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July 27, 2022

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)

Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York, in 1779. She escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She went to court to recover her son in 1828, becoming the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.

Isabella had a significant religious experience in 1848 in which she sensed that God had called her to leave her home and witness others, testifying to the hope in her, as the scripture commands. She became a champion for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and civil rights for all people. Her best-known speech was delivered extemporaneously, in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.

Though she was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language, Isabella was often presented as having the stereotypical Southern dialect of an enslaved African-American. Because of her passion for proclaiming the gospel of freedom, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth.

The famous Scottish author Sir Walter Scott wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

The people of the United States are currently enduring what may well be one of the most contentious periods in American history. There is an overload of blaming and name-calling on every side. Approval ratings for the representatives of both political parties indicate widespread distrust by the citizens of our country.

Most historians agree that the first casualty of war is the truth. Truth has undoubtedly been a casualty of this political climate.

My mother’s punishment of choice was to wash out my mouth with yellow Octagon soap whenever I said a bad word, spoke ugly to or about another person or told a lie. She often repeated my granny’s refrain, “The truth is a beautiful thing.” Granny was using a quote commonly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I recall a scene in the motion picture A Few Good Men. One exchange between actors Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson becomes especially heated. Nicholson, a marine colonel, is testifying in a military court martial. Cruise is an attorney in the Navy. The two men yell at each other.

“I want the truth!”

“You can’t handle the truth.”

Then, as so often happens, the truth comes out.

I was taught that the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” was more than a courtroom rule. It was for everyday life. Before I ever saw an episode of Perry Mason or Matlock on television, I was taught to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God. My grandfather used to say, “Always tell the truth even when it hurts, and a lot of times it will.”

More than the continuous friction that produces greater heat than light, what bothers me about our current political discourse is the poor example for young Americans. Has disregard for the truth become our national norm? Does the first point of the Boy Scout Law hold any sway? A scout is, first of all, trustworthy.

Frank Abagnale was one of the most intriguing guests to appear on the television program To Tell the Truth. The show featured Gary Moore as host and regular panelists Bill Cullen, Kitty Carlisle, and Peggy Cass. Three contestants, all claiming to be the same person, were brought onstage. Only one was telling the truth; the other two were not. By asking questions, the panel was to discern who was truthful and who was lying. When Frank Abagnale appeared as a guest on the program in 1977, he was the truth-teller. He was, however, the greatest imposter of them all.

Frank Abagnale wrote his autobiography, Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake. When this true crime story first appeared in print in 1980, it made the list of best sellers in The New York Times Book Review. In the Steven Spielberg movie based on the book, Leonardo De Caprio plays the part of Frank.

In a period of five years, Frank Abagnale passed $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries. He did it by perpetrating one scam after another. He impersonated an airline pilot traveling around the world in the cockpit of jets, even taking over the controls. He also played the role of a pediatrician and faked his way into the position of temporary resident supervisor at a hospital in Georgia. Posing as a lawyer, he passed the Louisiana bar exam and conned his way into a job in the State Attorney General’s office. He taught a semester of college-level sociology with a fake degree from Columbia University.

Frank was a teenage high school dropout following his parent’s divorce. At first his con game was a matter of survival. Then he became enamored with the challenge and the ego trip that came with playing important men. The book and the movie treat his years of impersonations, swindles, and felonies with humor. Abagnale was arrested and convicted of his crimes. After five years, he was released from prison on the condition that he would cooperate with the government in apprehending counterfeiters.

Most of us have taken our share of true-false quizzes during our school years. The simple fact is that we take them every day. Mark Twain said, “Lying is mankind’s most universal weakness.”

While those who are paid to fact-check our politicians are busy trying to keep up with an avalanche of falsehoods, half-truths, or misleading statements, the rest of us are obligated to model truthfulness and honesty for our children and grandchildren. That is not always easy. Consider the predicament of one pastor trying to teach his children the Biblical admonition to speak the truth in love.

The pastor had been trying diligently to teach his two children, an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter, to tell the truth. One Sunday, after the morning worship service, his children were by his side when an elderly woman from the congregation presented him with a homemade cake. He took the cake home, where his wife engaged him in conversation.

“Who made the cake?” she asked.                                                        

 “Mrs. Hawthorne. It’s her famous red velvet cake,” the pastor replied.

 “We won’t be able to eat it,” his wife said. “Just throw it away.”

 “Why can’t we eat it?” the surprised reverend asked.

 “It will be full of cat hair. You’ve been in her home. She has five or six cats. They walk all over the kitchen counters. She calls it red velvet cake, but it’s actually cats hair cake.”

The skeptical pastor cut the cake. His children eagerly watched. Sure enough, the cake was full of cat hair. The thick icing was laced with feline fur. Even the red velvet cake was loaded with kitty fuzz. The disappointed children sighed. The sullied confection was tossed into the trash.

The following Sunday, the children stood again by their father’s side as he greeted people at the church door. Mrs. Hawthorne asked, “Preacher, did you like that red velvet cake?”

Now the pastor was in a quandary. Fully aware that his children were listening for his answer, the quick-thinking dad responded, “I’ll tell you the truth, Mrs. Hawthorne. A cake like that just doesn’t last very long around our house!” 

The truth really is a beautiful thing.


Kirk H. Neely is a storyteller, freelance writer, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to the Children’s Advocacy Center, 100 Washington Place, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29302, (864) 515-9922.

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