Part Two: Riley Shepard, Primitive Baptist
30 years ago, my father wrote me a letter emphatically explaining that there's no such thing as free will. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. We weren't religious. It seemed my parents were hostile towards organized religion, so I was confused by the letter. After Dad's death in 2009, I began researching where he might have adopted this "no free will" concept.
This photograph was passed along by a distant cousin and ancestry researcher, Corinne Ransom. I met her online around 2006, when I was obsessively snooping around on an ancestry site. Dad generally avoided his relatives, so Corinne didn't know him, but she generously gave me her extensive research on the Shepard ancestry, along with this fascinating image of my great-grandparents, Riley and Clarissa Shepard. Clarissa died in 1903, she was only 38 years old. She died in childbirth, and the twin babies both died, too. According to the Primitive Baptist teachings, that was God's plan all along. Clarissa's life was mapped out by God from the beginning, as well as everyone else's life. She was going to die giving birth to twins no matter what. Here's something I found online that seeks to explain the idea:
Question: "Since you believe that your destiny is in the hands of God and that you can do nothing about it, does this not cause you a great deal of anxiety?"
Answer: "No, there is far greater peace and comfort in knowing that our case is in the Lord's hands than in thinking it is in our own." (Titus 3:5-7)
I interviewed two sisters in 2016, Shepard cousins who were brought up in the Primitive Baptist Faith in North Carolina. They tried to answer my questions.
"If music outside the church and dancing in general was considered sinful, wouldn't my father's career have horrified his Shepard side? My uncle Victor became a professional ballroom dancer. Wouldn't they be angry with him, too?" I asked.
The cousins both shrugged their shoulders, and one of them said, "Well, If God's plan is set, then they might have been more forgiving about your dad and uncle." The sisters looked at each other and smiled. "We snuck off, listened to music, and went dancing. I mean, maybe it was easier to just let people be, if there's nothing to be done about it."
I'm still not religious, but the concept as I understand it has a relaxing effect on my anxious brain. If I could really embrace it, I'd stop obsessing about all the mistakes I've made, and maybe stop worrying about the future. Everything is going as it should. Even this blog post, which is much longer than I intended, was meant to be, according to this theory. I'm sure I've taken the concept too far, but I wonder if it had the same effect on my father's mind.
The photograph of Clarissa and Riley Shepard was most likely taken in or near their home in Jacksonville, North Carolina, I'm guessing in the late 1890s, but maybe earlier. Clarissa is bejeweled, probably wearing her best dress, while great-grandfather Riley looks a little rumpled and casual, like an actor on the New York Subway, too tired to take off his costume after a four show weekend. The senior Riley Shepard dreamed of being a Primitive Baptist minister, and knew the Bible "backwards and forwards" as my father used to say.
Since I knew Dad as Riley Shepard, I'll call the great-grandfather Rev. Riley Shepard, because although it's a controversy whether he really was a reverend or not, it says "Rev. Riley Shepard" on his gravestone (which I visited in 2016) and other places online, so we'll go with that.
Rev. Riley and Clarissa had 11 children before she died. They named one of their sons Zedoc. When Zedoc Shepard was old enough to strike out on his own, he moved from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Wilmington, where he met Lula Tindal (also spelled Tyndal, Tindall, and at times Tyndall). Lula's mother, Martha, owned property, grocery stores, and brick yards. Lula and Zedoc married and moved into a house on Martha's land, near her much larger house. Zedoc worked at the Tindal family grocery store. He was surrounded by his in-laws, both at home and at work.
Back then, the Shepard family were all Primitive Baptists, and the Tindals were Methodist. Zedoc and Lula had four sons, plus a baby boy who died. My dad was born in 1918. They named him Richard Riley, honoring his grandpa.
Starting when I was in grade school, my father told me stories about his life. He told me he remembered his grandfather as a man who quoted the Bible constantly. It must have made an impression on him. As a little boy, Dad wanted to show off by memorizing long passages from the Bible. Memorizing and reciting biblical passages was like a first performance, Dad's family his first audience. I've often thought that most ministers and pastors, and maybe even some priests, secretly wished to be actors.
When my father was a little boy, he had an early aptitude for memorizing large amounts of information, but as he grew up, he was irritated by his grandfather's habit of sitting at the dinner table reciting bible passages non-stop.
When Dad told me about his grandfather, (Rev. Riley died in 1950) he confided he thought the reciting was strange and hard to be around.
The two religious camps, the Primitive Baptists and the Methodists, had different world views. Like most kids growing up in religious households, the beliefs both impacted and restricted my father in powerful ways.
Ok. I lied in the last post. This is a four minute read, longer than the first one. Plus it's continued.
Continued in Part 3