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Heavyweight Evangelism

By February 10, 2017 No Comments

I’m thinking that you have to be of a certain age, a certain vintage, to use a word like ungodly with any seriousness. There’s open season on using it for added bluster, as in, “My word, it was ungodly cold last night, wasn’t it?” That could well be the only way anyone uses the word today, as an adjective, an add-on. “Who on earth made this ungodly mess?” You know.

But the word ungodly has lost currency as a noun, a usage that’s theological and all too frequently judgmental. Fifty years ago, it didn’t matter if you were Protestant or Catholic, you knew very well who the “ungodly” were: they were them and not us. 

What I’m saying is, the use of the word ungodly as a noun dates an immense stony message that spreads 475 feet across a hill in southeast Kansas, up there just over the hill from Spring Hill Golf Course, Arkansas City. “CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY,” that massive message says, all caps, set there in whitewashed boulders, each letter 18 feet high and 12 feet wide. That’s heavyweight evangelism.

“Scripture Hill” the locals call it, because it is. It’s not Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse Monument, but the size of that sermon will stop in your tracks–it’s that huge: “CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY.”

Creating those words up there became the holy vocation of a godly man named Fred Horton, who spent his working days as a dispatcher on the Santa Fe railroad after coming out to Arkansas City in 1889. To say they least, Mr. Horton was a Christian–no fool would have taken on such a job otherwise. He worked on his vision after work. 

The story goes that his wife and kids would hitch the horse to the wagon and head to railroad yards to pick up Father for supper. Afterward, he’d be off to the hill, on foot. It’s said that mostly he worked up there alone, although sometimes, people say, he had a little help from a man remembered only as an African-American, who had a wagon, which–my goodness!–must have come in handy. We’re talking stones akin to boulders here, not pebbles you skip off water. 

You got to love the whole story reaScripture Hill 2lly, whether or not you buy the sermon. This Mr. Horton, ordinary guy full of extraordinary passion, wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. He just wanted to tell the ungodly–people who don’t think much about God–what in his book was plain and simple fact: that they are loved. Ungodly is a strange word today, long out of usage as a noun; but Horton’s huge whitewashed stones aren’t intended to blackball anyone. I’m sure he thought he was just being nice, and he was.

More than a century ago, Mr. Horton couldn’t do maintenance up there anymore, and the Great Plains are not without weeds. If nobody knocked them down and the whitewash faded in the hot Kansas sun, that sprawling message would simply disappear. There’d be no more “Scripture Hill.” 

Somebody had to keep Mr. Horton’s work alive, the locals must have told themselves. And you’ll be pleased to know, as I am, that they did and they do and they will. An entire 120 years later, Mr. Horton’s sermon is still there brightly. Arkansas City is very proud of Scripture Hill.

But big as it is, you won’t see those words easily because Mr. Horton was a man of his time. He wanted that scripture to be seen by thousands and thousands who once rode the Santa Fe Railroad west. It’s still up there boldly on the hill above tracks, but here’s the rub: no one travels the tracks anymore. The scripture is there, but if you want to see it well you’d better hop a freight or bring a drone.

No matter. Every year, the locals pull weeds and put down whitewash on those big stones Mr. Horton arranged up there so carefully. That’s why the sermon on the hill is still there, as distinct as if that verse were written in the landscape by the hand of the Lord just yesterday. 

I’m quite sure Mr. Horton the dispatcher would like that–and so do I. 

Fact is, even if you consider yourself among the ungodly, you can’t help take heart when you look up and see all those crisp white letters still writ in stone across Scripture Hill.



James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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