On a hot August night under a big-top tent, in the year 1913, an old man kissed his niece on the cheek, hauled himself slowly from his chair and walked down the aisle, as a choir sang the old hymn “Just as I Am, Without One Plea.”
Murmurs of recognition went up from the congregation as the man got to the altar and shook hands with the evangelist.
Former outlaw Cole Younger had come to Christ.
He had traveled a long road to that moment. Growing up in western Missouri, he had regularly attended church. Some kin thought he was destined to be a preacher. But during the Civil War, Cole joined William Quantrill’s rather un-Christian guerrillas.
Cole and his brothers stayed outside the law when the war ended. They did join a church choir in north Texas when they were on the lam in the 1860s-70s. What lawman in his right mind would look for members of the James-Younger Gang in a choir loft, singing praises to the Savior?
But then came the 1876 debacle in Northfield, Minnesota, which resulted in prison for the Younger boys.
Behind bars, Cole’s younger brother Bob died of tuberculosis in 1889. A dozen years later, Cole and Jim were freed. In 1902, Jim—who suffered from depression—killed himself.
The last living Younger brother turned a page in his book of life and wrote his autobiography in 1903. Its 18-page addendum, “What Life has Taught Me,” was a sermon in itself: crime does not pay, stay away from alcohol and embrace God. The book sold poorly.
During the next 13 years, Cole shared his life story at churches and revivals. In 1909-10, he went on a lecture tour in the Midwest, earning enough money to build a house in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. His unmarried niece Nora Hall lived with him.
In 1913, the Reverend Charles Stewart, a Younger family friend, pushed Cole to attend a month-long revival at a Christian church in Lee’s Summit. He showed up on August 21.
When the preacher called for folks to come to the altar rail, Cole was the first person to do so (another 150 or so were baptized that evening).
The former outlaw had reasons to convert on that date. It was the 50th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid in Lawrence, Kansas, where the guerrillas murdered up to 200 men and boys. Cole was there, but he didn’t participate in the killings; several reports stated he saved a number of lives that day. Even so, the guilt about the incident stayed with him for all those years. Cole loved grand gestures, and the 69-year-old certainly made one by choosing that night for his transformation.
Many people questioned whether or not Cole had truly been “born again.” We’ll never know the truth, of course, but Cole continued to attend church, to give his testimony and to sing in the choir until his death three years later.