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Preaching on the Plains, Chapter 8: Rohrbaugh and Atkinson

In Henry Atkinson, James Rohrbaugh, Preaching on the Plains on September 13, 2010 at 2:43 pm

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Preaching on the Plains, Chapter VIII

“. . . the servants of Jesus Christ . . .”  (Philippians 1:1)

At this point I believe it would be welcome to readers to digress in this chapter by beginning to speak at length of “other preachers on the Plains”.  In another chapter, then, we can re-enter matters of the last year of Seminary, ordination to the ministry and the beginning of my fifty years in that ministry.

But first, I introduce the following statements.  We have all seen colorful “Western Story” paperbacks, or their illustrative covers; for example, a picture of a lusty and wild looking cowboy riding up the street with the background of the high false front store, and shooting into the air!  I am sure, too, my account thus far of myself as a rather timid, cautious personality from a good mother’s knees belies the title, “Preacher on the Plains”, which we first planned to entitle this book.  Afterward, we planned the title, “Preachers on the Plains”.  However, my material concerning other men of God would have been sketchy by comparison with memories of my own experiences.  Hence the present title.  We were preachers, and we were on the Plains.

Now there were five of us who came from Princeton Seminary to settle for a time in Yellowstone Presbytery pastorates in eastern Montana within two years.  Two others and I came in 1929.  Two more the year following.  When we three came, an article appeared in the Miles City Star entitled, “Youth Takes Control in Yellowstone Presbytery.”  (If this article tempted us with grandiose ideas, we were surely disabused of it after two meetings, in the Spring and Fall Sessions, for older heads properly prevailed).  I speak now of the two other young men in 1929.  And James L. Rohrbaugh first.

This young man was taller than I, perhaps six foot, one inch in height.  He was of a ruddy countenance and of dark auburn hair.  While raised, I believe, in the east, he came closest to us to be like a pioneer preacher of the west.  His parish was the Ismay-Mildred parish of some three or four churches and communities.  It was of a more complete and truly ranching area in the far southeast part of Montana.  It was also a good deal south and east of Miles City.  His was a deep, pleasing voice and a hail fellow well met personality.  A cheerful disposition, he must have charmed his people.  A hint of his comraderie can be told by giving an account of an incident at a dinner date when three of us had been invited to the home of one of his younger adults.  Through some delay we were late arriving at the appointed dinner.  Entering into the home, Rev. Rohrbaugh said to the hostess, “I always like to be late for dinner, for then I know the hostess is thinking of me.”  With quick repartee and a smile, the hostess answered his deep voice with, “Yes, but oh what thoughts!”  Jimmie took us out once to an old rancher which he said had been a man of noble birth and who had come west in the 1800’s, and also had been highly educated.  I believe he once was a professor in an English university.  James told us this rancher would hardly look the part or act so to us, and we found it so indeed.  The ranch “spread” had an old time, low log house, typical of old ranches.  We found a man with legs well bowed, as one who had been long in the saddle, and of common, or simple, unpretentious, yet affable manners.  This was cattle country.  Fairview, my field farther north, was the sugar beet,  lower Yellowstone area, where it neared the confluence with the Missouri River to the north.  Up in the hills above the river valley near Fairview there was dry land farming, but not the large cattle ranches as a rule.  I found the town of Fairview to have had, indeed, as is found everywhere today, elements of a border town of pre-prohibition days, when North Dakota was a “dry state” and Montana was “wet”.  State Street was still there on the state line but few buildings were left and only holes remained for most buildings.  The once thriving street had there, at first, been the busy thoroughfare and quite complete in the city.  Thirsty North Dakotans could come in the old days.  However, prohibition came, wrought a change and State Street was on the decline.  Ellery Avenue, two blocks or so west, soon had a fine new brick hotel and a number of businesses were moved from State Street to the new attractive avenue.  Soon the new area was getting most all the day-time business.

