From Magnolia to Mississippi

The song, “Once in a Lifetime,” by Talking Heads has been going through my mind quite often of late, especially the lyric, “You may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?'”

Never thought I’d find a kindred spirit in an eccentric Scottish rocker, yet here I am.

For reasons frequently murky to even myself, I recently moved from Kentucky to Mississippi. At a very tired 53, I thought that, maybe, I had one more transition in me. Living a landlocked life for virtually all of my existence, I’ve always loved the beach. Not the crowds or the mid-summer heat, but the awareness of the vastness of the world that I seem to experience nowhere else except standing at a point where land disappears underwater.

I get the slightest twinge of fear in those quiet moments, realizing how possible it would be to get lost out there on the water. I don’t feel the same about getting lost in Kentucky’s mountains, forests and hollers–although Lord knows, under the right circumstances, I could pull that off quite nicely with just one or two stupid moves.

In my few short months here, I’ve discovered a few things about Mississippi:

  • Whatever number of Waffle House franchises per capita you think could be considered excessive, double it, and you are getting close to reality.
  • Ditto Sonic.
  • They grow roaches big down here. The palmetto beetles I experienced in Georgia would be flayed into submission immediately by the monsters here.
  • When driving to Mississippi from Kentucky, Alabama becomes the largest state in the lower 48, extending all the way to the Florida Keys.
  • A fried oyster Po’ Boy is food of the gods.

I like the small-town feel of Gulfport. It has fewer than 70,000 residents. Most recently, I lived in Louisville, which is Kentucky’s largest metro, and home to more than 600,000.

I lived in Louisville for several years, and love many, many aspects of that great city. Still, I often felt like a fish out of water, having spent the first years of my life in small-town Appalachia before the family moved to an even-smaller town pretty much smack dab in the middle of the state.

You’ll notice that Magnolia (population 524) is in capital letters, however. (Note: this is a vintage map that incorrectly identifies the LaRue County seat as “Hodgensville.” The correct spelling is “Hodgenville” … It matters.)

The excitement and fun of the transition from Magnolia to Mississippi (the latter being the Magnolia State, by the way) is struggling to outweigh some fairly epic disasters regarding my new home. A dear friend tells me the house was suffering and I’m here to rescue it. An appealing thought, but Bruce Wayne, I ain’t.

My takeaway on the entire experience is that spontaneity often comes at a very high price, literally. Were I looking for a smooth transition to assure me of the wisdom of my decision, I’d be as lost as I sometimes feel when I look at the Gulf.

It is what it is.

I’m here. Loving my gorgeous 300-year-old live oak in the back yard, meeting new people, and after living in gas-gouging Louisville for more than a decade, reveling in $1.95/gallon unleaded.

How did I get here?

I’m trying to tell myself that answering that question isn’t really all that important. The bigger question is, “What now?”

Hell if I know. Stay tuned.

The cardinal is the state bird of Kentucky.

A brief post on taking risks


Back in April, I compiled some marketing hits and misses. A few of these are real stinkers, but it’s important to note that sometimes taking risks works out really well.

For example, consider my hometown’s public library who used the double entendre, Drop Your Drawers, to get donations of underwear for children served by their school’s family resource centers. So far, more than 300 pairs of “drawers” have been given, some of them slipped through the book slot over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

A couple of risk takers I really admire are the brain trust surrounding Kentucky For Kentucky, an irreverent and edgy online news journal with unique Kentucky-themed products. Griffin VanMeter and Whit Hiler were less than impressed with the commonwealth’s official motto, Unbridled Spirit, so they came up with their own. Then they started a crowdsourcing campaign to purchase time during the Super Bowl to shout their replacement to the proverbial mountaintop from sea to shining sea.

Whether they expected to generate the bucks necessary to be seen during the big game is unclear. Even though they fell woefully short of the money needed to purchase time during the granddaddy of all TV commercial platforms, the pair was rewarded for their audacity with some great coverage. There’s no way I’d refer to their effort as a marketing failure.

