Milligan, Larry

My Personal Experience with the Truth Church

I was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1942. I had a brother five years older and a sister four years younger sister. Being the middle child is tough.

Just after the start of WWII, my father, also known as “Pop,” tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected due to an earlier injury to his foot when molten aluminum had run down inside his boot at the Aluminum Company where he worked. The injury would bother him his whole life. Had he not been injured and had entered the war at that stage, it is questionable whether I would exist. I was raised by parents who regularly attended Church every Sunday morning and Bible Study every Wednesday evening. My parents were true Christian believers but not fanatical about it. It was a natural way of life for them, and they did not evangelize or push their personal faith.

Both my Mom and Pop were raised in a strict Southern Methodist and Southern Baptist climate in the State of Tennessee. Conservative religion was their only Church experience. My earliest memories of religion came when I was nearly three years old. After moving West in 1944 when I was about one and a half years old, we lived in the tiny remote mining and ranching town of May, Idaho with about 45–60 other people, depending on the season.

Pop had been persuaded by friends to attend their local “Truth Church” Meetings back in Alabama when my brother was just a baby. Before my parents moved from Alabama to Idaho, his friends had moved there earlier and were already waiting for us. Pop never trusted churches in general, but this church was made up of ordinary-looking working people from top to bottom so he might have felt comfortable. I am not sure he had a full knowledge of the sect before he made a commitment.

This is not a scholarly dissertation on the Truth Church. I offer this description of the sect not as an expert but only by my recollections at a young age from 3 years old until I was 12 as it was in the State of Idaho. My sister was too young to absorb much, and my brother cared even less than I did. I was the only child in the family who was later fascinated by it.

No one ever sat me down and listed the rules and beliefs of this sect. Talking about it opens up a flood of memories long forgotten or suppressed. The moniker of “The Truth” suggested that all other churches and beliefs were “false” and led by those they called “False Prophets,” and indeed, that’s exactly what we and they all thought. I heard the term “false prophets” all the time.

The sect was suspicious, secretive, and closed ranks whenever they were seen as being different. They did not proselytize for converts to strangers. They kept a low profile and followed the word of God as they saw it. If you wavered in your faith of “the Truth,” you could expect frequent visits from Workers to buttress your faith. They used no undue force or power in their mission to protect you from false prophets or the secular world outside of “God’s Word.” If you told them to leave you alone, that is what they would do. But the gravity of personal friendships and what they thought of you was usually force enough. That is what I saw when our family teetered on the brink a time or two. But their only tool to remedy personal discouragement was biblical scripture. They never offered anything I would now call professional counseling. That was not their job.

In the little town of Jerome, Idaho where I was educated and raised, you were either a Mormon or you were not a Mormon. Mormons were a large percentage of the population and had a huge old lava rock building across from the High School. The people of the Truth Church called themselves “Friends” or “Saints.” The Truth Church has been accused of being a cult but the Friends/Saints, of course, reject that label. You can do that when you are the one and only “true church.” My research affirms that they had and have the attributes of a cult. In that respect, I guess all unaligned sects are considered cults to a degree by other sects. Mormons consider them a cult and they consider Mormons a cult. There were no official newsletters or pamphlets distributed that I ever saw back then to try and validate the Truth Church. They drew no attention to themselves. Their only publication was a well-used hymnal titled Hymns Old and New.

The Truth Church was an organized worldwide sect but was not overseen locally by preachers or bishops per se but by itinerant people called “Workers.” Those Workers did not marry, were not paid by the church, but lived by free-will donations in self-avowed poverty the same, as they believed, happened with Jesus. One family we knew was comprised of an elderly mother and her four adult and unmarried children who were all truly pious believers. Two brothers and two sisters. They could have served as poster models for being properly dressed and with a perfect demeanor for Truth Church members. I always thought they were Workers, but they never traveled. We had most of our Meetings at their home and clearly, they were important people in the sect.

Workers were fed and supported by donations from the Saints and drove better cars than we had and were always nicely dressed but never appeared lavish or vain. They were teamed in pairs of men or pairs of women who traveled the country to minister personally to those who were followers of the Truth Church and, on occasion and looked in on Sunday and Wednesday Meetings wherever they happened to be. Some were highly admired. No special vestments were worn or used by them.

You couldn’t pick a Friend or Saint out of a crowd unless you looked for the most plainly dressed makeup-free and jewelry-free pious-looking people ever. Women usually wore their long uncut hair in a bun and some wore black stockings, not unlike Nuns. All the men had regular short haircuts but in the 1940s and ’50s so that was the normal style anyway. My mother never cut her long red hair until after she left the church. She never wore any makeup or had any jewelry of any kind. But she never wore a pair of black stockings to my memory. Many of the female Saints wore heavy opaque or black stockings but not all.

Saints never generally talked about their church to people who were not fellow Saints. I remember a couple who were neighbors and also Mormons who attended one of the Sunday Meetings after asking if they could do so. I am informed this was not done, but there they were just the same sitting across from me. I was about eight or nine years old and even I thought it was strange. Could only happen in America. They did look out of place, and I never saw them at any future Meetings.

