IN FORTY YEARS OF PREACHING at Peninsula Bible Church, Ray Stedman rarely mentioned his parents. One could easily have gotten the impression that Ray showed up on this earth much like Adam: lovingly formed by his heavenly Father and placed in a garden called Montana, but without an earthly father or mother to nurture him along the way. Ray certainly had parents, but his childhood, like many, was not idyllic.
Ray's father, Charles Leslie Stedman, was born to Guy Samuel and Mary Jane Stedman in Woodstock, Minnesota, on July 21, 1889. Charles was the eighth of fourteen children. Traveling by covered wagon, the Stedman family relocated in Blunt, South Dakota, and eventually in Temvik, North Dakota, where they homesteaded and built a sod house. Then, in January 1907, Mary Jane died. Most of the details of Charles's early life are unknown to us, except for the fact that he was a young teenager when his mother died, and that about that time Charles went to work building barns, some of which still stand today.
On October 16, 1912, at age twenty-three, Charles married Mabel Clara Allen of Loyalton, South Dakota. Their first son, Alan Le Roy, was born on August 12, 1913, in Kapowsin, Washington; Raymond Charles Stedman was born in Temvik, North Dakota, on October 5, 1917; and Donald Homer Stedman was born in Denver, Colorado, on February 6, 1922.
We have little information about Ray's mother, but in recent years Ray's nephew, Alan Stedman, learned that she was a talented and published poet. Her poem "The Pines" was published January 13, 1924, in The Young People's Friend. Her other poetry was published in newspapers or in a poetry club publication. This was an interesting discovery, because Ray himself always loved poetry.
Life was not easy for the Stedman family. Charles worked as a carpenter, a mechanic, and a railroad worker, but was often unemployed and frequently moved his family from place to place. At different times, the Stedmans lived in North Dakota, Washington, New Mexico, and Colorado. Ray's single memory of his father was of a completely withdrawn man who came home from work and read the newspaper in silence. His mother battled chronic asthma all her life; and some people considered her a hypochondriac.(Elaine Stedman, interview by author, July 15, 2001, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.) Between his father's emotional detachment and his mother's distraction, Ray did not receive the nurturing a young child needs from his parents.(Wendell Sheets, interview by Susan Stedman, August 4, 1994, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.)
One startling incident reveals the lack of stability and care in the Stedman home. When Ray was three years old, he and his seven-year-old brother, Alan, traveled alone on a train from Miles City, Montana, to Cimarron, New Mexico, a thousand miles away, to join their parents, who had been living in New Mexico for several months "in quest of health." We don't know where or with whom the two boys stayed in Miles City while they waited to join their parents, but this likely was just one leg of a move the entire family made from Washington. When the train reached Denver, it was held up because of flooding further south, and the two children had to leave the train. Fortunately, Fred W. Johnson, the district passenger agent for the American Railway Express, was at the station to help them. Alan and Ray's mother had asked Mr. Johnson to watch over the boys during the trip, so he took them home with him. He and his wife cared for them until they were able to continue their journey. At the time, a Denver newspaper reported how the boys' plight had captured Johnson's heart; he called them "about the best behaved children I have ever seen." But the article, which included a photograph of the two boys, also mentioned this poignant and telling fact: "the younger of the two brothers" (Ray), followed Johnson around and called him "papa." Although he was very young at the time, Ray never forgot this event, or how this kind train conductor took him home and cared for him.(Laurie Stedman, interview by author, July 15, 2001, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.)
After living in New Mexico for a short time, Charles Stedman found a job in Denver, Colorado, working in a Burlington Railroad roundhouse. While the Stedmans were living in Denver, when Ray was about ten years old, his father vanished. To this day, no one knows why Charles Stedman deserted his family. Some speculate that it might have been the frustration of continually moving from one job to the next, or the effort of trying to support a chronically ill wife and three young sons. The family made many attempts to find Charles--all unsuccessful-and through the years Ray himself continued to search for traces of his father: "He looked for him diligently in every county we were in and never found him," Ray's daughter Susan remembers. "Somehow, the man disappeared off the face of the earth, and. . . that had a big impact on my dad." (Susan Stedman, interview by author, July 14, 2001, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.)
Soon after Charles abandoned his family, Ray's mother, Mabel, decided that she was unable to manage the strain of raising three boys. Ray was ornery, and his mother, suffering from asthma, would have to stop and rest in the middle of disciplining him to catch her breath.(Alan Stedman, letter to author, December 16, 2003.) She decided to place Ray and Alan in an orphanage in Denver, keeping her youngest son, Donald, at home with her. No one knows exactly how long Ray and Alan lived in the orphanage, but it wasn't long before Mabel's sister Beulah and her new husband, Fred Sheets, came to visit the boys while traveling through Denver. Fred was a schoolteacher in Ayr, North Dakota, and he and Beulah decided to take Ray back to Ayr with them. At this point, Alan returned to his mother while Ray spent the rest of his childhood and teenage years with his aunt and uncle.
