As a young pastor, Vernon Tyson D’57 was invited to the home of the late Bishop Ralph Spaulding Cushman, whose son, Robert Cushman, had been Tyson’s professor of systematic theology at Duke.
The elder Cushman said that he had never aspired to be a great preacher, or even a great person.
“I wanted to be God’s man,” he told Tyson. “From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, I want to be God’s man… . That’s what I’ve tried to be.”
“I thought that was on the mark,” says Tyson. “That was bull’s-eye stuff. It marked my life.”
Tyson’s determination to be “God’s man” led him to the front lines of the civil rights movement as he served Methodist churches across North Carolina. “I didn’t know how to escape the issue of race and be a Christian minister,” says Tyson. “Race was put on my plate.” His ministry of racial reconciliation is at the heart of Blood Done Sign My Name , a memoir by his son, Timothy B. Tyson, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. (See “Miss Amy’s Witness”).
Vernon Cephas Tyson was born to Irene and M.E. “Jack” Tyson on Nov. 29, just days after the stock market hit bottom in the Crash of ’29 that prefaced the Great Depression. A tenant farmer turned Free Will Baptist pastor, Jack Tyson transferred to the Methodist Church in 1943, bringing his six sons and a daughter with him. Although none of the sons was a pastor then, all became Methodist ministers.
At the age of 14, Vernon Tyson had a conversion experience. “I thought I was through with sin forever,” he says, chuckling. “I had given my heart to Jesus. For three days I didn’t cuss, and on the fourth day when I did cuss I was so disappointed in myself, I went out by the barn and I just cried and cried.
“Only in divinity school did I learn that Wesley said, ‘In the heart of the believer Christ reigns but sin remains.’”
Active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship, Tyson’s call to ministry “began to really come strong” when he was a rising senior at Biscoe (N.C.) High School. During a Methodist youth gathering at Lake Junaluska that summer, filled with disappointment that he had not experienced God’s call, he walked alone up a mountain the last evening of his stay.
“I didn’t hear any bell or see any lights or see an angel, but up there on the mountain path about 20 minutes it was like I’d been swimming across a great river that had a strong current and I was afraid I was going to drown in it, and I’d been struggling with it. And lo and behold I just came up and gave in to it, and rather than drowning I was buoyed. I floated. It was wonderful. “
I came down from the mountain knowing that … I was going to be a Methodist minister,” says Tyson. “I’ve had some doubts about the church, some doubts about some other things, but that has been secure ever since.”
Against the Current
Tyson earned his undergraduate degree in religion and history from Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., where he “learned to swim against the current with the Quakers. I saw them as a very small group, but with great influence because they went against the current of their times and places.”
At Guilford he met World War II conscientious objectors and heard lectures by renowned pacifists A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin. Tyson’s growing interest in pacifism also was influenced by his father, who had resigned a part-time pastorate when the congregation insisted on buying war bonds.
“My daddy said, ‘A church ought not to be taking money off of its altar and buying bombs to kill people for whom Jesus died,’” says Tyson, whose three older brothers served in the military during World War II. Their father was not a pacifist, adds Tyson, but “he took a principled stand and it cost him.”
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