The Life And Works of Reverend John Bernard Gibbs

By J.R. Rothstein and Catherine Gibbs Robertson

 

Contents

I. Ancestry of Bernard Gibbs

II. Early Years of Bernard Gibbs

III. Bernard Becomes A Man Of The Cloth

IV. Bernard Meets The Love of His Life

V. Bernard Forms A Utopian Social Justice Theology

VI. Bernard Begins His Family & Launches His Pastoral Career

VII. Bernard Tells Truth To Power And Takes On The Existing Social Order

VIII. Bernard Makes A Home In Morgantown, West Virginia & Raises His Children

IX. The Last Days

X. Selections of The Obituary of Rev. Bernard Gibbs Found In The 1944 Methodist Yearbook

XI. Sermons of Bernard Gibbs

a. The Signs Of The Times – Undated Sermon/Essay – likely circa 1916-1920.

I. Ancestry of Bernard Gibbs

John Bernard Gibbs (1872-1944), was born on December 5, 1872, the second of four children of Pleasant Gains Gibbs (1839-1909) and Mary Catherine Graves (1851-1932). He was born in Maynardsville, Union County, Tennessee, which in 1870 contained 155 people. He was the grandson of William Daniel Gibbs and Elizabeth Jane Johnston, the great-grandson of Nicholas Gibbs Jr. (1772-1814), and the great-great grandson of Johann Nichlab Gibbs or Baden, Baden, Germany (1733-1817).

Pleasant Gains Gibbs and Mary Catharine Graves. Union, Tennessee circa 1900.

John Bernard carried the first name of his direct ancestor John Nicholas Gibbs Sr. (1733-1817) who in 1747, at the age of 14, after having gotten into a fight with his father, left the Village of Wallruth in the Duchy of Baden, Germany and migrated to the new world. Nicholas Gibbs fought in the American Revolution at the Battle of Kings Mountain and ultimately settled in Tennessee. Bernard also generally descended from numerous intermarried Anglo-German families that helped settle the area of what would become the States of North Carolina and Tennessee; including but not limited to: (i) Johan Sebastian Graff (1703-1804) who fought at the Battle of Alamance in 1771 through three different of his children; (ii) Boston Sebastian Graves (1747-1840) who fought at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780 and was captured by the British; (iii) John Jacob Graves, who was kidnapped by British troops during the American Revolution and forced to serve in their army but eventually escaped; (iv) Nicholas Gibbs Jr. (1772-1814), a friend of future President Andrew Jackson, who fought and died at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend after being killed by an Indian; (vi) Henry Honus Sharp (1735-1814) who fought with Count Pulaski’s Legion Dragoons during the American Revolution; and (vii) Johann David Ephland (1675-1761), an original settler of Hunterton County, New Jersey. The details of the lives of these ancestors have been elaborated upon by others elsewhere.

II. Early Years of Bernard Gibbs

Bernard Gibbs, Union, Tennessee. Circa 1877.

Nothing is known about John Bernard’s parents except that they engaged in small scale farming and that his father, Pleasant, had lost his mother when he was only five. Similarly, little is known about John Bernard’s childhood except that he, like many children, was particularly close to his mother, Mary Catherine. Bernard shared siblings, William Ary Gibbs (1871 – 1943); Beecher Doyle Gibbs (1875 – 1945) and a precocious little sister, Lula Irene Gibbs (1882 – 1961).[1]

Facts, however, regarding John Bernard’s childhood can be found among his written sermons (the vast majority of which have been lost to history) and provide some insight into the early shaping of Bernard’s character. In one sermon, John Bernard remarks, “I grew up in Eastern Tennessee where the land is so steep that we could work both sides of it-cattle would fall out of the fields and break their necks-[we] had to make holes for the dogs to sit in and bark. Lazy at times of any voluntary effort, would have died of starvation, and they said, “we ought to make a preacher out of him.” He further related, “I have always been of inquisitive turn of mind (i.e. my question about the incense burner-something that we do not have in our home). This made me to go on my way wishing that I had some for patent kicker that I could attach to a post and use on myself for a while..”

It was this inquisitive spirit that led John Bernard to seek out books and knowledge which in turn allowed him to excel in academics and ultimately, by the early 1890s, to the study of law. According to Catherine Gibbs, John Bernard studied law at an institution in Chicago and then later studied Divinity at Vanderbilt University. Others have said that he studied law at Vanderbilt University and his Divinity work elsewhere. According to the 1942 Official Journal and Yearbook of the Methodist Church, however, John Bernard went onto receive his spiritual “education at the University of Tennessee and at the University of Chattanooga.” To date, no exact records have been located one way or the other to provide clarity on the subject.

