Friday, April 2, 2021
The year was 1877. Today we remember the peculiar ministry of Mordecai Ham, Jr. The reading is from William Willimon.
It is the 2nd of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1877.
Ok… so, one of the fundamental human inclinations is to find both heroes and villains in all of our stories. Spiderman is better with Doc Ock, Finn the Human needs the Ice king, and the Angels are more fun to watch when they play the A's. Everything makes sense when there are clear-cut heroes and villains.
However, it appears that one of the fundamental teachings of Christianity is that we are all capable of the heroic as well as the villainous. Here on the Almanac, we tend to tell the story of the person or the event and give them a wide berth into the household of Faith. Take, for instance, the category of the Dr. Gene Scott All-Star. These cats tend to get double "oofs" from me for many reasons. The characters that we won't cover on this show have been so devastated by their actions that this medium can't always do service to the nuances of particular sins. And so on this show, we are left with a ragtag bunch of Christian heroes and villains. Of course, one person's hero might be another person's villain. Nevertheless, don't shoot the storyteller.
And so all of this is a preface to tell you about Mordecai Fowler Ham Jr. of Southern Kentucky. He was a colorful evangelist. If by colorful, we mean occasionally distasteful anti-semitic and anti-Catholic. But if you know Mordecai Ham, these perhaps aren't the things always told first about him.
Let's tell the story….
Mordecai Ham Jr was born on the 2nd of April in 1877. He was born on a farm near Scottsdale, Kentucky, to a family that boasted eight generations of Baptist preachers. By the age of 9, Mordecai declared he had the call to preach and, by 16, was the Superintendent of his church Sunday school. However, he decided to leave the family tradition when he went to Ogden College to study law. He didn't pass the bar, and so he became a traveling salesman. Mordecai claims that it was his grandfather's death that launched him back into the ministry. Ham became an itinerant evangelist. This means he didn't have one place to minister, but instead, he traveled much as a circus would. Ham may have sounded all the bit like a big top master of ceremonies with Organs and big tents. He believed that by approaching the town's "most hardened sinner," he could convert them, and this would lead to mass results. This is a short show, so let me read just one account.
"On the second night of the meeting, the moonshine crowd surrounded the church and threw rocks at the preachers. The leader threatened Ham with a long knife. Ham said, "Put up that knife, you coward...Now I'm going to ask the Lord either to convert you and your crowd or kill you." The bully died the next morning before Ham could get to his bedside. On the same day, a neighborhood sawmill blew up and killed three others in the crowd. That night he announced he wanted everything stolen to be returned before God killed the rest of the tormentors. Everything was returned. Eighty were saved in his revival."
Mordecai Ham, however, had a darker theological side. He believed that Jews were beyond salvation and that the ten tribes of the Diaspora ended up in America, thus making Americans the true heirs of Israel's promise. Furthermore, his anti-Catholic posturing was well known, and he claimed that to vote for the Catholic Al Smith against Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election meant you were, in his words, damned to hell. Just one more peculiarity. He claims to have converted 303,387 souls, which is very specific. Do with that what you will.
But perhaps you know the story of the time he preached to a rough crowd in North Carolina in 1934. He held many services near an abandoned home where kids were said to be incredibly naughty. It was here that Ham's message, a standard evangelical call for the day, caught the attention of one Billy Graham. Graham claimed this as his moment of conversion and kept the decision card he signed that night. Graham's ministry would diverge from the harsh fundamentalism and bigotry of Ham. Graham was not perfect but indeed represented a turn from fundamentalism to Evangelicalism… but that's a story for another day. Today we reflect on the peculiar ministry of Mordecai Ham and the work of God amongst all of us heroes, villains, saints, and sinners. Ham was born on the 2nd of April in 1877
The reading for today is a word from William Willimon reflecting on today, Good Friday
"Despite our earnest efforts, we couldn't climb all the way up to God. So what did God do? In an amazing act of condescension, on Good Friday, God climbed down to us, became one with us. The story of divine condescension begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. We thought, if there is to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down, down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the depths of hell. He who knew not sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite Hams include Honey Baked, Black Forest, and Hickory Smoked. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis whose favorite Mordecai was Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, Pitcher for the 1908 Chicago Cubs. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.
Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac
Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.