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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough


The war that started in 1914 with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and involved the whole Eurasian continent had seemed very far away during my days of dawning spiritual awareness; days in which all dreams seemed real and only the good was enduringly true.

Suddenly on April 6, 1917, those dreams were shattered. Our nation was at war. The masses who didn’t raise their boys to be soldiers were adding that if their country needed them they must go. This was a war to end wars.

John Ring was a pacifist. He was one of a small minority. In the wave of war fever that swept over the nation, to be a pacifist was deemed almost the equivalent of being a traitor. My own feelings were probably no different from those of millions of young men who were entirely unprepared for the situation that confronted us all. My own first thought was that I couldn’t possibly be in what seemed to me to be mass murder. My second thought was a prayer that if I were involved I probably would be killed in my first battle. I had no concept whatever of all the indoctrination, drilling, and toughening that would precede being transported to European battlegrounds.

John Ring was determined that I must be no part of all that. I should claim exemption as a conscientious objector. He made an appointment with someone connected with the military establishment, taking me with him for an interview. He looked at us with wrathful scorn. “If I had my way I’d put him in the front ranks where he’d be one of the first ones killed!”

That agreed with my own panicky thoughts. It was humiliating, but a typical reaction of the time. Curiously it brought me to a clear realization, instinctive, out-of-the-subconscious wisdom, that there was only one thing to do; something that in that one instance I could see more clearly than my spiritual teacher. Neither he nor I nor others who shared the same emotional responses could resist the forces—and the practical necessities that faced us all. We must accept the reality, conform to the dictates of the call to arms and trust in whatever Powers there be, to determine our individual destiny. Either we believed in this or we didn’t. I faced John Ring with this, and reluctantly he agreed.

I Am No Exception

When registration for the draft was called for, I would register. I wouldn’t try to flee to Canada or claim to be under age, though I looked it. I would conform. When I went for my physical examination, John, along with the president of the church board, accompanied me, and John insisted on stating to the registration board that I was a ministerial student under his tutelage. Their reaction, and that of press reporters looking for a story covering the occasion, indicated very clearly that they considered me a coward and a slacker. An item appeared in the next morning’s paper that John Ring, well-known local minister, claimed exemption for a young man as “his assistant and ministerial student.” It did not mention that in August of the previous year the paper had published my picture along with an account of my first sermon.

“Come Back To Us”

Some of John’s Minneapolis students had formed a study group which they called The Harmonial Center. Despite general preoccupation with wartime demands, or maybe because of it, the interest in “applied psychology” had increased rather than abated. From time to time John received letters from the group, urging us to return for lectures and study classes following the pattern followed by Bush, McCollum and others, but emphasizing a more spiritual approach to the essential principles involved.

We decided to accept. He contacted Doctor Lacey, a semi-retired minister of long acquaintance to “mind the store” while we were away, and began at once to outline a program of public lectures and closed classes for the Minneapolis venture.

He spread the typewritten sheets before me, inviting my approval. There would be a series of free lectures, followed by two courses of twelve class lessons, one series by him and one by me. He had scheduled both of us to share equal time in all of the open lectures.

By this time I had had so much intensive training that I had achieved a fair degree of freedom in speaking, even to the point of interjecting a humorous side to make the serious points more palatable. But one thing bothered me. Except in class work, where I won a fair response, I had the self-conscious feeling that in all our services it was John people came to hear. I did not resent this. He deserved their response. But I felt that they had to accept me because I took part with him. I felt I had to find out whether I could hold an audience on my own.

These thoughts were assailing me as I read the outline. I sensed that John was disappointed because I had not immediately responded with enthusiasm.

“What do you think of it?” he asked.

“It’s great,” I replied. “I have only one suggestion.”

“What’s that?” he demanded.

“I suggest you take whatever meetings you prefer, and let me take the others, whether morning, afternoon, or evening.”

“Oh, you don’t want to take part with me?”

“It isn’t that. To be on with you is a great honor. But sooner or later I must find whether I can hold the attention of the large assembly we expect to attract.”

Reluctantly he agreed. As it turned out, when the meetings took place—and we did have very large responses—the attendance at my meetings became greater than at his. My elation was mixed with chagrin!

If he felt any chagrin he concealed it; after all I was, so to speak, his production, his one and only star pupil!