According to Catherine Gibbs, John Bernard’s was a principled man by disposition, a great orator, bookish, a deep thinker with an introverted streak.[2] Reverend Gibb relates, “[t]he world of folk [are] made up of two classes-those who want to be left alone, [and those who do not]. I shall not stop to tell you to which class I belong only that I do not enjoy speaking after dinner. I have always felt that if I had a lot of money I would make a good after-dinner speaker.”

William or Beecher Gibbs, Lula Irene Gibbs, Bernard Gibbs. Bottom row: Pleasant Gains Gibbs, Mary Catherine Graves Gibbs, William or Beecher Gibbs with spouse and unknown child. Greater Knoxville, Tennessee, Circa 1903.

III. Bernard Becomes A Man Of The Cloth

John Bernard, however, did not find the study of law fulfilling. One day, having undergone a spiritual awakening, he “received a calling from the Lord.” Unable to ignore that calling, John Bernard abandoned the law and decided to become a Minister and social activist. From that moment of that great spiritual awakening and conversion, Bernard could do nothing but dedicate his life to justice and to spread the teachings of the bible. It was likely around this time that John Bernard, although having been raised a Presbyterian, became attracted to the teachings of the Methodist Church due its relatively progressive views on matters of race relations. His conversion to Methodism may have played a role in his abandoning the law to instead pursue the ministry. Likewise, it was during his time studying for the ministry, which appears to have taken most of his 20s, that Bernard came to master Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. Throughout his time studying for the ministry, Bernard held different jobs to cover his expenses.

According to the Methodist Yearbook, Brother Gibbs, after studying for divinity, Bernard “spent some years as a teacher in the schools of Tennessee and then entered upon his career in the ministry, serving charges in the Tennessee and Southern Conference.”
Brother Gibbs, as he soon was called, was concerned in his early ministry, not only for soul of the individual person, but far the larger soul of America. In the tradition of the Second Great Awakening, and its social justice theology, Brother Gibbs thought deeply about the social issues of his day, and that their rectification could help user in the redemption. Passionate and articulate, he found from the onset of his career that some were not welcome of his social justice agendas. Nevertheless, Bernard persisted and journalistic references to the activism of Brother Gibbs can be found as early as 1903 documenting his work on behalf of the Methodist church in Hill City, Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was also around this time that Bernard stopped using the name John and henceforth would only be known as Bernard.

Bernard Gibbs. Tennessee, Circa 1904.

John Bernard Gibbs. Chattanooga, Tennessee Circa 1900.

IV. Bernard Meets The Love of His Life

During Bernard’s time studying at the University of Chattanooga, Bernard had a part time job as a milkman to pay for expenses. One day, while on his route delivering milk, which he did on a horse and carriage, Bernard met Mabel Isabel Dove (1880-1957). Miss Dove, a northern girl from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the daughter of Dr. Solon Willett Dove (1850 – 1934) and Julia Adelia McClure (1854-1927), and from a wealthy family with prominent New England origins. Miss Dove was living at the time at Chattanooga having participated in a radial experiment concerning the higher education of women. Mabel had been one of 43 students for the 1897 commencing class of Chattanooga Normal University for woman and where she would later be the class valedictorian.

Bernard courted Mabel in the traditional Victorian manner. Bound by Victorian and conservative Christian norms, Bernard sent Mabel love letters and took advantage of the milk route to encounter Mabel. The couple fell very much in love with one another. Bernard was likely taken with the strong willed, principled, and talented valedictorian of Normal University, who shared her deep passion and love of the gospel. Mabel was likely taken with the handsome orator who spoke of justice and of creating a utopian world. Oral history, however, suggests that Mabel’s family was not as enthusiastic about the match as she. The family preferred that Mabel select someone from their class and sphere of society. Nevertheless, the couple overcame whatever obstacles were presented and, according to Catherine Gibbs, married on Bernard’s birthday, December 5, 1904. Mabel’s family and friends would tease Mabel for the rest of her life for ‘marrying down’ and for falling in love with the milkman. Upon their marriage, Mabel, seeing how important the cause of Methodism was to Bernard, agreed to join his Church, despite her deep ties to the Congregationalist Church which one of her ancestors had help found.

