Feet of Clay on Solid Ground Book Review
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.
If we are to 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, he 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 where he ministered to a congregation of three thousand-three hundred (3,300) members during 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 sixties and his contributions as mediator in the American Indian Movement in the seventies speak to the nature of his social and community involvement.
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.”
Dallas Morning News
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
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.
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
Dr. James Armstrong
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.
Bishop James Armstrong, 1973
Feet of Clay Meaning and Origins
"The phrase comes from the Old Testament (Dan.2:31-32). There the Hebrew captain Daniel interprets a dream for Nebuchadnezzar, founder of the new Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a giant idol with golden head, silver arms and chest, brass thighs and body, and iron legs. Only the feet of this image, compounded of iron and potter's clay, weren't made wholly of metal. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that the clay feet of the figure made it vulnerable, that it prophesized the breaking apart of his empire. Over the years readers of the Bible were struck with the phrase 'feet of clay' in the story and it was used centuries ago to describe an unexpected flaw or vulnerable point in the character of a hero or any admired person." From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).
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
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."
Concerning his reasons for resigning Armstrong confides, "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."
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.
His story is detailed in a way that keeps the reader captivated, entranced and astounded to discover the frailties and pitfalls of leadership in the church.
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
"(Arthur) James Armstrong, born September 17th, 1924, departed this life on July 17th, 2018. James was a Bishop of the United Methodist Church Elected in 1968, he became the youngest Methodist bishop in the United States at the age of 43. As President of the National Council of Churches he was called “the most influential religious leader in America” by the U.S. News and World Report in 1982. Later in his career, he served as Senior Minister at First Congregational Church at Winter Park."
Doctor Armstrong was a professor of Ethics and Philosophy at Rollins College in Florida, continuing his lifelong pursuit of the dissemination of knowledge. A retired Christian minister with a graduate studies background, he also served with the South Florida Center for Theological studies. The author of a dozen books and a contributor to many more, he also wrote widely for Christian journals and periodicals. His highly influential life was an inspiration to many.
© 2011 Peg Cole