Grace through Hardship

June 26, 2013

An interview with Rev. C. Herbert Oliver (M.Div. '52, Th.M. '53)


Recently, Westminster celebrated its 84th commencement ceremony. Present at that ceremony was alumnus Rev. C. Herbert Oliver (pictured right with wife, Lorna), who graduated at Westminster’s 24th commencement in 1953. This year, we sat down and talked to Rev. Oliver about his life in seminary, ministry, and civil rights activism.

What are some memories that you have of your time at Westminster?
I had heard about Westminster, and a teacher of mine at Wheaton College named Cornelius Jaarsma recommended that I go there. And I came, and I came to study, and I did.

I had been very concerned about the doctrine of predestination and the Arminian approach to that, and I felt that while I was at Westminster I had to settle the problem for myself. I read all of the works of Arminius so I could fully understand him, and then I read Calvin and others who believed in predestination. Then I read Scriptures, and after my study I came to the conclusion that the Arminians used human logic, and that use of human logic was so powerful that they subjected the Scriptures to that human logic. And I felt that when human logic goes contrary to Scripture, it is not wise to choose human logic over against Divine logic. And though I could not understand predestination, there it is looking at you in the Scriptures, very plain in the writings of Paul. When I mentioned to Dr. Van Til that I had read all the works of Arminius, he said “Well, I haven’t read all of his works.” I was quite surprised at that!

I came to study and I did it very seriously. I was not afraid that God was going to punish me for thinking, I felt it was a right of mine under God to think, and to question every “ism” that’s out there, and evaluate it by God’s Word. I think I learned that from Westminster and it has served me very well throughout the years.

What were some of the things that you did shortly after graduation?
I was called to serve a church in northern Maine in Aroostook County, in Smyrna Mills, ME. I accepted and went there and was ordained in 1955 to the ministry under the auspices of the OPC. I stayed there for about seven years, and when that came to an end I went back to Birmingham. I was accepted into the Air Force to serve as a chaplain, but after they accepted me, within a month they cancelled the acceptance without a reason. I wrote to Senator Saltonstall who was head of the armed services committee at that time to ask him if they could find out any reason why they withdrew my approval of my service in the chaplaincy. He wrote me back and said that he investigated and that they could not find the reason, so I never found out why.

Then I went back to [my hometown of] Birmingham in 1959 and was there through 1965. While there, a group of us investigated about 100 documented cases of alleged police brutality in the Birmingham area over a five-year period. We had them notarized, we had the names of all the policemen involved, we printed their names in the documents and sent them around the world to senators and governors and newspapers. We made sure that [public safety commissioner] Bull Connor got copies of them. Over a period of five years we sent out hundreds of thousands of copies of these documents, and we believe over the years it had the effect of bringing police brutality to an end. That was very dangerous,--I had two attempts on my life—but God was good and I’m still here today.

In 1965, I went to Brooklyn, NY. I was called there through the intervention of Dr. Eugene Callendar who was a friend and a classmate of mine here at Westminster. He wanted me to come up and work in Brooklyn, so I was called to the Westminster Bethany Presbyterian Church. I was still in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church when I came to Brooklyn in 1965, but there was an opening to serve in the United Presbyterian Church. I felt that it was better to serve in a place that was already open for me to serve the Lord and preach. I preached the Gospel as I had understood it at Westminster, and I was there for 25 years before retiring in 1992. 

After that I was called to serve as stated supply for a Brooklyn church, which I did for three years. Then I was called to serve for one year at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church doing counseling and visitation. And one more call came in 2005, I believe, to serve as the moderator of the session. So, I served as moderator of the session for three years at Church of the Covenant on 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue And, after that I said “no more church work!” So, I’m engaged in community work. 

When I was in Brooklyn, I was involved in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville School controversy where we were trying to change the schooling for kids in the inner city to enable them to get a decent education that prepared them for the future, and we wanted community control. For that we were roundly criticized by the United Federation of Teachers. I was chairman of the governing board of the Ocean Hill-Brownville School District, and I think we did a very effective job of opening up education and helping young people to get an appreciation of what an education means and how to apply that. I think we were successful to the point where the United Federation of Teachers manufactured charges of anti-Semitism against us, and that led to termination of our services there. That has still stayed with me. Where it comes from, I don’t know.