Sunday Meetings were led by a male Elder who, by his experience, was recognized without fanfare as the leader of worship. Due to the rural nature of the area where we lived many were farmers or worked ancillary jobs for a living. I don’t recall ever seeing a collection plate passed around. In thinking back, one of the “key” idiosyncrasies of the sect was where they worshipped. All my friends who went to church went to a dedicated identifiable church building. There were no dedicated church buildings for the Truth Church because the Apostle Paul, for one, said that God doesn’t dwell in temples made by man’s hands; I guess homes were okay, so we always met in someone’s home. Most of the homes used for Meetings were on farms or ranches.

Worship meetings were, I imagine, like worship services on the American Frontier by Christians who had no ordained Preacher. Larger regional meetings were held in rented public venues or school gymnasiums. For gospel (recruitment) meetings, they often rented the local VFW hall, or a building called Pioneer Hall as well. Sunday meetings were more intimate with people sitting around the perimeter of the room facing one another. Annual Conventions were similar to Old Time Revival meetings without the noise and sawdust and wild-eyed preachers as were described in the Midwest and Deep South.

The Conventions were held in facilities owned by a church member (undoubtedly built by man’s hands) once a year. I remember attending two of them two years apart at a farm near Parma, Idaho. I recall three specific things; the crowds were several hundred seated in a large area adjacent to the kitchen and dining hall, the sermons were long but ramped-up versions of what I listened to every Sunday, and the smells coming from the kitchen were almost overwhelming. I was a growing young boy, and my stomach was a bottomless pit. The food was excellent.

We were sequestered into separate quarters for sleeping by gender and the bunks were sort of crudely made with rough lumber but served well enough as beds. People brought their own blankets or sleeping bags to throw over the rope mattress supports. These are recollections from the very early 1950s. I was around 8 and 10 years old. There was a “cadre” of at least 30 or more Workers who lined up on risers outside at the end of the Convention so people could take their picture and memorialize the event. Some seemed to be highly respected by the Friends/Saints, and although I recognized some, I really did not know one from the other. Had I been more serious about the entire thing I would have paid more attention.

Some children were more affected by the conservatism of the Truth Church than others. The girls suffered the most because I think the severity of decorum and dress was aimed more at the girls than the boys. I remember several of the pre-teen kids who were so sanctimonious in that they thought that idle play was sinful and would not join in our games of “tag” or “hide and seek” after the meetings were let out. Woe unto a teenage girl who would try lipstick or some personal adornment.

Boys mostly had to watch their mouths. My utterance of the otherwise innocuous word “devil” brought warnings to “watch your language.” When I called my older brother a “Fool,” I was punished by Mom and reminded that, “Thou shall not call thy brother a fool,” or words to that effect. I replied, “Okay, but he is a fool,” and I was punished again. I was a slow learner in my stubborn need to say it like I felt it.

For me, the Conventions and Meetings were a grind, so I took every opportunity to entertain myself apart from the grind of sitting for hours it seems listening to the droning of some Worker holding forth on the purpose for our lives and God’s place therein. I brought a tablet and pencil and drew pictures, but I was never successful in avoiding the inevitable. I also remember on the last day of Convention, a high-ranking Worker finishing his closing message and offering salvation to those who had yet to give their hearts and lives to Jesus. Several young people went to the dais to profess their faith. I had never seen that before in my life. I worried that it might someday be my fate. I didn’t know how I could get out of it but I was planning for it, even then.

I remember very little of the more nuanced details of the beliefs of the Saints. I was not a theology scholar as a child. I knew they were not run-of-the-mill Christians but were apart—more severe and very secretive about their church. There was no such thing as a Liberal Christian. Liberal Christians were known as Lost Sinners. Smoking and drinking, dancing, swearing or taking the Lord’s name in vain, revelry, movies, and “worldly” thinking were the work of the Devil. In my family, playing card games like Old Maid or Flinch was okay but gambling was not. I once watched, along with my fellow six and seven-year-old classmates, a 16mm movie show in the basement at my rural school called “The Virginian” during First Grade. I really liked it, but I was afraid to tell my parents since movies were forbidden.

Back in Tennessee, Pop was reputed to have loved the cowboy movies before he started with the Truth Church and stopped going to movies. Pop and Mom both came from strict homes where dancing was not condoned either. They both died without ever learning how to dance. I remember my poor mother intoning out loud when they were taking me to an Elementary School Music Festival, “Oh Lord, I don’t know what to do—my children are learning to dance,” but she never forbade it. Luckily, by Junior High school, I was spared the burden of that nuttiness and I danced like crazy instead. I became close friends with revelry and spent a lot of idle time in worldly thinking. It ain’t hurt me none nuther. But getting to that point of personal freedom took some time and some untidy events that changed my life.

Pop became jaded after a decade by what he viewed as the pious hypocrisy of the Truth Church and most of its members. He complained about that to Mom more frequently. Mom never argued. I didn’t hear everything that he muttered but I heard enough. A week before a Sunday Meeting when a couple of lady Workers visited our house, for counseling I suppose, Pop actually got into a rather one-sided argument with them. They quoted scripture and Pop countered with facts as he saw them. At an obvious impasse, he went downstairs to his workshop and brought up a Coleman gasoline lantern which he pumped up, lit, and turned off all the lights. We all gazed at the bright hissing light. Thinking back, it was sort of Zen-like.

