Pastor Beware (and Writer Too)

I call them preacher stories–those tales that pass from church to church, book to book, blog to blog. Sometimes corny, sometimes profound, they can inspire, accuse, challenge, amuse, surprise or inform.

I recently came across the same story three times, and it made me wonder.

First, as Scot McKnight tells it, Upton Sinclair (the early twentieth-century novelist and social reformer best known for his book The Jungle) “once read James 5:1-5 aloud to a group of ministers and attributed the words to Emma Goldman. That Sinclair had socialist leanings and that Goldman was an anarchist explains why the ministers immediately called for Goldman’s deportation.”

When we read James 5:1-5, we understand why this might be so:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

I also ran across the story about Sinclair and Goldman when reading David Nystrom. The third time was from Vaughan Roberts, except that he put it like this: “Those words [James 5:1-5] were read to a group of American ministers a few years ago. They clearly did not know their Bibles very well and were indignant. Their conclusion was that the writer was a dangerous anarchist who should be deported from the country.”

The differences in the stories caught my eye. Why the disparity? Did this mean the story was “enhanced” or even fabricated?

I looked further. As it turns out McKnight, Nystrom and Roberts all credited the story to Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. So I went to Sider’s book and found that he in turn attributed it to an unpublished 1975 sermon by Dr. Paul E. Toms, who was pastor of Park Street Church in Boston at the time. But, interestingly, Toms begins his retelling with these words: “I read some time ago that . . .”

Now the trail seemed cold. Where did Toms get the story? Was it an actual event or was it apocryphal? Was this an urban legend–preacher style? It did seem a bit preposterous that a roomful of ministers wouldn’t recognize this New Testament passage.

Decades ago, as a freshly scrubbed assistant editor at IVP, I worked on the first edition of Sider’s book. I don’t recall seeing this story but in any case have no idea how I could possibly have tracked this down. It would seem I would have had to read everything by or about Upton Sinclair to find out. Maybe I could do it with microfiche, but maybe not. Maybe calling a Sinclair scholar would do the trick. But I had neither time nor resources to do any of these.

Today, however, I just plunked a few key words into the Google search box. Before long, I had my answer: the story indeed comes from Upton Sinclair. It was in a book he wrote entitled The Profits of Religion. But it is not as Pastor Toms told it. In the book Sinclair attributes the quotation first to Goldman as published in her magazine Mother Earth and says, “Doubtless the reader is well satisfied that the author of this tirade is now in jail, where she can no longer defy the laws of good taste.”

He then goes on to quote several other activists of the day along a similar vein before confessing,

I might go on citing such quotations for many pages; but I know that Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman and Bill Haywood and Gene Debs may read this book, and I don’t want them to close it in the middle and throw it at me. Therefore let me hasten to explain my poor joke; the sentiments I have been quoting are not those of our modern agitators, but of another group of ancient ones. The first is not from Emma Goldman, nor did I find it in “Mother Earth.” I found it in the Epistle of James, believed by orthodox authorities to have been James, the brother of Jesus. It is exactly what he wrote–save that I have put it into modern phrases, and changed the swing of the sentences, in order that those familiar with the Bible might read it without suspicion.

No doubt Pastor Toms had read Sinclair’s book years earlier but didn’t quite remember how the story went and so passed it on as closely as he could recall. Sider and others did so in turn.

As it turns out there was no reading of James to a group of ministers. There was no outraged reaction to the unrecognized words of the Bible. It was instead a scenario imagined by Sinclair between himself and his readers.

But it made a good story.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

10 thoughts on “Pastor Beware (and Writer Too)”

  1. This is a powerful story, one which illustrates many points: The doggedness of researcher/editors like you, the power of Google, the decades long shelf-life of good stories, the fine line behind a preacher’s story and urban legend, the James-like ring of truth that still disturbs and that some Occupy Wall Streeters enjoy. I for one will pass this blog along to extend its shelf-life and give this original story even more legs.–Dietrich

  2. Thank you, Bro. Le Peau for your excellent report on a legendary kind of illustration. Fortunately, I had never heard the illustration, but I have heard of others like it (though if I were pressed right now I could not recall any of them due to the vicissitudes of age and etc.). There are all kinds of ironies in history and life. Here is one that is not religious, but is from the realm of family lore. My Great Grandfather was a cowboy in New Mexico in the early 1880s. One night a fellow rode into his camp and told him Pat Garrett had shot the town drunk two weeks earlier in order to get him off the hook. Yep, it was Billy the Kid. There is more, but that is enough to suggest that the history books often need to be rewritten from better perspectives. The same goes for sermon illustrations and even for theology. Just think how many sermons need to be rewritten in the light of the fact that Jonah’s unconditional prophecy of gloom and doom for Nineveh was given for another purpose than simply to foretell disaster. And if it was true for that prophecy, how about many others in the NT?

  3. Dr James

    Sounds like you have a very colorful family history. My wife has stage coach robbers in her background–and that money has stayed in that branch of the family for over 100 years now. History is a fascinating topic.


  4. Yes, the letter of James still disturbs. That’s for sure. I’ve been working in it again pretty deeply for the last few months. As they say, a good example of giving comfort to the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.


  5. And to think I intentionally told a tall tale in my sermon on Sunday–and then said it was a fiction! But what have I started? Well, if it didn’t actually happen, it should have! It could have!

  6. Sorry to call you out, Scot. But you are in good company, if that is any comfort. And I’m enjoying the commentary very much. Well done.


  7. Andy, your wife’s stagecoach robbing ancestors would have probably liked my ancestor who knew Billy the Kid and worked on a ranch for Jesse James, because one of the family members suggeted that he might have been “a hoss thief.” He was certainly a fast draw artist, shooting the heads off of guinea hens for Sunday dinner from the back porch. Fascinating cuss, and he lived until I was 8 years of age, but I did not find out about him until 40 years later. O yes, and they told me that he didn’t believe Jesse got shot in St. Joe. That was probably due to the fact that he was working for him after the fact or that he saw him some years later. Besides there were about 5 Jesse James and their gangs doing robbing to raise money for the South to rise again.

  8. As someone originally (long ago!) trained as an historian, I’m delighted to get “the facts straight!”

    What an amazing electronic world we inhabit. In the next edition of Rich Christians, I’ll try to remember to add a footnote.

    Ron Sider

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