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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Josephine Wilkins, 1972. Interview G-0063. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Questioning the authority of the Episcopal Church

Wilkins describes growing up in Athens, Georgia, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wilkins explains how church was a central aspect of her family life; however, the Episcopal Church was an institution whose authority she began to challenge early on in her life. Here she offers an anecdote in which she explains why she had trouble acquiescing to church hierarchy and dogma. The inquisitiveness she demonstrated at a young age was indicative of her political activism in later years. [Wilkins was born in 1893, although she declines to state her date of birth in this excerpt.]

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Josephine Wilkins, 1972. Interview G-0063. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
Tell me something about your family background.
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
Now how much of that do you want? You want the background of people that you're interviewing and then something of what they have done, is that it? Well, I grew up in Athens. My father was a banker. My mother was a pillar in the Episcopal church. I was pretty much saturated in religion, organized religion, as I grew up. And I have often wondered why I have developed as I have because it was certainly not what I was supposed to be or do. And my family, we in many ways don't speak the same language although there is a close bond. I feel that young people who grow up in an environment where they get the approval of the people who are very close to them, their parents and their family, get their approval, their interest in what they do are so fortunate, because there is a time when you are so unsure of yourself and your thoughts. I know very early I began questioning religion.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When were you born?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
When was I born?
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes.
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
Do I have to tell you that?
JACQUELYN HALL:
I just wanted to know when you were growing up.
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
I was growing up in the twentieth century. Personally I am not, as far as age is concerned, I'm not sensitive of age at all. But the only thing is that I feel a reluctance to broadcast age. People limit you in their response to you, they fit you in a certain period and they link you. I pick up on things that people think and it's very bad for me. So I've just decided that I'll not broadcast it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
The first kind of divergence from the way your family was was over religion?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
Yes, I mean I suffered over that. I felt that, in the first place all this faith business, that didn't make sense to me. Really you had to question before you really had a sound base. I felt that my mother, my beloved mother, that if she had grown up in another religion that is what she would be. And all of this walking on water and if they had all these miracles back then why couldn't they have them today? I just didn't like this idea of immaculate conception. That didn't make sense to me. Oh, my heavens, I just suffered because Sunday after Sunday I would approach the Sunday when I was going to talk to the minister. And that there must be some other people in the world who had thoughts like I was having and I was afraid to talk to them because I knew it would come back to my mother. You have me digging back into those dark ages back there, but in fact in many ways it sort of clears up your own thinking. And I hadn't realized that this was the first crisis in my life - over religion. I came back from school and I had grown up in what they called the junior auxiliary of the Episcopal church and I took the leadership of the junior auxiliary. I'm wondering if that was something else. I would rather tell you this first: They had all kinds of things that the women - the girls - were supposed to do - bazaars and all this and I just hated it. So I thought, I'll just be on the Altar Guild. There was this friend who was connected with the library of the University of Georgia. And this particular Sunday arrived when we were to decorate the altar. And she and I had taken a ride outside the city and saw this beautiful dogwood that was just going to be right for Sunday, just right. So we went up there on Saturday afternoon and we tore our stockings getting this gorgeous dogwood and brought it back and put it in vases on the altar and up against the white marble altar. It was just beautiful. And we left so happy over this, over having done this. On Sunday morning I had a telephone call from Miss Mary Annwho was heading the Altar Guild. And she said, "Josephine, I feel I should let you know this before you come down to church today. Dr. Richards was infuriated over the wildflowers being on the altar." I said, "Why?" "You're not supposed to put wildflowers on the altar. He took them and put them in the furnace and I felt that you should learn this before you came down." I said, "Miss , I'm not coming down." Well, it happened that the next day a friend of mine was being married, the daughter of a newspaper editor in Athens, Georgia. And she had asked me, and some of her friends, to help about some flowers at the church. I went down rather timidly, and Dr. Richards, every now and then, would come over to the church from the rectory. And I'd hide behind the pipe organ. But one time he came and he caught me up on a ladder and he spoke his mind. I listened and then I said to him, I said, "Dr. Richards, if the Episcopal church has a rule that wildflowers are not to be put on the altar, that cultivated flowers are more sacred than wildflowers, then there is something wrong and it ought to be changed." He had said that this should not be done again. And I told him, I said, "I assure you that it is not going to be done as far as I'm concerned because I'm not going to put any on." Well! My mother being a pillar of the church, why, this finally went up to the Bishop. They sided on the question of the wildflowers and the cultivated flowers! But I just didn't go to church. My mother had a prayer circle, and they took me on and prayed over me.
JACQUELYN HALL:
That you would see the error of your ways?
JOSEPHINE WILKINS:
Well, I was not coming to church and everything, and they didn't understand what was going on with this daughter. I remember one day this assistant rector came out to talk with me, and we talked in the living room. And finally when it was over he went out and he said to my mother, he said, "She's all right, really she's all right." [Laughter]