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The Chosen Vessel

(c. 1930)

by Charles G. MacArthur

The tide of stenographers, garment workers, panhandlers and bonus advocates paused in its noon-day march across City Hall Square to gaze upon a man who stood in the mall, bawling at the top of his lungs.

He was a blustering giant of early middle age, conspicuous for a brown overcoat and a bay derby, both of which had suffered seven years of hard luck. The brim of his derby drooped like that of a pith helmet. The velvet collar of his overcoat was worn through. As he waved his arms about, a noticeable gap between his trousers and his waistcoat revealed a square foot of ribbed underwear and the leather ends of his suspenders.

Yet there was nothing comic about this man. So forceful was his clamor that his rags seemed royal raiment and people came running from all ends of the park to hear what he had to say.

When the crowd had packed the mall to its uttermost limits he made an end of his outcries and thoughtfully explored the deep pockets of his overcoat. He fished out a piece of used chalk crayon. He studied it gloomily. He bent down to write.

Wobbly capital letters began to appear on the asphalt pavement. The crowd surged and jostled for a look. The man made several rapid passes and completed his message:

“Repent. For The Hour Is At Hand!”

He arose and swept off the derby. It left a wide red welt across his forehead. With a gesture that commanded silence, he made to speak.

“My friends!”

I waited -- not to listen, but to stare. For as the evangel had removed his hat he exposed a mop of coal black hair from which there sprouted a war lock of snowy white. Dimly I remembered having seen that phenomonon before, and that face. I wondered where. And then I remembered ......

When my father was pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle out in DeKalb, Homer Fitch was the stand-by of the Sunday School and the moving spirit of the Young People’s Literary Society.

This latter organization met every Saturday night in my father’s home. It was his own idea and he considered it a pardonable gambit with which to defeat the gaudy temptations of the Evil One. Its membership comprised all of the worth-while young people in the church. Its aim was to give them social experiences of a harmless kind and thus to prevent indiscriminate contacts with worldly people who knew nothing about the better things of life and who might corrupt those of us who did.

In our parlor we held innocent communion. We pulled toffy, we discussed Ralph Connor’s books, we sang and played checkers, Muggins and Authors at no great moral hazard. The Devil was completely out in the cold, for each of these amiable entertainments began and ended with prayer.

Homer Fitch was the life of every party and just as full of good, clean fun as he could be. He was a perfect genius at charades. I remember one he thought up with Elmer Pidge. It was called the “Youth’s Companion”. All he did was to come into the room with Elmer on his arm, but it sent the young folks -- and the old ones too -- into gales of laughter and they talked about his cleverness for weeks afterward.

But the best thing he did was to sing. We were all sure of some good music whenever we could coax him into singing “The Bulldog and The Bullfrog” with Elmer Pidge. Homer sang the tenor part and at the end of each verse there was a piece that he sang by himself beginning: “And the bulldog called the bullfrog”. Both of them joined in loud on the end: “A green old water fool.”

Some of the older folks didn’t like the “fool” part of it but Homer smoothed things over by explaining that nobody had really been called a fool. It was just some fun about a bulldog and a bull frog. That satisfied everybody but old Mrs. Titlow, who was against everything for which there was no absolute scriptural sanction.

Homer was handsome in those days. That patch of white in his hair and the worldly way that he smiled made him seem very cynical and blase. He was a wonderful dresser, too. He had an overcoat that had a seam all the way around the waistline and skirts that flared out behind. The only thing about him that wasn’t right up-to-date was his shoes. They always smelled of E-Z stove polish, except on Sundays. Otherwise, he was a man of the world.

Certainly he was sophisticated enough for the part, probably because he was on the road most of the time. I forget what he sold -- I think bathroom fixtures -- but he never missed an opportunity to refer to his last trip to Saint Louie or Kansas City at each meeting of the Literary Society and during the Wednesday night prayer meetings at the church.

At church he was the first to get up and ask for prayers, every time. He would tell about how the other travelling men tried to tempt him on his trips. In spite of his Gideon button, they were always telling him smutty stories and showing him dirty post cards.

