weren’t for his brother’s instruction and his sister’s love, he would have followed a wayward path. For you see, when Barlow was young, he had an independent, stubborn, and temperamental disposition. He was also very skeptical of religion. He credits his brother Edward for his coming to Christian faith during his adolescent years. Through his brother’s example, gentle persistence and patience, Barlow’s perspective regarding Christianity began to change. Although he was greatly agitated because he felt Christianity was being forced upon him, he stated in his own words: “I could not bear the Bible, and though my father had offered me [money] to read the Book through, I would not do it. [Then] . . . one day as I was walking along the road I realized that Christ was a great and loving Saviour, and I accepted him as my Redeemer, and immediately sweet peace filled my soul.”
In addition to fraternal love, if it weren’t for the motherly care provided by his sister Julia, his life would have been drastically different. In his eulogy for her, Barlow fondly recounted, “When at the early age of fifteen, I felt compelled to run-away from my father’s house and seek a home in the wide, wide world. She was the first to write me a letter. . . . She was the one who wrote me most frequently and the most affectionately. . . . [H]er words and her advice . . . had the greatest weight upon my mind for I know that those words came forth from a heart which had loved me long and tenderly.”
After graduating from Brown University, for the next forty years of his professional career, Barlow dedicated his life to serving others. He once professed that no two uninspired thoughts had influenced him so strongly as these:
1. “The fact of my individual accountability to my Maker, is the greatest thought that has ever occupied my mind.”
2. “There is nothing in the universe that I fear, but that I shall not know all my duty or shall fail to do it.”
Every day was an opportunity Barlow considered to make the world a better place—to build up the Kingdom of God:
“Making the world a better place,” however, is often derided by cynics as nothing more than an idealistic and naïve platitude, one lacking substance, thoughtfulness, and pragmatic plausibility. It’s just too vague. Cynics thrive when times are desperate. And the days after Barlow graduated college were perhaps the most tumultuous days our country has ever experienced. Human rights were front and center in our national discussion. Was slavery moral? Was it just? Was it “Biblical”? More importantly, was it Christian? You see, Barlow graduated college in 1851, a decade before the Civil War, when a most contentious debate about the institution of slavery was at the fore of America’s consciousness. To complicate matters, Barlow’s chosen profession did not allow him to equivocate on the issue. In fact, it placed him front and center. He was a pastor and would spend the first decade after graduation finding his voice and articulating his own response to slavery.
Although he had his own opinions, which he kept relatively close to himself, the matter for him became clear when he assumed the position of pastor of the First Baptist Church of Indianapolis. In a letter Barlow wrote to friends back in New England—friends who had heard that there was an “incident” at his church and that as pastor he was given ten to twelve days to leave Indianapolis, or be covered with a coat of tar and feathers—he recounts witnessing an event that emboldened him to find his voice:
“A fugitive slave by the name of West, was tried here, soon after my arrival in this city. I attended the trial. The fugitive was a Methodist;—and the deputy marshal who held him in custody & who conveyed him each morning from the jail to the court room is I understand a member in good standing of the Third Presbyterian Church in this city. Once, during the progress of the trial the fugitive broke away from the marshal at the jail door, & fled for the fields. The Presbyterian marshal pursued his Methodist brother with revolver in hand, shooting at him twice before he caught him. My soul was horrified. I said to myself,—‘When, in the name of heaven, shall a man who fears God speak, if not now?’ I did speak. My subject was ‘The American Slave System tried by the Golden Rule.’
“My sermon of course, stirred up somewhat, the stagnant bile in the stomachs of those who differ from me in opinion. I should have been sorry had it not been so. It is a sign that pills are of the right sort when they create a movement. . . . Private circles talked about me. And I am told, that there is one member of my own congregation, recently over from Kentucky, who feels grieved with me.
“. . . And in reference to the ‘coat of tar & feathers’,—if it comes, I shall sit down & scrape myself as patiently, & at the same time as expeditiously as possible,—& immediately thereafter be up & at them again;—not with a sword of iron, but with ‘the sword of truth.’ My impression is that a little persecution would benefit not only myself, but most of my brethren in the ministry. We need stirring up. We should be much more effective preachers, if we could be favored with a coat of ‘tar & feathers’ say about once every twelve months.”
