East Greenwich, Rhode Island is an old New England town, founded in 1677. Many of the original colonial homes are still standing and inhabited, and the town is quaint beyond belief. It is also my home town.
I grew up near the corner of four streets intersecting, where a charming cemetery is located on one corner. A brook runs through the cemetery, and a beautiful stone bridge serves as the entry to it. I used to play there frequently, as the property abutted our home and the hills are perfect for bike-riding, the brook contained tadpoles, and the leafy quietude was a huge draw for this shy child.
In the middle of the crossroads of this intersection was a Wayside Cross. It stood on a triangular island and the redwood crucifix with little roof had nailed to it a little plaque. The cross was put up in 1922, and its construction was noted in the St. Andrews Cross newsletter of October 1922; They wrote:
“THE first wayside cross to be erected in Rhode Island, if not in New England, was recently set up on a triangular piece of ground in East Greenwich. This cross is in memory of Dr. James H. Eldredge, a life-long resident of East Greenwich and at one time president of the Town Council. It is the gift of his granddaughters, one of whom is Mrs. Henry M. Saville, wife of the Rev. H. M. Saville, rector of St. Mary’s Church, East Providence. The cross was formally presented to the town by the Rev. Mr. Saville, and Bishop Perry conducted a simple ceremony of dedication in the presence of about one hundred people, including twenty-five school children of the nearby district school, who are pledged to watch the cross and see that no harm comes to it. Members of St. Luke’s choir led in the singing of several hymns, the Rev. J. M. Hunter leading in the Lord’s Prayer. The cross was accepted by the president of the Town Council. The inscription on the cross reads: ‘In Memory of James Henry Eldredge, Physician, Lover of God and Man, Who for fifty years traveled these roads to visit the sick and suffering. Died February 20, 1891.’ Since its erection, hundreds passing have stopped to observe the cross and to read the inscription, and those who placed this beautiful memorial to an exemplary life feel that it will indeed be a light by the way and a guide post to Heaven.” (photo from 1922 newsletter)”
St. Mary’s in our town is the Catholic Church. Though these stations by the road are called ‘Wayside Cross’ they are actually a crucifix. A hanging Jesus is attached to the crossbars.
One of the local elementary schools is named after Dr. Eldredge, I attended as a child. You can see by the fact that the cross was erected and the lengthy newsletter article, in those days (1922- a hundred years ago!), a Wayside Cross was something to be proud of (even if it was a crucifix). Ceremonies were held when they were erected, and volunteers lovingly and diligently maintained them.
That was then.
Growing up, before I left the town in 1978 for college, my atheist father used to complain about that cross. It had been erected in the middle of the intersection. I suppose it could be seen as a road hazard to drivers. But that was not why my father hated it.
He hated driving past it. He railed and groused and gritted his teeth. More than once I heard him mention it, and not in glowing terms either. He used to say it had no place on town property. Well, someone else felt that way too, because during the week of November 28, 1986, Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU, wrote to Town Manager Robert T. Tempest that the ACLU had received a complaint about the Wayside Cross, which sits on public land on the island at the intersection. Brown asked the town to move the crucifix to private land on behalf of Peter A. Marks of Middle Rd., who had lived in the town for just about a year. Thus began a fight that lasted two years, made national headlines, and caused a good young man to be arrested.
New resident Marks wanted the cross to come down. “I find it offensive” Marks said. He avoided driving past it because of his conviction that it made non-Christians feel unwelcome. This is 1986 now. He didn’t know, as many still do not, that the crucifix isn’t a Christian symbol. It’s an idol which means nothing. But anyway,
Very public legal wrangling ensued. This wrangling so upset teenager Laurence Moulton, that he sawed the cross off at the base and hid it, hoping to defuse the controversy. The climate between the religious and the ACLU in RI was already heightened by an enormous then-recent lawsuit (1984) when in a very famous case, the ACLU sued the city of Pawtucket for having a Christmas creche. The case challenging the legality of holiday decorations on town property made it to the Supreme Court of the United States. (Lawsuit here)
The ACLU lost the Christmas Creche suit but undaunted, again picked up the banner of separation of church and state a year later with the East Greenwich Wayside Cross issue. The controversy immediately re-ignited, having not yet died down from the Supreme Court creche suit. This bickering bothered young Mr. Moulton tremendously, and in his teenager-addled brain, he thought if he sawed off the cross that would settle the issue. He was eventually sentenced to one year probation.
Why am I writing all this? I’m old and nostalgic. I was googling around google street view to look at photos of my old town. I spent a long time doing this. It is a beautiful town and not much has changed. I started thinking of that cross, nearly across from my driveway, and how it was a historic landmark for me and an emotional one too. As a kid, when I saw it I knew I was almost to my house.
My childhood was atheist dominated with overtones of apathy and occasional spurts of Unitarianism. I really had no religious upbringing and that state of affairs continued into college and young adulthood. I lived in RI for 17 years, and then Maine for 30 years, both states in the bottom ten for citizens NOT going to church. In Maine, only 27% of adults attend church weekly or nearly weekly, a dismal statistic surpassed only by two other states, both neighbors of Maine: NH and VT. For 44 years I lived in an environmental desert of atheism and agnosticism and indifference. How, may I just please ask HOW, does an adult in middle age suddenly claim Jesus as savior?
His grace, that’s how. He sent the Holy Spirit to convict me, and my unhardened heart allowed the conviction. Increasingly for the Christian, there is no remedy for our offense. The true cross is deemed frivolous and no-account, dead wrong, “offensive” and we are marginalized for wanting to retain the right to display our faith in public.
These arguments about separation of church and state hurt us: just ask young Mr Moulton who was tormented by adult wrangling over-the-top over-reaching on the part of those who want to wipe the entire nation and earth of any Christian display. In 1922 the Wayside Crucifix was a place where it was hoped that many would be comforted, its construction a moment of celebration. In 1988 it was a point of state-wide controversy and bitter anger. In 2022 is the wayside station at the junction of 4 roads even remembered? It has by now been moved to the nearby cemetery, a fitting place for it. Such is our prophesied trajectory away from Our Lord.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18).