The Outhouse in Summer and Winter

Two hundred years ago frontier religious revivals were made necessary by the scarcity of preachers and the great distances between people in America west of the Alleghenies.

First held in the open, these events were later held in large tents and then in roofed, but opensided, rough-hewn buildings called tabernacles.  With three preaching services every day, the common feature of tents and tabernacles was a floor covered with sawdust.

  Preaching for conviction of sin included an invitation for those who wished to be saved to come forward — a short but intense journey down the aisle known as the “sawdust trail.”


In my pre-teen years, when agricultural rhythms dominated American consciousness, camp meetings were scheduled between planting and harvest time.  My mother’s family owned one of the “tents” (actually a log cabin) near a still-existing Pickens county, Ala., Methodist tabernacle.  It was kept primitive out of nostalgic respect for a sterner time.  After attending all those Wesleyan sermons, even today I find my heart strangely predestined.


Since the cabins wee without electricity and running water, obviously there were no modern bathrooms.  However, there were little houses (if you will excuse the following term) behind each cabin, out in the woods and down the hill.  Some of these establishments were rather grandly appointed, able to accommodate an entire family or a cozy group of good friends all at one time.  Such upscale outhouses were called “four-holers.”


Occupied in such a facility one morning I looked up from my solitary contemplations to discover a huge hornet’s nest between me and the door.  Now, I had been told that hornets would not attack unless you disturbed them.  Therefore, I was sitting as quietly as possible, tending to my own business, when the lead hornet peeled off the nest and circled around me.  I can still remember the cruelly disappointed hope that he just wanted a little exercise.  In fact he was quickly joined by a lot of his sharp friends.


The first five stings convinced me that I should (again pardon the expression) evacuate the premises, which I did as quickly as possible and yelling for help as loud as I could.  Several Methodist preachers came running down the hill with shocked disapproval on their faces.  I think that was because — not wanting to trap any more hornets under my clothes — I was hopping up the hill as rapidly as I could with my trousers still gathered around my ankles.  When the preachers saw the hornets, they turned tail (you might say); ran back up the hill; and I discovered that a swarm of hornets represents the limits of Methodist ministerial compassion.


On my path to the privy the summer sun generally shone.  However, years later, during a preaching series in a small Iowa church deep in the country and without indoor plumbing, I learned that an outhouse in the dull gray of winter is incontestably the coldest, most bone-numbingly miserable and lonely place on Earth.  I came to understand in a new way Dostoevsky’s anguishing chapter on the existence of evil (“Rebellion” in The Brothers Karamazov) which had haunted me since I first read it in 1952.  I agreed with Ivan, who insists that it is impossible to understand the role of an all-powerful and all-good God in a world where parents are able to punish their little daughter by smearing her face with excrement and locking her in a privy during the Russian winter.  I join Ivan in his ferocious rejection of the theological notion that God’s “permission” is an acceptable explanation of the torture inflicted on helpless children by adults who should love and care for them.


I suppose theologians will continue to use the words “permission” and “allowance” to deal with God’s relation to sin and evil.  After all, John Calvin sometimes does.  Moreover, the “free-will defense” to the effect that humans could not truly love God unless their freedom included the possibility of evil, is still popular in some circles.  (This argument was completely demolished for me by J.L. Mackie’s famous essay “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, vol. LXIV, no. 254, 1955).  These ideas may be the best answers we have, but no explanation of the existence of evil is satisfactory.  I am ashamed to offer any one of them, when I stand before the Russian outhouse in the winter, with tears running down my mind.  If my heart breaks at such unspeakable cruelty, the God revealed in Jesus Christ must be beside himself.


This situation leads to one heart-felt and one head-felt conviction.  First, in the face of incomprehensible tragedy, our only comfort, in life and in death, is that we belong — body and soul, in life and in death — not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, question 1).  Second, I am grateful that my generation of seminary students studied the sagacious Emil Brunner who has much to teach us still, including the view, which I now accept, that for Christians the fact of evil is real but the existence of evil is finally inexplicable (The Mediator, ch. 4).


Charles Partee
Presbyterian Outlook
August 1998