Friday, October 24, 2008


"For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up:..." Psalms 69:9 and John 1:17

Yesterday I was reading David McCullough's award-winning book "Mornings on Horseback", the story of Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy was asthmatic as a child and had terrible attacks, often necessitating an immediate change of location to bring under control - dashing off to the country or to the beach to get some relief.

McCullough says in reading of Teddy’s childhood diary entries, it becomes obvious that there is a psychological component to his asthma also. McCullough said these attacks often came on prior to church-going, and at one time when Teddy was very young his mother asked him why he was so afraid of the Presbyterian church the family attended. She discovered that he was terrified of something called the "Zeal." He said it crouched in the dark corners of the church ready to jump at him. When she asked what a zeal might be, he said he was not sure, but thought it was probably a large animal like an alligator or a dragon. He had heard the minister read about it from the Bible. The mother used a concordance and read to him every verse that contained the word "zeal" and when she came to John 2:17 he told her that was the verse he heard.

Now I was quite shocked when I read that passage, because I have read an old family story about the same Bible verse in connection with Robert B. Dobbins, an old Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister and my third-great grandfather. In 1946, during the centennial celebration of the founding of the Ipava Presbyterian church, a letter was received from a former parishioner, Phebe Easley Fitzhenry, who was turning 100 on the day of the celebration. She reflected in her letter on old Rev. Dobbins, pastor from 1836 to his death in 1853. She says, "An elderly man named Dobbins made his home with his son John. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. 'Granddad,' as he was usually called, would go to Lewistown on Saturday to preach in the church there on the Sabbath day, then return home on Monday. I was five or six years old and would watch for him to pass by. His long silken white hair took my attention. I had heard a saying, "The zeal of thy House hath eaten me up." Not knowing its meaning, I "put that" on Granddad and was frightened. I often would hide when I saw him coming."

Churches have a powerful influence on us as children. An image was implanted in my mind from a church experience that still lurks there after all these years. During my early teens I went to a Baptist church with a girlfriend. In one particular Sunday School lesson the female teacher was trying her best to insure that good Baptist children would not dance. She told a story of how she and one of her girlfriends as teenagers went to a dance, even though her parents disapproved and the church forbid dancing. She said she was watching her girlfriend dance when suddenly the girfriend's partner turned into a big black dog, with a red tongue hanging out and an evil look coming from his eyes. She said she was so scared she ran outside and never again went to a dance. And she said if we ever went to a dance, we'd better watch out for that big black, evil-looking dog, who is really Satan in disguise.

To this day I am not crazy about black dogs. I understand why I am not, so I don't hold the dog responsible for his color. But if I were picking out a dog, a black one would be my last choice.

I think often on how much our early religious training affects our lives, sometimes in a positive manner but sometimes in a negative way. Although at this stage in my life I am probably more of a humanist than anything, if I were inclined to become a churchgoer it certainly would not be to a church that tried to scare me into heaven. I guess I’m not crazy about zeals either.

NOW A DISCLAIMER! As I write this I am house and dogsitting for a friend who has two really lovely dogs, Sierra and Blossom. Blossom is a large black dog, but I want to go on record here that she is NOT a zeal. :)

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