The Committee for the Historian is publishing Choosing the Good Portion, a book telling the stories of many women who have made important contributions to the life of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church over the years. New Horizons editor Danny Olinger here interviews the two editors of that volume, Patricia E. Clawson and Diane L. Olinger.
NH: How did the idea for the book come about?
Pat: When Grace Mullen was battling cancer, I would visit her. Since she was the OPC archivist and was interested in OPC history, I told her about the vignettes on men and women that appeared in Today in OPC History on OPC.org. One day I mentioned Polly Gaffin. “What a marvelous person Aunt Polly was!” exuded Grace. She then leaned forward and said, “Pat, I think you should write a book on Polly!”
I wasn’t confident that I could write a book about her, but her encouragement made me think about the historical information available on OPC women. I wondered if the godly women who helped start our church would be forgotten. I asked the Committee for the Historian what they thought about a book that would tell the stories of the women of the OPC. They were excited and agreed immediately to support the project. However, I didn’t want to develop the book on my own. Diane Olinger, with whom I had collaborated on several New Horizons articles, loved the idea of this book and agreed to coedit with me.
Diane: I was excited to be part of the project after receiving Pat’s invitation to coedit with her. In years past, we had brainstormed about what we could do for women’s history in the OPC. For instance, we kicked around the idea of a cookbook with inserts about women’s history. We were looking for a format that would get people excited about reading about these women and also give us an avenue to research them. I was excited to see this come to fruition with Pat taking the lead.
NH: Once you had the idea of the book in place, how did you decide which women to include?
Diane: Pat and I spent several months thinking about this. Some women were easy to pick out, like many of the foreign missionaries. But we wanted to go beyond that. We researched the Presbyterian Guardian and New Horizons to find out about the contributions of other women. We sat down with individuals like John Galbraith and Charlotte Kuschke to gather names.
Pat: We also sent a communication to the stated clerks of all seventeen presbyteries and asked for recommendations from individuals and churches. Once we received the feedback, we were able to identify over ninety women whom we wanted to include in the book. We would have loved to feature many more women, but who could pick up such a volume?
NH: How did you find the authors to write the stories?
Diane: We wanted our writers to be either members of the OPC or those who were raised in the OPC. We tried to identify those women who had a personal connection with the woman they would be writing about, or who knew how to find the sources. Many of the authors turned out to be daughters, daughters-in-law, or friends of the person. That’s why we included short biographies of the authors at the end. We wanted to show the relationships that often existed, whether it was through a blood relation or through someone’s church family or through a common interest or ministry.
Pat: A good example of what Diane is talking about is Trudy Bosman. If you look at the bio, she and her husband moved deliberately near the Menominee Indian Reservation. He got a job in the community, so that they could serve there. So she wrote about Hermima Davies, who labored with her husband, John, in helping to organize an OP church on the reservation.
Diane: Fifty-five women accepted our invitation. They put in many hours researching and writing their chapters, and we couldn’t be more pleased with their work.
NH: What advice did you give your authors?
Diane: We tried to pick out stories in which you ask yourself while reading, “How did she have the fortitude to do that?” or “How did she have the time to do that?” This is why one of the things that we asked our authors to do was to find out what the struggles were for a particular woman. We didn’t want to hear only what her achievements were. What gave her problems? The Lillian Young chapter is a good example. Her daughter, Jean Gaffin, wrote that her mom had a melancholic personality. Even though Lillian found love and a productive life as a Christian, she still struggled with the early heartbreaks she had when both a fiancé and a husband died before she met E. J. Young. The answer in the Young chapter is that God was faithful to her, even as she struggled.
NH: How did you come up with the title of the book?
Pat: The title Choosing the Good Portion: Women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church comes from Luke 10:38–42. Martha fixed a meal for Jesus and many other guests, but was “distracted” in her efforts. Her sister Mary appears to have helped her, then “left” to sit with the disciples and listen to Jesus’ teaching. Martha was intent on “much serving,” and complained to Jesus that Mary had “left” the serving to her. Mary may have thought that what she had helped to prepare was adequate, so she sat down to listen to Jesus. He told Martha that “one thing is necessary” and that Mary “has chosen the good portion.”
The women featured in this book are like Martha because they served the church with great zeal. Yet even more they shared Mary’s love for God’s Word, and that was the reason and guide for their service. We believe these women chose the good portion. The stories relate not just that these women served in the OPC, but why they served.
NH: What came through to you from the stories about the women who served in the 1930s and 1940s?
Diane: Because at that time the OPC’s very existence was in question, the cause was ever present to them. They were fighting for the gospel itself. They were leaving the mainline church, where the inerrancy of Scripture and its foundational doctrines were under attack. So, for them, finding a truly orthodox Presbyterian church where they could worship was all-important. They were committed to serving the OPC in any way they could because the church stood by Christ and the Scriptures.
Pat: At the beginning, the commitment to the cause was much stronger. They all had to sacrifice and make very difficult decisions. They lost their pensions, their homes—all sorts of things— to come into this denomination. I think of someone like Hattie DeWaard leaving everything for the gospel.
