American Fr Dwight Longenecker explains how a spell as an evangelical street preacher in Edinburgh put him on the path towards Catholicism.
It was the summer of 1977—the summer that Elvis died and everyone wanted to see the first Star Wars film. I was an Evangelical student at the fervently fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina. My evangelical family were not particularly anti-Catholic, but we figured Catholics needed to ‘get saved’.
At Bob Jones University the anti-Catholic spirit was considerably hotter. The Reverend Ian Paisley was good friends with Bob Jones Jr.—the retired president of BJU and son of the founder, and every year ‘Dr Bob’ (as we called him) would invite Ian Paisley to come and preach. Together they were a kind of tag team battling the pope (who they regarded as the anti Christ) and that ‘great whore of Babylon’—the Catholic Church. I was a student at Bob Jones University when Pope Paul VI died, and Dr. Bob said from the pulpit, ‘Paul VI, that old imposter has gone to the place appointed for him next to his brother Judas’.
It was within this context that I had learned about the Anglican Church and, afflicted with a severe case of Anglophilia, had joined a little congregation that had broken from the Episcopal Church of the USA. So there in the little stone church in the bad part of town I learned to worship with a prayer book, light candles, chant psalms and kneel down to pray.
I had visited England on a summer mission trip a few years earlier, and that Spring of 1977 when they advertised at Bob Jones for volunteers to make a mission trip to Scotland I saw my chance to re-visit Britain. It would be a turning point in my life and vocation.
One might well ask why American Evangelicals would send missionaries to a country like Scotland with not only a rich Christian history, but a solid Protestant heritage. I can only explain that these seriously sectarian Christians believed the Scottish people needed to be converted—and considering the state of the UK generally—were they so very wrong?
We arrived in Scotland and worked with two American missionary families. One pastor and his family lived in a council estate outside Edinburgh. The other lived in the charming fishing village of Eyemouth in the Borders. Both young pastors sought to plant fundamentalist Bible churches in the tough soil of Scotland. They worked hard, but their success was very limited. They were struggling not only with an underlying anti-American bias, but also with a people who were long on church, but short on conversion.
We teamed up with local fundamentalist church leaders, and one of our activities during our stay in Edinburgh was to join them at The Mound on Saturday nights for a courageous attempt at street preaching. We turned up timidly and were met with a stout Scotsman in a raincoat and tweed hat. He gave us a fistful of gospel tracts to hand out, and mounted his soapbox while his wife (who was built like a bulldog) donned a sandwich board that called folks to repent because the end of the world was nigh. It was her job to parade back and forth while my friend and I were to hand out the gospel literature.
I gulped with embarrassment, but then said to my buddy, “You know what? We’re in Scotland and nobody knows us. It’s impossible to be embarrassed.” So we handed out gospel tracts until the stout preacher stepped down and gestured to me, “C’mon laddie. It’s your turn!” I gulped again—this time to settle the butterflies in my stomach.
But I had picked up the knack from listening to him and got up on the soapbox and preached the simple gospel of a sinful humanity in need of a savior. It was about then that the pubs let out and the streets were full of rowdy hooligans yelling abuse at us and throwing the odd beer bottle. I ducked while Mrs Preacher gave as good as she got, yelling back to them the Lord’s promises of judgement for their wickedness.
Such lively Saturday nights were not on the schedule in the quiet fishing village in The Borders. The locals were much friendlier (while still mostly resistant to evangelization efforts). We knocked on doors, visiting homes, and with our white shirts, ties, smiles and American accents, were probably mistaken for Mormons. We ran a Vacation Bible School for local kids, visited Bamburgh Castle and ate the best fish and chips—straight from the fishing boats.
I had already begun worshipping at the Anglican Church back home and while I was in Eyemouth I noticed the beautiful old stone church on the hill above the village. For some reason my heart was drawn away from the tin hut the missionaries had built for their church to the Scottish Episcopal Church of St Ebba on the hill. I had never before had an inkling that God might be calling me to ministry, but that stone church beckoned and I thought to myself, “I would love to be the pastor of a church like that here in Britain.”
The next year, back in my final year of college, kneeling in the South Carolina version of the little stone church in Scotland I felt God’s call to serve him as a priest. Eventually the way opened up for me to return to Britain to train as a priest in the Church of England. My dream was still to end up in a country parish with a church like that village church in Scotland. It seemed I had gone to Scotland to convert people and it was I who was converted.
After training for the ministry in Oxford I was ordained into the Church of England and did finally end up as a country vicar—not in Scotland, but about as far South from Scotland as possible: on the Isle of Wight.
During that journey my understanding of the Christian faith grew ever closer to the Catholic religion. Eventually in 1995 we decided to leave the Anglican Church and be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Then, ten years later the door opened for us to return to South Carolina and for me to be ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. I was ordained in Greenville, South Carolina just around the corner from the little stone church where I first became an Anglican—and which inspired my youthful visit to Scotland—a memorable time which provided one more step towards the end of that journey in the Catholic Church.
Father Dwight Longenecker’s autobiography There and Back Again – A Somewhat Spiritual Odyssey will be published in the Autumn of 2023 by Ignatius Press.