Whether you’re ready to take risks or just want to explore low-cost marketing for the first time for your business or non-profit, I can help. There’s no charge for initial consultations. Give me a call.




Birthplace of a president’s faith


One of the places I consider a “hometown” is the tiny town of Magnolia, Ky., located in the tiny county of LaRue. Our county’s claim to fame is being the birthplace of the 16th president. Of course, when Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, LaRue County did not exist. We were part of neighboring Hardin County. Many people do not know that Lincoln was a Kentuckian by birth, which is understandable. The Thomas Lincoln family left Kentucky for Indiana when Abraham was just a boy. Still, I love telling people where I’m from and offering up little factoids about our most famous son’s boyhood. On the bicentennial of the president’s birth, I wrote this story which was picked up nationally by Baptist Press.

Because of the volatile times into which Lincoln was born and to which he later contributed epic volatility, the question of his faith is one that fascinates many. We know Lincoln had crippling bouts of depression and suffered terrible losses in his life even before he became president. And the burden he experienced as commander in chief during the catastrophe of the American Civil War is one few of us could comprehend. I was intrigued to learn more about what is actually known about Mr. Lincoln’s view of God and Christianity. 

As Kentucky launches a two-year bicentennial celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln enthusiasts are sharing their views on the president’s spiritual journey — a journey that, like the man, began in the commonwealth of Kentucky.

Born three miles south of Hodgenville on April 12, 1809, Lincoln was only 2 years old when the family moved about seven miles northeast to a farm along Knob Creek. It was here that the future president’s parents, Thomas and Nancy, took the family to Little Mount Baptist Church.

It was a Separatist congregation whose main clergyman was an abolitionist, said Gary Talley, pastor of Magnolia (Ky.) Baptist Church and retired chief of operations at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site.

“There’s always been a wide range of speculation about (Lincoln’s) faith since he was not really affiliated with a particular church,” said Talley, who worked at the birthplace nearly 30 years. “But I really think his life seemed to reflect someone God was able to use for a purpose.”

According to Ronald Rietveld, professor emeritus at California State University in Fullerton, Lincoln’s lack of church affiliation, and the controversial writings of one of his former law partners, paint an incomplete picture of the president’s views about God, the Bible and the Gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ.

“In the end, his faith is his own,” said Rietveld, an ordained Baptist minister. “It isn’t something he has parroted from any particular church or movement.”

Many historians agree that the Lincolns’ anti-slavery sentiments were cemented, in part, because they regularly saw slaves driven past their Knob Creek farm.

“Bardstown was a major slave market,” said LaRue County Judge Executive Tommy Turner, co-chairman of the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. “The Lincolns lived along the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike,” a major artery through the state, he said.

“Seeing people in chains, families that were driven down the road like cattle, and all the horrors associated with that,” Talley said, “one would not be able to look at something like that and not be repulsed.”

The early 19th century was a time of church disputes that foreshadowed the traumatic political and military conflict yet to come. “South Fork (Baptist Church) was quite severely divided over the issue of slavery,” Talley noted.

Lincoln scholar Louis Warren wrote that 15 members of South Fork left the church over the issue in 1805 to form the Little Mount congregation about three miles from Lincoln’s boyhood home.

In that home young Abraham experienced his greatest spiritual influence, his mother. As president, Lincoln recalled his mother’s love for the Bible and how she taught her children Bible verses. In later years, the president “said he could hear her voice in certain scriptures,” Rietveld reported.

In 1816 the Lincolns left Kentucky for Indiana. Two years later, Nancy died. A local man, perhaps a Baptist layman, “prayed over her grave,” Rietveld writes, but later 9-year-old Abraham penned a letter to the pastor of Little Mount Baptist, asking him to travel from Kentucky to perform a proper funeral service.

