“Dr. E. T. ” is what almost everyone called him. And that was before anyone had heard of the other E.T., the one who called home in the movie.

“Dr. E. T.” was Ernest Trice Thompson, the patriarch of what was once called the Southern Presbyterian Church. Once upon a time in the American Civil War, the Presbyterians split over cultural, social, and theological issues, and when I was growing up in the 1950s, there was the so-called “northern church” (the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, formed by a 1958 merger of two other once-divided churches) and the more aptly called “southern church” (the Presbyterian Church in the United States). When I was ordained in 1969, I was caught between them.

I grew up and was ordained in the UPCUSA, but I was asked (required?) to transfer my membership to the PCUS almost immediately, since I would be employed in ministry related to the southern church, working in Richmond. The UPCUSA folks didn’t want to be responsible for me at such a distance.

At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal to change denominations. The Southern Church required just a rather awkward re-examination on my “views,” a pesky hoop to jump through. My leap through the hoop almost bent the thing out of shape. I messed up one answer so badly that the chair of the examining committee asked the premier Old Testament scholar of the time, John Bright, “What are you people teaching over at that school house?” — the school being Union Theological Seminary in Virginia where Dr. Bright taught. Taught me. I have conveniently forgotten Bright’s answer. I do recall the probing question put to me, though. What doctrine of the atonement did I find most attractive in my own theological thinking? I’m still not sure.

Now, by this time, Dr. E. T. Thompson had five years before retired as the school’s professor of church history. But Dr. E. T. still lived in Richmond, and was considered both the “grand old man” of the former Hanover Presbytery and the revered saint of the whole denomination. In an earlier day, however, Dr. E. T. had survived a church heresy trial, where, to make this story simple, it boiled down to the conservative, yea, verily, even fundamentalist wing of the church versus the progressive, yes, liberal champion of higher biblical criticism, E. T. Thompson. E. T. survived the fight, and went into his later years vindicated by history.

E. T. also had helped found an independent and progressive Presbyterian magazine called “The Presbyterian Outlook,” (to which I still subscribe). His name was on the mast-head until he died in 1985 at the age of 90. The obit in the New York Times mentioned not only his early advocacy for racial integration and civil rights, but also for the full recognition and ordination of women in the denomination. The obituary also noted his many published works, which included the definitive history of the Presbyterian Church in America. But at his death what he was most noted for was his successful campaign for the reunification of the two main branches of the American Presbyterian church, to heal the rift that had divided the church since the War Between the States.

That reunion took place in Atlanta in 1983. It was the only Presbyterian General Assembly to which I was elected a commissioner, and what a thrill it was to participate in the vote that reunited the church of my childhood and the church in which I was serving as a minister. There, physically feeble, wheelchair-bound, but mentally as sharp as ever, was Dr. E T.  I took a photograph of him just after the vote, and tied to his wheelchair were colorful helium balloons!

In my early days in Hanover Presbytery, that is, the decade from 1970 to 1980 or so, we could always count on Dr. E. T.’s wisdom as he stood before the microphones during various debates on the floor of Presbytery. Whatever he said, I believed. However he voted, I followed. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he was a fan of mine, too, but  Dr. E. T. knew of my radio ministry, and of my then unorthodox format of secular rock music aimed at a young audience. And on more than one occasion, he told me that while he wasn’t a listener himself, he thought it was a wise and effective approach. That meant a lot to me.

When he was in his late 80s, I had an opportunity to take the school’s video equipment over to Dr. E. T.’s home to tape a conversation between him and one of his north side Richmond neighbors, another professor at Union Seminary, Wellford Hobbie. The topic was a denominational study paper entitled “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling.” I met E. T. Thompson in his kitchen where we talked about a book he’d been reading, a history of Western Civilization, some thousand pages in length. It was a warm summer morning, so we thought his back yard might be cooler than the house, and I set up the equipment there.

Hobbie arrived and took the lead on the conversation about the paper, but E. T.’s comments were sharp, direct, and, not surprisingly, quite supportive of what would be a controversial document. After all, it advocated peace. And peacemaking. And emphasized that it was the calling of every believer.

I treasure the copy of the video that I still have. It is a piece of Presbyterian history. A professor of church history who made history. I pray that if I live to be anywhere near 90, that is kind of 90 I want to be: not just still breathing, but still teaching, still advocating for peace and justice, and, maybe even a servant of the best the Church can be. At least, I’d like someone to tie some balloons to my chair!

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