In it [The
Shepherd of the Hills] Sammy Lane marries Grant Matthews.
Their first-born is Daniel Howitt Matthews, named after the
Shepherd. The family
makes its home in its native Ozarks where thy own an underdeveloped
but rich mine in a cave on Dewy Bald.
When Dan is twelve, Dr. Oldham, a retired physician from
Corinth, located in a Midwestern state, visits the Ozarks on a fishing
expedition. He becomes
fascinated with the boy and his ideal character.
Returning to the Ozarks frequently to fish and watch the boy's
development, the doctor becomes like a godfather to the boy and is
disappointed when Dan, having reached adulthood, chooses the ministry
instead of medicine. Knowing that the backwoods boy will be disillusioned with the
church in its real state, the doctor prepares to "stand by"
him when that moment arrives, so the old man get Dan a pastorate in
Corinth where he can watch over him.
Dan arrives in Corinth simultaneously with a nurse, Hope
Farwell. His arrival on
the train foreshadows the problems he is to face, for gossip about his
female companion on the train, who is really his mother, set the
church elders to cautioning the young minister.
Dan takes a room across the street from the doctor.
From his window Dan can see to one side the well-kept garden of
the crippled boy who lives next door with his widowed mother; to the
other side, Dan can look at the cast iron monument to a statesman, the
town's native son who won national fame during his lifetime.
The garden and the statue are the dominant symbols in the
Nurse Farwell stays at the home of Judge Strong, the town's
leading citizen and an elder of the church, while she is caring for
his sister-in-law. She
and Dan become acquainted although she does not know of his profession
until later, and in a conversation between the two, she speaks
extremely critically of the church. They grow closer together through the attempted suicide of a
young girl and Strong's attempt to evict the widow and her crippled
son from their home. Dan
and Hope give the girl encouragement to live, but Dan is amazed and
disturbed to find the church responsible for the girl's depression,
for Grace Conner is "the saddest of all sad creatures--a good
girl with a bad reputation."
Her reputation results from her father's murder of the town
marshal, the Widow Mulhall's husband.
The entire community, except for the doctor, shun the girl so
that she cannot work for a living. Even so, the girl refuses to prostitute herself and instead
chooses death. With the
help of the nurse and the widow, the girl regains her confidence. However, Hope and Mrs. Mulhall lose face in the town as they
become guilty by association. When
Dan befriends the group, he is warned by the elders to dissociate
himself from them. Already
feeling "that his work was not so much to give what he could to
meet the people's needs as to do what he could to supply the wants of
the Memorial Church" (Dan Matthews, p. 112), Dan resigns
himself to the fact that his job depends on these hypocritical elders,
but he continues to help the ostracized group.
At the church's regional convention, Dan realizes that he is,
for all practical purposes, through with the Memorial Church, for the
elders do not allow him to give any of the reports of the church
presentations, which is part of the minister's duties.
He is shunned by the entire convention because Corinth's
delegation has spread the rumors about Dan and Hope.
Upon the delegation's return to Corinth, they find Hope and
Grace Conner have gone to Chicago; before going to the convention Dan
chooses the church and loses the girl, for she was not a church member
and did not choose to be. Her
abrupt departure starts the gossip anew, and shortly after, Dan is
asked to leave. Prior to
his departure, he discovers that Strong has been a thief; he has
demanded mortgage payments of the widow when in reality the house was
paid for years before by her brother.
When Dan presents the case to Elder Jordan, he squirms and
says, "Brother Strong may have made a mistake, may--ah, have done
wrong, but the church--the church; we must think of the good name of
the cause! Coming so soon
after the revival, too" (Dan Matthews, p. 329).
The church keeps the acknowledge thief as an elder but fires
the innocent preacher, probably because Strong feel the threat of
Dan's continued presence.
With Dan's realization of the covert politics in the church, he
preaches his final sermon to the 'misguided religious people [who]
have always crucified their saviors and always will" (Dan
Matthews, p. 337). Insisting
that the congregation must find God in their everyday work in order to
find him on Sunday in church, he concludes:
Because I believe these things I am, from this hour, no longer
a professional preacher, hired by and working under the direction of
any denomination or church leaders. This closes my ministry as you understand it.
