In the early years of the past century, there were few areas of womanhood that were more in need of liberation than what some church congregations expected from their clergyman’s wife: A mousy, servile, unpaid assistant minister of every church activity from rummage to mimeograph.
One clergy wife who, in the last century, helped pioneer a breakdown of this dreadful ecclesiastical chattel system, began her marriage as the wife of an Army chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Her husband’s commanding officer, the superintendent, a major general, was a pompous martinet. He derived a particular pleasure in his sadistic needling of the wives of his junior officers.
One summer Sunday morning after an outdoor worship service at Trophy Point, this general was accompanied by his claque of staff officers – who could be depended upon to laugh at all his attempts at humor.
The general approached the young chaplain’s wife, snickered and asked:
“Madam: Since when is it appropriate for the chaplain’s wife to attend divine services without stockings?”
The staff officers chortled – as if on cue.
The chaplain’s wife, a native of Washington, D.C., where generals came by the hundreds, smiled sweetly and replied:
“General: Since when is it appropriate for the superintendent of West Point to spend his time during divine services inspecting the chaplain’s wife’s legs?”
The general and his staff – left speechless – executed a hasty retreat.
That afternoon and evening, this chaplain’s wife received 40 telephone calls of grateful congratulations from fellow officers’ wives.
She was the daughter of an attorney whose steel-trap logic had permeated the D.C. courts with dignified terror.
Among the many causes, most of them unknown or unfashionable, she embraced during her life was early backing of Margaret Sanger and her opening of birth-control clinics. She was also a rock of support when her husband was publicly pilloried (and given no support by his bishop) for being among the first 12 clergy who dared to give support to Mrs. Sanger.
Her lawyer-father had viewed with anguish the prospect of her marrying the son of a missionary. Seventeen years later, when his son-in-law accepted a two-thirds cut in salary to serve in the mission field, he very nearly had apoplexy – although he could see theirs was a near-perfect marriage.
For although this clergy couple could argue engagingly with each other for hours, no one who ever knew them, particularly their three children, ever once heard this deteriorate to any kind of fighting.
Not even when she created something of an uproar upon the occasion of a visit to their home of two very pious and rather pompous women missionaries.
When she offered these two a glass of sherry before dinner, they reacted, said she, “as if I had offered them a chance to bed down two sailors! So I poured three jiggers of rum into their dessert. They asked for thirds!”
She also created something of a scandal as the wife of a Protestant Episcopal bishop, volunteering to serve as a nurses’ aide in a Catholic hospital in the slums.
This was long before the blessed thaw in Protestant-Catholic relations brought about by Pope John XXIII.
“It is the only unsegregated general hospital in this city, and they need nurses’ aides down there,” she retorted to critics.
Later, in the operating room of this same hospital, she saw physicians desperately try to save the life of her 18-year-old son whose head injury was fatal.
She never got over the death of her son, or the death of her husband, just one year after his retirement. But at their funerals, her control and bearing was eloquent testimony to her unconquerable faith in eternal life and reunion.
I hope you will understand why, on this Mother’s Day, I remember with Kipling’s great verses:
If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine; mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine; mother o’ mine!
With that, I salute the memory of my mother, the late Edith Lester Kinsolving.
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