Have you ever read one of those books that is so strange, so unbelievable, that you are just waiting for the author to admit that she has just been making it all up? On more than one occasion I found myself waiting for that kind of a punchline while reading The Devil in Pew Number Seven. A recent addition to the New York Times list of non-fiction bestsellers, the book tells the sad, tragic and yet remarkably stirring story of Robert Nichols, a old-fashioned revival preacher who moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, to serve as pastor.
I hesitate to say too much about the story because, well, the Devil (in Pew Number Seven) is in the detail. To say too much, would be to give it all away. Let me stick with the publisher’s carefully-chosen description:
Rebecca never felt safe as a child. In 1969, her father, Robert Nichols, moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, to serve as a pastor. There he found a small community eager to welcome him—with one exception. Glaring at him from pew number seven was a man obsessed with controlling the church. Determined to get rid of anyone who stood in his way, he unleashed a plan of terror that was more devastating and violent than the Nichols family could have ever imagined. Refusing to be driven away by acts of intimidation, Rebecca’s father stood his ground until one night when an armed man walked into the family’s kitchen … And Rebecca’s life was shattered. If anyone had a reason to harbor hatred and seek personal revenge, it would be Rebecca. Yet The Devil in Pew Number Seven tells a different story. It is the amazing true saga of relentless persecution, one family’s faith and courage in the face of it, and a daughter whose parents taught her the power of forgiveness.
That is detailed enough to give a sense of the book’s content, yet vague enough not reveal the strange twists and turns. At heart the book describes a real-life fight of good versus evil and it is never certain who will triumph and how victory will come. Even now it is hard to say.
Let me share just a few favorite quotes that typify its subject and theme:
- “One side does its fighting with terrorist tactics—dynamite, letting air out of tires, cutting phone lines and shooting out lights. The other side answers with preaching, prayer, patience and the sheriff.”
- “Violence typifies the spirit of the opposition,” Daddy said, dismissing the notion of fighting fire with fire. “They are not Christian people. I know who they are. I know they are violent, mean-spirited people. I will only leave this church if it is the Lord’s will. And if it is the enemy’s will for us to leave, then it is God’s will for us to stay.”
- “When the Lord gets ready for me to leave this church, He won’t send the message by the devil.”
The Devil in Pew Number Seven will draw you in, shock you, and probably bring a tear to your eye. I sat down with it one summer afternoon and barely looked up until I had finished the last word. It is not a particularly deep read, but it is certainly engaging and awfully surprising–just the kind of book to read on vacation. However, one thing you may want to consider is skipping the Epilogue; it is the weakest part of the book and clashes with the rest in both theme and tone. It is a better book without it.