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An interview with pastor G. I. Williamson

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On May 19, G.I. Williamson will be 89 years-old by God's grace. Like most people, I first encountered one of his books on the confession and catechism before meeting him in person. In my case, God's providence brought me into the very Presbytery which he has been a member of for years, the Presbytery of the Dakotas of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

As a deacon, ruling Elder and pastor, I have enjoyed his fellowship over the years—and even a few of his heart-felt speeches on the floor of Presbytery. But I never sat down and carefully asked about his life. Well, now I have and I hope it will be edifying to the Body of Christ.

1. Where were you born and raised?

My birth certificate says I was born in Des Moines, Iowa on the 19th of May, 1925. But my Mother said I was born in the early hours on the 20th. She said her Physician didn't remember that it was past midnight when he filled out the form.

2. Were you raised a Christian?

Yes, but with qualifications. My parents were both products of the old UPCNA, and my Mother, at least, was required to learn the Westminster Shorter Catechism in her youth. But I don't remember that it was ever even mentioned when I (with my two brothers and two sisters) was growing up. We attended United Brethren Churches for years before returning, during the war years, to the UPCNA.

3. Did you seek a different job or career before going into the ministry?

I was captivated by the music of famous dance bands such as Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers, Tommy and Jimmy. So I learned to play Clarinet and Saxophone. My goal at that time was to find my niche in that business and this also led to the assignment I received during World War II in the Army. I helped 'fight that great war' with my Saxophone in the 184th Army Ground Forces Band Band. I might add that it was while I was a member of the Arny Liddell Orchestra playing at the Riverview Park dance hall in Des Moines that I met my wife Doris, shortly before I was drafted.

4. When were you converted? What happened?

I was converted in the fall of 1946 while I was (again) playing with the Arny Liddell Orchestra. There was a kind of delayed impact at work in my mind from World War II. Knowing some of the terrible things that took place, and the comparatively safe job I had been given (my older brother won a distinguished flying cross as a B-24 pilot), made me begin to ask some of life's momentous questions. What is the meaning of it all? Is there really any meaning? By that time Doris and I were back in Des Moines, and had started going to church again, after mostly neglect of such things during Army service. God began to use the preaching of Rev. Will W. Orr, who was then pastor of Westminster United Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, to begin to stir things up deep within me.

I still remember, vividly, when I came to that moment of truth never to be forgotten. I was playing my saxophone—playing music I knew so well that I didn't even have to look at it—when I had sense of seeing the pit and fire of hell opening up before me. I knew then and there that I had to flee from the wrath which is to come, by finding refuge in Jesus.

5. Were you in the military? I heard you used to play in a musical band. How did that happen?

The answer, as you know by now, is 'Yes.' My work for a few years before, during and after World War II was that of a professional musician. And have to admit the simple truth that I am basically a coward. I was in basic training about the time of the famous battle of the bulge in Belgium. There was a kind of panic atmosphere at Fort Benning (where I was training) and talk of sending men as quick as possible to Europe. The very thought of actually being in combat—to either kill or get killed—was to me a chilling prospect. So my good Jewish friend (Bob Stein) and I decided we would break the rules we were both aware of, in order to try to get ourselves a better assignment. So we went without permission out of our company area to look for the Warrant Officer in charge of the 184th A.G.F.Band. We found him, and asked if we could audition. He agreed, and had us sit there and play instruments that he had there, to prove that we could do it. Then we went back as quickly as we could to our company area.

A few days later we saw our names on the bulletin board. We were required to report to the Warrant Officer to begin our new assignments. And within a couple of weeks we were playing music to send the men off that we had trained with for service in Europe. Soon after that this band was sent from Fort Benning to Camp Wheeler (which was also in Georgia). The reason was order from 'higher up' to decrease the number of trained men needed for military band service. So, out of three military bands, one was to be eliminated (this meant that 28 men would be sent back to possible combat). And Bob Stein was, at that time, eliminated. At the end of the war our band was sent to Chicago to play in a Victory day celebration. We were waiting our turn when I heard a familiar voice. But when I turned to see who it was it was hard to tell because one eye was covered. It was Bob Stein. He had lost his eye to a German 88 while serving as a typist in Headquarters duty. God was already printing a momentous lesson in my heart and somehow I already sensed this.