Bernard Gibbs and Mabel Dove. December 5, 1904. Chattanooga, Tennessee

V. Bernard Forms A Utopian Social Justice Theology

Over the years, Bernard’s utopian Christian Methodist theology led him into incorporating what many viewed as ‘political’ sentiments into his sermons. Using arguments framed within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Bernard actively spoke in support of the suffrage movement and equal rights for woman and spoke about the importance of treating laborers fairly. Bernard shared common cause with Mabel on their disdain for the consumption of alcohol and preached about the social evils it represented. However, no issue disturbed and troubled Reverend Gibbs more than the oppression of the American-Negro and the economic, social and spiritual devastation that oppression had wrought upon that community and the overall social fabric of the United States. Bernard spent much time thinking about this subject and incorporated the plight of the Negro into his sermons.

Reverend Gibbs had made his views known to his family and close friends-yet it being the dawn of the 20th century, many of them, including his new wife, cautioned him against openly expressing such unusual ideas lest it damage his place in society, his ability to preach the gospel, harm his family, and even his career by his ability to obtain a proper position as a minister. For Reverend Gibbs, however, it was self-evident that the creator had equally endowed both Negros and Whites with certain inalienable rights. For him, the eventual legal and social equality of the races would not just be some generous act of Congress or the state but was rather the fulfillment of a mandate of the rights already bestowed upon mankind by God. Man, he argued, was created in the image of God, and just as the bible had taught in the Book of Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one” so too the law needed reflect this divine mandated equality. This he argued, was not only the biblical way, but the American one.

Bernard Gibbs. Tennessee, Circa 1905.

Reverend Gibbs had converted to Methodism in his younger years precisely because he was troubled with the complacency of the Presbyterian Church doctrine, policy and leaderships when it came to issues of racial justice yet found, to his disappointment, that segments of the Methodist church were also indecisive on the matter. According to Catherine Gibbs, at the dawn of his career, and at various times throughout it, Bernard received interviews at respected churches in several large cities, throughout the nation, only to not get the position because of his outspoken and unapologetically progressive views on the race question. From the inception of his career, Bernard struggled of how to relate to the world ideals he knew to be true but were resisted by many of the people he encountered.

Mabel Dove and Bernard Gibbs with baby Marjorie Dove Gibbs. 1910, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California.

Despite his unusual positions on race, women, and the rights of the worker, Bernard was, as one might imagine of a Minister, orthodox on matters on matters of Christian doctrine. In one 1911 editorial, Bernard lambasts an author’s attempt to equate Jesus to the “prophets” of other religious traditions and fiercely attacks the author, who in the vein of the newly emerging field of biblical scholarship, questions the historicity of Jesus. Reverend Gibbs writes, “[n]othing in the history of this world is better attested to the than that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, and buried; that he rose again the third day. This can be established without the use of the bible.”

VI. Bernard Begins His Family & Launches His Pastoral Career

Imprecise records make it difficult to identify all the locations where Reverend Gibbs ministered and the exact order or length in which he served at each station. The author will attempt to linearly reconstruct the path of his ministry based on existing records and insert years in parenthesis as an educated rough guess of the time Bernard spent in each location. The Methodist Yearbook relates that in his career, Bernard held “a number of charges including Oakland, Md., Sisterville, Terra Alta, Westover, [and] Morrgantown.” However, we know that this list is incomplete. The author believes that throughout his career he held positions, and or lived, in roughly the following places: unknown locations within Tennessee (1900-1906), Boyle Heights, California (1906-1910, 1915), El Paso, Texas (1911), Raton, New Mexico (1911-1914), possibly Procterville, Ohio (1916), Huntington, West Virginia (1916), Harrison, West Virginia (1917-1918), Union, Marshall, West Virginia (1920), Oakland, Maryland (1920-1923), and from 1923 on, various locations in West Virginia, including: Terra Alta, West Virginia (by 1930), Westover/Morgantown, West Virginia (1932/1934-1942) where he became a respected minister and member of the West Virginia Methodist Conference. However, according to Catherine Gibbs, many of these obscure stations were not the product of chance but rather the compounded consequences, and perhaps punishments for, numerous fauxpas’ taken by an idealistic young Minister. The details of these missteps will be elaborated upon later.