Mr. Van Horn, the Sunday School superintendant, always waited for Homer in the vestibule of the church after these meetings to shake hands and congratulate him on his stand. Both of them would step into the Primary class room and Homer would go more into detail than he felt free to do during the meeting. Once he brought Mr. Van Horn one of the post cards.

He said he had taken it on purpose just to show how far the fellows went. Mr. Van Horn was shocked and indignant. He praised Homer again and said he would burn up the vile thing the second he could get home and to the furnace. Then he gave Homer some tracts to pass out among his tormentors.

The tracts were part of the “King’s Bounty” series. One told a very pathetic story of a drummer boy dying at Sebastapol. Another gave a stirring eye witness account of the last moments of a crippled newsgirl, crushed under the wheels of a hansom cab a moment after the ushers of a fashionable Fifth Avenue church had given her the bum’s rush.

The last was called “The Death Bed of an Infidel.” It proved that at the last minute Robert Ingersoll had tried his best to get to Heaven but had gone to Hell, instead; and that it had served him good and right. Mr. Van Horn carried large bundles of these tracts in the pockets of his alpaca coat at all times, ready to distribute among people he met on street cars and in the Morals court, which he visited twice a week on errands of mercy.

It was Mr. Van Horn who first suggested to Mrs. Fitch that Homer ought to do something with his voice. It seemed to him that God had planted that voice in Homer for a purpose, which he interpreted to be the eventual salvation of the lost souls in DeKalb.

Mr. Van Horn had held these opinions for years, since the time Homer’s voice had changed and he had taken his place in the choir. He called on Mrs. Fitch quite frequently to pray with her and to impress her with her responsibilities toward Homer and the heathen. At last she was of the same mind and she lit on Homer like a ton of coal for singing “Hiawatha” one Sunday morning in the bathroom. Mother and son had a long talk and Homer was made to see that he was the steward of a gift that should be used for the glory of the Giver alone.

The more she thought about it, the better Mrs. Fitch liked the idea of Homer becoming a Chosen Vessel. She spoke to my father about it and asked him if her son couldn’t begin his stewardship by singing a solo at the Sunday morning and evening services. Several of the ladies and Mr. Van Horn came to him with the same request and they finally got his vote. But at supper that night, he said he couldn’t help wishing that Homer would start his musical ministry somewhere in the Congo.

Before Homer’s solo became a regular feature of the Sunday services he was consecrated at a special meeting of the church. Mr. Van Horn said it was the only fitting thing to do if Homer’s sacrifices were to be at all whole hearted. So on the Sunday after he was twenty-one years old my father announced the event after the benediction.

Homer walked up the center aisle on his mother’s arm. He had a white rose in his button hole, his hair was slicked back and he looked very solemn. My father prayed and Mr. Van Horn rubbed some olive oil on his forehead and throat.

“Even as David was anointed,” he prayed, when it came his turn, “do we anoint this boy and consecrate him to Thy service.”

Mrs. Fitch began weeping aloud during Mr. Van Horn’s prayer and he cut it short a trifle under his usual time of ten minutes. Homer ended the ceremony with a little speech. He promised everybody that he would forget all of the secular songs he had ever heard and sing nothing but sacred pieces from that time on.

For a time it went hard with the Literary Society as “The Bulldog and the Bullfrog” was the first song to go overboard. But Homer more than made up for the omission in church. There he became the earthly incarnation of all the Four and Twenty Elders; a Burning Bush; a Tenor Voice Crying in the Wilderness.

In addition to his diurnal solo of a Sunday his voice rose like a fountain in the hymns that the congregation sang in unison. In the choral pieces he waited a full measure before joining in so that we could all see how helpless we were without him. The difference was marked. It was the difference between a string quartette and a steam calliope. As time went on and his gift multiplied he practised a quaver that savored strongly of the flesh and the world. This made his sacrifice something to talk about and everybody in the congregation who knew anything about music agreed that it was the A 1 article, especially when he learned to read music and began to sing parts.

He became quite stuck up about it and a new note crept into his weekly testimony at the prayer meeting. He said that he had never regretted giving his voice to the Lord and he urged all of us young people to consecrate our talents in the same way. It sounded like bragging to me.