It by no means closes my ministry as I have come to understand
it. (Dan Matthews, p. 346)
Dan spends his last day in Corinth, a town "caught in an
eddy" (Dan Matthews, p. 16), fishing with the doctor.
When Judge Strong arrives at the stream and refuses to
apologize to Dan about the previous comments he has made about Hope,
Grace, and the widow, Dan assaults the Judge.
After that revenge, Dan returns home to the Ozarks, but only
after he goes to the city to make plans with the president of a steel
company about the development of the Dewey Bald mine.
He plans to use that wealth for the benefit of mankind and to
help the Grace Conners and Dennys of the world.
Grace has become a nurse with Hope's help, and Denny has
received the education which he wanted through Dan's aid.
Upon his return, Dan also finds Hope there.
They acknowledge their love and eventually marry.
The literary reviewers recognized the timely theme of The
Calling of Dan Matthews but as usual criticized Wright's writing
style. One critic finds
that the author
has taken occasion to state some very plain facts.
The chances are that readers may not entirely agree with him.
They will feel, perhaps, that he has overstated his case, but
much remains to command a careful hearing.
That Dan should finally relinquish the vocation for which he
felt so decided a calling seems unnecessary.
The most obvious solution of his difficulties would be for him
to remain in the thick of the fight and prove that there is a place in
the Christian ministry for men of strength of character.
Then, too, the novel might have been stronger, had the writer
taken into account that real men and women are neither wholly good,
nor wholly bad, but that human nature approaches neither extreme.
This critic finds the novel too harsh in its criticism of the
churches and suspects that the readers will do the same.
Many readers probably do find the book too bitter, but the
subject of the novel hits close to many Americans who may see
themselves as members of the congregation, who are accomplices to
Dan's fall, though the members are sorry to see him leave the church.
Dan cannot remain and fight as the reviewer suggests, for he is
disgusted with the hypocritical community, and he has been ostracized
by both the local and regional churches.
Rather than go to some distant ministry, he chooses to serve
mankind in what he believes to be a Christian manner through the use
of his coming wealth. Wright
pictures only one totally corrupt church official--Judge Strong.
Dan is basically good, but he is also an innocent as a result
of his isolation while growing up.
The congregation is typical of many.
They enjoy gossiping; they like to see new and exciting people
and things, and Dan qualifies as gossip material.
He is not the commonplace minister but a young, attractive, and
educated backwoodsman. Most
of the young ladies of the town admire him and flirt with him.
Corinth is, in fact, a very typical small midwestern town.
Another reviewer describes the subject of the novel:
The experience of an unworldly young minister in a sordid
little town in the Middle West, his development under trial and the
influences that led him to give up the ministry and enter business.
A tale of considerable interest but annoyingly exaggerated in
the drawing of "pious" characters.
the town is not supposed to be "sordid;" instead, it
represents the norm. There are no truly pious characters. The elders try to appear pious, while Dan is not pious but
confused as to the role of church and minister.
A New York Times reviewer also notes the lack of round
The author writes, evidently, with deep seriousness and with
some knowledge of life and the world, but he has not succeeded in
imparting to his characters the illusion of reality.
In this respect the book is not equal to his former novels,
although the plot, what little there is of it, is handled more
serving ten years in the ministry, Wright certainly had some knowledge
of the church. That asset makes this novel possess a truthful quality, even
though it is a tremendously bitter novel.
In his review Frederick Taber Cooper failed to take into
account the importance of the church criticism:
It is precisely the sort of book which the readers who like
this author's previous volumes may reasonable be expected to enjoy.
That it has no special structural merit, no special distinction
of style is quite beside the point.
People who read books of this type are not looking for high
artistic quality; they are looking chiefly for certain types of
distinctly American character, depicted with a certain graphic
accuracy; a moderate quantity of more or less whimsical humour [sic]
and an underlying strain of religious sentiment which sometimes verges
novels do not pretend to be literary; he knows precisely what kind of
book he wants to write and does so.
In this book Wright chooses to expose the commercialization of
the church and its lack of human warmth.