Throughout this period and throughout the course of their marriage, Bernard and Mabel would produce four children: Marjorie Dove Gibbs (1910-1998) on February 2, 1910 and Julia Adelia Dove Gibbs born on October 15, 1915, both born in Hollywood, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles California. Their only son, John Gibbs, was born on April 3, 1922 in Oakland, Maryland and their fourth child, Mary Catherine Dove Gibbs, was born in September 19, 1924 near Atwood, California on the ranch of Dr. Dove, Bernard’s father-in-law.

Julia Adelia McClure and Dr. Solon W. Dove with their granddaughter, Marjorie Dove Gibbs. Circa 1916. Atwood, California.

Despite his unconventional approach, Bernard’s first permanent posting as a Minister of a church likely was in Hollywood, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California where the 1910 census records Bernard and Mabel living. Boyle Heights, Los Angeles was some 30 miles away from his father-in-law’s, Dr. Solon W. Dove ranch. Oral history indicates that Dr. Dove financially assisted the young couple for years and even possibly helped Bernard get his first position as a Minister.

Between at least 1910 until the family settled permanently in Morgantown, West Virginia in the mid-late 1920’s, the family appears to have used the ranch of Dr. Solon W. Dove as a kind of base of operations spending extended periods of time there. This could be because Bernard was part of the Rocky Mountain Methodist Conference in the South West. The census and other records point to the couple having numerous short and long term missions to the various locations mentioned above only to again appear in the record as residing in Los Angeles near Dr. Dove. It’s possible that at times Mabel and the children stayed in California while Bernard went out to preach the gospel, although this cannot be confirmed.

A sermon given at a Labor Day picnic on September 2, 1916 in Proctorville, Ohio provides an example of the great optimism, idealism and hope of Reverend Gibbs despite it being the middle of the first World War. An excerpt is as follows:

. . .. There have been so many changes within the past twenty-five years. And we must ask, are the former years better than these? Let us consider the matter of health. Were the people of those years more robust than we of today, and as a direct consequence of their manner of life? The average life is longer today than of yore. Think of the great white plague, formerly and now, and how it used to take whole families; the fevers formerly thought not to be contagious or infectious unless accompanied by some eruption; typhoid ran through whole families and through whole neighborhoods, a visitation from the almighty God? It is hard to repress a feeling of generous indignation at the thought of how much was laid at the door of providence which we now know to have been chargeable to the blindness and folly of man.

The Royal preacher in olden time warned his hearers verse the presumption of declaring the former days to have been better than these. He says, “[t]hou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.” Every preacher from then till now might well say the same to the people. We reverence, and wisely, those who stood in their lot in the love of their kind and in the fear of God, leaving a legacy of noble lives and brave deeds. It is not inconsistent with our loving veneration for them to congratulate ourselves upon the improved conditions under which we continue the existence begun under their guardianship. They labored and we have entered into their laborers. I hold with cheerful and unwavering that the world grows better with each passing year, and I would not set the clock of the centuries back by so much as a decade or a year or a day.

Since I have begun to read and to observe, I have witnessed how wonderful discoveries have succeeded one another with dizzying rapidity. There is the famous story of the first telegram ever received by the wife of an eminent gentlemen of Baltimore and of her bewilderment despite being a woman of unusual intelligence. But this was the first telegram that she had ever seen! And now the six-year old child talks familiarly of the wireless, and is interested, but no-wise amazed, in hearing the tale of the “C.Q.D” flashed through the storm of ships out of sounds and sight of the foundering craft. Puck’s pledge to put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes is voted by our slangy schoolboys “a black number” and his performance “slow”.

Some here can remember when there were scarcely any railroads, nay say, automobiles, in the country, and electricity had never been harnessed to do man’s behest. We have lived to see that come to pass in all the civilized world that the old Hebrew prophet Nachum, when he said, “the chariots shall seem like torches; they shall run like lightning; they shall jostle one another in the streets; his riding between the bull.” It reads like grim sarcasm.

We have lived to see the sectarian prejudices that so rent communities in former years’ wane before the coming in, like a flood, of the spirit of Him who held out the everlasting arms of love to the great multitude which no man can number which had been gathered from all nations under the sun, those other sheep, not of the home fold but His nonetheless. We know more of spiritual truth today – guidance and holy spirit than before. With every year, the party walls of denominationalism are lowered and brothers in heart and in aim clasp hands across barriers that signify but little now. Such an organization as this furthers this great and high end. I think that if we will but study upright we will awaken with a start to find that we were born into the most estimable place in all the world, and just in the nick of time.