You would think that the consciousness of his stewardship and the esteem of the congregation would have kept Homer going in the straight and narrow path. For he was esteemed. Every mother in the church was always saying to the rest of us: “Look at Homer Fitch and how proud his mother must be of him. Why don’t you try to be more like him, instead of imitating that smart Aleck, Eddie Patzelt?”

But the Devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; and he is always looking for backsliding church members who aren’t keeping a sharp lookout for his approach. Everybody knows what he did to Job, only in Homer’s case he had him fall head over heels in love with Mr. Van Horn’s daughter Grace.

Grace was certainly nothing to look at; not half as good looking as the Gribby girls or Amy Walters. She was thin and breathed hard and had her mouth half open all of the time. She was awfully sensitive about her looks and she did her best on what little money Mr. Van Horn let her have to make pretty clothes. But all of her pains went for nothing. She had more darns in her stockings than any other girl in church and most of her dresses were cut out from the clothes of her mother, who had died five or six years before.

She knew that she was homely because the older women kept telling her that she would be better looking when she grew up. She was only seventeen then. All this consolation only made her unhappier than ever, and she became as quiet and as shy as a bird.

Grace was backward about everything. She never knew the Golden Text and even after she was graduated into the intermediate class she said one Sunday that Aaron was one of the twelve disciples. I don’t think she testified once in all those years. That worried Mr. Van Horn, who consumed enough time in this form of devotion to keep six families in good standing with the Recording Angel. Every Wednesday night he egged her on to stand up and say something. She trembled and tried, but each time she only blushed like a poppy and kept her seat in spite of all her father’s nudging and prodding.

I think she was in love with Homer all along. When he collected the hymn books at the end of the morning service and went around with the Sunday school papers to the different class rooms she could hardly keep her eyes off him and she let on in other ways.

He must have noticed it and guessed the reason. One Sunday, a few weeks after his consecration, he drifted back to where she was sitting and asked her if she knew where her father was. Homer had just left him in the Bible class room and he must have known that he was still in there talking to Mrs. Carr.

Homer talked away until the first Sunday school bell rang. Afterward he walked home with her and the next Saturday he brought her to the Literary Society meeting. Before long it was talked around that they were as good as engaged. It certainly surprised all of us. We couldn’t imagine what on earth he saw in her.

They certainly acted mushy enough. Grace got as red as a beet whenever Homer looked at her or whenever anybody looked at her, for that matter. Homer was just as fussed. He grinned and said “It’s nice weather out” whenever Grace was mentioned.

Grace played the organ pretty well, so my mother fixed it up to have her accompany Homer when he sang at the Literary Society meetings. Since he had consecrated his voice he only sang pieces like “The Holy City” and “The Palms” and sometimes “Star of the East.” None of them were in the hymn books but he felt that they were within the definition of sacred songs.

Well, Homer couldn’t sing if his accompaniment wasn’t just right and he took a lot of time showing Grace the stops he wanted open; the vox humana for the verse and the tremolo for the chorus and so forth. That brought their heads together more than the older folks thought was proper and it seemed to me that Grace used to get her hair in his face more than was necessary. But by that time they were practically engaged.

Grace looked happy and miserable at the same time, sitting on that red plush stool and working the pedals up and down. Every whisper brought a rush of color to her face. It went white again whenever Homer leaned over to turn the page or pull out another stop. Between verses Homer would grin at us as if he knew there was a big joke and wanted to be in on it. He had a silk handkerchief with pictures of a bull fight in each corner and he would mop his face after every song as if nothing was the matter.

This sort of thing went on for almost a year and teasing Homer and Grace got to be more fun than anything else. We kept it up until one night Will Appleman said that if Homer didn’t hurry up and name the day he was going to set his cap for Grace himself. That led to a lot of good natured fooling about how long it took Homer to propose and Will asked Grace why she didn’t propose, herself.

She looked all around her as if she wanted to sink through the floor. Before we knew it she began to cry. Everybody shut up then, but it was too late. She grabbed her hat and coat and flew out of the house. Homer stood around grinning for a while and then started after her.

