Courtesans in the Pulpit

In the mid-1990s, the United States Ambassador to France was Pamela Churchill Harriman, an appointee of Bill Clinton. On February 5, 1996, she died. The burial she received was, you will understand the expression, fit for a queen.

She was anything but a queen. Pamela Churchill Harriman was a courtesan, plain and simple.

Webster: “Courtesan: a prostitute; esp. one whose associates are wealthy, aristocratic, or of the nobility.”

A high class prostitute.

Bear with me; I’m going somewhere with this story. (If anyone ever publishes these blogs of mine, the title will probably be: “Bear with me; I’m going somewhere with this.”)

As a resident of this world since 1940 and a history student all my life, I knew who this woman was. She was born into an English family in 1920, the kind of family with an impressive title–her father was Baron Digby–but little money or power. Someone remarked, “Pamela was not born rich, but she was born to be rich.”

At the age of 20–the year I was born–she married the only son of Winston Churchill, Randolph, a weak man given to temper tantrums, self-indulgence, and strong drink. Later that year she gave birth to the prime minister’s namesake, Winston S. Churchill II. The marriage ended within a couple of years, and Pamela was off on her new career, that of courtesan to the high and the mighty.

The Churchill name opened doors for her.

She married twice more, to Broadway producer Leland Hayward and Averell Harriman, a wealthy businessman and political figure who served as ambassador to several countries.

“Reflected Glory” is the biography of Pamela Churchill Harriman. The author is Sally Bedell Smith. I stumbled across the used book recently, the selling price was next to nothing, and so I bought it.

I’m halfway through and probably won’t finish it.

The best way to describe this book is to tell something from my early teenage years. Living on the farm in rural Alabama, reading material was often lacking, particularly in the summertime when I was working every day and often went weeks without leaving the farm. On one occasion, some cousins or an aunt came to visit and left behind a stack of Redbook magazines. Thereafter, on lazy Sunday afternoons, I would grab one and lie on my bunk for a couple of hours reading stories intended for a women’s audience.

Invariably, after completing an issue, I would get up from the bed depressed. The stories were so awful, about people going through every kind of heartbreak, people who were treating one another dirty, husbands cheating on wives and vice versa–that I felt that I needed a bath.

I would walk outside into the sunshine thinking, “I’m so glad I don’t live that kind of life.”  (To this day, I despise novels and movies on similar themes.)

Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman had only three husbands, but the list of affairs this woman engaged in–and we’re not talking about one night stands–would fill several pages: Edward R. Murrow, Bill Paley, Jock Whitney, Elie de Rothschild, Prince Aly Khan, important people, rich people, famous people.

When one affair ended, even if she had been ceremoniously dumped, she picked herself up, smiled, acted as though she had just won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to the next party.

She was into denial big-time. According to her biographer, she reinvented many of the details of her life, which was doubtless the only way she could live with herself.

When she died, they opened up the National Cathedral in Washington and put on a religious show. All the people of wealth and influence attended. Some wag remarked that instead of having her funeral in a church–which she rarely attended, if ever–they should have thrown a cocktail party for her. Al Gore read from Ecclesiastes (“the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong”), her son Winston read a passage from Romans using the Bible with which she had been sworn in as ambassador to France, and President Clinton spoke (“Today we see her legacy in the growing promise of a Europe undivided, secure and free”).

Biographer Smith called Clinton’s remarks a new standard “for hyperbole.” He somewhat overstated the case.

A well-known pastor of a large, rich church told me once, “I feel like a kept man.”

The church was paying him a fabulous salary and providing him with a new car every few months. His sermons were being broadcast on live television and invitations to speak arrived from every direction. He was a celebrity in his city. If he had a need of any kind, all he had to do was drop a hint and it would be taken care of.

In return for these favors his job was to make the church look nice, see that the program ran well, and keep the congregation happy. He was not to step on anyone’s toes by addressing actual sins and shortcomings of his leading laymen (greed and blatant racism are the two that come to mind).

This was all a far cry from what God had called him to do.

I do not recall his using the word, but no doubt he felt he was “prostituting” himself. Selling his services to the highest bidder. Selling his soul is more like it.

Such a minister–and one wonders how many like him there are in this wealthy country–quickly loses his self-respect and with it, any kind of usefulness to the Father.

He becomes like the paid spiritual advisors various kings of old kept in their courts. Read your Old Testament and you’ll see them practically on every page. Jeremiah encountered them daily. Their task was to say what the king wanted to hear and to protect him from anything negative, any harsh truth, any offending word from God.

Pamela Churchill Harriman lived in a “reflected glory,” says her biographer. She derived her self-esteem from the rich and famous people whom she drew into her life and used. (And let’s be honest here–they used her, too.)

I have known pastors who received thrills from the political or financial power certain members of their congregation wielded, and from celebrities who were part of their churches. I have known pastors who teasingly remarked on the number of BMWs and Jaguars and Mercedes one could find in their church parking lot on Sunday, as though this indicated something of their own worth to the Kingdom.

The temptation toward courtesan-ship creeps up so gradually. Once we start being impressed by cars and salaries, by big houses and the country club membership, by big shots in the congregation and framed degrees on the wall, we are sitting ducks for the enemy.

Better to keep our eyes on the Lord and serve only Him.

I don’t recall who the preacher was (see comments; Peter Cartwright seems to be the one). Someone slipped him a note informing him that President Andrew Jackson was among the worshipers. The preacher did not hesitate. “They tell me President Jackson is in the church tonight. I say to you, that unless Andrew Jackson repents of his sin, he will burn in hell forever.”

According to the story, Jackson complimented the pastor on his faithfulness to his task. (I’m going from memory here. But that’s the essence of the story.)

“Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” Jesus said that (Revelation 2:10).

Every pastor–every believer, in fact–should ask himself/herself whether that is sufficient a reward for a lifetime of service.

5 thoughts on “Courtesans in the Pulpit

  1. I’m not sure who the courtesan in your story is now. The woman or the new car driving pastor. Looks like to me they both got their reward. Not in the hereafter but the riches they saught in life…. And nothing more!

  2. Dr. David Hankins reminds us that it was Evangelist Sam Jones who was preaching that day when President Andrew Jackson visited his services. I’m confident he’s right.

  3. Jackson died in 1845. Jones was born 1847. Musta been two other guys, but that’s not unusual. These sort of stories are a sort of “pick ’em” inserting a variety of characters.

  4. I have heard that the evangelist was the Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright and that what he actually said may have been a bit more “colorful,” especially by today’s standards.

  5. Bro. Joe,

    You really have a terrific talent for forcing people to examine themselves. (2 Cor. 13:5, 2 Tim. 2:15)

    As I have written before, I can’t wait until you write a book!

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