The other of the three of us came to a county-wide ministry stemming from the small but county seat town of Hysham, Montana.  It was situated on the railroad between Miles City and Billings.  Henry Atkinson was most colorful in his life story — their man in that sparsely settled country.  Henry was born in Armenia, Turkey, son of a Congregational medical missionary.  His father adhered to the original puritan faith of the beginnings of New England, Congregationalism.  The family was in Armenia at the time Armenians were cruelly massacred and assaulted just before or during World War I.  Henry told us at Princeton, of the time he was a boy of twelve and buried a boy of twelve, his own age, and interred limb by limb his boyhood chum.  They were caught by the war after his father, the missionary doctor, died in enemy country, for Turkey was on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire).  His mother took Henry and his sister on a trek through the hostile country and  somehow they reached Syria and the Mediterranean Sea coast.  There they were rescued by an American vessel and brought to the USA.  I saw a picture of the three in Syria and they were desperately thin.  In America, still a lad, he attended the Dwight L. Moody school for boys in New England.  Graduated, he entered Princeton University.  He earned his way by various means, at one time delivering newspapers to students’ quarters, and later as Editor of the Daily Princetonian.  He was an able man.  As Editor, he exposed “Buchmanism”, a cult among students, in articles.  Attending Seminary later, he married a very fine Christian girl who was from the Second Presbyterian Church in Princeton town.  Graduating, they came in 1929 to the Hysham parish.  Soon he had developed a wide work covering just about everywhere.  His sparsely settled ranch country people thought the world of him.  After a good pastorate, like Mr. Rohrbaugh, he left the country.  But he died quite young.  We have heard his wife raised their children well.

Mr. Rohrbaugh, Jimmie we called him, left Montana after four years or so and not long after, I learned he was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the Sudan Interior Mission.  It was a period when many were mistrusting the mission Boards of the older denominations.  So the newer ‘Faith Missions’ received support at first from many fundamentalists who could not trust their denominational Boards.  Our own Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions (IBPFM) was not organized until 1933.  IBPFM still stands faithful and separate from modernism.  James Rohrbaugh sought the biblical position and went where he could serve the Lord without compromise.  He was in Addis Ababa when Mussolini and his fascist government in Italy entered its war of conquest of Ethiopia.  After much good in the city of Addis Ababa, James resigned from his mission.  But he had a purpose.  He became for a time a reporter connected with an eastern USA city daily, in order to get to a point in Ethiopia where a battle with the Italian army was expected.  Spear-carrying tribesmen, ill-armed, were expected to try to meet the tanks and heavy arms of the Roman Legions.  Rohrbaugh’s purpose was still to serve the gospel to the Ethiopians, his reason for going to their land.  He thus found opportunity to scatter tracts and preach to the tribesmen who expected to die.  He wrote they asked him why this should be.  He declared to them there was a God of heaven who was sovereign and that all nations would be held in judgment.  The Italians won the battle and conquered the country.  James then was back in Addis Ababa just before the capitol fell.  At that time the city was in riot, bullets were firing, but he managed to go from one end of the city to the other on his motorcycle for the care of his family.  I wonder if he did not feel more like “A Preacher on the Plains” of old western lore, out in the ranch and old false front stores, or the Dodge City days of the Old West.

James Rohrbaugh became pastor of a United Presbyterian Church in Seattle.  It was not of the denomination now known as the UPC.  That denomination, or most of it, later united with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form a new UPC overall (UPCUSA).  I believe his deep voice was becoming in the pulpit of this city church and I am sure his hearers were won as were those on the western Plains earlier.

Editor’s note:

Henry Sheperd Atkinson was born in Harpoot, Turkey on 4 November 1904.  He graduated from Princeton University in 1927, attended Princeton Theological Seminary, 1927-1929, and later, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1931-1932.  He was ordained by the Presbytery of Yellowstone (PCUSA) on 21 June 1929 and served as the pastor of the Treasure County church, Hysham, Montana, 1929-32.  Following his time at Westminster, he then served as pastor of the First Presbyterian church of Wildwood, New Jersey, 1932-1934.  Rev. Atkinson died on 21 June 1934, in Philadelphia.

James Rohrbaugh was born in North Lima, OH on 20 January 1906; educated at Central Wooster College, 1925, Princeton Theological Seminary, Th.B., 1929, Westminster Theological Seminary, Th.M, 1933.  He was licensed and ordained by the Presbytery of New Brunswick, April 1929, and installed as pastor in Ismay, Montana, where he served from 1929-1932.  From 1933-1937, he labored as a missionary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, before returning to the States to take the pulpit of the Calvary church, Wildwood, New Jersey, 1937-1940.  His next pastorate was with the Manoa UPCNA church, Havertown, Pennsylvania, 1940-1944 and his final pastorate was with the Laurelhurst church, Seattle, Washington, 1944-1976, entering retirement from that post in 1976.  Honors conferred during his lifetime included the Doctor of Divinity degree,  awarded by Sterling College in 1954.  Rev. Rohrbaugh died in Seattle on 29 October 1988.

[Source: Biographical Catalogue of Princeton Theological Seminary, 1998, pp. 52-53.]