It is a rare event, to be sure. Usually, my review of the book I am reading is already coming together in my mind as I read, because I react to certain passages in a particular manner and am obviously aware of whether my reading experience is an enjoyable one.
But there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve been unsure about what I wanted to express in my review, even after I’ve finished reading the book. The most stunning example of that phenomenon occurred recently as I finished reading The Devil in Pew Number Seven, a memoir by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo.
Click here to read the first chapter, watch the trailer, and learn more about the author.
Becky’s father, Robert Nichols, was a divorced hell-raiser who, following a Navy stint, enjoyed drinking and brawling. In his mid-20’s, he had a conversion experience, during which he became a Christian and completely changed his lifestyle. As Alonzo describes it, he became obsessed with studying the Bible and, although he never attended seminary or received any formal theological education, began his career as an evangelist within six months. When he met Alonzo’s mother, Ramona, she was a church organist who had also been married once before. He was conducting a multi-night revival at the Church of God in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and Ramona was instantly attracted to Robert. She was relieved when he cautiously returned her affection. Six weeks later, they married and embarked upon a joint ministry of music and the Word.
Called to the Free Welcome Holiness Church in the tiny community of Sellerstown, North Carolina, in late 1969, the Nichols were soon blessed with their first child, daughter Becky. The parsonage they settled into was across the street from the home of a “wealthy, well-connected, and respected businessman,” Horry James Watts, then age 65. Watts wielded power both in the congregation (even though he wasn’t a member) and community, and became increasingly incensed as the new pastor’s popularity and influence grew, while his power base diminished. A parish made up of a mere 12 members when Nichols arrived soon outgrew its physical facilities and the construction of a larger church was planned.
The small church had seven rows of pews on either side of the center aisle, and Watts took up residence during each worship service in the last row, number seven, from which he made faces and noises at Nichols as he preached in an attempt to disrupt the proceedings. Hence, the book’s title. On occasion, he walked out before the service concluded, slamming the door loudly as he left.
Watts also engaged in a systematic war of terror with the pastor and his family. Threatening telephone calls and letters were just the beginning of an eight-year calculated attack designed to send the Nichols family packing, “crawling or walking . . . dead or alive.” As Becky’s father became more determined to stay in Sellerstown, Watts’ attacks escalated in intensity. Telephone lines were cut and security lights shot out just before dynamite exploded near the parsonage and next-door church. Watts contracted with a local thug to run down Becky’s father with his vehicle and make it look like an accident. The Nichols family nearly escaped death more than once.
Alonzo’s tale of growing up in Sellerstown is easily one of the most disturbing books I have read in a very, very long time. The first chapter opens with seven-year-old Becky running out of her home — her father had been wounded twice, her mother shot dead right in front of her, and the crazed gunman remained barricaded in Becky’s bedroom holding his wife and infant child hostage — to seek help. From the book’s very first words, “I ran,” Alonzo pulls her readers into a grim, true story punctuated by years of maliciously calculated, unspeakable acts of violence directed at a charismatic, but peace-loving pastor, the wife who was his partner in life and ministry, and their two very young children, by a crazed, power-hungry, and obviously evil community leader.
Convinced he was called to minister to his Sellerstown flock at any cost, Becky’s father remained to model the kind of behavior Jesus exhibited toward his enemies. Remarkably, her mother stayed, as well, standing steadfast alongside her husband with Becky and, later, the Nichols’ second child, Daniel, as Watts menaced their family, even when armed guards were posted around their residence. Watts knew no moral, ethical or legal boundaries. His catalogue of despicable stunts included killing innocent family pets as part of his quest to regain the power he once wielded over Nichols’ congregants.
Alonzo has received exuberant praise for the book on several counts. That praise is, for a variety of reasons, well-deserved. The book is exquisitely drafted, telling her family’s story with the same flair for dramatic tension that makes the best mysteries so much fun to read.
Unfortunately, despite Alonzo’s expertly crafted prose, it is impossible to forget that the story unfolding page by page is completely true, especially when she recounts episode after torturous episode of mayhem, and chronicles its impact upon her entire family. Particularly gut-wrenching are her descriptions of the manner in which Watts’ conduct served to persecute her and her younger brother, who was born with nerve damage because of the incidents their mother endured while carrying him. After one particularly virulent episode, Daniel was discovered sleeping in his crib, surrounded by shards of glass and debris. Had he rolled over, he would have suffered severe injuries . . . or worse. Alonzo believes that he was spared because the hand of God was upon him that night as he slept, peacefully unaware of and too young to comprehend the violent attack upon his family.
