The bishop

I’ve long sensed that Grandpa had two best friends. The first was the farmer Arlie Binkley, his wife’s brother-in-law and the father of Wilma, Orpha, and Kenny.

The other was David Thomas Gregory, for a decade the pastor of Euclid Avenue church, where much of their social life was centered.

In a way, they embodied two different identities for Grandpa: one, with rural life and its older values, and the other urban, accompanied by prestige, learning, and no doubt the political skills to maneuver through the denomination’s hierarchy, including its merger with the Evangelical Association a couple of years before I was born, to form what would be known as the Evangelical United Brethren, or EUB, church.

One was a Midwestern native who stayed close to his roots; the other, from the East Coast side of the Allegheny Mountains, albeit from the easternmost tip of West Virginia.

Both of them were a decade older than Grandpa. Arlie was born November 30, 1891; David, July 16, 1889. Perhaps growing up as the youngest of three boys in his family inclined Grandpa toward older males. In turn, his two comrades died within eight months of each other – David, in a late-night collision on December 27, 1956; Arlie on August 9, 1957, after a long decline to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). The dislocation and grief he must have felt in these two losses so close together must have been overwhelming.

The admiration was apparent for Bishop Gregory or Doctor Gregory, the two terms by which I always heard him referenced. Grandpa spoke often of the man and was proud of the cedar-wood-cover New Testament gift (along with a small vial of Jordan River water) bought back from the Holy Land – but I had no idea of Grandpa’s idolization, as TJ put it, to the point he would do anything the bishop asked. So was Gregory the one who moved Grandpa into the Masonic circles? Or was it his own brother, Leroy? Considering how much Grandpa treasured that identity, I’m surprised Dad never joined – or was encouraged to become one.

From denominational records Henry E. Gable posted online, a sketch  of Gregory’s career emerges.

The record begins in 1915, around age 25, when Gregory was licensed to preach by the Virginia Conference of the United Brethren and he enrolled at the denomination’s Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Following the death of Samuel B. Wengert on December 2, 1916, Gregory took on a student pastorate at Bethany church in Lebanon. From 1917 to 1920, he studied at Bonebrake Theological Seminary (now United Theological Seminary and originally attached to what would become the Euclid Avenue church) in Dayton. He was ordained by the Virginia Conference in 1920, but remained in Ohio as associate editor of The Religious Telescope (1920-21) and director of the United Enlistment Movement of the Board of Administration (1921-22) before returning to Virginia for four years as president of Shenandoah College. In 1926 he transferred to the Miami Conference in Ohio and began a decade as pastor of the Euclid Avenue congregation. In 1936 he became superintendent of the Miami Conference for a year and then moved on to become executive secretary of the Board of Administration until being elected bishop in 1950.

He and his wife, Margaret Lillian Broy Gregory, are buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Martinsburg, West Virginia, amid many relations of their generation, rather than in a church burial ground.

A note for them at the Find a Grave Web site gives Margaret’s birth as August 10, 1888 (which could make her 31 at the time of the 1920 Census) and says the couple had one daughter. In that Census, he was in Dayton, Ohio, with wife, also 31, born in Virginia, and daughter Thelma D., 10, born in West Virginia, the same state of his birth.

Other Census records suggest that his family, like Grandpa’s, was finding farming a difficult way to earn a living, and many members were moving to town – in this case, Martinsburg, only 10 miles or so from the United Brethren stronghold of Hagerstown, Maryland.

The significance of The Religious Telescope affiliation is explained by Tom Crouch:

“The United Brethren Printing Establishment, based in Dayton, Ohio, was one of the best-equipped religious printing houses in the country. Its most important product, The Religious Telescope, was a weekly newspaper that carried the official church position in Brethren homes across the nation. The editor of the Telescope, like the bishops, was elected at the quadrennial General Conferences [and was] one of the most influential men in the church.”

Earlier, the election had propelled Milton Wright into prominence. For Gregory, being named associate editor right after his graduation from seminary and his ordination would have placed him at the center of the denominational headquarters. So far, we have no hint of what would have qualified him to become such an editor or then a college president or what would have convinced him to leave the organization’s headquarters.