Instead of booking a suite in a posh hotel as Bush and his friends Gaze and McCollumn did, John insisted we find an apartment where we could prepare our own meals and have a degree of seclusion when off duty. We found one in a quiet neighborhood some distance from the center of town where the meetings were held. And there I had a traumatic experience that reminded me anew of how strong wartime sentiments invaded our individual lives.

One morning after our early devotions John left the apartment for a walk in the morning air. I excused myself from accompanying him by reason of a feeling of nausea, evidently due to something I had eaten following class the night before. Only partly dressed, I had flopped down on a davenport to pull myself together.

A Draft Dodger?

A buzzer aroused me, indicating a caller in the street entry. It must be John, returning, having forgotten to take his key. I pushed the button that would release the door lock, and stepped to the landing surprised that he was back so soon. Instead, two burly, grim appearing men were climbing the stairs to our third-floor landing. They looked me over from head to feet; my hair tousled, my chin unshaven, no tie, shirt open at the neck, no shoes.

“Are you Charles A. Wilson, also known as Ernest C. Wilson?” one of them demanded in a threatening tone of voice, as he displayed an official looking government emblem. “Why didn’t you answer the intercom? Why are you using two names? Why are you in your stocking feet? Let me see your registration card!” His words poured out.

My groggy attempts to answer these questions were interrupted by a peremptory demand: “Finish dressing and come with us,” was their order. They followed me into the bedroom and watched me as I tried to make myself presentable. They directed me to precede them downstairs to the street and shoved me to the back seat of a car.

I was taken to an enlistment center, ordered to strip and given a very thorough physical examination (my second) and finally taken back to the apartment. By that time John was back from his walk—fortunate because I had been too disturbed to think of a key. I told him what had happened. Not everyone in the little Minneapolis church had liked John, and some had been outspoken in their belief that I had taken up the ministry to avoid military service, although my decision had been made long before there was any thought of our being involved in that so-distant European war. John thought someone had reported to the FBI that I was a slacker, and a combination of circumstances certainly gave that appearance when they sought me out.

Some time later I got my draft card, which put me in Class 4D. I never learned whether it was as a divinity student or for physical deficiency.

We returned to San Diego after the exciting month of meetings, wondering when and if there’d be another checkup on my activities. There wasn’t. We thanked Dr. Lacey for serving while we were away, and attempted to recapture the serenity and other worldliness that had characterized the anti-bellum days, with a considerable show of success but without ever completely succeeding.

The Pace Quickens

The days became more and more occupied with classwork and writing. John was a prodigious writer, and often brought manuscripts for a possible book of memoirs, which he would ask me to edit. I did much writing on my own; a course of lessons on spiritual healing, another on Bible interpretation, and one on the symbolism of names, numbers, colors, and the fourth dimension.

Then one day I entered John’s study to find him lost in thought, an open letter in his hand. It was from a member of the first church he had served in Galveston, Texas. It had been inactive, groping along without a minister for several years. “Do you know of someone who could come and revive it?” the writer asked.

“What took you to Galveston?” I asked.

The letter inspired a reminiscent mood in him. He told me how, as a teen-aged boy living with his parents in a Pennsylvania village, he had witnessed his Mother’s death following a long, lingering illness. His grief was dispelled as he saw her spirit leave the wasted form, emerging as a beautiful young woman. His Father was so impressed that he insisted on taking him to one of the psychic camp meetings that were popular at the turn of the century, and bragging about his son’s experience. In a seance where the leader had everyone sit with eyes closed, hands on knees, John rose and delivered an extemporaneous lecture. It was the first of many to follow. It was in one such subjective state that he (as if someone else were speaking through him) told his Father that they should leave Pennsylvania for Galveston, Texas, where work awaited them.

“We were told to go down to the wharves where cotton was being loaded on freighters, and we would find a man sitting on a cotton bale awaiting us. He would tell us what to do next.”

“And did you?” I asked, skeptically.

“Yes. His name, like yours, was Wilson. He said he had been expecting us, and had hired Friendship Hall for a meeting. That was twenty years ago.” He looked down at the letter. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you were to start your own career in the same place as I did at your age. I don’t think it would be for long, but it would be a start.”

Despite the success of the Minneapolis lectures I didn’t feel ready, but ready or not I must try. If the Galveston congregation would accept me, I would go.

They did, and I went.

© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.