Nearly 100 years ago my great-great grandfather, T.T. Martin, descended upon Dayton, Tennessee, in the heat of July. Typically, his evangelical fame would have been enough to draw crowds in any Southern town he may have visited, but in this particular case, he was following the crowd. They needed his perspective, his vision, his truth, his influence, all of which he believed would be the difference between damnation and salvation for millions. John Scopes and evolution were on trial, and thus, as far as he was concerned, so was Christ.
Martin acquired a permit to preach on the courthouse lawn every evening of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial and set up his book shop across the street. It was here that he sold books authored by himself, William Jennings Bryan, and Alfred McCann, a Catholic and Creationist. As field secretary of the Anti-Evolution League and editor of its journal, The Conflict, my ancestor knew that this was an opportunity to appeal to a large audience. The message? Teaching the scientific theory of evolution in public schools is the worst evil imaginable because it will be the damnation of all young people to whom it is taught.
To understand the intensity with which Martin and others of his ilk believed in this evil, consider the following from his quotable best-seller Hell and the High Schools:
Were even your enemy’s house on fire, would you stand by in indifference and let his child be burned alive? Yet that child’s being burned alive is as nothing when compared to that child’s spending eternity in hell. You would go to the limit in helping to rescue the child from the burning building. Isn’t saving a soul from spending eternity in hell ten million times more important than saving a human body from a burning building?
The Germans poisoned the wells of Belgium and Northern France, that the children who came to drink might be poisoned and die. They were angels, compared to the men who put such poison as this in the wells and springs from which our children come to drink a little learning.
The Germans filled aeroplanes with poisoned candy and flew over Belgium and Northern France and poured it out so that the poor starving Belgian and French children might eat it and die—they were angels, compared to those who, paid by our taxes, stand as teachers and feed such poison to our children.
The simple response to Martin’s words is to dismiss them, but it would be easy to falsely frame or interpret them as well. Some might chalk them up as hyperbole, claiming that he is exaggerating the terror of evolution in order to get across a simpler truth, like the inerrancy and inspiration of Sacred Scripture or the value of faith. However, a simple study of the man makes it clear that this is a false reading; we may not be literalistic when it comes to Genesis, but we must be so with Martin and take his words at face value.
Others may claim Martin’s words to be little but fear-mongering. An anachronistic application of our current tribal climate in which alarm and panic are the motivational tools of choice is all too easy. I do not doubt that he was attempting to instill fear in his Christian audience, but that is different than the kind of fear-mongering that deliberately twists a truth into something with inevitable and evil consequences. Was Jesus fear-mongering when he warned his audience of the dangers of the destruction of both soul and body in hell or of the alternative uses of a millstone?
It is clear that another word is needed to describe Martin and his cohort of anti-evolution crusaders, and that is this: convicted. Or, you may say, sincere. There is no doubt that Martin et al. were convinced to the core that the path to hell for millions of young people was a scientific belief that contradicted a literalistic reading of the creation accounts, and it is my contention that, while leaving their inaccuracies about faith and science behind, it is time for Christians to reclaim this mostly forgotten heritage of our ancestors.
From Paul, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory to Thomas, Catherine, Mother Teresa, and John Paul II, all possessed not only the truth, but the conviction that it was true, and further still, the conviction that falsehoods can and do have the devastating effect of ruining lives and damning souls. This means that the faith is not merely a private matter, as the Left would like it to be, but a matter of urgency for all within earshot.
While leaving behind the inaccuracies regarding faith and science, the Church will need more than ever the conviction of my great-great-grandfather. This conviction is marked by courageous truth-telling in the spirit of love, and that is cleansed of wishy-washy non-answers to difficult questions that try to save face or spare feelings.
Recent surveys into the exodus of young people from the faith reveal that rarely is there a decisive moment in which a Cradle Catholic makes a rational decision to abandon the Church. Rather, it is a gradual slipping away and abandoning of one teaching after another, like an untethered boat drifting out to sea. The needed response is, of course, a sincerity of conviction for the truths of the faith. However, this does not mean a dispensing of love for those in the desks or the pews, but rather a restoration of it.
The famous journalist H.L. Mencken, who was assigned by The Baltimore Sun to cover the Scopes Trial, was once cornered by T.T. Martin and asked if he was saved. Given the reputation of the man, one may expect Martin to have been all fire and brimstone. However, Mencken recorded Martin to be not aggressive or angry, nor rude and overbearing, but amiable.
As always, and in all encounters, we represent Our Lord, who treated all he encountered with a special dignity. But we have to remember that even Jesus was willing to lose disciples on account of the truth He preached, and He (perhaps Judas aside) almost never lost them gradually. If we continue to go along to get along in our educational and evangelistic efforts, are we really imitating Christ? The best path forward in rebuilding the Church in the West is to stop the bleeding, but that will never happen if we relegate the wound to a personal matter.