The minute the door slammed behind him everybody began talking about how queerly she had acted. We just about decided that Will had hit the nail on the head and that Homer was really afraid to propose. I guess we might never have known the real reason if the Reverend Wickwire hadn’t come up from Springfield the week after that to hold some revival meetings at the tabernacle.

It didn’t take Reverend Wickwire long to get to the bottom of things. He certainly knew how to convict people of sin. He wasn’t satisfied with passing out cards to sign like the other evangelists did. He said you couldn’t expect to convert a man by making him sign a printed promise to be good. No sir, the only way to get real, lasting results was to make them get right up in front of everybody and confess their sins like a man.

On the first night of the revival Reverend Wickwire told the ushers to lock the doors. That made us sit up and take notice. I know that all I wanted was a head start home. I was only fourteen, but there was a thing or two in my life that I didn’t want to be blabbing about, hell or no hell. It was bad enough to think of going crazy, like my father had said, but I didn’t want a whaling on top of it.

Reverend Wickwire had put the choir up on the platform behind the pulpit; and Homer, with another white rose in his buttonhole, was sitting right in the center and smiling down at his mother. Grace wasn’t there. She hadn’t been anywhere, not even at church, since that night at our house. Her father said she was sick or stubborn, he didn’t know which.

The choir started the services by singing: “Is My Name Written There, On the Page Bright and Fair” while the Reverend Wickwire sat in my father’s big arm chair waiting for his message. His head was bowed in his hands and he beat time to the music with his foot.

He started out by telling about his missionary work in the gambling hells and red light districts of Chicago. When he described how some of those girls had been drugged and taken to places of that kind you could have heard a pin drop. Nobody stirred except Mr. Van Horn who squeaked on his new shoes from the Bible class room to his regular seat up in front.

Reverend Wickwire told how the police had persecuted him and how the newspapers had even tried to make out that there was something wrong about his taking one of the girls from a place of that kind to give her shelter in his own home.

“But blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely,” he shouted. “For great is your reward in Heaven.”

“Amen! Amen!” interrupted Mr. Van Horn.

“Matthew five, verses eleven and twelve,” he added. Mr. Van Horn had automatically become Sunday school superintendant because of his ability to quote Scripture on the spur of the minute.

Reverend Wickwire switched from white slavery to all the death beds he had witnessed. The series wound up with the death of his mother twenty-two years before in Altoona, Pa.

“I was in Omaha,” he said. He pronounced it Om-a-haw, stressing each syllable with equal force.

“---In a notorius gambling den, a veritable sink of iniquity and bottomless pit of shame. There were women and whisky and all rotten temptations of the Prince of Darkness.”

He covered his eyes with his hand and continued:

“Ah, if I could only blot out that scene from my memory!”

“A messenger came into the room reeking with tobacco smoke and the fumes of whiskey, and handed me a telegram. I ripped it open and read it through a mist of tears. It said: ‘Come quickly. Mother is dying.’”

Everybody’s heart was knocking out loud when he got to the part about the hours and hours it took him to get to Altoona and how the wheels were saying one thing, over and over again:


He clenched the pulpit with both hands. His eyes bulged out. His voice dropped to a wet whisper. Half the people in the church were crying and the rest joined in when the Reverend Wickwire got home and found that his mother was dead. Over her coffin he remembered all of her prayers and gave up gambling for good and all.

“And thank God,” he concluded, as he wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. “I have been a child of His ever since.”

“Thank God for a mother like that,” he went on after a dramatic pause. “It was her teachings that brought me to my senses -- too late, alas, for her to know, unless she is watching from the Summerland. Many and many a time she said to me: ‘Ben, be a good boy. Ben, be a good boy.’ But was I a good boy? No, my friends, I was a bad boy! I rode hard and fast. I was addicted to cards and cigarettes and all the tinselled temptations of the Devil. I was headed straight for Hell tonight. But thank God for a mother’s teachings! Thank God for our angel mothers! If we could only listen to them and Honor them as the Bible tells us to do how happy we would be!”

