W. Carl Ketcherside was at last persuaded to put into serial form the story of his life, which he chose to call "A Pilgrimage of Joy." The title itself speaks well to the life of this unusual man, for his earthly sojourn was indeed that of a pilgrim, which to him meant that his life was a plan of God and that his destiny was to fulfill the purpose God had for him in this world. He was a man who was "on his way" to something higher. He was a sojourner in a world that was not his home, but as he passed this way he was joyfully involved in making his own contribution to what he called "this interesting world."
His life was a pilgrimage of joy largely because he made it so by his winsome sense of humor, his contagious enthusiasm, and his undying optimism. If these ingredients — humor, enthusiasm, optimism — do not always make for a joyful pilgrimage in this world, they certainly did in the life of Carl Ketcherside. He was an "up" person who never saw a "down" day. He was a delight to be around, and he had a knack for making people feel good about themselves when in his presence.
Before he brought his monthly journal, Mission Messenger, to a close in December, 1975, after 37 years of publication, we agreed that he would begin immediately to write regularly for my publication, Restoration Review. He announced to his readers that while his paper would no longer be published, they could keep in touch with him through my paper. Many of his readers who were not already taking Restoration Review became subscribers. From 1976 until his death in 1989 he wrote regularly for my paper, his last articles being published posthumously. I think some of his best writing was done in these years in the pages of Restoration Review, perhaps because he was free of the ordeal of having to edit his own paper. And in my paper he knew he was free to say whatever was in his heart and mind, with no strings attached.
I urged him to begin writing his autobiography in serial form on a monthly basis, and to continue as long as seemed appropriate. He wrote for four years (40 installments), supposing that would be sufficient. I encouraged him to continue until he finally wrote for six years, concluding his 60th installment, "Last Time Around," in December, 1981, which chronologically brought his life story up to the time he closed down Mission Messenger. If the series appears a bit disconnected in places, which it may, it should be remembered that it was first published in serial form and without defined parameters.
What is important is that Carl has told his own story in his own way. He was encouraged to make it a kind of intellectual autobiography, reflective of the changes in his thinking through the years. The reader will see that he does share the drama of some of the changes that turned his life in a different direction, from that of a "wing commander" of a narrow sect, a term he frequently used to describe his old life as a sectarian, to that of an envoy of peace, unity, and fellowship through forbearing love. This is especially evident when he describes his own life as a polemicist and how he changed his mind about debating his own brothers in Christ, and when he tells how, after 25 years in the ministry and baptizing thousands, he at last on a wintry night in a little chapel in Belfast, Ireland invited Jesus into his heart, renouncing forever his sectarianism.
It was understood that Carl eventually would write a prologue to his autobiography, bringing the events of his life, along with some of his most recent thinking, up to date. But he never got around to writing that final word to his "Pilgrimage of Joy," which would have been reflections on his life during those last years. It turned out to be more than 14 years from the time he ended his narrative with the demise of his journal to the time of his death.
One purpose of this introduction, therefore, is to fill that 14-year gap with a summary of what he did during those years and in what ways his ministry developed. It will of course have to be brief, for Carl's life, along with his wife Nell's, was as busy as ever once he closed down their journal. As Carl put it, he was as busy as ever but the pace was different. He continued to write extensively for several journals. Within a month of closing down his own paper he had several essays for Mission, Integrity, and Christian Standard, as well as for Restoration Review. He was especially pleased to do a series on the American Bicentennial for the Standard.
Up until the last few years of his life he had travelled and lectured among the colleges and churches as much as ever, and he made several significant journeys abroad. But the most important change in his life in the post-Mission Messenger years was the founding of Cornerstone in 1983, an inner-city mission in St. Louis, which appears to have captured his heart and mind more than any task he had ever set his hand to. It soon dominated his and Nell's life, and they would have it no other way. If Carl's view of ministry changed in those last years, I think it would be that he came to see a greater need for work among the poor and needy than among the established churches. He turned down invitations to hold seminars and give lectures in order to join Nell and others in passing out blankets, food, and clothing at the Cornerstone. He taught as many classes, but now it was mostly in the inner city and at Oak Hill Chapel, his home congregation.