I am not sure what the message was, but the discussion was formally over, and the Worker Ladies left quietly after bidding goodnight, shaking their heads and mumbling to one another. Next Sunday, going to a pointless Church Meeting seemed like an uncomfortable but unavoidable fate for him. The Truth Church and its high-toned rhetoric did not mesh gears any longer with Pop’s view of the real world. If they had ever offered him any hope, it was long past its due date. I remember only one time when Pop stood to give testimony and it was a doozy.

On a warm and sunny Sunday morning around August 1954 when Pop arose to voice his testimony, it came as a big surprise to me, and I guess to Mom and everyone else. His voice was evenly modulated and articulate as he set loose a long-simmering denouncement hot off the stove of the evil world in which he had to contend with little help from his fellow man, meaning everyone else. It was a long and uncomfortable rambling testimony. He touched every base he could in relation to his faltering faith. That included the world situation, the atomic bomb, his low opinion of hoity-toity piety, and his impatience with the selfishness shown to him by the Truth Church and the greater society. No names were mentioned but no one was innocent.

It was a cleansing of his pride and a venting of his spleen, and he went at it with earnest gravity as if it was a sacred call to duty that had to be done. It had been building up for some time. I knew that mainly from Pop’s bitter pronouncements of the Truth Church and the state of the world while he puttered around the house. This Sunday morning, Pop had finally flipped his wig. Gone over the edge. He jumped from the plane without a chute. His burning-of-the-bridge testimony did not last all that long but it sure seemed long at the time to a twelve-year-old boy. I aged considerably that morning.

People looked at their shoes and out the window, visibly uncomfortable. I guess no one had ever listened to anything like that in a Sunday meeting before. Pop had wound up and, like his hero Dizzy Dean, threw an unexpected screwball right over the plate. My poor mother was stoic and pale. There were no tears. Still, I kind of rooted for Pop in my heart, even as I felt discomfort.

When Pop sat down and stared straight ahead, everyone shuffled in their seats and thumbed through the hymnals. He had just tendered his letter of resignation. There was not a whisper and I looked around and wondered whom else sitting there had felt, at some time, just like Pop. I could see that the giving of testimony was over for that Sunday. There were no affirmations or rebuttals that I recall. Who could stand and say anything after that? It was like Patrick Henry’s speech on Liberty or Death but without much historic significance outside that living room.

I don’t remember a lot of detail of what happened next. I tried to be as inconspicuous as I could. After the Sacrament of grape juice for blood and little squares of bread for flesh, the last hymn was sung, and the closing prayer was intoned. Then the usual “Amens” sprung up all around and everyone stood and said “hello” to one another and we bumped our way out. It was difficult for Pop to utter pleasantries or say, “Hi, Elmer. How’s it going,” as if nothing had been said so he just plowed ahead. We piled into the car and roared away—and that was that for our membership as Friends in the Truth Church. The past decade or so had been Pop’s experiment in religious expression and it failed. Mom and the family just went along on the journey without complaint. Mom loved the Brooklyn Dodgers Baseball team and when the World Series started, we bought a TV. A tool of the devil if ever there was one. I was so happy!

From that point forward, Pop and I spent Sunday mornings reading the heavy Sunday paper from the drugstore, about the only store open on Sundays. Pop concentrated on the news. I was sprawled over the floor with several pages of Sunday Funnies in color. Later, after Pop went to his shop, I jumped on my bike and rode around town or to my school playground to shoot some basketball by myself. I could see the congregations leaving the churches and hear the church bells ring in glorification of life’s gifts from God. Those were moments of a curious dichotomy for me which I would better understand later in life. But at least Pop has one less demon to battle. And he could watch Texas Wrestling on TV.

Mom started attending the United Methodist Church. As a young girl, she had attended a Southern Methodist Church in Tennessee, so it was not foreign to her as the Truth Church had been. Pop would drive her to church and pick her up. That was fine with him because he had much more important things to do than warm a pew. That is as close as he ever got to a church for the rest of his life. I was relieved he had the courage to finally walk away. It ended a weirdness in my life that I did not miss. Mom never insisted I attend the Methodist Church with her, and I never asked.

Pop kept his friendships with several of the men who attended the Truth Church, but they never ever talked religion. Pop was an affable and generous man, and he had his moments, but he also had many friends who thought the same things he thought. His leaving the faith was inevitable I suppose. As generous as he was, he expected more from the church than he got. Pop died at the age of 94 and was cremated and his ashes were buried in a cemetery plot with a common headstone and without a church service.

My mother died just two weeks shy of being 103 years old and buried next to Pop’s ashes. Her Christian faith never wavered, but she stopped attending church when she turned 97 due to blindness and mobility issues. I was her principal care provider for her last 14 years. It was a wonderful opportunity to be with her as she finished a remarkable life. She never spoke to me of her adventure with the Truth Church. That book was closed and returned to the library.