|Shortly after my arrival in Mansfield in June, 1926, I made my way to the “Den” of Dr. Steel and knocked for my first time upon its hospi-table door. The hearty “Come in” which greeted my knock proved to be far more than a courteous invitation to sit with him for a brief morning chat. It was rather a whole-heart-ed welcome to the treasure house of a rich and mature experience, a welcome to fellowship that ripened quickly into friendship, the honor of which I still count myself unworthy to bear.
It is still too soon for us to claim a complete perspective of the life of Dr. Steel. He is too near us in time and place for us rightly to esti-mate his work or correctly appraise his worth. For this we need the fuller light of a later year.
The dates that mark the birth and death of a man have little to say of a truly great life. They are but the incidental details that may find their own honor in being inscribed upon a monument of such a one as Dr. Steel, who lived not in years but in thoughts and deeds and service. The calendar is an entirely secondary matter in measuring his character. The dates of his birth and death do not form a parenthesis within whose bounds his life ‘was spent. They are but the crude symbols that marked him as earth’s and ours for awhile.
Recently it has been my high privilege to follow the life of Dr. Steel through the pages of three little books written by him during the strenuous days of his work as General Secretary and editor of the Ep-worth Era. The titles of them are “On the Wing,” “En Route” and “On the Rail.” Their very names suggest a moving picture of his life lit those important days during the formation and organization of the young people’s work in our Church. They portray a wide and ceaseless activity. In one of these little volumes he has this to say of his birth and birthplace:
“I have a special interest in Grenada, Miss., because it was my birthplace. A few miles off yonder in those pine-clad hills, while the woods were ablaze with the brilliant hues of early autumn, in a quiet little farm-house on the edge of a boundless forest, I made my debut into the world. My mother tells me that I was a wee mite of a baby, weigh-ing only three or four pounds, but alive all over, active and aggressive, kicking at one end and bawling at the other; sensational from the start, having as it were ‘an itch for notoriety in the cradle.’”
Who but Dr. Steel could have given us this portrait of himself?
We would gather our tribute about these three suggestions: What he was? What he did? and Why he was what he was?
Dr. Steel, as I knew him while he walked among us before he went past us into the Light, was what we might call spare and slenderly built physically, but abounding in nervous energy. Probably he never weighed more than 150 pounds, but these pounds were closely knit and facilitated rather than hindered his goings. He eschewed golf as a means of ex-ercise, saying that so long as a garden was possible and a hoe handy he would be able to secure his exercise in this humble and less spectac-ular way combining the act with productive economy. He kept his body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, entertaining no habit or practice that might tend to destroy or weaken it.
His mind was matched with his body in energy and action using his body as its obedient and well-disciplined instrument. There was not a lazy corpuscle in his blood nor a sluggish cell in his brain. Mind and body finely wrought and highly organized supported each other like well-articulated machinery for more than four-score years. He had both under control. In neither was there friction nor lost motion.
The higher and more royal qualities of mind and spirit were observable in his fine sense of humor, which was keen and clean, crystal and sparkling. What in his writings might seem severe needed but his laugh to give them their correct interpretation.
Furthermore his style and expression were marked by a strong poetic instinct and appreciation and vigorous literary taste. His was a singing and soaring spirit whose speech and writings reflected the best in the fields of history and literature from which he gleaned so generously. He both heard and felt music and harmony. Again and again the choicest selections from the classics appeared in his sermons, addresses and lectures.
And yet he did not have-and fortunately so, it would seem—what was once called a “finished education.” While his record in college was worthy he was denied the joy of receiving the coveted diploma and degree. Thus his mental progress was not baited, as in the case of some, by a college degree that seems to curse with a feeling of prematurity that halts further advancement.
Not only did Dr. Steel know and appreciate good literature, but also he produced some that we overlook at our own loss. His style as a writer was clear, pointed, sparkling, eloquent, compelling. His writings lost little of the radiance of his personality. He wrote as he spoke. To read one production of his pen meant the continued reading of matter appearing over the name of “S. A. Steel.” In his late years his famous “Creole Gumbo” column that appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, along with articles appearing In religious journals and the columns of the Mansfield Enterprise, attracted a multitude of eager and appreciative readers.
Who that ever heard or read him could forget his stories? Without at any time resorting to colorings of a questionable sort be was master of this art. His mind seemed to be like a highly sensitized photographic plate of film upon which people and incidents were captured distinctly and held permanently. And these pictures permanently fixed on the walls of memory became the source for anecdotes and incidents that saved many a conversation and brightened many a discourse. Did he ever forget anything?
Dr. Steel was a preacher and lecturer of marked ability, power and eloquence. It was always a well-wrought message delivered by a bell--like voice easily heard to remote parts of great church auditoriums and wide spreading Chautauqua halls.