6. Summarize your pastoral career.

I studied for the ministry at the old UPCNA Seminary called Pittsburgh-Xenia. It was a theological or doctrinal 'tower of babel' because there were so many different theological views taught in it. One Professor was very liberal, having an honorary title in the World Council of Churches. Another was an out and out Barthian. And another was a Classic Calvinist. By the second year of my Seminary training my educational benefits were all used up, so I had to have part-time employment to take care of my wife and two daughters. So I became a student pastor of a small church in Western Pennsylvania. It was there that I made an interesting discovery. It was the fact that it is sometimes the old women who have the most knowledge and wisdom in a given congregation. The Calderwood sisters were both in their 90s. They had both been teachers. And it was by them that I was first advised to acquaint myself with Josephus. It was also there that I met a sister of Clarence Duff, the well-known OPC missionary to Eritrea. Margaret Duff was the one who introduced me to the story and writings of J. Gresham Machen. And it was also in this little country Church that I made my greatest discovery outside of the Scriptures. They were getting ready to throw away some old books they found in a forgotten closet. One of them was the 1858 Standards of the UPCNA which I still treasure it today. Soon after that I was called to the old Rock Street U.P.C. in Fall River, and it was while I was there—only briefly as it turned out—that I rightly foresaw the coming suicide of the UPCNA in 1958. And then, after a brief sojourn in the ARP church in 1954-55, I became the founding pastor of the OPC in Fall River. And I served for about seven years until, in 1963, I was called to serve a Reformed Church in Auckland New Zealand. It was there that I learned some truly great things from my Dutch brothers, one of them being a better understanding of the duties and importance of a proper functioning of the eldership.

7. How different was the culture in America when you were growing up, from what it is today?

I see the book of Romans—chapters 1-3—to be the best explanation of the momentous changes I see. When I was boy, in the 1920s and 1930s, there was still a lot of what J. G. Machen called 'the moral momentum' of our American ancestors. No one around me in those days so much as mentioned homosexual behavior. Even adultery and fornication were understood to be unacceptable. To even dream that it would become acceptable to kill a little baby growing in a mother's womb, was unthinkable. Yes, America did have vicious criminals. I even felt a tinge fear myself of people like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. But my whole early life was encompassed by at least a vague sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong and there is such a thing as absolute truth, with the opposite to it being absolutely false. Yes, Johnny, there really was a time in America when some people were privileged to live in sort of 'Bible Belt.' I was one of them. This was one of the most important things I received from my Father and Mother (while, at the same time, they were very weak—as was the RPCNA—in teaching us about the source of these absolutes).

8. What are two or three main concerns with America? with the churches of America? with the Presbyterian and Reformed churches?

I believe J.G. Vos was right when he said (in his Commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism) "It is entirely true that WWII was, in the deepest sense, the result of widespread acceptance of the doctrine of human evolution as the truth, accompanied by a gradual but very real rejection of the Bible, by highly educated people, as their standard of faith and life. The logic involved in this moral decline is really unavoidable when once the assumption of the truth of human evolution has been made." It was this concession that led, as Dr. Vos said, to the ideologies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. And it is my view that it will also eventually destroy those churches that continue to equivocate the faithful words of our Westminster Standards: “The work of creation is, God's making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.”

9. You have experienced much over the years by God's grace; what are some helpful lessons or observations you wish to give the reader?

