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Heavyweight Preaching

"Christ died for the ungodly."

I’m thinking you need to be of a certain age, a certain vintage, to use a word like ungodly with any seriousness. For added bluster, sure there’s usage, as in, “It was ungodly cold last night, wasn’t it?” As an add-on maybe, an adjective or expletive. “Who on earth made this ungodly mess?” You know.

Although it once had decisive currency, long ago the word ungodly fell off the charts of strict theological usage. 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.

But nobody’d use that word today, and those who would and do are best kept at a comfortable distance.

What I’m saying is, the use of the word ungodly as a noun dates an immense stony sermon that spreads 475 feet across a hill in southeast Kansas. “CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY,” that massive message proclaims, in white-washed boulders, all upper-case, each letter 18 feet high and 12 feet wide. That’s heavyweight preaching.

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

SERMON ON THE HILL
Creating those words became the holy vocation of a godly man named Mr. Fred Horton, who, in 1889, spent his working days as a dispatcher on the Sante Fe railroad in Arkansas City, Kansas. To say the least, Mr. Horton was a pious man – no fool would have taken on such a job otherwise. He worked on his vision every day after work.

His wife and kids would hitch the horse to the wagon, people say, and head to the railroad yards to pick up Father after work. Then he’d take a short supper and hoof it up the hill. Mostly he worked up there alone, although sometimes, people say, he had a little help from a man remembered only as an African-American, a man 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 a pond.

You got to love the whole story, 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 was plain-and-simple fact in his book and the Lord’s: that they are loved. Horton’s huge whitewashed stones aren’t intended to blackball anyone; he thought he was just being helpful, and he was.

STEADFAST
More than a century ago already, Mr. Horton could no longer do maintenance up there, and, sadly enough, the Great Plains are not without bushy weeds. What townspeople knew was that if nobody knocked those weeds down and the whitewash faded in the hot sun, that 475-foot message would simply disappear, and there’d be no more “Scripture Hill.”

Somebody had to keep Mr. Horton’s work alive, the locals told themselves. 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 still speaks brightly. Arkansas City is justly proud of their Scripture Hill.

But huge as it is, you won’t see those words easily because Mr. Horton was, in many ways, a man of his time. He wanted that scripture to be seen by thousands and thousands who once rode the Santa Fe Railroad, so those words are still up there boldly on the hill above tracks. Here’s the deal: no one travels on the tracks anymore. The scripture is there, but the passengers are gone so if you want to see it, you’d better bring a drone.

No matter. Every year, the locals pull weeds and put down whitewash on those big stones Mr. Horton arranged up there steadfastly. That’s why the sermon on the hill is still there, as distinct as if that bible 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, I must admit, do I, maybe especially on Holy Week.

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 large across Scripture Hill so many years later. It still brings a smile. 

  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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