VII. Bernard Tells Truth To Power And Takes On The Existing Social Order

The boundless optimism and idealism which energized Bernard in his youth was carried with Bernard into his adulthood. The spirit, however, would be severely tested by reality. Bernard’s sermons contain strong messages advocating social and economic justice. Bernard would tell industrialists and businessman about the importance of workers’ rights, groups of men about the importance of allowing women to achieve their divine potential, and groups of white congregants from small coal mining towns of a few thousand people about the importance of embracing and assisting third-world nations made up of non-whites. And he regularly spoke about, in subtle and not so subtle ways, regarding the importance of giving Blacks in the United States the same rights under the law that they did before God.

Bernard Gibbs. Date and location unknown.

It was this telling truth to power that, on more than one occasion, damaged Bernard’s relationship with members of his congregations. Bernard outspokenness, particularly about racial justice, would relegate Bernard to spending portions of his career as a country preacher away from the larger and more influential urban churches. For the time-period, many would have considered some of Reverend Gibbs views nothing short of radical. It wasn’t just Bernard’s Judeo-Christian egalitarian ideology that made some people in his circle uncomfortable. It was Bernard’s day to day behavior, in matters of race-relations, that upset some. Bernard would disregard the formal and informal, segregation barriers that existed between the races. Bernard would shake hands or otherwise embrace black men, he would sit and chat in public spaces with Negros. According to Jim Shepherd, Bernard would sometime sit on the front porch of his home and chat with a Negro colleague. Shepherd also recounts that when Bernard’s Negro acquaintances would visit his home, they would, to the surprise of many, enter through the front door instead of the rear entrance. All of this was unusual and contrary to the behavior of men of his station during the time-period. Although such behavior was ideological, it was also influenced by Bernard’s small town and rural upbringing. Bernard lacked all the pretention of the world of society, academia, and of urban northern elites.

Two stories illustrate the type of bold actions which inspired some, but angered others. At some point after Bernard left the Dove homestead in California, while in West Virginia or Maryland, although this cannot be confirmed, Reverend Gibbs had received a position as a full Minister. Reverend Gibbs quickly developed a following and was beloved by his congregants. At the time, segregation was enforced and Blacks, among other things, were not allowed to attend school with Whites. Once, it happened that the Negro community sought to build a high school on some nearby tract of land. According to David Shepherd, it was the school that evolved Some influential members of the White community, however, blocked this effort. Reverend Gibbs partnered with the Black community to support the community in the ability to educate its children.

Reverend Gibbs partnered with the Black community to support the community in the ability to educate its children. Reverend Gibbs crafted and circulated a petition within the White community to petition the town to build the high school. To his disappointment, Reverend Gibbs found that he faced great opposition from sections of the white community and even received threats due to his support. Some of his congregants intuitively supported him due to his charisma and love they had for him; while others opposed the effort to the end.Ultimately, Reverend Gibbs was successful and the Black community could build a high school. In honor of this, some members of the African-American community came to worship at Westover but were rebuffed by the congregants. Catherine Gibbs relates that Bernard could “get away” with a lot of his progressive racial actions due to his charisma, and charm and because he was viewed as a man of God, an excellent minister in other fields not related to race. Because he was beloved, racist elements were afraid to persecute him with violence.

One of the churches at which Bernard preached. Date and location unknown

Another story, although it is unknown when and where this occurred, although possibly also in Westover, West Virginia, exemplifies the hubris found within Bernard’s idealism in an age of Jim Crow and segregation. Reverend Gibbs, believing that segregation was a social evil, invited members of the local Black church to join his church for services. This infuriated some members of the white community and generated fear among members of the black community. The logistics of such an event were difficult. Would the members of the two communities sit together? Would the two communities mingle with one another? What about the physical safety of members of both community? In the end, it was decided that the two communities would come to Reverend Gibbs church. The black community would sit in the back, in the balcony, away from the bulk of the white community; while the members of the white community would sit in the front of the church. The event was without incident but the members of the black community had been treated in such an “ice cold” manner by some members of Reverend Gibbs congregation that they believed that it was best for all involved-including Reverend Gibbs and his family-that they not accept any future invitation to join in worship.

