Feet of Clay on Solid Ground by James Armstrong, Book Review

United Methodist Church, Indiana

Source

Resignation

Former National Council of Churches President, James Armstrong resigned his post as Bishop over North and South Dakota on December 31, 1983. The sudden, unexpected move away from his leadership position caught many of his peers and congregation by surprise. In his book, he details the circumstances and events leading up to the decision.

Book Review

Reflections

If we would learn anything from our past, we must examine our actions and reflect on those things we did well and upon those areas where we could have done better. The memoirs of former Bishop James Armstrong reflect upon the life struggles of the youngest man elected to the office of United Methodist Bishops at age forty-three, who was once called “the most influential religious leader in the United States.” (Christian Century)

In his book, Feet of Clay on Solid Ground, Dr. Armstrong takes the reader on a journey that travels the back roads of decisions leading him first into the ministry and later to preside over the largest Methodist church in the state of Indiana ministering to a congregation of three thousand-three hundred members in the late fifties and early sixties. His triumphs in the racially explosive era of the birth of Civil Rights, his participation in the Paris Peace Talks of the late 60s and his contributions as mediator in the American Indian Movement in the 70s speak to the nature of his social and community involvement.

Dallas Morning News

James Armstrong . . . resigned as president of the National Council of Churches and as a United Methodist bishop.  The Dallas Morning News, Dec. 31, 1983
James Armstrong . . . resigned as president of the National Council of Churches and as a United Methodist bishop. The Dallas Morning News, Dec. 31, 1983

James Armstrong was born into an ecumenical family, the son of a minister, whose influence as a non-stereotypical preacher set the stage for a life of less than traditional performance from someone behind a pulpit. He preached sermons that were captivating, motivating and often controversial making frequent reference to racial issues, politics, First Amendment rights and civil liberties. He was a friend of politicians like Senator George McGovern, hosting the senator’s pre-Presidential candidacy debut soiree at then Bishop Armstrong’s winter home in Florida.

He speaks of his early messiah complex and his belief that “God had set (him) apart for special tasks” a feeling that many new ministers experience. He details his tribulations as a husband and father of five young children and his angst that pulled him in opposite directions: his dedication to minister to the masses while failing to “offer compassion, accountability and other-centered love to those closest to him.”

By Nyttend (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Nyttend (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As the Drama Unfolded

"I met (her) shortly after we arrived in Indianapolis. I had received her into the church baptized her baby, counseled with her during a bad marriage, a divorce and a series of later crises..."

"She was youthful and vivacious."

Just As I Am - Charlotte Elliott, 1835

During his Indianapolis ministry at the Broadway Methodist Church in the volatile days of the nineteen sixties, Dr. Armstrong was seen as controversial, although pastoral, digressing from the Lectionary to preach such topics as “In the Shadows Unafraid”, “For Those Who Try Too Hard,” and “On Being Fair To Ourselves.”

Over ten years, in a climate of racial unrest, he grew the Broadway Church to unprecedented numbers, while incorporating the dichotomy of a transitory neighborhood population now ninety percent (90%) African-American. Rather than abandon the membership in a tide of change, he embraced the evolving population of the neighborhood, welcoming African-Americans into the fold of this once all white congregation.

Bronson United Methodist Church

By Ebyabe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ebyabe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1968, he was elected to the episcopacy "during a decade of the civil rights movement, protest against an evil war in southeast Asia, the 'new politics' and the 'greening of America'". He was confident that in 'normal times' a more conventional type of minister would be elected.

News columnists pointed to his ministry as one who "uses the pulpit to speak of politics," who speaks "freely of current controversial issues" and one who "pridefully assists in placing African Americans on the official board and commissions of the church."

"The Reverend A. James Armstrong, who did all of these things as the senior minister of the Broadway United Methodist Church, has been elected a Bishop at age forty-three."

He served from 1968 to 1983 in that capacity before resigning.

It is one thing to botch up one's life as the world looks on. It is another thing to adjust to the consequences."

— Chapter VI, Page 85

The National Council of Churches (NCC) is seen as the nation's most influential ecumenical group. The meeting in San Francisco May 9-13, 1983, was to address issues after coming under under bitter attack from New Right fundamentalists and others for allegedly aiding worldwide revolutionary causes. The flames of controversy crackled under the leadership of then President, James Armstrong.

Consequences

Within the pages of this autobiography, James Armstrong recollects the early struggles he faced both financially and as a parent and husband.

He tells the story of his fall from the “crest of a wave of public recognition” that culminated in his surprising resignation from his Bishopric realm and from his Presidency of the National Council of Churches.

He talks about "stepping over the line" and the consequences that ensued when "integrity and credibility are rightly called into question."