“For a 9-year-old boy to want the preacher to come and preach his mother’s funeral — at a time when a 75-mile trip was a big deal — shows he had a very high regard for who that preacher was and the things he would say,” Turner said. The pastor honored the family’s request.

Scholars speculate there were aspects of the Lincolns’ strict Separatist teachings that perhaps chafed on Abraham as he reached adulthood. Perhaps his dismay was best illustrated when he decided not to join his father’s church in Indiana even though he helped construct the building.

According to Frank Masters’ “A History of Baptists in Kentucky,” many Separatist churches embraced Calvinist teachings so rigidly they eventually rejected missionary endeavors. Some scholars believe Thomas Lincoln’s Indiana congregation subscribed to such teachings.

By 1830, at the age of 22, Lincoln “seems to have held unorthodox religious views when he openly expressed skepticism toward the religion of his parents,” Rietveld wrote. Among those ideas was that God was without wrath or anger; 34 years later, it was obvious that opinion had changed radically.

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address “he deals with the issue of slavery but … in the context of God’s judgment,” Rietveld said, noting that the speech contains three quotations from the Bible and 10 allusions to Scripture. Other speeches followed a similar pattern.

Rietveld’s interest in Lincoln began about 50 years ago. In 2006 he devoted six months to organizing his decades of research with a specific goal in mind: writing an overview of the spiritual journey of the president.

“I’d never seen anyone pull those things together in one article,” he said. The view that Lincoln was not a believer because he never joined a church is a shallow one, Rietveld said. “I call it ‘churchianity.’ … I see a difference in the Lincoln who didn’t join a church and the Lincoln who has a growing relationship with God.”

The opinion of William Herndon has had a great influence on the topic of Lincoln and religion, Rietveld said. Only a year after the president’s assassination, Josiah Holland, an editor and devout Christian, wrote a best-selling biography of Lincoln that characterized him as “a true-hearted Christian.”

Rietveld said the description offended Herndon, one of Lincoln’s former law partners in Springfield, Ill., who said the president “held many of the Christian ideas in abhorrence.” Herndon’s writings characterized Lincoln as “an infidel” and a man “living on the borderland between theism and atheism.”

Rietveld said Herndon’s words are “not a fair estimation at all,” of Lincoln’s spiritual views. “Herndon never knew, in a personal daily way, Lincoln’s life in the White House years,” Rietveld said. “The Lincoln of the war years is a man whose faith deepened through crisis, repeatedly.”

When the president and his wife, Mary, arrived in Washington, they already had lost a son, Eddie, to illness; in 1862, another son, Willie, died. Biographer Ida Tarbell wrote that after Willie died, Lincoln’s “personal relation to God occupied his mind much.”

His faith also matured through the fires of war and the issue of slavery. Although finding slavery morally repugnant, Lincoln attempted to compromise on the issue, rather than risk secession by the Southern states. His attitude was transformed by war and a renewed conviction about the evil trade, Rietveld said.

“Today if a politician were to change views that like, he’d be called wishy washy,” Turner observed. “When you look at Lincoln, you have to look at his life as a whole. Religion and spirituality played a very strong part in his later life.”

In his research, Rietveld found a dramatic statement by Phineas Gurley, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., that seems to support this assertion. The Lincolns attended Gurley’s church regularly during their Washington D.C. years.

The pastor maintained that after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln said he intended to make “a public profession of his Christian faith.” He died before he could make a public profession but Rietveld said he has no doubt Lincoln was “a biblical Christian.”

“I would have liked to see Lincoln make a more definitive statement about his faith,” Talley said, “but maybe he made the most definitive statement he could simply by his actions.”

Lincoln was in Kentucky less than a decade, but Talley said he believes the experiences of this “LaRue County boy,” and the family in which he was raised, had a profound effect on the future president’s life and faith. “By the time he left Kentucky, the foundation had been laid for what he was later in life.”

Feb. 12, 2008 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder

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