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Friday, March 2, 2012

Harold Bell Wright

Harold Bell Wright, 1902
I've written many times about famous artists who gave up promising careers in other fields to pursue their greatest love, often at the expense of their families and their own financial well being. Gauguin gave up his life as a well-to-do stockbroker to paint. Although he was never very successful at it, Van Gogh was once a minister and art dealer. Cezanne once studied law before turning to painting. Kandinsky also switched from law to art. Those are just a few.  On the other hand, we don't think about them so often, but there are probably thousands with the reverse story to tell. In fact, we all no doubt know some stories like this quite intimately. In some cases, they could even be our own stories. In Rome, New York, in 1872, began such a story. His name was Harold Bell Wright. He was the second of four boys, and his first love was painting. Although he was largely self-taught, he was pretty good at it. When he was eleven, his mother died, leaving him and his brothers to an uncaring, alcoholic father. Wright left home a year later, bouncing between relatives and flop houses. His schooling was sporadic at best. He more or less painted his way across the country, selling his landscapes and painting signs, enough to pay for supplies and keep body and soul together.

The church in Pierce City, Missouri,
where Write preached his first sermon.
Eventually, as a young man, he ended up in Missouri. He was a friendly, likable, somewhat talkative chap with a gift for storytelling. The elders of a nearby church asked him to come speak. And so, early one Sunday morning in 1896, he mounted his horse, rode 25 miles across the prairie to a small, white, wooden chapel, and there, in front of fewer than a dozen people, he found his true calling. He never set out to become a preacher. For his efforts, he earned eight dollars a week--small compensation even by artist's standards. But the effect he had upon his tiny, but growing, congregation in Pierce City, Missouri, and more important, the effect they had upon him eventually saw his audience grow from dozens to millions. He continued to paint a little, to preach, and most of all to write. Though critical of denominationalism, and despite a general lack of training in public speaking, his homespun Christian values and front-porch humor made his early efforts a success. After a year, he was invited to become pastor of a much larger Pittsburgh, Kansas, church; and it was while there that his first novel, That Printer of Udell's was written.

Ronald Reagan's copy
of Wright's first book
The book was published in 1902 and was really little more than a compilation of many of his better sermons. At the same time, Wright had also become quite an accomplished artist, painting murals in several Midwestern churches. In 1909, his second book, The Calling of Dan Matthews was published.  It was then that Wright decided, once and for all, to give up art. He did so in dramatic fashion. He carried out every single canvas, painting, tube of paint, and brush from his studio, heaping everything into a big pile and torched the lot of it. The supplies alone, apart from any artistic value in the paintings, amounted to over $500. Fortunately some of his work still survives (bottom). What also survives are 17 additional literary works including his most popular, Shepherd of the Hills. The book sold millions of copies, was translated into several languages, and came out of Hollywood in four different films. In 1927, Vanity Fair Magazine called him one of the top six most influential "Voices in America." Former President Ronald Reagan credits Wright's books with his own decision to become a baptized Christian. Several individuals have had significant effects upon their times and ours, having chosen to devote themselves to art, but few have had such effects in giving up art for a nobler, more powerful cause.
Painting by Harold Bell Wright, before 1909

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