Death and Life in a Hospital

I wonder if many people still name their children after the great men and women of the past or have modern historians  poisoned that well too. I named my daughter after Theodore Roosevelt not so much for his policies (some of which I disagree with) but in honor of his zest for life and fearlessness after a rather wimpy start.

Daniel Webster Whittle was obviously named after Daniel Webster. Parents back then had big ideas for their children. The day before Whittle went off to fight in the 72nd Illinois Infantry he married his sweetheart. I imagine a fresh-faced young man in new uniform,  a peacock standing beside his pretty bride. She glances up at him with a mix of worry and pride. God is not in the forefront of his thinking.

The thrill of love and leaving causes mixed feelings for this young man, but he never questions his duty to the Union. This is before endless marches and blood shed. It’s before Vicksburg and the fateful day he is wounded and captured by Confederate soldiers. What must it feel like to lose an arm in battle?

One day you are whole and the next you are a casualty, a bed filler, a drag on the effort and a prisoner.

Young Whittle is like the many men today, with more humble names maybe, who sit in clean hospital beds making peace with war wounds. No matter the decor, no matter the Impressionist paintings hung on the walls in cheap frames a hospital is  a sad prison. We met a veteran once at a beekeeping seminar and beside him was a serious Labrador Retriever, a therapy dog. The man got very agitated about some opinion expressed about hives and honey. The dog chilled him out. PTSD sucks.

Whittle had no therapy dog because back then Bibles and chaplains were allowed to do their job. Christianity was considered normal. Daniel Whittle was ambivalent about faith. He was also bored so he picked up a copy of the New Testament on his bed stand. For those of you who don’t know it’s the part of the Bible where Jesus sacrifices his life for our sins. It’s the part people don’t really want to believe in because Jesus expects similar sacrifices from us–but we’ll save that for another day.

Each day Whittle flipped through the stories of healing, the stories of doubt and the stories of great conversions. And each day he closed the book deciding he wanted no part of it. Maybe he questioned why he no longer had an arm when other soldiers got off scott free. Maybe he wondered if his new wife would still find him attractive. Maybe he liked to hunt but now would never hold a gun. Who knows.

One night a hospital orderly woke him. “The young one over there is dying and wants a prayer.”

Whittle had seen death before. “So?”

“You’re a Christian aren’t you?” the orderly asked. “I’ve seen you reading the Bible every day.”

Whittle knelt beside the dying young man’s bed with an awkward sigh. He was no Christian, just a sleepy soldier put on the spot. As he knelt there watching the boy before him wrestle with death he took the boy’s hand in his. The boy settled. A sudden sense of needing forgiveness came over Whittle. He was surprised and confused by it, but found himself confessing to being less than the man he should be. A love for the dying boy caused him to pray his first stumbling prayer and caused him later to write this hymn:


I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing us of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

I know not what of good or ill
May be reserved for me,
Of weary ways or golden days,
Before His face I see.

I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him,
Or meet Him in the air.

And so Daniel Webster Whittle, brevetted a major in the war, went home a changed man. Some men will never open a Bible and that is their choice. The words are often challenging. Actually reading the Bible is a brave thing because a decision must be made when you finish it. Hearsay about this controversial book keeps many people away–they don’t get the full story, sadly.

The PTSD beekeeping soldier got a dog. I wonder if he ever was offered a Bible.

Thanks to all the men and women who sacrifice for their fellow man.