Thoughtful Quaker : D. Elton Trueblood

"I'm beautifully emancipated, freed, unemployed. I say to you, get sixty-five as fast as you can. It gives you freedom to do what you think you ought to do."

   With these words, D. Elton Trueblood welcomed me into his square, red-brick study lined with walnut paneling. It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon, and Trueblood, dressed in a sportshirt, was cheerful and optimistic as he showed me about the study, where he has a library of 2,000 books — and no typewriter. The building is about 100 feet from the Truebloods' attractive home on the edge of the Earlham College campus, a small Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana.

   On the way from the parking lot to Trueblood's study I had already noticed his carefully laid-out vegetable garden and the manicured rose bushes lining the walkway. Above the walk, suspended from a branch of a 250-year-old white oak tree, hung a wooden yoke symbolizing

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Yokefellows International, a Christian fellowship of discipline founded by Trueblood in 1952.


   Yokefellows was one of Trueblood's works that took shape in embryo form at Stanford but came to fruition at Earlham. It has flourished on an international scale. During 1946-47, his first year at Earlham, a group of students who held to the idea of a small, covenanted fellowship that took on a voluntary discipline, something like a Christian order, met with Trueblood. As yet the fellowship had no name. Two years later, however, the group was using the yoke metaphor and the name Yokefellow emerged. It is used in Philippians 4:3 as a synonym for a practicing Christian.

   The movement has grown to include five retreat houses and a modest headquarters office next to Trueblood's study and home at 230 College Avenue, Richmond, Indiana.

   The common discipline voluntarily undertaken by Yokefellows contains seven points: daily prayer, daily Bible reading, weekly public worship, systematic giving for Christian causes, wise use of time, making daily work a Christian vocation, and productive study habits.

   "We can now see that much of the success of the Yokefellow movement has arisen from the fact that, when it began, it represented an early form of the New Evangelicalism," Trueblood wrote his Yokefellow partners at Christmastime 1977.

   "For twenty-five years we have been stressing commitment as the central Christian experience. We have said, in season and out of season, that it is not necessary to choose between a Christ-centered faith and either intellectual integrity or devotion to the cause of justice, but we have always held that commitment to Christ is the place to start. With that as a beginning, both intellect and justice may be served . . . ."

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   Trueblood's happiness in taking retirement at sixty-five in 1966 fits in perfectly with his philosophy that life is lived best when it is lived in chapters. And the chapter he was living during the summer of 1977 when I visited him is perhaps the most rewarding of his long and influential career.

   In 1970, Trueblood taught his last class in college. On July 6, 1973, he gave his last lecture at a pastor's school. After writing several hundred editorials and columns, he phased out that kind of journalism in June 1973. His final book — his thirty-first — was published in 1974, thirty-nine years after his first one, The Essence of Spiritual Religion. Harper & Row published the first and the last — his autobiography While It Is Day — and most of the other volumes in between. And November 13, 1977, was the date of Trueblood's last speaking engagement.

   Not that the eighth-generation Quaker with English roots traded a busy life for a rocking chair. Nor was his health failing. In fact, he told me he had never been a patient in a hospital.

   "Though any particular finality is sobering," Trueblood wrote in the last chapter of his autobiography, "it need not be sad. Certainly it is not sad if each ending provides for new beginnings. It is in this spirit that I face the remaining years of my life, in which the conclusion of certain experiences merely opens the way to the enjoyment of others."

   The title of Trueblood's autobiography While It Is Day is a phrase from Jesus' words to the disciples when He healed a blind man: "We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work" (John 9:4 RSV). Although Trueblood, who lives with his second wife Virginia finds there is really nothing wrong with "sitting on the terrace just being quietly thankful," he keeps busy with the Yokefellows and with a new kind of writing ministry.

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   "Since I'm not writing any more books, I'm helping others with theirs," he told me, showing me a manuscript he had recently received in the mail. "I get about one a week — all unsolicited." Advice and editing from the veteran author don't cost the neophyte writers a penny.

   In harmony with his orderly life-style, Trueblood, who every night puts his watch on the bedroom dresser and goes to bed at precisely 10:00 P.M., has divided his life into eight chapters, or segments: child, student, teacher, author, minister, yokefellow, father, and rambler.


