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A Generous Impulse
The Story of George Sweeting
By Jerry B. Jenkins
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2001 Jerry B. Jenkins
All rights reserved.
Full Circle Roots and Routes
During his sixteen years as president and twelve years as chancellor of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, George Sweeting looked like someone the board of trustees put together from a kit.
He was tall and trim with clear blue eyes, and his wavy hair matured from gold to brown to gray and, finally, to white. The second son and third child of six born to immigrant Scots, he embarked on a course of leadership from his youth. To the world he appeared a consummate commander and trailblazer.
He sang, he painted and drew, he preached, he wrote, he traveled the world as a soul-winning evangelist, he pastored, and he became the sixth president—and eventually chancellor—of the Moody Bible Institute. He married his childhood sweetheart and raised four handsome sons.
It may seem to outsiders that everything he touches turns to gold, but George Sweeting is also a man accustomed to struggle and hardship. In fact, for every outward appearance that makes him seem saintly, there is a corresponding private trait that proves his humanness.
For instance, his public, platform dignity is offset by a sense of humor that is boyish.
Balancing his highly visible role as a pastor, evangelist, college president, and conference speaker is his intense, private nature.
His personal spirituality is consistent and deep both in public and in private, but it is not sissified and does not detract from his being a man's man.
He is known to be humble, yet confident.
Friends and relatives know him to hate controversy and confrontation; coworkers and subordinates see him as superb in the face of both.
As a father he is both affectionate and distant, doting although still frequently addressing his grown boys as "Son."
Despite his public warmth and ease in formal situations, even his closest friends and confidants get only so near. Except for certain lifetime friends, even apparently intimate friends call him Doc.
Thoroughly competitive, George is a good loser, a brother says, but he can also be a gloating winner.
He sees himself to be not as patient as his wife, quicker to get to the bottom line, less of a listener. She balances him by reflecting those opposite qualities.
His preaching is simple, yet his message and its effect are profound.
Robust and healthy in his seventies, he has had two brushes with cancer and has privately struggled with stress-induced chest pains and other tension-related maladies.
George Sweeting is unabashedly image conscious, yet even his detractors don't attack his character.
Love has been a theme of his ministry since the beginning, and if there is one trait most frequently recognized by associates, family, and friends, it is his generosity. He admits that he can be openhanded to a fault. Even those with whom he has had grave differences are not able to find fault with him later.
If it is true that the child is father to the man, then to understand what made George Sweeting the complex man that he is requires a study of both his roots and his routes. Those who believe the story behind a silver-tongued, white-haired front man for a prominent evangelical institution must necessarily be plain vanilla will be in for a jolt. He was never a murderer or a drug addict or a philanderer, but his life holds more than enough with which anyone can identify.
When George Sweeting became the sixth president of the Moody Bible Institute in August 1971, he completed a resonant circle that began late in the nineteenth century when D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey launched evangelistic campaigns in the British Isles in 1873–75, which shook Great Britain to its core.
Moody, already famous in the United States, came to York and began with a small group and what appeared little interest. As curiosity built, he moved on to what became a large crusade in Newcastle, then to Edinburgh, the seat of Scottish Presbyterianism. (George Sweeting is fond of saying that all Scots are Presbyterians unless they've been tampered with. He has also been known to quip that some Scotch Presbyterians are a little heavier on the Scotch than they are on the Presbyterian.)
The Moody/Sankey meetings exploded, and by the time the revival reached Glasgow, ten to twenty thousand people a night gathered in the Botanic Gardens, the only forum large enough to hold the crowds. Within a year after having arrived in Britain, Moody and Sankey were the rage.
When Moody returned to the States, many of the revived Christians returned to the Church of Scotland and found it too formal. They wanted something different. Tent Hall and Bethany Hall were erected in Glasgow, and both became hotbeds of enthusiastic evangelism. Both played a role in George Sweeting's father's life several years later.
Young William Sweeting of Glasgow (born April 2, 1893) was a muscular, blue-eyed and brown-haired man about five-foot ten and 175 pounds. He apprenticed seven years as a third-generation brick-layer before serving three years with the Royal Engineers in Belgium and France during World War I. During his tour of duty he learned he needed salvation but made no decision.
Shortly after his return from service, he lived in Carstairs Junction during the week while building a bridge, visiting his Glasgow home on the weekends. In Carstairs Junction he met a young girl named Mary Rodger Irving, who lived a few hundred feet from the site of the bridge. He was impressed with how easily and forthrightly she talked about her faith, though she was the only Christian in her family. She had been brought to faith in an after-school Bible class in her village, led by a lady named Jesse Kay.