On the day of Dan's arrival in Corinth, the town is holding a
street fair, and the churches prove to be as enterprising as the
In a vacant store room the Memorial Church was holding its
annual bazaar. On
different corners other churches were serving chicken dinners, or ice
cream, or in sundry ways were actively engaged for the conversion or
the erring farmer's cash to the coffers of the village sanctuaries. (Dan
Matthews, p. 37)
is usual in Wright's church novels, the Ladies' Aid Society does its
part to raise money, in addition to gossiping at each meeting.
Ironically, the society is more interested in converting cash
than in converting souls. The
ladies make a quilt with the names of donors embroidered on it and
then sell it to raise money at a talent show sponsored by the church.
While they quilt, they discuss their minister's charismatic
preaching, which has been drawing members of other denominations, and
they plan how to entice more people to their church so that they can
boast of the largest congregation (Dan Matthews, pp. 122-124).
The direct criticism aimed toward the elders and the Ladies'
Aid Society does not extend to all the congregation.
Although the congregation has many of the characteristics of a
mob, since it follows one or two men and their whims, Wright does not
condemn all of the church members.
Some of the farmers have a low opinion of ministers, but Dan
changes their minds as he joins them in their fields and helps them
harvest their crops when they are short of laborers.
Typically, Wright praises the country people for their honesty
and sincerity. However, these people do not have any power in the political
circles in the church.
Dan often feels awkward in his role of minister; he is far from
the stereotyped view of preachers.
He quickly comes to know the difference between being treated
as a man and as a minister. People
are more distant and formal with a minister.
The minister is also given discounts on merchandise by the
local businessmen. Dan resents these attitudes as he resents the daily call he
is required to make to his members' homes.
He despises sipping tea and listening to the gossiping of the
women, while their husbands are at work.
For relaxation he works in the garden next door to help the
widow and her son, but he is soon criticized for that act because the
family is Catholic, which Dan's congregation feels to be almost as bad
as not belonging to a church at all.
The congregation is also unhappy that Dan performs manual
labor, a job the congregation believes is below his position (Dan
Matthews, p. 185).
When Dan receives a warning from his employers, he deliberates
on which one of two ministerial roads he should select.
One is the easy path of "obedience to the traditions,
policies and doctrines of Memorial Church and its denomination
leaders" while the other road represents "truthfulness to
himself and his own convictions" (Dan Matthews, pp.
228-229). He selects the
latter road. He discovers
that he is "paid to be good" (Dan Matthews, p. 205),
that he should not associate with the working class (Dan Matthews,
p. 220), and that he is constantly on trial before the public eye.
A minister is allowed no weaknesses.
He also find that he is one in a long succession of ministers
to Memorial Church. Each
of his predecessors had some character flaw that did not suit the
congregation. One was too
old and one was too young. Family
members could also be the cause of the congregation's disfavor with a
minister (Dan Matthews, p. 268).
The strongest critics of the church are Dr. Oldham; Dr. Harry
Abbott, the elderly doctor's partner; and Hope Farwell.
Dr. Oldham is aware of the difference between theological
theory and actual practice in the church, but he does not tell Dan. Hope Farwell's criticism is the first indication to Dan that
there might be something wrong with the church. Her words carry weight, for Dan respects her:
This selfish, wasteful, cruel, heartless thing that men have
built up around their opinions, and whims, and ambitions, has so come
between the people and the Christianity of the Christ, that they are
beginning to question if, indeed, there is anywhere such a thing as
the true church. (Dan Matthews, p. 103)
views on ministers touch Dan deeply, for she is unaware during their
conversation that he is a minister:
On the contrary a church employs a pastor to serve itself.
To the churches Christianity has become a question of fidelity
to a church and creed and not to the spirit of Christ.
The minister's standing and success in his calling, the amount
of his salary, even, depends upon his devotion to the particular views
of the church that calls him and his ability to please those who pay
him for pleasing them. (Dan Matthews, pp. 105-106)
Hope's words trouble Dan greatly and make him reconsider his
concepts of the church. However,
he is not convinced of the hypocrisy of the church until the church
actually proves Hope correct. Then,
he turns to Dr. Abbott, a friend and member of his church, for
answers. The doctor
clarifies some questions for Dan and offers an explanation for his own
membership in the church (Dan Matthews, p. 210).