Three years after Barlow penned these words, the meeting house of his church was burned to the ground in 1861, the same year the Civil War commenced. Privately Barlow believed disgruntled locals had torched the building because of his strong anti-slavery stance. The same year the Baptist church burned, Barlow circulated a published version of another of his sermons entitled: “The Cause and Cure of the Rebellion.” The opening line reads: “All true Bible preaching is corrective in its character. Its tendency is to displace error and give room for truth, and so to restore in a [human being] the lost image of God.”
Later in the text Barlow identifies the cause of the rebellion as the American slave system and the cure of the rebellion, the abolition of slavery. He was dubious that any other explanation could be offered with respect to the cause or that any other solution could be offered as the cure. He also strongly identified himself as an abolitionist so there could be no misunderstanding of his opinion on the matter.
Six years later, Barlow stepped out from behind the pulpit and accepted the position of Corresponding Secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. By the time he had assumed this position, the bloodiest war to date in our country’s history (in terms of loss of American lives) had finally come to an end.
The first measure Barlow took in his new office was in helping to establish a school for freed slaves in the heart of the old Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. He gave systematic support to a school for freedmen who had been meeting in Lumpkin’s Jail, a notorious holding cell during the slave trade. This building was called “Devil’s half acre.” In the years before emancipation, slaves that did not cooperate with Mr. Lumpkin and his business in human trafficking were sent to the wretched confines of Lumpkin’s Jail and there punished in the most inhumane ways. Barlow upon hearing that the holding cell had been converted from a prison into a school room said the place should no longer be called “Devil’s half acre,” but “God’s half acre.” The school Barlow helped establish there was Richmond Theological Institute, which later became, what is now known as, Virginia Union University. In his role as Corresponding Secretary he went on to help start six institutions of learning for freedmen in the South, four of which continue to thrive as vibrant campuses today, among them, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, alma mater, Morehouse College.
The last college Barlow helped establish, he himself called “Christlieb College,” or the College of Christ’s Love. It was the farthest school west he founded, away from the political and social quagmire then still dividing the country along racial lines, even though America was again a united nation, but united in the most peculiar way as “separate, but equal.”
Christlieb was everything he dreamed a Christian college could become. Call it a place of hope. It was the culmination of his life’s work, a vision he had for the future, Christ’s love and a liberal arts education as an antidote to those things which divide a citizenry. Christlieb. Christ’s love: the unsurpassed love he received as a young boy from his brother Edward and his sister Julia. The compassionate love he had for the fugitive slave West. The unconditional love he had for freedmen in the South. And the unselfish, ever-present—but now realized—love that Barlow had for each of you graduates assembled here today.
For several years, on your way to and from classes, you have passed by Barlow—a man who in his day was both friend and correspondent with John D. Rockefeller and Booker T. Washington. Having lived most all his life in New York, he decided to be buried in the very heart of the campus of the College of Christ’s Love. It is this last college he helped found that has been called “the crowning achievement” of the life and works of Dr. James B. Simmons. The B is for Barlow. You are now living, breathing, purveyors of his vision for this special, sacred place, your alma mater.
Again, from Barlow’s perspective those who call themselves Christian have a duty and an obligation to their Maker:
1. “The fact of my individual accountability to my Maker, is the greatest thought that has ever occupied my mind.
2. “There is nothing in the universe that I fear, but that I shall not know all my duty or shall fail to do it.”
What is the greatest thought that has ever occupied your mind, and what is your duty toward fulfilling it, toward realizing it? Your answer to these questions defines you. Not asking these questions also defines you. You have earned your degree. Now answer these two questions.
In many ways, Barlow’s life is a living testimony to what is noble and best. We are reminded every day, whenever we walk past Simmons’s final resting place, that we share his vision and also aspire to the highest calling as alumni, faculty, and staff of the College of Christ’s Love.
Class of 2014, Hardin-Simmons University has prepared you for a life of service, to equip you to make the world a better place. Years ago, you entered Christlieb, which will now forever be your alma mater. Don’t be a cynic, an expert in the art of the deconstruction of vision and the deflation of dreams, one who lacks courage to imagine, creativity to posit new solutions to old problems, and the social skills necessary for collaboration. Our world has plenty of cynics. We need visionaries, like Simmons. So be imaginative. Posit creative solutions to old problems. Work collaboratively with your future colleagues; but, most importantly, serve others. Like James B. Simmons we have an opportunity to contribute to God’s work among us.
And, if you would do one personal favor for me before you leave Christlieb. Make sure you pass by Barlow one last time; but, this time stop, and thank him for making your world a better place.