He may have become sort of "burned out" on visiting so many churches for so many years. In the innards of his beloved St. Louis he was among the rank and file, and that is what he preferred. But he was no less active. He was always revving it up, always on the go, always doing something, up to the day he died. In those last days, when he was giving so much of himself, a friend who was concerned about his apparent fatigue threatened to call his doctor. "You leave that doctor alone," he insisted, as he proceeded to the Cornerstone. He died the way he would have preferred, with his boots on, with his heart on the present and his eye on the future. After one more busy day, he committed his soul to God's safekeeping, got in bed, went to sleep and woke up in heaven. A neat way to do it if one can manage it!
If there is a diary on that last decade and a half of his life it would be in the many letters he wrote to people all over the world. He was an inveterate letter writer, many of the letters being written in longhand, which reflected his gifted penmanship, which won him prizes in his youth. His handwriting did not change with the years. His hand was as steady and eloquent at 81 as it was 37 years earlier when we first began to correspond. Many people have mentioned to me through the years two things that impressed them about corresponding with Carl: that he would bother to write to them, and that he had such a beautiful hand. He delighted in writing love notes, especially to those who were critical of him, and it was common for him to write words of commendation to the author of an article or a book he had read.
We corresponded regularly for almost four decades. Realizing that his letters would one day have historic value, I carefully preserved them, hundreds of them. Carl's letters are a mirror of the real person that he was, occasionally prideful but always showing his strength. Here are a few lines from some of them, all taken from the last 14 years of his life:
Anticipating what he might write in his autobiography about his association with the Daniel Sommer family, who played a significant role in our history, he wrote in 1976:
I suspect that in dealing with the Sommer family I shall let loose some news not previously known. It is certain that I will show the influence of editors in perpetuating division.
Reuel Lemmons, longtime editor of the Firm Foundation, was often critical of Carl's more open views of unity and fellowship. He editorialized Carl as "Blind in One Eye" and would not allow him space to reply. They pilloried each other in their papers. But Carl was never vindictive nor did he hold grudges, as this note early in 1989 would indicate:
I am saddened by the passing of Reuel. Now our disagreements of the past seem as a dead leaf blown by the wind. I am especially sorry for his good wife who has been a chronic invalid for years. I earnestly pray that the brethren will help and sustain her.
Sometimes he was philosophical, as in this note on the occasion of the release of the hostages in Iran on the eve of President Reagan's inauguration:
To be free, as the hostages said, is the greatest blessing in the world, and I am sure that the hostages to systems feel the same way. What a great thing God is doing for us in these days!
And he was sometimes introspective, as in this reflection in 1981:
It is kind of frightening to think that all of us are leaving our imprint upon the record. It should make all of us a little more careful when we realize that years after we slumber in the earth men will borrow what we have said and use it to His eternal glory or to His detriment. It makes us all feel much more humble as we are called upon to touch the sordid lives into which people have become trapped and snared and to which they are held hostage.
This paragraph on part of his itinerary for 1980 is typical of the three attributes already referred to: his humor, enthusiasm, and optimism:
I leave for Palisade, Colorado next Wednesday and will be in all kinds of gatherings there. It is a great opportunity to really go all out in the work in that section. Then the next week I am going to Portland, Oregon for a couple of meetings. It is evident on almost every side that God is at work through His Spirit bringing about better days. I am thrilled with what I am looking at all over America and Canada. Would Alexander Campbell have loved these days!
If Carl was an inveterate correspondent, he was also a consummate reader. He was usually reading several books at one time, as indicated in this 1981 paragraph:
I am currently reading three books. This is a regular practice of mine. Two of them are 'Karl Marx: A Christian Assessment of His Life and Thought' and 'C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity.' I find both of them highly fascinating. The erudition of the latter is extremely impressive. The third book seems also to be vastly interesting since it contains a kind of panoramic survey of a land in which I grew up. The book is 'Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier' by Joanna L. Stratton. The introduction is by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. It is fascinating. It gives you a new impression of the strength and courage of women. Not that I needed that, because I have always believed in it.