“Amen! Amen! Amen!” came from a dozen voices and several mothers turned significant glances upon their children. Mrs. Fitch beamed. Reverend Wickwire observed this reaction instantly and pressed his point.

“Ah, my young friends!” he cried. “Your mother knows what is right. Don’t you realize that she is the best friend you have on earth? When she tells you to give up the follies of this world and come out on the right side, the only side, why will you harden your hearts? Don’t you know that every day you put off this decision brings you nearer the bottomless pit of Hell? I know what you’re thinking to yourselves -- ‘Tomorrow will be soon enough. I’ll decide then.’ But tomorrow, my friends, may be too late. Who knows but this very night that soul shall be required of thee?”

“Luke twelve, verse twenty,” interpolated Mr. Van Horn.

“And when some of you have trod the sulphurous brimstone valleys of the blackest hell for a million years,” shouted the Reverend Wickwire, “with your tongues parched and sticking out and black with thirst -- and the worm that dieth not biting-biting-biting in your scorching flesh, you’ll look back on this night when Evangelist Wickwire warned you of the wrath to come, but it will be too late then. Too late, too late, too late!

“Ah, my young friends, think it over! Isn’t it a great deal better to spend the countless millions of years of all eternity in that city not made with hands, with its streets of purest gold and its gates of pearl? What is there in this life that compares with that picture? It’s all yours for one little ‘yes’ -- just one little word! Say that word tonight. Make your mothers happy. Say: Yes! Yes! Yes!”

He stepped down from the pulpit to the space inside his altar rail. His eyes rolled and he clapped his hands together with the report of a pistol shot.

“Men!” he shouted. “Women! And you children! Too! Don’t hang back. Don’t try to fool God!

“You may say that you are saved. Others may think that you are saved, but down in your heart of hearts you know that you are lying to yourself and to God. What about the wish to sin? Each tiny one is every bit as bad in the sight of God as the sin itself, and you will burn in Hell for it just the same. Do you want proof, my friends? The Bible says that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

“Matthew five, verse twenty-eight.” Mr. Van Horn turned around to observe the effect of his rapid-fire work.

“Think of that! Whosoever even looketh on a woman! That is only one sin, my friends. And at the Revelation St. John says that adulterers shall be cast in a lake of fire to burn forever and ever. Don’t forget. The wish to sin is just as bad as the sin, itself.”

I began to feel the gooseflesh creep out all over me. I wished I had never seen the Gribby girls or Mrs. Roser or Mrs. Gormely or Mrs. Malleck or Mrs. Bookstaver or Mrs. Titlow or any of the other women in the church. The thought of burning up made me want to get up there to the altar and confess everything I had been thinking for months. But just then I noticed that something was happening in the choir.

Homer Fitch was up on his feet, hanging to the back of a chair. The tears were streaming down his cheeks and his mouth opened and shut, as if he were trying to say something.

If Reverend Wickwire hadn’t been pounding on the altar rail with all of his might he would have noticed it, too. As it was, he stretched out his arms and began pleading with the rest of us.

“Who will be the first sin sick soul to turn his back on this world for the world to come?” he pleaded. “Who will be the first to choose between life everlasting and the torments of Hell?”

By that time everybody was stretching their necks to get a good look at Homer. The Reverend Wickwire followed their eyes. Homer held up his hand.

“I will,” he wept.

“Ah, thank God,” cried the evangelist. “Here is one lost sinner who wants to make a clean breast of things and get right with God. Don’t you, my young friend?”

“Yes, sir,” sobbed Homer. He stumbled down to the altar and slipped into a sobbing heap.

“That’s the kind of courage I like to see,” said Reverend Wickwire, patting Homer on the back. “Pray through. Humble yourself. Ah, I know it isn’t easy, but it’s the only way -- the only way. Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow. If we will only confess them He will make them all right. But we must first confess.”

“I’ve committed adultery,” Homer groaned. “Me and Grace Van Horn -- oh, God forgive me and save me from going to Hell!”

In the awful silence that followed somebody screamed. It was Mrs. Fitch.

“God forgives everybody, even the uttermost,” replied the Reverend Wickwire out of the vast quiet. “If we will but confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us. That’s what the Bible says.”

