Dr. Witherspoon was a Scottish-American Presbyterian from Kentucky. He was also a direct descendant of John Witherspoon, the first president of Princeton University and a Presbyterian minister. My professor was also related to the actress Reese Witherspoon, possibly a great uncle. Like Jimmy Carter, Dr. W. taught adult Sunday School at the Presbyterian Church on the Green for all the decades he lived in New Haven. He, like Florine, represented for me what real Christianity was all about...
During my undergraduate and graduate years at Yale, I made a good-faith effort to be Jewish by attending the Friday-night Shabot services put on by the Yale Hillel Society. After I left Christ Church, I would also occasionally attend Yale’s Battell Chapel, a Congregational (UCC) church presided over during my time by first the Rev. Sidney Lovett and then the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, both notable preachers. During my junior-year exchange at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, I went to both Catholic and Lutheran churches, though mainly for their lovely free concerts. Things changed, however, when I was married in November 1963 by the Yale Lutheran chaplain, the Pastor Richard Olson, to Hannelore (later Simone) Zimmermann, my German girlfriend whom I had met during a three-week bus trip from Munich through Austria and the then Yugoslavia to Greece. After our marriage, we irregularly attended Lutheran services—something that became regular after we moved to the Chicago suburbs with our two little daughters in 1973.
An important piece in all this is that both Simone and I had become active followers in 1961 of an Indonesian spiritual practice called Subud. One of its impacts for me is that I began to have unusual (for a Yale Ph.D.) experiences. The important one in this context occurred on September 2, 1966, in Yale’s Dwight Chapel. I had just delivered my doctoral dissertation to the Yale English faculty. That afternoon, per my wife’s and my decision, I would meet with Pastor Olson to arrange for our first daughter, Marianna, who had been born the day before, to be baptized. While I was waiting in the empty Chapel for my 3 pm appointment, a voice in my head, not my thinking voice, said, “You should be baptized with your daughter.” Whoa, I thought. I like Christianity well enough, and Judaism felt like a bridge too far, but still. “All right,” the Voice continued. “See those books over there….” There was a pile of 1928 Books of Common Prayer used by Episcopal students for their chapel services. “Go open one at random, and you’ll see that what I’m telling you is correct.” So, with the prayer of a good Yale man to be kept from doing something stupid, I followed the instruction and opened the book to exactly the two-page liturgy for welcoming new adult Christians into the church. I broke down and sobbed, felt myself cleaned inside and out and as if a heavy knapsack had fallen from my back. So, on my wife’s birthday, March 4, 1967, Marianna and I were both baptized in the small chapel at the base of Yale’s iconic Harkness Tower. Then, until 2004, I was a loyal Lutheran. In early 2004 I joined the liberal Catholic church in Honolulu, where we were then living, but on moving to Boulder, Colorado, now a widower and remarried to a liberal protestant, the Catholic Church was not an option for us both. Moreover, the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Denver was too conservative for me. So we ended up, Cedar, my new wife, and I being married in Boulder’s main Episcopal Church, St. John’s, and, having been confirmed as a Lutheran and a Catholic, now I was confirmed as an Episcopalian in a liberal Episcopal Diocese. Cedar and I have regularly attended this church since 2010. And that, dear readers, is how I became Episcopalian.