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Choosing the Good Portion, edited by Patricia E. Clawson and Diane L. Olinger

Linda Porter Foh

Choosing the Good Portion: Women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, edited by Patricia E. Clawson and Diane L. Olinger. Committee for the Historian, OPC, 2016. Hardback, 470 pages, $15.00. It is available here.

Here are some thoughts following my third reading of Choosing the Good Portion.

Family history is my favorite hobby, and I could gladly devote all of my free time to this research. Finding old documents and photos helps me find out what happened and when. Not as easily answered are the questions where in Ireland did my ancestors come from and why did they all settle in Philadelphia? If they hadn’t made certain choices, would I be here today?

My grandmother arrived from Ireland in 1912 and lived with her older brother and sister-in-law who worshiped at Grace Presbyterian Church in South Philadelphia. When my mother was growing up, her family sat under the preaching of David Freeman whose family were their neighbors and children her playmates. Mr. Freeman’s bachelor friend John Murray was a frequent guest in his home and worshiper at Grace. Mom came to know him well and regarded both men as spiritual fathers since her own father didn’t believe until his final illness under Mr. Murray’s witnessing. On June 11, 1936, Mr. Freeman became a constituting member of the OPC, and the following Sunday he walked out of Grace Church with my grandmother, her children, and a majority of the congregation following him.

In Choosing the Good Portion I found stories of my religious heritage that rounded out the memories my parents told me of the OPC’s early years. It’s a fuller picture of some of the fifty women whose names were recorded as constituting members of the new denomination and those who joined them over the decades, and how they worked beside the men whose names are more familiar in our church’s history. Having grown up in the OPC, I knew several of the East Coast ladies well, others from around the country were known by reputation, but most were new to me. It stirred long-forgotten memories and denominational prayer requests from years ago: Debbie Dortzbach’s kidnapping after Anna Strikwerda’s murder; the lawsuit against the McIlhennys and First OPC in San Francisco; the Falks imprisonment in Eritrea; as well as thanksgiving for new churches being planted around the USA and the opening and closing of foreign mission fields.

As the idea for this book took off, a request for names of women who labored for the OPC through its eighty years was emailed to all the presbyteries and shared around the denomination. At that time I was updating the 2016 edition of the OPC Ministerial Register, which includes the names of wives and daughters of most of the 1,141 OPC ministers from those first eight decades. I knew little about these women who had followed their husbands and fathers from congregation to congregation. So the proposed book seemed an interesting concept that would make a good addition to the existing OPC history library, but I wondered how many women might be suggested and then who could they persuade to do all that writing? And would they find enough background—particularly about our earlier, lesser known “foremothers”?

Choosing the Good Portion became a true labor of love. Ninety-three women were researched and written about by fifty-five OPC-connected authors, some who never met their subjects, some who were friends or family members, and two who wrote their own stories. I like footnotes and sources, and this book is full of them. Recent and older interviews of the subject or her family, old letters and self-published memoirs, materials and photos from the OPC archives, and articles from The Presbyterian Guardian and New Horizons, by and about these women, provided plenty of details to fill in the memory gaps. Since the Guardian is available online, it is easy to look up and read the articles cited and learn even more about these women.

The book’s purpose was not to extol each woman for her achievements but to recognize the struggles, sacrifices, and challenges she faced while serving her Lord and her church. How was her faith tried, and how did God sustain her in her labors? I found this aspect of the book most powerful, particularly in the lives of women who I remembered from my youth but who, unknown to me, had come through much before I met them. Such personal struggles rarely appeared as prayer requests in missionary letters which, to my young mind, made them seem like “super Christians” or plaster saints. Back then, women didn’t open up as readily as today, at least not publicly. But I’m sure each would sing heartily “Father, I know that all my life is portioned out for me.”[1]

Another theme that struck me was how God brought each woman into her place or places of service and how he prepared her for those good works she would do to his glory. Each woman’s tale is different, but there are similarities. Her original, admirable plans for serving the Lord took a different turn. Or she crossed paths with an OPC pastor or member, and her thinking was changed or her appreciation of the Reformed faith was deepened. Her beliefs led her to search for a church where the whole counsel of God was faithfully preached and, if necessary, work toward the establishment of such a congregation in the town where God had placed her. She was instrumental in the nurturing of the next generation of the OPC including future officers and their wives, either her own children or her spiritual children, and so the denomination grew as she planted, others watered, and God gave the increase. Do we believe in God’s sovereign purposes? Certainly, and sometimes he blesses us further by revealing how he worked and is working in the details.

My third reading? Oh, yes! After anticipating Choosing’s publication for over a year, I quickly devoured my copy, reading first about the ladies I knew and then back and forth until I had read each story. Finishing the last chapter, afterword, and index, I turned back to the first page and began again, this time more slowly and thoughtfully. The history of the OPC unfolds as each of these women built her corner of the church. Then, this spring, hunting for a particular detail, I decided to read it all again.

Two suggestions as you read Choosing the Good Portion. Keep tissues handy. It is inspiring, convicting, and humbling—as the story of God’s work always is. Don’t use Choosing as bedtime reading. Each short story can stand by itself, but it’s too tempting to read “just one more,” and you’ll be up all night.

For further reading about the book:

Endnote

[1] Hymn #444, original Trinity Hymnal (1961); #559, Revised Trinity Hymnal (1990); #500 Trinity Psalter-Hymnal (2018).

Linda Foh is a member of Pocono OPC in Reeders, Pennsylvania, where her husband, Tom, is pastor. She is web assistant for OPC.ORG. Ordained Servant Online, October 2018.

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