Dr. James Armstrong

Pictured here in 1969, James Armstrong, officiating at a wedding in Florida.
Pictured here in 1969, James Armstrong, officiating at a wedding in Florida. | Source

From his years of service on the National Council of Churches and his reign as the youngest and most activist Methodist Bishop, in this book, the reverend divulges the path that led him spiraling downward to his ultimate fall from grace, revealing his depth of loss, regret, sorrow, divorce and the new life that ultimately sprung from his experiences.

Comprised of a mere one hundred twenty-three pages, the book details this man’s story in a way that will keep the reader captivated, entranced and shocked to discover the frailties and pitfalls of leadership in the church.

I first heard Jim Armstrong more than forty years ago and believe he has been one of the most effective preachers of our time."

— US Senator (retired) George McGovern

Songs from the Era - Bonnie Jean - Brigadoon

I have never second-guessed my decision to resign. It was called for. ... My mind was a welter of conflicting emotions."

— James Armstrong, Page 75

Living and Dying with Purpose and Grace

James Armstrong is a professor of Ethics and Philosophy at Rollins College in Florida, continuing his lifelong pursuit of the dissemination of knowledge. He is a retired Christian minister with a graduate studies background and serves with the South Florida Center for Theological studies. He remains a revered figure and highly sought after speaker.

Notes

  1. Christian Science Monitor

More by this Author


Comments 17 comments

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

Sounds like a fascinating read, though I doubt I'd be shocked as I see the churches of the world every bit as political as any other organization. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I'll look for it. (You do such a good job!) Lynda


Sunnie Day 5 years ago

Dear Peg,

Thank you Peg. Does sound like an interesting book. Not surprising of the frailties within church leadership. They are held in higher esteem than others, so when they fall hard..They fall hard!..Public scrutiny beyond belief. Fall from grace but restored..sounds like a good read.Thank you for a great breakdown on this book.

Sunnie


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 5 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

Well put together and informative. Thank you.

Voted Up as always.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

Thank you for this great article about a great man. I enjoyed reading it very much. As a side note, my baby sister graduated from Rollins College. :D


Lynn S. Murphy 5 years ago

I enjoyed the article and it's a stark reminder that we are human with all the frailties that come with it.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas Author

My friend, Lynda, Perhaps the shock value is diminished by the frequency with which we see great people fall from our expectations of their perfection. Thank you so much for your nice compliments on this book review. I'm honored.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas Author

Sunnie Day, You are so right about the frailties of people in leadership positions who are expected to maintain lives without any flaws or displays of weakness. I would hesitate to shine a bright spotlight on my own life, packed full of poor choices and mistakes.

It is comforting to know this great man accepted responsibility for his actions and later persevered to continue in the ministry to which he dedicated so much of his life.

Thank you for stopping in to read and for your kind comments.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas Author

Thank you Mckbirdbks, so are you. Smiles your way.


BobbiRant profile image

BobbiRant 5 years ago from New York

I've never read this book but I guess I will check it out of the local library now. If it's an e-book, I can download it, I will definitely have to check.


A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

Thank you for the review, I will definitely check it out. Thanks you for sharing.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas Author

James, It's always nice to see you here. I hoped you would stop in to read about this great man. Your comments are much appreciated.

BobbiRant, The library is a great source for books like this one. Hope you find a copy.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas Author

Lynn, Your comment really struck home. We are all human and have frailties. Thanks for taking time to come by.

A.A. Zavala, You are welcome and thank you for the comment.


Jaspal profile image

Jaspal 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

Nice review of the book and a very interesting write up of the author, Dr James Armstrong. I had not heard about him - he is obviously not that well known here in India. But if I see the book in a book shop or the library, I am definitely going to pick it up.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas Author

Jaspal, What a pleasure to see you once again! Thank you for dropping by and for the comments - Hope you find the book. I've put a link to Amazon in the text if you don't see it at the library. Cheers.


mulberry1 profile image

mulberry1 5 years ago

This does sound like an interesting read. You've certainly made me curious about what happens.


jderb52 profile image

jderb52 5 years ago from Oklahoma

Peg, I am a fellow (not really, I'm female--so would it be fellowESS????) hubber and I was also wanting to do an article which is basically a book review. Do I need to get permission from the author or publisher? As long as I give credit where it is due, is it necessary to obtain permission before doing a review? Thanks!


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas Author

Hello Mulberry1 - Thanks for stopping by to comment.

Hi jderb52 - I've been looking on Google to find book review guidelines and found a good one. I'll add a capsule with a link in case you want to take a look. A few universities have sites with general guidelines and formats to use. I don't know of any requirement to get permission from the author to review a book or movie. Thanks for stopping in and good luck with your writing. Peg

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