Mr. Van Horn wasn’t there to quote the verse and chapter. He was squeak squeaking out the side door of the church, on his way home.

Homer commenced to mumble how it had all happened and half the congregation moved up to the altar to comfort him and to exhort him to tell everything. Before long the church was filled with more groans and “amens” than I have ever heard, before or since.

“I tell you, there is great joy in Heaven tonight over the repentance of this one, poor sinner!” exclaimed Reverend Wickwire.

He began singing: “Just As I am, Without One Plea,” and those of us who weren’t already at the altar moved up and knelt in the first few rows of chairs. Homer was praying out loud but there were so many amens and hallelujas that nobody could hear what he was saying. Finally he got up on his feet. His eyes were red and there were high water marks on his face from the tears, but everybody said afterwards that it looked like the face of Stephen, the martyr -- as if it had been that of an angel. Reverend Wickwire said it reflected the Shekinah glory.

“I want to thank God tonight for forgiveness and for a deep, settled peace in my soul,” Homer said in a loud voice; and everybody said amen.

Reverend Wickwire prayed again. He thanked God for convicting Homer of sin before his conscience had been seared as with a red hot iron and God had spewed him out of his mouth.

“And we beseech Thee to visit that poor lost girl, Grace Van Horn, wherever she may be tonight,” he added. “Come into her heart. Cleanse it of this abominable sin. Humble her pride and rebelliousness. Cause her to repent before it is too late, and save her from the eternal damnation that Thou hast reserved for the wicked on this earth. Save her for the sake of her God fearing father, whose heart she has broken. Hear his prayers, we beseech Thee.”

As if in answer to prayer the church door opened and in came Mr. Van Horn, dragging Grace along with him. She was struggling and crying, and at the door of the church she tried to break his hold on her wrist and run back; but he dragged her up the aisle by force. A few feet from the altar she fainted dead away.

The people nearest her when she fell laid her out on an empty row of seats and slapped her hands while Mr. Callendar ran for some water. When she came to she curled up on the floor and began to cry as if her heart would break.

“The Lord is working!” said Reverend Wickwire. “Halleluja!”

He started a song and everybody joined in:

“Coming Home! Coming Home!
Nevermore to roam!
Open wide the ga-ates of love.
Lord, I’m coming Home!”

During the singing Homer came over and knelt down beside Grace. She began to scream and pushed him away. Reverend Wickwire stopped the song and warned her not to be stubborn and resist God. But she kept on kicking at the chairs and screaming so loud that even Mr. Van Horn backed away from her.

Mrs. Bookstaver, who was sympathetic and homely and big-bosomed, got everybody else away and put her arm around her and whispered for a long time. After a while she cried more quietly and before the meeting was over she even prayed out loud.

The revival lasted until three o’clock in the morning and everybody was saved. Sixteen of us, counting old Mrs. Titlow, promised Reverend Wickwire we would go to the foreign field to the missionaries.

A few days later Homer and Grace were married. That was in June. There was a baby in November -- a little girl. Everybody was sorry it had to be a girl


The street preacher was on his second wind.

“I was like you once,” he shouted. “I liked the follies of this world. But I thank God that fifteen years ago tonight He came into my heart and I gave my life to Him. It wasn’t easy, my friends, but I’ve never regretted it and I never will. My good wife took a stand with me on the same night and every one of our seven children have come out on the Glory side.”

The speaker was interrupted by a jeer from some hoodlum on the outskirts of the crowd. He was quick to capitalize the derision.

“Ah, you can laugh at me, and persecute me and make fun of me now all you like,” he pursued. “But you’ll laugh on the other side of your face on the Day of Judgement, young man, when God casts the scorners of his gospel into utter darkness, where there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!

“I don’t like to say these things,” he added. “I’m only a sinner, saved by grace, myself. There was a time in my life when I was headed straight for Hell, and I would have gone there if I hadn’t had the courage and backbone to get up and confess my sins. It took courage, my friends, but, oh, I want to tell you that it was worth while. You don’t know how it feels to be cleansed through and through and made whiter than snow ...”

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