As this is All Saints Day, it’s fitting to ask, “How does one become a saint?” I recently was reminded of the answer while unraveling a family mystery.
Although my immediate family is Lutheran, I knew some of my ancestors in the 18th century were quite irreligious. In fact, they were decidedly not Christian. At some point, they embraced Methodism. The below photograph is of Ebenezer Methodist Church near Chuckey, TN. The land for the church and cemetery were donated by these same ancestors.
I knew some basic history of the family. The patriarch, Henry Earnest, immigrated with his parents and little sister, Anna, from Switzerland in 1743. His parents died at sea, sailing to America. Ten-year-old Henry and Anna were separated after arriving in America.
Henry ultimately pioneered in western North Carolina, where he and his family constructed the below Fort House in 1780. In 1784, his family supported the region seceding from North Carolina to form the short-lived state of Franklin. Today, the region is part of Tennessee.
Our family line is descended from Henry’s son, Felix. I had an inkling that Felix was a hard man. He was a soldier, joining the “Overmountain Men” at age 18. He fought in the Battle of King’s Mountain and the Battle of Boyd’s Creek during the Revolutionary War.
Because of this background, I wasn’t surprised when I recently found Felix described as a “very wicked man” in historical literature. This made discovering Felix was the forefather who donated the land for the church and cemetery shocking.
It turns out Felix’s wife, Sarah, was a devout Methodist. She was the only Methodist in the area, with no church nearby she could attend. I started thinking the donation was for Sarah. I was wrong.
Around 1792, Felix was drinking in a “distillery of spirits” when the “Spirit of the God” came upon him. Felix immediately returned home, demanded the location of the nearest Methodist meeting, and rode to the location. In what I take as divine intervention, a circuit riding pastor named Stephen Brooks was visiting that neighborhood. Brooks was invited to visit Felix’s community, the rest of Felix’s family converted, and a congregation formed.
With no minister available, Felix became the preacher for the congregation. In 1795 a church building was constructed, with Bishop Francis Asbury preaching at the first service. Asbury also ordained Felix in 1806, the same year Felix deeded the building and land to the church. Felix died in 1842 and was buried the church cemetery.
I maintain the Felix was a saint. The question is, how did Felix become a saint?
Yesterday marked the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. The veneration of saints was one of the key issues in the Reformation. Then, as today, the Roman Catholic Church “canonizes” saints. If a person is holy or virtuous or godly enough, he or she could be declared a “saint” by the church.
The Reformers found this practice dubious at best, unbiblical at worst. The Bible describes all believers in Jesus as “saints.” It is through faith in Christ that one becomes a saint, with faith itself a gift from God.
Specific “saints” still have a roll in the Church.
- Some saints are role models for later Christians. In Philippians chapter 3, Paul exhorts Christians to “imitate” his way of life, following his “example.”
- The faith and life of specific saints encourages fellow Christians. Ever since I discovered Epaphras in the book of Colossians, his “behind the scenes” roll in starting new churches has encouraged me.
- Specific saints are also powerful reminders of God’s grace and faithfulness. Decades after first reading the account, I’m still in awe of how Stephen handled his martyrdom (Acts chapters 6 and 7).
Felix was a saint, but not because he repented of hard living or founded a church or became a minister. He, like all other believers, was made a saint by the work of the Holy Spirit. In this status as “saint,” Felix serves as an encouragement to his descendants.
Which “saints” inspire you? Share your story in the comments or shoot me an email.