Anne Marie Boyce attended church at least once every Sunday. She often went to prayer meetings on Wednesday night. She regularly cooked dinner for ministers. She was steadfast in her faith. But when this “invalid” woman who suffered from Bright’s disease was screaming out in agony during the birth of her 10th child, God was a no show.
“It was a shock to WB (William Boyce) when, as a boy of seventeen, in the summer of 1886, he heard the agony of his mother when her last baby was born,” wrote WB’s wife, Gertrude, in a letter to his biographer Herman Hagedorn. “It was he who went for the doctor. During the long labor, WB strode up and down the front porch with fists clenched, cursing God.
“He had been taught,” Gertrude continued, “that God intervened in human affairs and here was his mother who had led a faithful, unselfish, even pious life, in unspeakable suffering. A God who was able to prevent such agony and did not, seemed to the boy no better than the devil.”
This letter, and others, convinced Hagedorn that Anne Marie’s suffering “served to turn her sons completely against religion.”
William Boyce had several other less spiritual reasons why he suspended his belief in the almighty. One was that his messengers, who frequently came to dinner at the Thompson household on Sunday after church, never left hungry. It was a different story for the children at the table, who were left with scraps.
“It was not a large establishment and too much chicken was not cooked,” William Boyce remembers. “[The minister] used to clean up on the chicken and there was but little left for me—I usually got a neck “ William Boyce made a pact with Gertrude after they married—no ministers for dinner.
William Boyce may have been short-changed at dinner, but he got his full of ministers on Sundays. Both his parents were deeply religious and required their boys to attend church several times on Sunday.
“Father was a Methodist,” William Boyce remembers, “and in the early days at Virginia City was superintendent of the Sunday school. There were Methodist services, and also Episcopal services, on Sunday. His father had been a Church of England man. After her marriage his mother [Margaret Maguire] had gone from the Methodist to the Episcopal Church. Then upon the death of her husband, his mother had gone back to the Methodist Church. As a consequence, he had a leaning for both the Methodist and the Episcopal Church—and took it out on me.
“The program on Sunday was rather protracted: I attended the Episcopal Sunday school at 10 o’clock in the morning, and at 11 went to the Methodist church service….At two o’clock in the afternoon I went to Sunday school again—this time the Methodist Sunday school. I was in luck if I did not always have to go to the Methodist Sunday evening services at 7:30, and sometimes I drew a Wednesday evening prayer meeting…I recall it was one of my great regrets that Sunday school kept me from going out to herd the cows on Sunday.”
All the fire and brimstone, all the guilt-mongering left an indelible mark on young William Boyce’s pysche. He estimates that he didn’t begin to shake his “great fear of the wrath to come” until he was 14 years old.
“It is possible that I did not shake off all traces of this sense of dread until nineteen or twenty, but gradually I began to see that the awful things so constantly predicted did not come to pass—that there was a little more balance in nature than that. But I had developed a morbid feeling which affected me for a period of perhaps half a dozen years. I did not get over my emotional repression until Exeter days.”
Some of that irrational fear was no doubt generated by William’s profoundly religious father, a very stern man who scared his children to death. At least the elder Thompson practiced what he preached. He was of “temperate habits,” William Boyce remembers, and never took a drink across a bar. Later in life, though, he did acquire a taste for port wine in small quantities.
Some of the religious characters William encountered early in his life did nothing to inspire his confidence in religious ways. “The Methodist circuit riders used to stage a revival every few weeks. They also turned up at my house on Sunday while the revival was in progress. It seemed to me that they came very often,” writes William Boyce, stopping short of accusing the circuit riders of taking advantage of his family’s hospitality.
Later in life, William Boyce had an apocryphal discussion with a clergyman that shook his faith to its intellectual core.
“One time after I was married, I had a discussion with the minister in Helena, where I frequently attended the Episcopal Church,” he remembers. “He wanted me to join his church there, and I told him of what had been on my mind, that I entertained grave doubts of any miracles ever happening—even the divinity of Christ.
“He replied that I did not have to believe it. It was, of course, a matter of conscience, but I was not satisfied with his answer, and I stopped going to church. Such a liberal view gave me something of a shock then. I considered it inconsistent, to say the least.
“It is possible that I was too hasty—that I would be more reasonable now.”
There was one minister, though, that William Boyce admired—an Episcopal Minister in Marysville. “A young Englishman, he used to sit around the saloons just like everybody else. He did a lot of good—I think this preacher did more good in a practical way than anyone of his cloth that I know. When he first turned up, the folks used to drop drink checks on the plate. But next morning, he went around to the saloons to claim the cigars that the checks called for.
“He lived with the Episcopal bishop in Helena, and would come out to Marysville about twice a month. He always went around to the saloons, and he used to remark, ’I wish some of the boys didn’t drink so much. But I am around here, and I think I have stopped lots of them from drinking.’ More chaps of this sort would go a long way.”
Late in life, William seemed to re-open his heart to religion. His daughter, Margaret Biddle, wrote that W.B.’s view toward religion changed late in life. “He wanted to believe in personal immortality and was troubled that he couldn’t make the grade.”
He did harbor an unusual belief, however, that one’s soul could live on through one’s offspring. He professed this belief to Margaret after spending an evening at his Michigan home, Waters Meet, in 1926. Margaret remembers that he sat on a rock admiring the sunset until the last bit of color turned to gray. When she found him sitting there, she asked him what he was doing.
“I was taking it in,” he answered quietly, “because the next time I see it, it will be through you.”
William Boyce also felt, very late in life, that believe in God and an afterlife would be more expedient.
“You see,” he said to his wife, “ I’ve never been religious, never had any faith. I’m sorry I haven’t. If I were a believer, I’d be more reconciled now. I’d have come to the conclusion that people get more out of religion that I thought they did.”