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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Durr's father has to leave his church

Because they opposed Sterling Foster's liberal theological leanings and willingness to embrace the new critical readings of Scripture, Durr's uncles worked with the church leadership to remove her father from his pulpit. Despite this punishment, Durr's parents retained and passed on their resistance to religious fundamentalism.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Then, the next thing that happened was that my father was thrown out of the church.
SUE THRASHER:
And how old were you when that happened?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, I must have been seven or eight, maybe eight years old. It was shortly after this first trauma. The way that happened was, as I said, he had been to Germany and studied at Berlin and Heidelberg and he had gotten the new theology, which was that the Bible was not literally true, that every word was not dictated by God, but that a lot of it was symbolic. Now, the leading members of the church were my mother's two first cousins, Sam Weakley and John Weakley, who were Aunt Molly's sons. Aunt Molly was my grandmother's sister, she married the rich Mr. Weakley who died, they said, in the gutter from drink. My Grandfather Patterson had taken these twoand brought them over to Memphis and they lived in the house with my mother and they went into his office and they both became lawyers and very good lawyers. My mother felt more like they were brothers than first cousins because they had been raised in the house with her. Sam and John Weakley were very devoted and they came back over to Birmingham and Cousin Sam became quite well off as a lawyer and so did Cousin John. They made a lot of money and I think that Cousin Sam was on the Supreme Court for awhile, but maybe just as an appointed judge. He was a great prohibitionist. His father had been a drunkard and he was a great supporter of Uncle Malcolm Patterson, when he became a great prohibitionist. It made everybody most uncomfortable, even over a glass of wine. Wine couldn't be served at the church, you see, you had to have grape juice. I don't think that Uncle John was as conservative as Cousin Sam was, but they were both strict fundamentalist Presbyterians. Then, there was Mr. Barron who was head of one of the steel companies. He had a great big beard and looked like Jehovah.
SUE THRASHER:
So, the church was full of fine, upstanding citizens?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Fine, upstanding citizens.
SUE THRASHER:
Monied citizens.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Monied citizens and although some of them were working convicts in the mines but they were considered the leading citizens of Birmingham. Of course, you know that in a southern town, the Episcopal church is the most fashionable, the Presbyterian church is next and then come the Methodists and then the Baptists and after that you know . . . of course, the Catholics at that time were hardly considered, there were so few of them . . . but after that would come the evangelical groups, you know. But there was always that rank so that being a Presbyterian, I knew that the Episcopalians . . . it was the same thing as Jacob's Ladder, there was always somebody above you and somebody beneath you. (laughter) So, the Presbyterian church was highly thought of, but I knew that St. Mary's, the Episcopal church which was not far from us, was the most fashionable church. That was just something that I learned by osmosis. Nobody told me, I just knew it. Anyway, the church people began to suspect that my father was heretical and particularly Cousin John and Cousin Sam. So, he was called up several times and they noticed things that showed that he didn't believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. So, finally, it got to a decisive point and they called him in and asked if he knew these were heretical sermons that he was giving, in which he did not seem to think that every word of the Bible was literally true. So, he was faced with the problem that he had to declare on oath before the session that he believed that the whale swallowed Jonah and Jonah stayed in the whale's belly for three days and was spewed up alive. And he had to swear to that as the literal truth, God given. Well, they gave him a week to make up his mind and they told him that if he didn't make up his mind, he would be denounced as a heretic. Of course, this was done by my mother's two cousins. And Cousin Sam lived right above us in a great big red house, I was devoted to his daughter and to Cousin Sam, they were part of the family, you know. This created quite a terrible breach in the family and Daddy just walked up and down that whole week, I can hear him now, just walking up and down in his study. He had a study upstairs and we were all just terrified, Sister and Brother and I and Mother was crying and the servants were upset. Sally was still there, but of course, Nursey had gone and I forget who else was there. And Mother was always trying to take in Daddy some coffee or buttermilk, to try to get him to eat something and he was up all night. And he would say, "Oh, God. Oh, God." And it wasn't blasphemy, he was really praying. Well anyway, at the end of the week, he went back and told them that he didn't believe it and he was dismissed from the church as a heretic and brought up before . . . let's see, they have a presbytery in each district and then a synod. I believe that he was brought up before the presbytery and the synod as a heretic. Anyway, he never did get another church.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember how old you were then? You were about seven or eight?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Yeah, I was about seven or eight. I was just starting school, I remember and you see, I had had these two traumas all within the same year or the same few months, it seems to me. Of course, I didn't understand what all the theology was about and Daddy had a nervous breakdown. He just couldn't sleep or eat or anything. He was a very high strung man and he went off to French Lick Springs and at French Lick Springs, this is where "Pluto Water" came from. This was a great watering place, where you drank "Pluto Water", they bottled it. So, Daddy went off to French Lick Springs to drink "Pluto Water" and Mother was left there with us three children, you see. And I don't know what we lived on, I suppose that my grandmother helped us out. She was prosperous at the time, she hadn't died yet, I know. But I remember going up to Uncle Sam's for Sunday dinner and Mother crying and having an argument with Uncle Sam and she cried and oh, how distressed I was! About that time, I got the idea that the Devil . . .I had been hearing about the Devil, you see. At that time, Hell wasn't something remote, it was right down there underneath you and you burned eternally and the Devil took you and turned you over on the hot coals and let you fry and sizzle. So, I did something that I knew was wrong, maybe I stole a piece of pie out of the icebox or something. I always had a passion for food and for lemon pie. (laughter) I remember being terrified that the Devil was going to get me and fry me forever, you know, and I was sitting on the stairs crying. Well, this must have been before Daddy got thrown out of the church, it was just about this time, I know. Mother sat by me and put her arm around me and said, "What in the world is the matter?" I was almost hysterical and I said that the Devil was going to send me to hell and fry me forever because I had stolen the pie. She said, "Oh, don't believe a word of that. I don't care what you hear in Sunday School or church, just don't believe a word of that. It is the silliest thing in the wide world. Just don't believe a word of it, there's not a word of truth in it. God is your father and you know that your father does spank you sometimes with a folded newspaper, but that is as much as God would ever do. You know that your father is a very good kind man, so God is a good kind man. Just don't believe it." I said, "But Mother, I hear it every Sunday." She said, "Well, just don't believe it. I'm telling you that there is not a word of truth in it." Well, Mother just banished the Devil and Hell right out of my life right then and there. (laughter) She got rid of them. I might have been a better woman if it . . . (laughter) It was my permissive raising.