When I look at his resume, I have the sense of someone who was handpicked early and groomed for office, and perhaps even rescued at times from difficult personal situations, by an influential mentor. Except for the brief student pastorate and the decade as pastor of Euclid Avenue, all of his positions were administrative – most of them in the hierarchy at the denominational headquarters. From that perspective, I wonder how sensitive he could be to the needs of pastors and congregations, yet he was elected not just a bishop but their dean.

A clue to his rise comes, however, in looking at his predecessor as bishop, Arthur R. Clippinger (1878-1958), and discovering they were both 32nd-degree Masons. Apart from Clippinger’s degree from the Yale Divinity School in 1910, their careers parallel closely. Clippinger was born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, just north of Hagerstown, grew up as one of six children on a farm, taught public school, attended Lebanon Valley (1900-1905), came to Dayton in 1910 as pastor of the Summit Street church, and through rapid growth transformed it into Euclid Avenue. He became Miami Conference superintendent in 1918 and bishop in 1921, a position he held until 1950 – the year Gregory assumed the post. Clippinger was also a driving force behind the merger of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association in 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren denomination. On top of it, his brother Walter G. Clippinger was president of the denomination’s Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio.

These were ambitious farmboys from hardscrabble origins.

For Grandpa, with his own limited educational background, to claim a mutual friendship with someone of Gregory’s stature and ostensible sophistication must have felt flattering. (For now we can presume the doctorate was an honorary one from a United Brethren college, awarded before 1945.) In addition, Gregory’s proximity to power – not just in the denomination but also in Masonic circles and the wider community – must have provided a vicarious sense of influence.

Both settled into Dayton about the same time, even if it was a return for Gregory. This time, both were committed to the Euclid Avenue church. Perhaps Gregory, who grew up on a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, introduced Grandpa to the taste of oysters; TJ says the Gregorys were typically guests at the oyster dinners. (My wife and elder daughter, with their knowledge of food folkways, point out that “tinned oysters” became wildly popular as a prized ingredient across the Midwest by the 1880s – so much so that they are typically found in Indiana Amish Christmas stuffing today.)

Whatever their shared tastes and interests, we can wonder how intimate the relationship was from Gregory’s point of view. When Grandpa’s father-in-law died on February 4, 1945 – two days after “he confessed Christ as his savior, was baptized and joined the Phillipsburg United Brethren church,” as the obituary reports – the funeral was officiated by the Rev. C. Nantz and Dr. D.T. Gregory. And when Grandpa’s daughter Donna married the first time, in June 1946, Gregory, rather than the pastor, probably officiated, as TJ recalls.

I imagine that Grandpa was useful to Gregory’s ambitions. He could be tapped for contributions and time. And to have zealous followers would be not only energizing but a source of power for anyone who would be a leader. The favor might be returned in additional business for an aspiring plumber.

But were there degrees of hypocrisy in this crowd?  Grandpa’s cigars, hidden bourbon, or deck of playing cards stand as visible symbols of an array of possibilities.

The crash occurred six miles east of Cambrige, Ohio, on the National Highway – U.S. 40. As the Dayton Daily News reported, “Bishop Gregory, Wife, Killed in Headon Crash,” on their way home to Pittsburgh after visiting their daughter in Dayton when their car collided with a truck. There is no indication of when they moved from Dayton, nor is Margaret referenced other than as “Mrs. Gregory.” The obituary has him as a 32nd degree Mason with the Stillwater lodge and Scottish rite, as well as a member of the Kiwanis Club, and describes him as resident bishop of the East-Central district of the church.

Their daughter, Thelma, was a teacher at my high school. I had her for study hall, and my classmates were always perplexed when she barked out JACK! at me. That’s what she always called me, knowing my sister was Jill.

*   *   *

As I examine Grandma’s meticulously kept roster of births, deaths, and anniversaries, I find many names that perplex me – just who were they and why did they matter? Many others help me piece together the extended family. But curiously, there’s no entry for the bishop or his wife or his daughter.


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