Reverend Gibbs views on race had become known and it became difficult for him to find a significant church, perhaps in a larger city, that would employ him. Bernard had become a martyr to his ideas and he had trouble finding a worthy long-term position to minister. Over the years, he was forced to travel by train long distances to serve in temporary pastoral positions. He suffered greatly. Bernard’s unrelenting views had made him controversial and therefore a liability to some segments of the Methodist community. Although Bernard changed many hearts and minds, not everyone was open to hearing his utopian theology.

VIII. Bernard Makes A Home In Morgantown, West Virginia & Raises His Children

Caherine, Mabel, Julie, John, Margorie and Bernard Gibbs.
Morgantown, West Virginia Circa 1932.

By the late 1920’s, Bernard and his family were firmly planted in West Virginia and would be so for the remainder of his life. During the depression, Bernard was often not paid and instead heavily depended on food and clothing and other spontaneous tithes from congregants. The author surmises that the harsh reality of the depression, and Bernard’s previous experiences, along with Mabel’s counsel, guided Bernard to alternatively emphasize other areas of the biblical tradition other than social justice and instead focus on areas such as prayer, salvation, and the discussion of the lives of biblical characters. Yet, as his few surviving later sermons indicate, his social justice message did remain, albeit subtlety.

It would be in Morgantown, West Virginia, a relatively liberal college town that Bernard and Mabel would raise their children. Bernard, with Mabel’s assistance, would lead the congregation at Westover Methodist Church, and the other churches in the greater Morgantown area where Bernard would also preach. In these communities, Bernard was beloved by his congregants, and his repackaged social justice teachings gained wider acceptance.

At the dinner table, Bernard spoke of a day, in the future, after his life time, where there would be a great reckoning among the people of the United States. Bernard spoke of a day to come where the people of the United States would have to address the social ills he had spent his life preaching against. In the interim, Bernard and Mabel told their children to keep their views, and his views, about the world and about what to come to themselves, lest Bernard could lose his job and they and the family ruin their place in society.

Despite any challenges he may have had, Bernard would regularly remind his children to express gratitude for all that they had. Bernard would often say, “there, but for the grace of God, go I” meaning that one should always be thankful from where they come and all the positive things that represents. Bernard often spoke to his children about the power of prayer. In one sermon, he shared that, “there are so many things that I want-things that I need-that I cannot get, however far I reach for them. I have learned what to do. I just go and knees at a throne of grace and state my petition and wait patiently until the Lord incline his ear unto me and hear me.” Yet he would also admonish his children to not pray for things, but rather pray “that the Lord will open up the way.”

The Gibbs children spoke about the great love and respect that existed between Bernard and Mabel, two traits which defined their marriage. Bernard and Mabel would buy one another gifts and often engage in romantic gestures. And sometimes, they would play pranks on one another. In one instance, Catherine recalls that Bernard would place a brown paper bag on the kitchen table, which he first had blown up. Knowing that Bernard often placed gifts for her in such bags, Mabel would approach the bag and assume it was another gift for her, but when she would open it, the bag was empty. She would cry out “Bernard!” in a tone of “how could you,” but it was all very playful. In Victorian society, it was not acceptable for spouses to show affection in front of children. But Catherine recalls seeing them once embracing in the hallway, so loving and tender and gentle with one another.

It was no doubt Mabel’s deep love for Bernard that permitted her, throughout Bernard’s life, and throughout their mission, to stand by Bernard’s side. Mabel, despite not sharing all of Bernard’s unusual views, supported his ministry while loving, honoring and respecting her husband. Mabel followed Bernard through difficult times. The couple suffered financially, from loss of prestige, and by Bernard receiving threats against him and his family because of his activism. Throughout it all, despite her privileged background, Mabel was never afraid to roll up her sleeves and do what needed to be done for God and the church. Their shared commitment to a life of public service was a cornerstone of their marriage. Their similar temperaments meant that they fit very well together. This preserved their romance into old age, and as Mabel’s writings indicate, even beyond Bernard’s death.

Bernard would take long walks in the woods, tend to his garden, and focus on teaching his children about nature. Bernard had a green thumb and he gave a section of the garden to each of his children so they could learn from nature. Bernard would takes his children on long hikes when their studies permitted and he would teach them of trees, leaves, little animals of the woods and parks. During these moments he would impart to his children many sayings, among which are: (a) “Life is really very simple therein lies its profundity”; (b) “Listen, just learn to listen”; (c) “Quit longing for the things you cannot have”; (d) Bernard would say after eating a meal, “it has been an elegant sufficiently and anymore would be superfluous”; (e) “Never set your mind so firmly on any course that, if it fails, you have nowhere else to turn.”; (f) in every course of action of life, one must “do it once and do it right”; (g) “Be careful what you set your heart upon, for it will surely be yours.”