You’ve faced your share of criticism and hardship. What pulls you through that?
I would say my faith in God. I believe that God had called me into the ministry, and it was for him to take care of me to open the door to me to serve and to protect me in my service. I simply believed that God would guide me and be my wisdom and be my strength.

I was serious about understanding the Bible, but when I went to Bible school and studied for three years, I felt that I was not ready to go into a world with only Bible knowledge. So I went to Wheaton College and spent two more years there, and graduated with a BA in history. I still felt then that I was not ready to face the world, so I came to Westminster and spent four years here. Gingerly and very carefully, I waded out into a world that was not especially hostile to hear anything from Westminster Theological Seminary.

There is a Jesus of culture; then there’s a Jesus of Scripture. I grew up under the Jesus of culture where I couldn’t go to a white church. I read and read until I understood where Jesus was and who he was—and he was different from the cultural Jesus! I have attempted and tried to follow Christ who urged us to follow him. The chips have fallen in very different places, but I’ve simply been following him, and that’s the only way that I can say God has helped me to be here today.

Describe some of your experience of the civil rights movement in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
After finishing Wheaton College, I went back to Birmingham to serve a small Christian and Missionary Alliance church there. I had heard of a minister who had been shot by the police, and he was well-respected in the black community. I went to the funeral parlor where he was, stood over his body, and was very disturbed and moved by seeing him there. In my heart, I said to myself and to my God that if something is not done about this situation one day I will be lying there, and that will be the end of me. It was like a vow; I said, “If I can do something about this, I will.” This was in January 1948.

Within a few months an integrated group (The Southern Negro Youth Congress) would be coming to Birmingham to hold an interracial meeting, and I wanted to participate in that. We had the meeting; and, when the police found out about it, they read the segregation code to us and told us we were violating the segregation law and we would have to disperse. Our answer was that we are not dispersing, and we are not going to abide by the segregation law. So, three white people who were there were arrested, and I was arrested.

Senator Glen Taylor of Idaho was scheduled to come and speak at the meeting. [To abide by the segregation code], we decided that we would cut down the weeds to the back entrance and make that the “white entrance,” and make the front door the “black entrance.” The police came and told all the white people who came to go around to the back door. When Senator Taylor came, he was told that he had to go to the back door. When he attempted to go into the door, an officer on the ground yanked him off of the porch, and they put him to jail.

That was done in May 1948; white people went to the back door, and it was enforced by Bull Connor’s officers! In my mind, that was the defeat of segregation. White people were not supposed to go to the back door, but the law did not say that the front entrance had to be for whites, and the back entrance for blacks—that was practice. So Bull Connor chose to arrest a white senator and throw him in jail in order to keep that law.

What are some changes that you’ve seen over the past 60 years?
Theologically, I would say that I’ve seen what I would call the disturbing trend in the PCUSA, moving in the direction of ordaining open gay and lesbian ministers. I’ve been a member of the New York City presbytery for 45 years, and I saw how that change took place. I opposed it at the beginning, but they had a way of shunning you to the side and not hearing you. So I decided I would become an observer and watch this and see how it has worked out. It has worked out to me unfavorably, and against the Bible, so they now have an openly gay executive presbyter of the presbytery.

I’ve also not seen any basic racial changes for the better in the church. I’m sorry to say that, but I ran into the same racism in the PCUSA church as I found in the OPC. When I graduated from seminary, there was no place for me to serve. There were plenty of churches that were vacant, but none of them would call me. It was understood by the higher-ups in the church that there was no future for me being called to a white church. That’s when the call came to me to serve in Maine, and I accepted that and went there and served. But the racial divide in America is still as strong as it was in the 40’s and 50’s. Just more polite, but it is no less real, no less firm, and no less impregnable.

Please keep Rev. Oliver in your prayers as he continues to serve the Lord and proclaim the whole counsel of God to a changing world.