Some time later, William, an accomplished player of the concertina (an instrument akin to a miniature accordion), fell under conviction while playing an old hymn. On his knees, he received Christ. He, like Mary, was the only believer in his family. He began attending Bethany Hall, where he joined with others and played his concertina at open-air meetings at Bridgeton Cross, Glasgow. In the mornings the parishioners fed the needy. In the afternoons they held Bible study meetings. At night they hosted great rallies, inviting the unsaved.
William Sweeting jumped into ministry with both feet. He gave up playing his concertina at dances, and he quit playing semiprofessional soccer because he felt it contributed to his penchant for gambling. He also announced that he was through smoking his pipe. His family was not too sympathetic. His parents chuckled at his profession of faith. His father told him, "I'll hold onto your pipe for you. You'll be wanting it back in a month or two." He never did.
William Sweeting and Mary Irving (born June 21, 1897) were married September 1, 1920. A little more than a year later, Mary gave birth to twins, Bill and Anne. Following the war, finding employment was nearly impossible. William Sweeting was fed up with war and with the fact that Britain seemed to always be involved in a skirmish. He believed the United States was a land of opportunity and a country that would maintain an isolationist military position. He didn't want his son to ever have to go to war.
Following the lead of his uncle on his mother's side, Jack Beattie, William saved his money and set sail for America alone in March 1923.
Not normally an expressive man, William later frequently recounted his thrill at seeing the Statue of Liberty appear on the horizon. For him it was an emotional symbol of a fresh start. That was as close as he would come to weeping as an adult. He once told his children that he was unable to cry.
As he hoped, William Sweeting immediately found work as a bricklayer. He rented a house in Haledon, New Jersey, directly across Kossuth Street from his Uncle Jack, then sent for his wife and twins. They arrived in Boston in October and took a train to Paterson where William picked them up. In that rented home, George Sweeting was born a year later on October 1, 1924. The following May George's father paid $4,900 for a modest home at 103 Church Street, where Anne, Bill, George, and eventually Norman (1928), Mary (1932), and Martha (1935) grew up.
George's Uncle Robert (his father's brother) moved in with the family in 1928 upon his arrival from Scotland and lived with the Sweetings five years. Sister Jean arrived in 1930, so four adults and six children made an otherwise comfortable home crowded for several years. There was only one bathroom, but the elder William Sweeting added three bedrooms in the attic.
George's father was particular about where he worshiped, and after trying a Methodist church in Haledon for a couple of years, he joined Prospect Park Baptist. He was a feisty, overt witness, active in rescue mission work, evangelistic meetings, and music. He taught a Tuesday evening adult Bible class for thirty years. During the 1930s he teamed up with a couple named Clarence and Margie Van Allen, who played violin and Hawaiian guitar. He and his concertina made it a threesome, and the Sweeting/Van Allen Trio played and gave their testimonies in churches and at meetings in the area for many years.
William Sweeting was a strict disciplinarian, not hesitant to occasionally use a razor strap on his sons. His eldest son and namesake was most prone to back talk, so he was the most frequent recipient of the strap. George recalls having done things "just as bad if not worse than Bill" but not suffering as much for it because he kept his mouth shut and didn't argue or sass. The children were told before company arrived that they were to be seen and not heard. If a child was not home in time for supper, he went to bed without, with few exceptions.
William Sweeting was a man of intense principle. He wasn't swayed by what anyone else did or said. If something was right, it was right. If it was wrong, it was wrong. He was forthright and strong willed, and though he was of average size, he feared no man. He was quiet—but not about his faith.
But he wasn't perfect. He brought his prejudices to America. Catholics were anathema to him. His children tried to reason with him, reminding him that in America he didn't have to wage Protestant/Catholic battles. They encouraged him to be civil to a lovely Catholic neighbor family, but he would scarcely speak to them. "They're all mickies [Irish], and they worship the pope."
On the positive side, he instilled in his children the idea that the word can't should be eliminated from their vocabularies. "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me," he would say. His biblical mandate was tested to the limit during the Great Depression in the late twenties and thirties. After having done fairly well for himself and his family for almost five years, he lost his job and nearly the house. Building stopped all over the country. If it hadn't been for eleventh-hour financial help from the Van Allens, the house would have been sold. George remembers potential buyers coming through and the whole family praying that they wouldn't like the house. "And if there was something we could do to ensure they didn't like it, we did that, too."
One Christmas during the Depression, Mr. Sweeting waited until the last minute to buy a tree, hoping to find one marked down to fifty cents on Christmas Eve. But he waited too long, wound up with none, and faced a stunned, tearful family the next morning.
The hardest thing William Sweeting ever had to do was to accept relief from the government. It went against his very fiber.