My husband, Doug, and I made a decision to come into the OPC. We wrestled with all the issues. Our kids didn’t wrestle with any of them. Everything was handed to them. There is something to fighting for something, making a decision for something. It is much more precious.
NH: From reading the chapters, it appeared to me that these women were passionate about sound doctrine. Did that strike you also?
Pat: Yes. I think of Dorothy Anderson Barker. She wrote the Great Commission Publications materials that helped educate the next generation in the OPC on Scripture. I think her work there was tremendous.
Diane: I think you see that in Judith Dinsmore’s chapter on early financial contributors to the church. They were very careful about where they put their money. When Pastor John Galbraith and Gethsemane Church in Philadelphia in the late 1930s were seeking a loan from Miss Marguerite Montgomery to help purchase a building, she demanded first that she hear Mr. Galbraith preach. She wanted to make sure that he proclaimed sound doctrine. He passed the test, and she loaned the church the money.
NH: What did you learn from editing this book?
Pat: I have been amazed at what so many women have done over the years to serve the Lord in so many different ways. They were missionaries, pastors’ wives, VBS teachers, those who reached out to different cultures, and those who helped to start churches. That wasn’t easy, as some had lost their husband or a child, served solo, or struggled with their faith. And their service was so joyful, even in the midst of difficult times. I am hopeful that it will encourage us in our service today.
Diane: Many of these women served beyond hearth and home in their congregations, regional churches, and even the denomination as a whole. For example, in the 1930s, the Shillito sisters of Cincinnati were friends of J. Gresham Machen and instrumental in forming and financially supporting an OP church in their area, as well as contributing to Westminster Seminary.
The new church formed missionary societies and women’s presbyterial auxiliaries to encourage women’s involvement in presbytery-wide and denominational concerns, particularly foreign missions. JoAnn Vandenburg of Lark, North Dakota, faithfully journeyed to the Dakota Presbyterial, which sometimes met as far away as Texas. She had a large family and many responsibilities at home, but she believed it was important to enlarge her heart for God’s family in other places.
NH: Is this a book for women only?
Diane: This book was written for all the church—both men and women—because everyone can benefit by learning how these women chose the good portion. We think that women will especially relate to these stories because their own challenges, joys, and sorrows, as well as their opportunities for service, are similar.
Pat: I think this book is primarily for women. Women often learn from example. That’s how I have learned. I’ve learned how to do Sunday dinners and teach women’s Bible studies from watching other women. However, it is far more than that. It tells the history of the OPC and what the OPC went through in various times, and I think that is for everyone.
NH: Is the book for individuals or study groups?
Diane: While the book was written with the individual reader in mind, it could profitably be used by study groups. The book is divided into four parts, each emphasizing an aspect of one period in OPC history: (1) making sacrifices in the 1930s and 1940s, (2) building the church in the 1950s and 1960s, (3) opening opportunities for service in the 1970s and 1980s as the church matured, (4) and living for Christ in the 1990s and 2000s. Each of these parts could be examined both historically and devotionally. In other words, readers could ask, “What was God doing in the life of the OPC at this time?” and “What was God doing in the lives of these women, and what can I learn from their example?” This book will have accomplished its goal if you ask after reading it, “Am I choosing the good portion?”
NH: Which stories caught your attention as you were working on the book?
Pat: While I was truly blessed with getting to know all the women in the book, one in particular made me yearn to have such devoted, service-oriented moxie. Pat Hill, a widow, wanted to serve the Lord. When she heard about a fledgling OP congregation in Alaska, she packed her belongings into her car and headed there. Such a heart to build up God’s church!
Diane: One of my favorites is Florence Handyside. In 1949, Florence became the first single woman missionary in the OPC, serving in Korea. Months later, she contracted polio and died, becoming the first OP missionary to die on the field. Our author, Caroline Weerstra, made an already poignant story even more real to me.
I’m also very thankful for Donna McIlhenny’s willingness to share her story about how the saints at First OPC in San Francisco suffered intense persecution, even death threats and firebombing, for their gospel stance against homosexuality. This persecution took a terrible toll on Donna and its effects lasted for years. Her story was not an easy one to tell, but I think it will be a help to others.
NH: Is one of the goals of the book to encourage the younger generation of women in the church?
Pat: Yes. Recalling our heritage reminds us of who we are within Christ’s church. While much has been written about our faithful fathers in the faith, we also benefit from learning how their wives, sisters, daughters, and friends encouraged, supported, and suffered alongside them while they witnessed the OPC blossom and grow. By sharing the stories of these “older women,” we hope to “teach what is good” to the younger women (Titus 2:3–5). Recording the stories of those at rest with the Lord and those edging toward glory hopefully will encourage younger generations to steadfast service and sacrifice for the sake of Christ.
Diane: If you take any one of these stories, it may not seem like this person made a great impact in the world for Christ, but over time these ladies have enriched not only their own families, but also congregations and sometimes even presbyteries and the whole denomination, through their daily covenant faithfulness.
The ladies interviewed are both members of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. New Horizons, October 2016.