Although Dr. Abbott recognizes the hypocrisy of the church, he
remains a member because he, like others, depends upon it for
religious life, but he continually hopes for reformation of the church
which can be provided by men like Dan.
Conversely, Charity Jordan, the elder's daughter, represents
the opposite view. An
interesting minor character, she was trained to be a minister's wife.
When Dan comes to Corinth, she, as an accurate judge of
preachers, feels that he can rise to great heights in the ministerial
profession, if only he is helped by an aspiring wife.
She plans to fill the position that is expected of her, but
Hope inadvertently gets in her way.
Charity is well versed in denominational politics, and to here
there are only two types of people in the world--church members and
non-church members. The
latter are aliens and not to be trusted until they become church
members (Dan Matthews, p. 272).
Charity even pleads with Hope to give Dan up, for he must not
marry a worldly woman. Charity
eventually does marry a minister and finds her niche, and his success
is assured because of her knowledgeable help.
However, Dan is not to be swayed from his convictions, and his
determination brands him as a rebel in the church despite Charity's
help. Dan believes that religion is not to be found in a Sunday
ritual but in everyday life. Wright
stresses this point by using the word "ministry" in a
variety of ways, atypical to its common meaning.
Dr. Abbott feels the need to "minister" to the needs
of the poverty-stricken (Dan Matthews, p. 138), while his two
servants, former slaves, serve the doctor as an expression off the
love and their "ministry" (Dan Matthews, p. 140). Hope tells the doctor that he has a "ministry," his
profession (Dan Matthews, p. 143), and Dan considers Hope's
saving of Grace Conner a "beautiful ministry . . . an example of
the spirit of Christian religion" (Dan Matthews, p. 200).
Dan finds "ministry" in music, labor, and fishing.
The constant use of "minister" and
"ministry" emphasizes the theme of everyday religion.
Besides the prevalent symbolism of ministry, Wright uses other
symbols to illustrate his theme.
Water and fishing are two of those symbols.
In the first pages of the novel the reader finds that Corinth
is not in the flow of the world, as are surrounding communities, but
is caught in an eddy, unable to free itself from the circular
movement. As the
succession of ministers suggests, the town moves in circles.
The cycle is repeated over and over.
On the other hand, Dan and the old doctors are fishers of men,
an image raised by their several fishing trips in which they discuss
the life stream, men, and religion. Dan is caught temporarily in the stagnant waters of Corinth
but frees himself to continue his service to man in a fresh stream (Dan
Matthews, p. 349).
The two most important symbols, however, are the garden and the
statue, one on either side of Dan.
When the community dedicated the statue to its statesman, it
did so with honorable intentions, but they cast the good man in iron,
an ugly symbol of the technological age, and engraved the monument
with a quotation of his on an issue long since irrelevant.
In contrast, the garden is a living, growing thing, dormant
through some seasons but always there.
The garden offers a variety of vegetables, something for all.
Denny serves as the garden's "minister."
In the center of the garden is a huge rock which Denny cannot
move. He wisely leaves it
alone and tends to what he knows.
The garden represents religion as opposed to the cast iron
monument which symbolizes the church, an institution of ecclesiastical
dogma. The statue cannot
adequately represent the warm human being whom is supposedly portrays
(Dan Matthews, pp. 340-42).
Taking his cue from Voltaire's Candide,
Wright insists that each man must find his own garden, for it is only
in the garden that a man can be happy.
Although Denny is crippled, he finds happiness working in his
garden, for there he is useful. Dan
feels that he too must find his garden; "he would find his
work" (Dan Matthews, p. 349).
He does find that garden when he uses the wealth of the mine to
help his fellow man who may be handicapped physically or handicapped
by society. Dan is initiated into society and the church as his innocence
is destroyed; however, he becomes a better man and minister for the
purpose is to make people see the hypocrisy of their religion and
reform themselves and the church to follow the guidelines of