His sermons and lectures were not the careless and ragged output of a slovenly mind, but the carefully though out and finished products of a logical and disciplined thinker. And coupled with his thought and style was an emotional warmth and fervor that enriched all that he said with glow and passion.
Who that ever heard him on the “Crucifixion” or the “Resurrection” with the other major themes of the gospel can forget him as a preacher?
The ministry of Dr. Steel covered a wide and varied field. Going from Emory and Henry College as a young man he became chaplain of the University of Virginia. This work, he frankly admitted, imposed re-sponsibilities for which he felt himself almost wholly inadequate. But the services be rendered there must have entered into his development. He was surrounded and listened to by great men. Their comradeship proved a great inspiration and encouragement. Facing it as a large task, the dimensions of which he dared not ignore, he prepared and conducted himself accordingly, discharging the task with great credit.
For years he served as pastor of some of our largest and most in-fluential churches, where he was heard with the deepest interest and appreciation. His sermons were not delivered with the intention or desire of pleasing all hearers. He boldly and unflinchingly faced issues and unhesitatingly championed unpopular causes. The enemies he developed by his preaching were as much a compliment to him as were his friends.
He served for a while as college president, rendering the service and acquiring the training that comes from such exacting work.
How may we account for this princely life In order that we may the more fully appreciate him and more loyally follow his worthy example? Of course we are not overlooking those inescapable factors of heredity and environment, which must always be reckoned with in the make-up of any character. These must occupy their rightful place but whether they are to prove liabilities or assets in life is determined by the attitude toward them assumed by the individual. This introduces a factor without which heredity and environment may have little moaning. And that is the choice exercised by the person himself. Dr. Steel elected to make the most of these factors regardless of their original value and determined to secure from them the largest possible returns.
In attempting to account, therefore, for this life, and work so worthy and so brilliant I would give prominence to these:
First, Dr. Steel kept the student’s mind. This should be recognized as essential if real greatness is to be achieved. Many men, however, long before they reached the ripe and fruitful years of Dr. Steel, made terms with time and abandoned the search that marks the student mind. This is tragic for any life. Dr. Steel continued to study and to learn. He still welcomed criticism and suggestion. Even down to his closing days he was reading new books and gathering from wide fields of knowledge. He was not lost In this modern world about which we read so much. He did not march backward but faced toward a new day.
On a postal card bearing his last penciled lines I find these words:
“A world of things to write and talk about.” He kept his mind young.
A second factor in the making of Dr. Steel was his association with great personalities. One may say that he was biographically educated. A brief and casual excursion into his writings finds one under a sky studded with major lights. Great names fall in clusters. In one whole book he wrote of the eminent men he had met along life’s sunny road. In mind and heart he associated with them.
One cannot ignore his devotion to Robert E. Lee, and yet we must not make the mistake of thinking that his regard for the great Southern chief was determined by his military genius and achievements. For these he respected him. But it was for the purity of his character and the Christian loyalty of his life that he revered and loved Lee. It was what General Lee was rather than what he did that charmed him and made him a guiding light to his own life.
Dr. Steel was marked by a vigorous and buoyant self-confidence. Having committed his whole life to the highest, and having achieved a high degree of self-mastery, he felt that he need not go stooped with apologies to explain why he should be accorded a place among his fellows. He was aware of the powers of his life. These he regarded as the gift of God. He believed in himself with a confidence that never failed.
Another factor in his making was the whole-hearted zeal and enthusiasm with which he committed himself to his task. He kept back nothing. This attitude marked him in everything that he encountered.
Finally we note his faith in God. This was the keynote of his life, the final and complete explanation of his life and work. His religious exper-ience was real, aggressive and abounding. He ranged widely in the fields of philosophy and theology, but he never mistook these or any other thing for a personal relationship with Christ. He was a mystic. He found God by a personal approach through Christ. Not only was his faith deep and firm and aggressive, but there was about it a warmth and a glow that gives Christianity its perennial appeal. He declined to look backward or think of the golden age of Christianity as in the past. And his faith was not ignorant faith. He deemed it necessary to search for the truth and to hold some clear-cut and well-reasoned convictions regarding the same. Neither indolent nor ignorant was his faith.
He is gone. But he calls to us in these things of which he was so worthy an exhibition. His life exhorts us: Keep the student’s mind and never leave off learning and growing. Associate with the great and good and emulate their worthy lives. Believe in yourselves and develop those powers with which God endowed you that you may believe in yourselves. Invest yourself completely in your task. Take hold of the plow handle with faith and do not look back. Cast your all upon God. Regardless of difficulties, obstacles and hardships in the way, move steadily toward your goal in Christ.
“One who never turned his back
“Never dreamed, though right were worsted,
|Source: Journal of the Louisiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Pages 86-91, 1934, by D. B. Raulins|