Concerning a stay in the hospital he wrote in 1986:
I spent a week in the hospital with a surgery for prostatitis. But I refused to be kept in bed too long, and through his marvelous grace led my roommate back to Jesus and visited all 21 rooms in Section 1100. I met all kinds of people from all over and we had some thrilling talks about Jesus. You can talk to people in the hospital easier than anywhere else. We are having a great time as we grow older.
He had a way with words, even in his letters. This comment on the Flew-Warren debate, which was held in my home town and billed as "the debate of the century," is vintage Carl Ketcherside:
Your article on the debate was terrific. That was a first-class fiasco and a goldbrick if ever there was one. I think those who promoted it thought that it would place 'the Lord's Church' in the forefront of defence of truth in the evangelical scholastic world and most of them did not even know the debate of the century was being held. It was like inviting the whole world to a gigantic fireworks explosion and then having the firecrackers fizzle and the Roman candles backfire. No wonder people are confused. What with one affirming there is a God and acting as if there was, it is enough to blow your mind and put you in orbit.
In those latter years he was always reporting on his ministry at Cornerstone, which became his first love:
Nell and I (well, myself at least) are having a 'ball' at the Cornerstone. I'm getting ready to teach a Bible Study on Monday mornings. We were there yesterday and helped some of the most sorrowful looking people I have ever seen. Worst are the abused wives. I had experience in a drunken husband stabbing his wife and the children were back home the next day. It goes on continuously! We gave away more Bibles last week than at any time since we turned the place from selling spirits to giving away the Spirit. The river of life is flowing as He said that it would.
He was always writing about Nell. Not only did he tell her every day how much he loved her, but he often told Ouida and me how much he loved her. We were kept posted on her several serious illnesses through the years, and rejoiced that in 1988 she appeared much improved. Then in August of that year she went home to be with the Lord. A few days later Carl wrote to us about the end:
Nell left us very suddenly. She died almost immediately of a massive heart attack. I arose and opened the bathroom door, not having heard a sound from her. She was lying doubled up with her head between the stool and the tub. I tried to get her to say something but she was gone. She detested formality so much that at her large funeral services at two places — here and at Flat River, I spoke briefly to the crowd, introduced Sue (Mrs. Sue Burton, their daughter) who read the poem enclosed, the four grandchildren sang her favorite song. I asked for those who wanted to pay tribute to her to raise their hands and speak, and we followed with a few words from a brother. I went back to work teaching the next morning. It was hard.
Yes, it was hard. After 60 years of having Nell at his side it was a bit too much for Carl to go it alone. He himself now had less than a year to live. In a letter postmarked the day he died, May 24, 1989, which is probably the last letter he ever wrote, he summarized the agony of the lonely months that had passed: "I am disappointed in myself. I thought that I had the power to overcome grief or anything else which was my lot. I found that I simply do not have." In the same letter he wrote of his engagement to Fran Woodside, a widow in his home church, a former Roman Catholic whom he had baptized into Christ. She had been a friend to both Carl and Nell for several years.
He explained his need to marry to the folk at Oak Hill Chapel: "The loneliness finally got to me. I asked Fran to marry." He said he did not want to live with his children nor in a nursing home. He and Fran would take care of each other and serve God together. They even planned a Hawaiian honeymoon. But it was not to be, for the end came for Carl several months before the proposed marriage. But again this is vintage Carl Ketcherside, who even at 81 was living on the growing edge, excited by the present and awed by the future.
At our last visit together in Hartford, Illinois, only a few weeks before his death, he was pleased that I was not among those who were critical of his plans to marry. He knew that I understood that a man can be devoted to a woman for 60 years, and then, once she is gone, marry another without in anyway reflecting upon the first marriage. On that occasion he extolled the virtues of his late wife and reconfirmed his love and appreciation for her, and then said as he gestured helplessly, "But she isn't here anymore." It was a touching testimony to the beauty and importance of marital companionship. Since Carl's death I have kept in touch with Fran and find her to be a brave woman who has frequently been smitten by life's vicissitudes, one who has learned to yield to the power of God's healing.