   This ministry chapter is the period when major changes occurred. In a sense, it was a crisis of faith. The famed British author C. S. Lewis was instrumental in shaping Trueblood's shifting theology.

   In the early days of his ministry, Trueblood emphasized the compassion and humanness of Jesus but said little of His teachings about Himself or His unique relationship to God the Father. Slowly and subtly, however, the influence of C.S. Lewis began to seep in.

   "He shocked me out of my unexamined liberalism and into evangelicalism," Trueblood, who holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Johns Hopkins University, explained. "Jesus claimed to be more than a teacher — that's the heart of it."

   For Trueblood, like T.S. Eliot, full commitment came through the intellect, though he has strongly felt that the inner life of devotion and the outer life of service are also needed for a full-orbed Christian faith.

   "In reading Lewis I could not escape the conclusion that the popular view of Christ as being a teacher, and only a teacher, is a self-contradiction that cannot be resolved," Trueblood notes in While It Is Day. "I saw, in short, that conventional liberalism cannot survive rigorous and rational analysis. What Lewis and a few others

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made me face was the hard fact that if Christ was only a teacher, then He was a false one, since, in His teaching, He claimed to be more."

   One day, Trueblood suddenly realized that, without intending to be, he was an evangelical.


   New confidence in Christ gave Trueblood rational answers to some important questions that had been nagging him. His preaching took on new confidence, too, because he realized that the trustworthiness of Christ was his one central certainty.

   "When I found that thoughtful people would listen to a Christ-centered approach, I realized where the power of the Christian faith resides," he wrote in his autobiography. "While many churches are declining in strength, the churches which exhibit both Christ-centeredness and rationality are marked by evident vitality."

   Writing more on the subject in the December 1977 "Quarterly Yoke Letter," sent to persons interested in the work of the Yokefellows, Trueblood said:

   "The evangelical rejects 'religion in general,' which he recognizes as powerless, just as he rejects any faith which is merely formal or external. His religion is one of power because he has experienced the reality of Christ in his own inner life. The evangelical Christian, as a direct result of commitment to Christ, being yoked with Him, and consequently with his fellow Christians, is no longer a mere 'church goer.' He is liberated from the dullness which has afflicted much of the religion of the recent past . . . .

   "Those who begin with the conviction of the Christ-likeness of God still have many problems and they are not free from burdens," continued Trueblood, "but they normally achieve, by means of the concreteness of their faith, a stability that is truly amazing."

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   Times of decision have not been taken lightly by Trueblood, despite his easygoing manner. Career choices have included five professorships: Guilford, Haverford, Harvard, Stanford, and Earlham. The decision to leave Stanford in 1945 after more than nine years as chaplain and professor of the philosophy of religion was especially difficult.

   "I decided to leave a great, rich, glittering university to come to a small, midwestern Christian college," Trueblood said. He went through inner turmoil over the matter and could have stayed on at Stanford with ease. Still, the tone of his voice told me Trueblood had no regrets about his choice.

   Soon he found himself equally at home — perhaps more so — at Earlham, and he wrote a widely circulated article for Reader's Digest called "Why I Chose a Small College."

   "Besides," he said, "I would never have started the Yokefellow movement if I hadn't come to Earlham."

   "How did God help you to decide between Stanford and Earlham?" I asked.

   "I said to myself," Elton replied, "He has made me one person in His image and given me this life. He has not coerced me. He has given me the chance to make mistakes, and to choose."

   In a mood of prayer, not merely on his own power, Trueblood concluded that since he had been given only one earthly life, he had better not miss the chance to use his talents at the small Quaker school.

   Trueblood feels a keen sense of responsibility for the right use of the powers God has given him and for the importance of finding the natural divisions of life. Part of this concept he gleaned from Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Taken." The metaphor of life as a journey was appealing to Trueblood, who declared that the consequences

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of decisions along the way are beyond knowing except by faith.


   The lengthy illness and subsequent death of Elton's first wife, Pauline, was an episode in the author-professor's life that demanded great dependence upon the spiritual resources of the Lord.

   Always of rather frail health, yet the mother of three sons and a daughter, Pauline came under the shadow of progressive illness in 1954. Within six months she was paralyzed and died of brain cancer at the age of fifty-three. It was a difficult time, especially for the children. The youngest was only thirteen. The family had been a close one.