When he couldn't find work as a bricklayer, he took a job as a watchman on the graveyard shift at a silk mill for a fraction of his normal salary. The whole family—parents, children, and even Bob and Jean—were put to work taking in washing and ironing, sewing, making hatbands for a nearby factory, selling rugs and stockings, and making crepe paper flowers and selling them door-to-door. Bill and George sold Liberty magazines and Radio Guides and, when they were old enough, worked as helpers on a predawn milk route. Ninety percent of their dollar-a-day wage went to the family kitty, and they were expected to tithe a penny from the remaining dime.
Mr. Sweeting bought a shoe mending kit and repaired the family's shoes himself. Mrs. Sweeting sewed most of the children's clothes. She also learned to fill ten hungry stomachs on a small amount of money. Meat was for adults only. Rice, potatoes, beans, and macaroni casseroles were staples for the children. They never ate out.
Mrs. Sweeting let George's blond hair grow long for several years in the European tradition, and he was considered a beautiful baby and young boy. He was a smiler and a cuddler and a tease, and for some reason he was inordinately generous. When the children somehow earned a nickel, they couldn't wait to find something on which to spend it. George took his home and offered to share it with his parents or aunt or uncle. Norman remembers that no matter how little George had, he was always willing to share it with his little brother.
A cynic might surmise that he was trying to buy affection or acceptance from a strong, distant father. Yet this tendency toward generosity apparently began so early and so purely that it seems to have been part of his personality.
George Sweeting was, however, born in sin. Thus another side of his personality was also fully evident during the early years.CHAPTER 2
Halcyon Haledon Days
All but the last of William and Mary Sweeting's children were born at home. George remembers when Norman arrived. His mother had been in labor several hours before the doctor was summoned.
Father instructed the children to wait in the living room for what seemed an eternity. Anne and Bill were veterans at age seven. They'd been through this four years before with George, but their experience provided little comfort when the sounds of their mother in pain could not be masked. For George, it was new—and frightening.
Then, suddenly, there were excited voices, a slap, and a wail. Father and the doctor brought the screaming, red baby to the living room. In a few minutes, everyone gathered around Mother's bed. Norman was such a handsome baby that the family began calling him Cutie, a nickname he despises to this day. (George still threatens to have it printed on the back of a sweatshirt for a gift.)
Though both George and Norman say that their brother Bill had as much influence on their lives as anyone, they were close to each other as children and remain so. All three boys became ministers, but the two younger ones recall with admiration the fact that their older brother was—despite his penchant for insisting on the last word with his father—truly the most spiritual as a youngster. In spite of his being three years older than George and seven years older than Norman, he always had time for them, encouraging them, and being the kind of big brother they would have wanted to be.
Bill was not particularly athletic as George and Norm were, so it didn't bother him much when his father forbade high school sports. The younger ones pleaded and begged, but their father equated his sporting days with gambling, smoking, and a bad crowd, so there was no changing his mind.
George recalls that although Bill was somewhat spiritual from the beginning, he and Norm were scrappers. "I had curly blond hair, which made me the butt of constant teasing. But my parents had told us the stories of the Covenanters, Scots who had opposed Roman Catholicism and stood up for their faith. They often said, 'Laddie, you've got the blood of the Covenanters in your veins.' I took that to mean that I should be a fighter. I'm glad my children didn't inherit that tendency."
George fought effectively and often, always trying to prove himself as an outsider—a first-generation American with a European hairstyle. But it was Norm who could handle anyone close to his age and size. "If they were too small for me, I'd sic Norm on them. He could take anybody his size and most anybody bigger and older, too. If one of us wasn't fighting, the other was."
Norm reminisces that George was mostly the arranger and promoter of his fights. "I don't know what that says about him—that he enjoyed having a little brother who was a brawler—but he was constantly egging me on."
As close as they were, they had their own scrapes too. They argued over who was to go get a baby doll carriage one of their younger sisters had left down the street. Mrs. Sweeting had said, "One of you boys go get it."
"You get it, Norm," George said.
"I'm not going to go get it," Norm said. "You go."
Mrs. Sweeting had little patience for such nonsense. "Both of you go get it!"
They trudged down the street, George angry and Norm keeping his distance. Norm knew he was in trouble when George grabbed the carriage and wheeled it around. He ran toward Norm, who didn't have enough time to accelerate. Just as Norm almost reached full speed, the carriage rammed into the back of his leg, digging a deep, blood-spouting gash.
Today it might have required stitches, but in those days it was common for parents to tape up such wounds. Mrs. Sweeting did the work, and Norm recalls that George didn't get into much trouble over it, "because she figured we were both responsible." Norm still sports the scar.
Excerpted from A Generous Impulse by Jerry B. Jenkins. Copyright © 2001 Jerry B. Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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