The lonely train ride when he was three years old, his father's desertion and disappearance, and his mother's placing him in an orphanage-these events left indelible marks on Ray Stedman. He never forgot how it felt to be abandoned, and he understood the relief of being cared for in times of need. Through the years, God used these emotions and experiences redemptively in Ray's life. "His father deserted him," says Ray's wife, Elaine. "These days, if you have that kind of dysfunctional parenting, you are a victim and you have to live out your life as a victim. Ray turned it into something totally redemptive. He became a father to others," (Wade Whitcomb, "The Passing of the Torch: A Homiletical Biography of Ray Stedman," , photocopy, 18.) continually looking out for young men who were in need of fatherly nurturing.
God's sovereign care of Ray and His unwavering provision for his needs are evident in both the place where, and the people with whom, he spent the rest of his childhood. Fred and Beulah Sheets, churchgoing Methodists, were kind people with very high morals.(Elaine Stedman, interview, July 15, 200l.) Although they, too, moved frequently and eventually had two sons of their own, Lowell and Wendell, they provided a stable childhood for Ray. Being abandoned by his father also prepared Ray for a relationship with his heavenly Father. Not long after moving with his aunt and uncle to North Dakota, Ray attended an evangelistic tent meeting and heard the preacher speak about the "sins of the fathers" and how those sins affected later generations. He also heard of the wonderful promise of God to help and forgive. Ray decided that he did not want to live the kind of life his father had lived or was living. In response to the altar call, he went forward and knelt down to receive the Lord.
"This is the way I came to Christ," Ray said, when telling of his conversion. "I read the Bible and heard quoted from the Bible some wonderful promises. . . . As I heard these, hope flamed in my heart because this is what I longed to find. . . rest, fulfillment, supply, companionship, blessing, light in place of darkness. . . . And then I heard the story of. , . the cross in all its wonder and mystery. . . . I couldn't understand it fully-I was only a boy of about ten years of age when I heard this story and believed it. But I realized that here was a God who could do something about my problem, and I believed His Word. When I did so, the course of my life was altered the direction of my life changed. . . . I found a new capacity to love. I had a new dimension in my life-new attitudes that I didn't have before." (See Ray's message The Sons of God Among Men from October 24, 1976)
Ray often spoke of those first few months as a Christian with his characteristic warmth and humor: "I had a wonderful time of fellowship with the Lord that summer and the next winter, and there were occasions when I just would be overwhelmed with the sense of the nearness and dearness of God. I used to sing hymns until tears would come to my eyes as the meaning of those old words reflected on the relationship that I had with God. Then I used to preach to the cows when I would bring them home. Those cows were a very good audience too, by the way; they never went to sleep on me." (Ibid.)
The reality of God's presence in Ray's life did not keep him from occasionally drifting in his walk with Christ or, as he phrased it, experiencing some "stop-and-go progress along the way." Ray came to Christ in the summer, and the following fall his family moved from Ayr, where he had Christian fellowship, to a nearby town in the Red River valley of North Dakota that didn't even have a church. Gradually, because of that lack of fellowship, he drifted away from a relationship with God and "into all kinds of ugly and shameful things-habits of thought and activity that I am ashamed of" (Ibid.) This period of Ray's life, when he drifted spiritually, lasted through his four years in North Dakota, into his high school years, and even into college.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1931, when Ray was almost fourteen, the Sheets family moved to Winifred, Montana, where Fred had been hired as the superintendent of schools. "Montana and the West was an exciting place to me. Though I missed my grade school friends back in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, I now looked forward eagerly to my first year of high school, and what life in Winifred would be like."
In those days the frontier seemed close at hand, for the town of Winifred served as a center for a vast, sparsely settled area. "It was still primitive in many ways, having no electricity, no phones except one line from Turner's haberdashery to Lewistown. There was no modern plumbing and every house had its outside privy, even the high school, which sat at the top of the hill at the west end of Main Street. The nearest doctor was in Lewistown and though there once had been a drugstore, it had closed its doors during the Depression." (See Ray's article Memories of Winifred from July 30, 1996)
Ray spent his four years of high school in Winifred, living with the Sheets family in a small house in the center of town. During the summers he worked on various ranches in the area, often staying on those ranches for long stretches of time. Many of these family friends played an important role in Ray's life as they provided surrogate parenting for him. Throughout his ministry he peppered his sermons with warm, homespun illustrations from those years, revealing the great fondness and respect he had for Montana, the life he lived there, and the people he knew during those years.
One of the families who made a deep impression on Ray was the Dahl family. Ray's first job was on the Dahl ranch making hay " and branding calves for fifty cents a day. He describes the Dahls as "a rancher and his wife, who bore no relationship to me, but virtually adopted me as a son when I was in high school. I spent many happy hours there doing the usual work of a ranch. But I was especially drawn to the rancher, who was like a father to me. He taught me and modeled for me patience, fortitude, manliness, and humor. We spent so many happy times together." (See Ray's message What You See Is What You Can Be from May 16, 1982)
Ray also spent a great deal of time on the Murphy family's ranch, about five miles west of Winifred. (Today all that is left of this ranch is a few rotted fence posts and a crumbling foundation.) Bill and Cecilia Murphy attracted many young "strays" like Ray to their ranch, providing work, companionship, and excellent home-cooked meals. On one occasion, Ray and a friend sat down to eat a piece of Cecilia Murphy's chocolate cake when a fly lit on Ray's piece. Whereupon he proceeded to put the entire piece of cake in his mouth, fly and all!