Ironically, when the Nichols family finally left Sellerstown, it was not at the hands of their long-time tormentor, Watts. Rather, Becky’s mother was shot dead by Harris Williams, whose wife, Sue, was one of Ramona’s closest friends. Williams, a thirty-five-year-old alcoholic, had a criminal record of domestic abuse. Against the advice of friends and relatives alike, Becky’s mother was insistent that Sue take shelter from Williams in the parsonage with the Nichols family. “Momma said our home would be a temporary refuge until Sue could get things straightened out. I’d say that was ironic, considering how the parsonage had been the focal point of ten recent violent attacks,” Alonzo writes. Williams, angered because Sue sought a restraining order against him, barged into the Nichols home as they sat down to supper on Maundy Thursday, March 23, 1978. He shot Becky’s father twice.
Harris turned and pointed the weapon toward Momma. Standing by the kitchen table and in front of the washing machine, she was unarmed; she held no knife, no gun, not even a chair to throw in her defense.
She cried out, “Jesus! Jesus!”
The gunman stood seven feet from the woman who had given me life, who, for almost eight years, had clothed me, fed me, and nurtured me. The one who filled my life with laughter, love, and lessons on forgiving others just as we had been forgiven by Jesus. None of that history mattered to this man. Without hesitation, with a cold indifference to her precious life as our mother, he fired a single bullet to her chest.
So leave Sellerstown the Nichols family finally did, with one of them — Ramona — in a casket. Becky’s father remained hospitalized for three weeks, recovering from his wounds, but he never really recovered at all. He was unable to attend his wife’s funeral service. Five months later, he was well enough to preach a farewell sermon to his Sellerstown congregation, but his ministry was over. With his children, he moved to Mobile, Alabama, where family members cared for Becky and Daniel, and Robert spent his final years in and out of mental institutions. Prior to his wife’s murder, a health scare culminated in a diagnosis of permanent damage to his heart, the cumulative result of Watts’ torment of the gentle-spirited preacher. Becky and Daniel lost their surviving parent to a blood clot in his heart on October 5, 1984, when they were 14 and nine years old, respectively. At the time of his death, Robert Nichols was just 46 years old.
Williams was sentenced to life in prison for killing Ramona, but was released in 1999 and remained on parole a scant five years.
Eventually, sufficient evidence was gathered to also bring Watts and his accomplices to trial. He entered a plea of nolo contendere and was sentenced by a judge who should have recused himself. As he ordered Watts to spend 15 years in prison, with another five-year sentence to run concurrently, the judge practically nominated him for “citizen of the year,” acknowledging that he had engaged in business transactions with Watts and, based upon his familiarity with Watts, found the charges against him surprising.
The genesis of The Devil in Pew Number Seven was Alonzo’s receipt, when she was in her 20’s, of her mother’s diary. Begun in 1976, Ramona wrote: “To my darling daughter, Rebecca, I’m writing this book in hopes of answering some of the many questions you’ve asked, but at the tender age of 6, your little mind is not able to conceive. Your mom is talking to you down through the years . . . ” Ramona described the love she had for her husband, their meeting and brief courtship, and, in the last entry, how excited they were to begin their ministry in Sellerstown. Ironically, she never penned a single word about the horrors that characterized the Nichols family’s days in Sellerstown.
Alonzo told her family’s story during a Bible study, after which a friend with connections in the publishing industry helped generate interest in a book. Believing Romans 8:28 (“God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”) to be the impetus for her new career, Alonzo says that “in my own amateur way, I began writing, believing I had been given a mission by God to get this story of forgiveness out there, to honor my parents’ lives and to let people know that no matter what you go through in this life, God is there to help you through it.”
The theme of the book is forgiveness. Specifically, Alonzo’s ability to forgive both the man who murdered her mother before her seven-year-old eyes, as well as the man who destroyed her childhood through his heinous and unrelenting harassment of her family.
Plainly, Alonzo sees her parents as martyrs. She writes:
I am so thankful that God gave me such amazing parents. Not many people these days can say that someone laid their lives down for their friends, but mine did and I’m so proud of them for standing in the line of fire for the sake of the gospel. I can’t even imagine what their rewards are in heaven for enduring the five years of terrorism at the hands of a tormented man.
Therein lies my problem with The Devil in Pew Number Seven, and the reason it took some time for me to decide what I wanted to say about the book . . . and how I wanted to say it.
I understand why Alonzo needed to forgive those who persecuted her family, including the judge who violated his ethical duties and a correctional system that allowed Williams to be released far sooner than he should have been, for the sake of her own sanity, and in order to achieve a sense of peace and closure about the events she lived through as a very young child. Her single-minded portrayal of her parents robs from Alonzo’s memoir a huge measure of authenticity and credibility.
But for me, what’s missing from Alonzo’s narrative is an acknowledgment and discussion of her need to also forgive her parents. Alonzo portrays her parents as utterly blameless saints because they remained in Sellerstown in order to stand up to Watts, and serve as examples of faithfulness and resilience.