   At the time Pauline passed on, Elton turned to his beliefs about the nature of God. "I was convinced that God is, that He is like Jesus Christ, and that not a sparrow falls without His knowledge," he said as we sat in his booklined study near a photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

   "My task, therefore, was to go on and perform the ministry to which I was devoted."

   To Trueblood, this meant giving a promised talk in Cincinnati in the evening of the day Pauline died. "I had made the commitment; I thought the honorable thing was to keep the promise," he said simply.

   And he quoted from Dr. Samuel Johnson of England, one of his favorite models and men of faith, about the sacredness of time — a quotation Johnson had inscribed on his watch. Trueblood has read Johnson's books nearly every week for forty years and has written two books of his own on Johnson's prayers.

   "We're here a little while, and we better use time well . . . I'm going to use every moment well; I'm going to use every day I've got."

   Intuitively — or perhaps through prayer — Trueblood has

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seemed to sense the passing of one chapter of his life and the beginning of the next. The day I interviewed him in Richmond he had decided it was time to resign from the board of Catalyst, a cassette tape ministry for ministers.

   "I think the Lord is leading me to stay put and let people come to me," said the man who had averaged one book and 250 speeches every year for the previous thirty. His moratorium on book-writing didn't extend to hymns, however. He had just completed "New Pentecost," a hymn for contemporary Christians to be sung to the tune of St. Anne, perhaps the best-known hymn tune in the modern world. It is usually associated with the words to "O God Our Help in Ages Past."

   Trueblood believes in the guiding Hand for spiritual help. And, as a Quaker affiliated with the Friends United Meeting, he thinks Christians should spend more time in silence listening to God and less time doing all the talking.

   He prays for friends, family, and associates by name each morning. Then he waits and listens. A prayer group meets with Trueblood at Earlham five days a week.

   Trueblood, who calls himself utterly ecumenical, believes you can't be a Christian alone. Group guidance is essential, too. "There is individual listening and there is group guidance," he said to me. "In short, my friend, we need all the help we can get and we need to get it from every valid source."


   Trueblood, who holds honorary doctoral degrees from twelve institutions of higher learning, said he is conscious of intellectual doubts in his life — but not anxieties. In this regard, his response corresponded with that of another professor-theologian: Carl F. H. Henry, whose own chapter is in this book.

   "God has not, in our finitude, given us absolute cer-

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tainty about anything," explained Trueblood. "The Christian life is one of trust, always shadowed by doubt."

   In fact, Trueblood sees philosophic doubt as beneficial, not just unavoidable. "It keeps us humble," he said with a smile. "Watch out for the fellow who is too sure."

   We are not to expect certainty, according to Trueblood. That's why we live by faith, and not by an absolute sense of being right.

   Still, though a person never has absolute certainty, he can see that the evidence that this is God's world is stronger than the evidence that it is not.


   Christ turns the balance, Trueblood is convinced, and his logic is sharp and clear: Either God is, or Christ is wrong. "If Christ is trustworthy, then God is, because Christ believed in Him and prayed to Him," Trueblood reasons. Much of Trueblood's philosophical and theological apologetics are contained in what he calls his most enduring book, A Place to Stand (Harper & Row, 1969).

   "Nearly everything I know about God, I know through Christ," Trueblood continued. "I go from the known to the unknown — not the other way around from God to Christ."

   Trueblood elucidated that his knowledge of Christ comes from two sources. One is the Gospels, through which we are able to learn something of what Jesus did and said and that He died and rose. The other is immediate, first-hand, personal knowledge.

   "I sense His presence in the midst," said Trueblood, employing a Quaker expression.

   Though he is not given to anxieties, Trueblood thinks moods are a normal part of being alive and human. "The reality is not on cloud nine, it's right here," he said, pointing to the ground. "The person who says 'nothing ever worries me' I know is a nut!"

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   Idealism that isn't realistic drives people crazy in Trueblood's estimation, because it is almost sure to make them live falsely.

   But Christ, far from being an idealist, is "a theistic realist," he added, borrowing a phrase from the late Scottish theologian Dr. John Baillie, an erstwhile friend of both Trueblood and myself.

   "It's entirely possible," summed up the dean of American religious writing, "to have the warm heart and the clear head. You don't have to choose — praise to God!"

Chapter Nine  ||  Table of Contents