The most significant single event in Carl's life during those last years was his attendance in 1983 at the International Convention of Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam, Holland. His enthusiasm for this conference is indicative of the changes that God had wrought in his life through the years, and is reflective of the contribution he was able to make to his own people. If the experience back in 1951 in the little church in Belfast had liberated him from sectarianism, the world evangelism conference in Amsterdam in 1983 confirmed his commitment to the church catholic. It was a rare ecumenical experience for a man who had been years preparing himself to appreciate it. In four installments in the 1984 Restoration Review he tells about the conference and what it meant to him. His evaluation is a commentary on his own pilgrimage of one blighted by the factional spirit to one enlightened by an ecumenical outlook. It is his own testimonial that it is only the love of Christ that can break down partisan walls and make believers one in heart and soul.
There were evangelists present from 174 countries, representing virtually every Christian community in the world. Many from the Third World were so poor, being ministers who supported themselves by some trade, that they were provided a change of clothing during the convention. Carl tells of talking with evangelists, sometimes by translation, from Namibia, Zambia, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and several South American countries, to name a few, and he was in seminars with some of the great evangelists of the world. He listened to men who were experienced in witnessing for Christ to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and communists. He heard Michael Green of Oxford, an Anglican, at one session and the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church at another. He sat with Baptists from Yugoslavia and with ministers from the Armenian Orthodox Church.
For ten days he was with leaders from denominations that he had not even heard of before. It was at a gathering of the church universal, the first of its kind in history, and he was impressed that it had but a single theme, Jesus Christ and him crucified. They were there to encourage each other and to learn better how to witness for Jesus Christ in today's world. Carl was an enthusiastic participant, describing it as "a mind-blowing experience." The great truth that he had shared with so many for so long proved true for him in Amsterdam in a special way, that "Wherever God has a child I have a brother or sister."
He tells how one morning as he was walking to one of the sessions he was approached by two men on the street, Arabs, who were curious about the conference, and, seeing Carl's identification badge, asked him what it was about. Carl missed the session so as to spend an hour with the men. He told them that the meetings were not about a what but about a who. He told them that Jesus Christ was the only answer for our ripped-off world. What Carl told those Arabs is a fitting description of what had happened in his own life, and it points up the message that he gave to his own generation. He moved from all the "whats" of sectarian opinionizing to the "Who" of the Christian gospel. When we first met he was majoring in the "whats." When he died he had given the best half of his life in majoring in the "Who." And what a difference that made, not only in his own life, but in the multitudes that his ministry touched!
Home from Amsterdam, he was asked by his critics what such a conference could possibly accomplish. His answer, as I see it, is a suitable commentary on the significance of the life and ministry of Carl Ketcherside:
I think we must face the fact that, like the generation contemporary with Jesus, many of us are blind and cannot see afar off. Long life and continuous drudgery in one of the more legalistic sects of this day have blurred our vision and dimmed our sight until 'we see men like trees walking.' We need 'the second touch.' Surgery for the spiritual cataracts which cause a milky film across our minds would help. Because of my past orientation I also went with no little skepticism. It was all blown away after my arrival.
In Amsterdam he saw demonstrated on a large scale the liberating truth that had long undergirded his plea for unity, that we can love and accept people, and enjoy the fellowship of the Spirit with them, without approving of everything they believe or practice. At that great conference he found confirmation for what he had long taught others, that we are to make nothing a test of fellowship that God has not made a condition for going to heaven. The only unity that is ever possible is unity in diversity.
Carl Ketcherside admitted that his vision was once blurred by sectarian bias. He once saw men like trees walking. But he received the second touch from the One who kept on changing his life and clearing his vision. And that second touch led him on his pilgrimage of joy.