Running Reference

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Attributed to Mark Twain

We’re all probably familiar with Mark Twain’s observation that the older he got the smarter his father became. 

Ironically, no evidence exists that Twain actually authored the words credited to him far and wide, over and over.

Doubtful authorship, however, does not diminish the truth: we grow wiser with age. In our twenties, we see our parents differently than we did in our teens. Life experiences and hindsight heighten our perspectives.

Looking back on my teens, I never considered either my father or my mother to be ignorant.

But in my mid-twenties, as a graduate student, I had an epiphany not too unlike Twain’s.

Mine, however, was not about my father. It was about my mother. Let me share what I learned.

As a Pilgrim Holiness minister, my mother was well versed in the Bible, forwards and backwards. She loved discussing the Bible and the nuances of Scripture with anyone and everyone.

Sometimes, as a child, I was a silent listener as she talked with members of her own congregation, but sometimes with people from other denominations and faiths. Either way, everyone went their separate ways with a clear and deeper understanding through my mother’s insights.

Sometimes the Scriptural explorations would intensify, and the circle of friends would expect my mother to provide an interpretation of Scripture, right then and there on the spot. She was, after all, the minister.

But my mother would not be beguiled into answering what she did not know.

Her response in such situations lingers still, as I hear her saying in her characteristic, soft-spoken voice, “Let me go home and run reference.”

“Let me go home and run reference.”

And that’s exactly what she did, though, at the time–as a youngster–I had no idea what she was doing, exactly.

I never saw her do it. I suppose she did it privately in the few quiet moments that she would have claimed as her own throughout the day and night as a minister, wife, and mother of six.

After running reference, she always continued the Scriptural inquiry with her parishioners and neighbors the next day, and, sometimes, for days thereafter. That which had been confusing became coherent and intelligible.

What she had been doing became abundantly clear to me when I started graduate school.

My mother had been doing scholarly research. When she ran reference, she was consulting multiple Biblical commentaries, especially her treasured Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, originally written in 1706. Her research brought informed clarity to her interpretations.

When she ran reference, she was–in her unpretentious way–conducting Biblical research right there in our Southern West Virginia coal camp. It was every bit as sophisticated as the doctoral research in American Literature that I would later chase up and down and all around the ivory halls of academe, at a major four-year university.

When I had that epiphany in my twenties, I can’t begin to tell you how proud I was of my mother for the scholarship that she had been doing all down through the years. I am grateful that I told her so.

I chalk up my love of research to my mother’s influence. Whenever I’m working on my own scholarly projects, I am always mindful of my mother.

And, to this day, I can still hear my mother saying, “I have to go home now and run reference.”

6 thoughts on “Running Reference

  1. Further proof that no matter the age, we should always strive to learn something new. I’ve never heard that story before. Fascinating and entertaining. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Raised as a Catholic I never heard of referencing the Scripture. We were taught to accept the Church’s interpretation as the Gospel truth, no ifs, ands, or buts. I appreciate your mother’s approach! Much more mindful and responsible.


  3. I like to run the occasional reference myself, so, following your link to Matthew Henry I looked up the scripture that has been the basis of my future epitaph since I was 16 years old, 1 Corinthians 7:9, “It is better to marry than to burn.”

    I expected that the commentary would sound like it was written in 1709, but it sounded remarkably modern. I reread your post and saw that you said it was “originally” written in 1709. Their explanation of the verse means what I’ve always understood it to mean, so that’s fine, but I just wanted to read it in the original.

    What a lovely phrase your mother used, to “run reference.” It was a very humble take on her study of scripture, which I think would have made her interpretations all the more powerful.


    • I can’t begin to thank you enough for your comment. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone ever explores any of the links that I provide! You followed and used the link to run your own reference! How delightful!

      My mother was exceedingly humble, and “running reference” suited her perfectly. Thank you!


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