Bernard and Mabel Gibbs. Morgantown, West Virginia, circa 1937-38

IX. The Last Days

Bernard retired from active ministry in 1942. According to the Methodist Yearbook, “[f]ollowing his retirement, Brother Gibbs to be useful in the work of the church, being the teacher of the Men’s Bible Class of Wesley Church, and supply preacher for many of the churches in and around Morgantown at various times.” This was done do doubt out of service to the church but was, as records indicate, done in part to make ends meet.[3]

There is evidence to suggest that Bernard was forced out of his position at Westover Church. Despite Bernard’s time as a minister, he received little or no stipend from the church, and there was insufficient funds for him to retire and eat. Bernard went to work at Morrison’s shoe store in order to have enough money to provide shelter for him and his wife in a small studio apartment over Tony Carony’s grocery store in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The photos taken of Bernard in the last years of his life show a man lacking the vibrancy of his youth suffering from melancholy. In them, Bernard stares intently at the earth, deep in thought and reflection, with an almost a dejected presence to him. In the photos, one can see a man who dedicated his life to service, service to God, service to his church, service to his family, and service to his fellowman. Bernard is used up, self-critical, disappointed in himself that he did not do more, and could not give more, to each of his causes.

Reverend Bernard Gibbs died on September 10, 1944 at the age of 72. Bernard was a lover of nature who enjoyed climbing the mountains and the hills and peering into the great beyond. It was on a mountaintop, in East Oak Grove Cemetery, in Morgantown, West Virginia, that he requested to be buried and where Bernard’s earthly body found everlasting peace. It would take more than a generation, and the compounding impact of other men and woman like Bernard, before the social justice theology of another Minister, Martin Luther King, would be accepted into the hearts and minds of the nation which Bernard so deeply loved.

X. Selections of The Obituary of Rev. Bernard Gibbs Found In The 1944 Methodist Yearbook

The Reverend John Bernard Gibbs, a good minister of Jesus Christ, entered upon this life December 5, 1872 and upon the life immortal in the heavenly country, September 10, 1944. He was born at Maynardsville, Tennessee and came to the end of life’s earthy journey at Morgantown, West Virginia.

Receiving his education at the University of Tennessee and at the University of Chattanooga, Brother Gibbs spent some years as a teacher in the schools of Tennessee and then entered upon his career in the ministry, serving charges in the Tennessee and Southern Conference before coming to West Virginia, where he served a number of charges including Oakland, Md., Sisterville, Terra Alta, Westover, Morrgantown. He retired in 1942. Following his retirement, Brother Gibbs to be useful in the work of the church, being the teacher of the Men’s Bible Class of Wesley Church, and supply preacher for many of the churches in and around Morgantown at various times.

Surviving him are his beloved wife, Mrs. Mabel Dove Gibbs, two daughters, Mrs. William A. Friend, and one son, Mr. John Gibbs. An acceptable preacher in any pulpit, a faithful pastor, and a most helpful counsellor and friend, Mr. Gibbs gave a lifetime of glorious service to the church and to her Master.

 

  1. Lula Gibbs was a highly intelligent and strong woman. The love of her life, her fiancé, died tragically and she never married. She attended university at Maynerville and had proto-feminist inclinations. Her yearbook sarcastically reads: “Thou hast a mind that suits this thy fair and outward character. To scrub the kettle, clean the pan, And tend the flower borders; To keep as cheerful as she can, And mind some good man’s orders.” She studied English Literature and History and was President of Bainonian and her College’s Y for the 1910 year.
  2. The author believes that descriptions of Bernard point to him being a Myers Briggs architype INTP (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) personality type.
  3. A newspaper clipping from the period reads as follows:Mrs. James W. Shepherd and son, David, of Cleveland, Ohio, are visiting Mrs. Shepherd’s parents, the Rev. and Mrs. Bernard Gibbs of 227 Walnut street. She is en-route to Hattiesburg, Miss., where she will visit her husband, who is a field director for the American Red Cross. The Rev. Bernard Gibbs, who has been pastor of the Westover Methodist Church for seven years, and was located in Parkersburg during the past year, has recently retired and has returned to Morgantown to live.