Colonel Albert G. Pepper 1897-1978
Colonel Albert Pepper has been hailed as “one of the Army’s greatest holiness expositors” (Commissioner Andrew S. Miller). He taught holiness, not only in sermons, but more importantly, in how he lived.
Lessons From a Boxing Farmer
Pepper grew up as a Michigan farm boy. He worked hard tending the fields, with his four siblings and faithful Christian parents. Most everything they did on the farm was done by hand, and as a result, Pepper learned the value of hard work and dedication.
When they weren’t tending the farm, church was a huge element of the Pepper’s lives. They attended every Sunday and were adamant about being attentive in services. There, the Peppers gained a strong foundation of the Bible and Christ’s saving sacrifice.
Playing also inspired Christian characteristics in Pepper. Michigan winters were unbearably cold, and staying indoors to play board games with family became a regular event. While it sounds sweet, often this would turn immensely competitive. Albert’s father decided to channel this energy in a positive way. “Under his watchful eye, a small room…of the house became the neighborhood boxing gym…One of [the rules] was that boxing should always be fun and tempers must always be under control” (Silhouette of a Saint). Self-discipline and managing his temper were lessons Pepper would take with him for life. They would help him remain like Christ even in trying circumstances.
From the Doc to the Pulpit
Pepper developed severe sinus issues as a teen. The problem was so bad that it caused him eye pain, headaches, breathing and hearing trouble. The doctor suggested a wire treatment to open up Pepper’s sinuses and let them drain. It was as painful as it sounds, but it worked. To allow Pepper’s sinus tissue time to heal away from the farm that may have aggravated them, Pepper was sent to church camp. For the first time, the Bible became real to him. He asked deep questions about God and read the Bible until the early hours of the morning. After camp, Pepper conducted youth worship services every Sunday, and he felt for the first time God calling him to serve.
Nine Miles Stronger
To fund his high school education, Pepper worked at a store two hours before classes, three hours after, and a full 12 hours on Saturdays. School and work were far from home, and Pepper had to walk nine miles back each day.
The trek could have been a dread, but instead of complaining, Pepper used this time to connect with God. “He was a reflective person and would re-think his activities and decisions of the past week, often wondering if he had been as good a witness as he should, and if he had been helpful in anyone’s salvation. […] To pass the time he would repeat Scripture verses. Reminding himself of God’s love and the sacrifice of Jesus, Albert would praise God and…the journey was shortened” (Silhouette of a Saint).
Discovering the Army
Passing through Cadillac, Michigan, 18-year-old Pepper heard a familiar Christian song on the streets. It was a Salvation Army Saturday night witness. Having never seen an outdoor church service, he was intrigued. Salvationists shared their testimonies and read the Word of God. A strong desire to be of service to others was once again stirred in him, and he remembered the first time God called him to preach as a teen. He was moved by the Army’s sincerity and asked about officership.
Grabbing Holiness by the Collar
Being holy, or like Christ, is easier said than done, especially if we’re put into a life-threatening or abusive situation, or one that threatens our pride.
As a cadet, Pepper was tasked with selling copies of The War Cry. On the list of places to visit were a few bars, but the townspeople weren’t keen on having this cadet there. One drunk man had enough of Pepper before he even finished asking if he wanted a War Cry. The drunk man “grabbed both sides of the bottom of [Pepper’s] tunic and ripped every button loose in one frantic jerk upward. The tunic, closed at the collar by metal hooks, hung limply on Albert’s shoulders. It was hard for him to swallow. The fright of it caused his heart to leap to his throat. His throat opened to allow the whispered words ‘God bless you’ to escape. ‘What did you say?’, the man insistently inquired. ‘God bless you’ repeated Albert, who by now was looking among the cigar butts, tobacco juice and assorted trash on the floor for his buttons. His voice grew more confident, and having regained his composure, he knew he was being given a chance for a Christian witness to these people. A more mature Cadet Pepper left that tavern that day, having sold 20 War Crys” (Silhouette of a Saint).
Officer Life at a Glance
In 1923, Pepper married Etta Hobson. They served in corps appointments together throughout the Central Territory, primarily in Michigan. Colonel Pepper was also founder and principal of the Brengle Memorial Institute, a place for officers to study the Army’s theology on holiness and apply it to everyday living. Albert and Etta later served in the Eastern Territory, including as field secretary, until their retirement.
Pepper painfully lost his wife to a cerebral hemorrhage in 1963. Although he never understood why this happened, he never became angry towards God. He trusted in God’s plan, submitting to His holy will, rather than his own. “I don’t think we’ll ever understand some things,” Pepper said. “But God always does things right.”
Humility is Holiness
Often what Colonel Pepper did was not extraordinary, but everything he did, he offered up to God. One way he did this was through humility. When the drunk man had a run-in with him, humility enabled Pepper to bless this man rather than get angry and fight back. He was a friend to his enemies, as Christ commands us all to be.
“[Pepper] was a man loved, respected and venerated by all who met him. […] Once you were with him, you sensed his possession of God’s gifts of grace and spiritual stability. His demeanor was always such that you felt religious or spiritual around him, even in the most secular circumstances” (Silhouette of a Saint).
Is it possible?
Holiness doesn’t mean performing dazzling miracles everywhere you turn, but it does mean pointing others to Christ, and following Him even when it’s painful or difficult. If we do this, God will work through us to inspire and save others.
“Perhaps you feel saintliness is beyond you. Better to fail at being a saint than to succeed as a sinner.”— Colonel Pepper
Connecting with God
Holiness requires complete reliance on God. We cannot achieve it on our own. Praying is important, as is taking time to listen to God. Think about how you can examine your conscience and listen to God’s direction for your life. What questions can you ask yourself (as Pepper did during his nine miles) that can help in your spiritual walk? Reflect on how you can cultivate silence and prayer in your life. Some ideas: pray on your way to work or school; or set your alarm a few minutes earlier and spend that time the Lord.
Mariam Aburdeineh, Editorial Assistant
Photographs provided by The Salvation Army National Archives and Research Center.