This question brings to my mind what Jeremiah said to his secretary—Baruch the Son of Neriah. "O Baruch" said the prophet, "do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I am bringing disaster upon all flesh, declares the Lord. But I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go." When we are young men we have a tendency to want to be men who do important things. But I understand Jeremiah to be saying it is a great enough thing to be saved from the wrath which is to come. Be satisfied with that, and simply be faithful. I can't think of any lesson more important than that. Can you?

10. What are your views on Christian education? On christian education in the home? at the church?

When I was visiting my Mother for the last time—(she was then in her 95th year)—I discovered for the first time that she had 'once-upon-a-time' memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism. What a sad thing it is that I—with my brothers and sisters—was never taught that Catechism by her, or by my father. No, the UPCNA was in rapid decline, and not bothering with that old fashioned stuff any more.

I believe Christian Education requires cooperative effort by the parents, the church and the Christian School (wherever that is possible). Where it is not possible I believe it is one of the highest priority duties of the parents to provide it, either by having home schooling or by cooperating with other parents to get a parent-controlled Christian School started. This is what we did in New Zealand. In North Dakota we could not do that, so the families did it through home schooling.

I am opposed to those who say there is only one way that this need can be met. My reason is that I have seen it met in both of these ways quite effectively.

11. What are your thoughts about some Christians who claim that the uniqueness of Christian education can be reduced to the motivation of the heart?

I do not agree that Christian education can be reduced to 'the motivation of the heart.' Obviously, Christian education does not accomplish its rightful goal where there is no saving grace at work in the heart of a student. But it is God alone who can touch and change the heart. But even when there is a student who never receives a new heart, there can be Christian education because Christian education is the transmission of information that is true to both the light of nature and the even greater light of Scripture. Judas received a Christian education just as truly as Peter did.

12. What similarities and differences did you experience between the New Zealand Reformed churches and the Reformed churches of America?

My work as a pastor has dispelled from my mind, once and for all, any notion that there are any basic differences in one part of the human race in comparison with another. The element of sameness eclipses all differences. There are, however, a few differences in the traditions that shape people which are not insignificant. I think the Dutch Reformed tradition of having less frequent General Synods (which I came to know in New Zealand) is better than our American Presbyterian tradition of yearly General Assemblies. It is, in my opinion, a helpful safeguard against the hierarchical tendency natural to all fallen humans.

13. What are your thoughts about the various church movements over the course of your life-time, such as Promise Keepers and family integrated churches?

I have come to see movements like these as symptom, rather than solutions. They do tend to arise because of a serious lack of something in the churches. Buy it is for that very reason that I tend to oppose them. (1) In my early ministry one of my elders wanted me to get involved in a movement called 'Moral Rearmament.' Well, I could see as well as he could that America was becoming less and less moral. But my remedy was, and is, for more effective preaching of the whole counsel of God in Protestant Churches. (2) And what about the 'Navigator's' movement. Well, I too believe that Christian people need to learn how to be good navigators. But it is the church which is divinely authorized to teach Christians how to do this. (3) And it is the same with 'Promise Keepers.' It is a scandal the way people—including the President of our Nation himself—can make vows and then proceed to break them. But the answer is not gong to come to society at large, unless it is first restored in our churches. And just look at the sad failure of the church to exercise di scipline? (4) And, again, take this latest fad called "Family Integrated Churches." What we need is not a new movement with that name, but faithful churches in which families, singles, widows, and so on, are integrated according to Scripture. The best example of that which I have ever seen was not in any parachurch organization. No, where I saw it most effectively—on display—was sixty years ago in Christian Reformed Churches.

So I say the answer is not in any of these 'one thing supreme' organizations. No the answer is a restoration of the authentic true church as described in Article 29 of the great Belgic Confession.

14. What is your favorite dessert?

My favorite dessert is a dish of ice-cream with a lot of blue berries.

Pastor Williamson is the author of popular study guides: Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism. He served fourteen years as the editor of Ordained Servant (OPC). He is (mostly) retired as pastor emeritus.

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