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Part Two: Rev Riley Shepard, Primitive Baptist, Riley's Grandfather

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, and I'd never considered the idea, so I was confused by the letter, or if he meant in a different way, like that perhaps we aren't as in control as we think we are. After Dad's death in 2009, I began researching where he might have adopted this "no free will" concept, and I decided, at the time, it had something to do with his ancestors.

Clarissa, my father's grandmother, died in 1903, she was only 38 years old. She died in childbirth, and the twin babies died as well. She left behind eleven children, including my father's father, Zedoc. According to the Primitive Baptist teachings, Riley's paternal side were all Primitive Baptists–– 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. The twin babies were also going to die.

Here's something I found online that seeks to explain the religious concept that our paths are set from the beginning:

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 Rev 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. Rev. Riley Shepard dreamed of being a Primitive Baptist minister, and knew the Bible "backwards and forwards" as my father used to say, but I'm still not sure if he was officially recognized as a minister in that church.


When Clarissa's and Rev Riley's son Zedoc Shepard (my grandfather, but we never met) 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. He tried to open his own store, but when the market crashed, he lost it all, and had to work for a butcher shop in town.

Back then, the Shepard family were all Primitive Baptists, and the Tindals were Methodist. Somewhere down the line, maybe in the 20s or 30s? Some of the Shepard clan switched to Baptist. Zedoc became a Baptist, according to my father's notes. I don't know why the switch was made, if anyone knows, send me a note.

Zedoc and Lula had four sons, my father the third, plus a baby boy who died. William, Floyd, Richard (my father) and years later, Victor was born.

Starting when I was in grade school and beyond, my father told me stories about his life. Looking back on it, I feel that he really wanted to be understood and accepted. He said he remembered his grandfather quoting the Bible constantly. Rev Riley Shepard wouldn't converse, but rather he would sit and recite bible passages all night. I'll mention this again, later when I dig into Riley's journal. It must have made an impression on little Riley, all the reciting, because early on he would recite the bible to amuse adults. 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.

Dad told me about his childhood memory of his Primitive Baptist Grandfather, saying, "I didn't understand a goddamn word he said".

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. However, after grappling with what Riley could've meant in those letters and comments, I think he meant free will in a more "Sam Harris" way, not so much what his ancestors embraced. Here's what I think he was getting at: Link to Sam Harris free will chat.

Next up: Part Three: Free Will and Footloose, more on Riley's family and upbringing.

I'll be sorting through my father's journal each week, so bear with me on that. It's a tangled mess.

© copyright 2019-2022 Stacya Silverman. All rights reserved.


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