Essay / On This Day

Mordecai Ham Tried to Baptize a Cat

When he was a seven year old boy in Kentucky, Mordecai F. Ham (born today, April 2, 1877, died 1961) tried to “immerse an old tomcat in a rain trough, and when the subject vented all its feline ferocity in objecting to the ‘baptism,’ little Mordecai threw him down with the disgusted explanation, ‘Go on, get sprinkled and go to Hell.'”

If you think that sounds like something out of a Flannery O’Connor story, you’re right. Many of the incidents from Mordecai’s life have that sound to them. At age 22, he stood beside his dying grandfather and watched him “point upwards, as though beholding the Lord beckoning him to come home.” That was when Mordecai knew he was going to be a preacher, or, as he preferred, “a hog-jowl and turnip green” preacher.

Apparently, if you’re a “hog-jowl and turnip green” preacher, you get in people’s faces, and that’s what Ham was famous for in his early days. When he preached revival in a new town, he would identify the most notoriously irreligious sinner in town and personally confront him with a challenge to surrender to Christ. As one biographer tells it, Ham came to one town looking for the biggest sinner, and

was directed to a certain cornfield. The infidel saw the feared preacher approaching and went into hiding. The evangelist began to hunt his prey and, hearing suspicious sounds under a cornshock, hauled him out.

“What are you going to do with me?” the atheist quavered.

Ham retorted, “I’m going to ask God to kill you! You don’t believe God exists. If there is no God, then my prayers can’t hurt you. But if there is a God, you deserve to die because you are making atheists out of your children and grandchildren.”

As the infidel begged him not to pray that way, Ham said, “Very well then, I shall ask God to save you.” He was saved, and before the meeting was over, all of that infidel’s family was baptized–forty of them!

Had enough of Mordecai Ham yet? Oh, there’s more, written in grotesque figures large enough that all but the blind can read them clearly.

Always a temperance preacher, Ham drew the ire of the moonshiners in one town. They threw rocks at the church building, turned the horses loose, stole the saddles and everything else they could steal.

Ham went out and confronted the ringleader, who proceeded to pull a knife on him.

“Put up that knife, you coward. If you were not a coward you would not pull a knife on an unarmed man. Now I’m going to ask the Lord either to convert you or to kill you.”

“Do as you ______ please,” he snarled at Ham and stalked off. Ham prayed and the bully was dead the next morning.

Three others of the gang were killed when a sawmill blew up.

That night Ham demanded all the stolen property returned or the Lord might kill someone else. Twenty-four hours later all had been returned but a saddle. Ham announced he was going to lead in prayer, and the one fellow ‘jumped up and hollered, ‘You needn’t pray! It will be here in a few minutes,’ and it was.”

Stories like that make Mordecai Ham sound like the Chuck Norris of the revival circuit. Born and buried in Kentucky, Ham preached a hard-headed gospel to hard-headed people. In his preaching, he liked to lump together things that bothered him about his times and identify them: Communism was connected to alcohol was connected to Roman Catholicism undermining the United States was connected to the decline of religion was connected to free love was connected to you name it, it was all connected. Mordecai Ham spun webs of free association that make it hard to say “Amen” for two consecutive minutes in his sermons. And he apparently believed that the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians were the lost tribes of Israel and that much Biblical prophecy was about these fair-skinned races. He didn’t hate Jews, but… could the second half of this sentence possibly be good? He didn’t hate Jews, but he thought contemporary Jews were involved in a communist/free-love/alcohol plot to destroy America and the work of God. He was chased out of several towns, and it’s hard to discern when that was persecution and when he was asking for it.

When he wasn’t going on one of those rants, though, Mordecai Ham preached moral reform with the effects of Finney and the bluntness of Sam Jones, and he could also preach the good news of free forgiveness in Christ.

In 1934 he preached a revival series in Charlotte, North Carolina, and one of his handful of converts was… wait for it… the young Billy Graham!

Mordecai Ham tried to baptize a cat, but instead he eventually got Billy Graham.

And now, as the late Paul Harvey would say, you know…. the rest of the story.

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