But reading Alonzo’s descriptions of the horrific incidents of violence directed at her family caused me to become increasingly angry not only at Watts, but at her parents. Given the terror that Alonzo endured — the promotional material for her book begins with the sentence “Becky Alonzo never felt safe as a child” — I find it incomprehensible that she was not angry, as well, and kept expecting her narrative to include a discussion of her anger at her parents and how she overcame it in the process of learning to forgive.
Thus, the message I took away from reading The Devil in Pew Number Seven was not related to forgiveness as much as judgment of others. Reading the book constituted an ongoing struggle for me not to judge Alonzo’s parents — and quite harshly, at that. As a mother, I simply cannot fathom how Ramona could allow her young daughter’s life to be devoid of safety, security, and freedom from fear. I don’t understand why Ramona did not stand up to her husband, telling him to put his pride and stubbornness aside for the sake of his family. Had he refused, she should have gathered up her children and retreated to safety. I simply could not relate to a woman who chose to continue living in perpetual terror to the point that, as a direct result, it caused her second child to be born damaged.
I was equally appalled that Alonzo’s mother welcomed her friend, Sue, into the home where she was raising her own children, knowing not only that Sue’s husband had a history of violent behavior, but also that he could easily locate his wife and child. There can be no argument that Ramona did not realize the danger, since she was urged by several of her own family members not to provide refuge to her friend because to do so risked her own safety and that of her family.
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr, Theologian
I was raised in a Christian home as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and its predecessor American Lutheran Church). The God with whom I became acquainted as I grew up would never ask a believer to take foolish chances or behave recklessly with regard to one’s own children and their well-being. Rather, I was not taught that God expects blind obedience. Perhaps it is a matter of Biblical interpretation. My Lutheran pastors never interpreted the Bible literally, nor do I. And I do not believe that a shepherd is called to lay down his/her life for his/her flock under any and all circumstances, especially when the shepherd could take proactive measures that would make that ultimate sacrifice entirely unnecessary.
After all, God the creator bestowed our intellect upon us, along with other many other gifts. From him comes our ability to think, reason, analyze, and use the gift of intelligence to make good choices. I struggled while reading The Devil in Pew Number Seven with the fact that Alonzo’s parents, in a very tangible sense, put the interests of their parishioners ahead not only of their own well-being, but, far more importantly, the needs of their own children. And from my perspective, that was neither brave nor deserving of martyrdom. It was, from my Lutheran theological perspective, quite foolhardy and, in its own way, an affront to the God who gives the gifts of wisdom, discernment, and rationality. I was sickened by the Nichols’ failure to protect their children, as well as preserve their own health and well-being so that they could raise those children themselves, providing them guidance and wisdom until they became adults. In a real sense, the Nichols sacrificed their own children because, in the end, Watts succeeded in driving her father to a state of complete mental and physical breakdown that not only terminated his service as pastor of the Sellerstown congregation, despite his refusal to escape, but took his life a few years after his wife’s murder. Becky and her brother were orphaned.
I’m sure that my viewpoint is also influenced by other factors beyond church doctrine including locale, the time period during which the events related by Alonzo occurred, and the manner in which women’s roles, as well as the role of a pastor’s spouse, have evolved and changed in the years since Ramona Nichols died. Ramona grew up in very different time and place than I did — probably in both a household and congregation where subservience to one’s husband, and certainly one’s pastor, was modeled. I grew up in a home where neither spouse was subservient to the other; my parents’ marriage was very much an egalitarian arrangement. The Lutheran church has always valued the contributions of its women members, and began ordaining women in 1970.
One thing is certain: Alonzo’s compelling recitation of the events of her childhood is fascinating, thought-provoking, and would make an excellent selection for a Christian Bible study group or book club. It certainly provides a basis for discussions from which much can be learned by listening to others’ reactions to the story.
Maybe the real legacy of Alonzo’s parents is the opportunity their story provides to explore the myriad questions raised in the minds and hearts of other believers about the reasonableness of the Nichols’ reactions to the situation they were thrust into, how improvements in law enforcement investigative techniques might today result in swifter action being taken not only to protect victims of violent crime, but also bring perpetrators of such heinous acts to justice, and the various other agencies and organizations that would intercede to support and assist the Nichols, including but not limited to groups that provide education about and shelter to victims of domestic violence.
One word that does not appear in Alonzo’s tale is “will,” but the book could serve as an excellent springboard to a discussion about what the term “God’s will” means. Although she does not use the phrase, it is readily apparent that she feels the events she describes unfolded in accordance with “God’s will” not only for her parents’ lives, but for all involved.
For those reasons, I do recommend The Devil in Pew Number Seven.
I read The Devil in Pew Number Seven in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review Challenge.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of The Devil in Pew Number Seven free of charge from Christy Wong of Tyndale House Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”