Ranch work brought Ray into contact with the western cowboy culture, which would become another significant part of his identity. Not the romanticized cowboy life seen on the silver screen or in dime-store novels, but the real cowboy life of hard work and colorful characters. A gravestone in Winifred's cemetery marks the death of Bill Murphy in 1934 when Ray would have been a junior in high school and active on the Murphy ranch. (Dramatic local accounts say that Bill Murphy was attacked and eaten by one of his own pigs!)
Ray also spent several summers working twenty miles north of Winifred in a remote area called the Missouri Breaks, through which the Missouri River flows. During the Lewis and Clark Expedition, William Clark called this "the Deserts of America" and declared, "I do not think it can ever be settled." Meriwether Lewis described it as a "dry, barren country." The area is dominated by rugged, brown bluffs set off by the deep blue sky and blazing sun. It is still considered one of the most isolated parts of the United States, and Congress has designated it a Wild and Scenic River. Here, Ray worked on a small farm run by the Stanton family right on the river, driving a truck loaded with fruits and vegetables to Stanton's General Store in Winifred. It would have been a slow, hot, and torturous ride from the river through the Missouri "Breaks" and into Winifred.
Yet even in the midst of such grueling work, Ray managed to have fun. Wendell Sheets, one of the younger cousins Ray grew up with, likened him to a wild Montana mustang that couldn't be tamed. Wendell recalls that just for fun Ray would ride a two-year-old steer and let it buck him off He also tells of one Fourth of July when Ray and his friends, at eleven o'clock at night, raced their pickup trucks into Fort Shaw, an old Indian fort with a circular track, whooping and hollering like Indians.(Wendell Sheets.)
This rough cowboy culture often clashed with Ray's Christian faith, and at times he gave in to the temptations of cowboy life.(Elaine Stedman, interview, July 15,2001.) And yet, despite his periods of rebellion, Ray never lost a sense of God's presence in his life. ''All through those seven years there was a relationship with God I could not deny. Somehow I knew, deep down inside, that I still belonged to Him; and there were things I could not do, even though I was tempted. I could not do them because I felt that I had a tie with God." (See Ray's message The Sons of God Among Men from October 24, 1976)
THOSE EARLY YEARS IN THE climate and culture of Montana influenced Ray in several ways. First, Montana nurtured in him an independent, adventuresome spirit. Part of this was the cowboy influence, but part of it was also a result of being raised by his aunt and uncle. Although Ray was included as part of the Sheets family, he always felt independent from them.(Wendell Sheets.) One indication of this is that Ray never forgot that when his aunt introduced the family, she first identified each of her boys as "my sons," and then would refer to Ray as "my sister Mabel's son Raymond." (Elaine Stedman, interview, July 15,2001.) This "distance" gave him a sense of independence that he never lost-an independence that also shaped his view of ministry. I recall Ray telling a group of interns that Peninsula Bible Church (PBC) was not his employer and did not pay his salary. Instead, he was a "servant of Christ Jesus" and the Lord was the one who saw to it that he was paid. This sense of independence also prompted Ray to expand his ministry beyond the local church, traveling extensively throughout the nation and the world as PBC's "apostle at large."
Second, the Montana in which Ray grew up was a man's world. As mentioned earlier, both of Ray's siblings were brothers, and both of his Sheets cousins were boys. Ray's summers as a cowboy were spent primarily with men. Through the years Ray took many young men under his wing and became their spiritual father. In a society sadly lacking models of godly maleness, Ray left a valuable heritage. He was a "man's man" whose most significant impact was in the lives of other men.,
Finally, the long, cold winter months in Montana nurtured in Ray a love for learning. Growing up during the Depression and living in a home without electricity, he never enjoyed the luxury of radio or telephone, much less television. As a result, Ray read everything he could lay his hands on: stories of the Wild West, books on Montana history, and even the Sears and Roebuck catalog. He would take books to bed with him and read under the covers with the aid of a flashlight, violating his bedtime deadline.(Ibid.) It was also in this environment that Ray received what he considered a first-class education, and he dreamed of one day becoming a surgeon.
"Though the school I attended was in an isolated town far from the fine amenities of civilization," he recollected of his high school years in Winifred, "the education I received was first-class. The knowledge I was given of classical literature was far beyond anything now taught in the high schools of California. Though we only had a primitive chemistry laboratory I went on from there to become so proficient in chemistry that my professor in college asked me to take over the class if he could not show up someday. The typing and shorthand that I learned at Winifred High School kept me employed through most of the Depression, and led to my serving as a Court Reporter in the Navy." (See Ray's article Memories of Winifred from July 30, 1996)
Although Ray had lost his father at a young age, he had been blessed with surrogate earthly fathers. He had also begun his committed life journey with his heavenly Father. But the Wild Mustang from Montana was still a long way from being tamed.