The second eldest daughter of Sam and Eliza Johnson was named Frank — not Francine, nor Frances, nor Fran, but Frank. The family story is that, since the eldest child was a daughter, Sam now wanted a son and had already decided on the name. So when Eliza gave birth to another daughter instead, the selected name stayed anyway. Some people say Texans can be very stubborn; they may be right.
Frank, born in 1870, become a lifelong Christadelphian, and was very devoted to the Truth. Sister Frank Johnson Martin died in 1961 at the age of 91. As a small child in the 1950s I can remember attending Sunday meetings in her house — a large, rambling old farmhouse. This house was later bought by her nephew Lyndon Johnson and converted into what came to be called the Texas White House during his presidency.
In my childhood memories — probably equal parts fact and fantasy — I always thought of my great-aunt Frank Martin and Eleanor Roosevelt as standing on equal terms. First of all, they were roughly the same age; secondly, they resembled one another more than a little. And finally, they were both, in my mind, larger-than-life women of consequence, who had a lot to say about national and world affairs. And they were both women to whom many important men deferred.
For those of you who don’t recognize the name, Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady, that is, the wife of Franklin Roosevelt, who was President of the United States during 13 years in the 1930s and the ’40s, the years of the Great Depression and World War II. During her husband’s presidency, Eleanor was almost certainly his most trusted advisor. Because of the polio which confined him to a wheelchair, she was also his eyes and ears to report firsthand on much that was going on in the country and the world. After his death, she became ambassador to the United Nations, and advisor to other Presidents, and an altogether serious force in American politics for another 17 years or so — probably the first American woman of which that could reasonably be said.
The interesting thing about that is: When I ranked Aunt Frank alongside Mrs. Roosevelt, I may have been more correct than I could have imagined. In national and international affairs, Eleanor Roosevelt loomed very large. But in the very much more limited world of Christadelphian affairs, in parts of the United States and elsewhere, Sister Frank Martin was perhaps just as important.
Frank and her husband owned a large ranch near Stonewall, Texas, just a few miles west of Johnson City in the Texas Hill Country. The ranch house became something of a landmark for Christadelphians both in Texas and elsewhere. It was near the old Christadelphian campground, and a place where many brothers and sisters would gather from time to time for Bible study, fellowship, and worship. On such occasions and in private also, Sister Frank offered sound scriptural advice to brothers who asked, and her words were highly valued. In between, she is known to have gently and diplomatically played matchmaker when the situation called for it, and with some success, as some folks living today can attest.
Frank’s husband, Clarence Martin, was in politics, like Sam Johnson, Jr., his brother-in-law. He was a state legislator and then state district judge in the Texas Hill Country. But Frank had always encouraged him, subtly sometimes, to read the Bible and understand it. When he went to Austin for legislative sessions, or for court duty elsewhere, she always packed something to read in his luggage — perhaps Elpis Israel or Seasons of Comfort or similar reading, to go with his Bible. Mostly, he never gave any indication that he was reading, but eventually, when he retired, he was finally baptized as a Christadelphian and remained faithful to the Truth until his death.
Both before and after her husband Clarence’s death, Aunt Frank was an eminence in the Christadelphian brotherhood in North America. One prominent brother from Canada, visiting Texas in 1952 to attend the Texas fraternal gathering, a weeklong activity similar to today’s Bible schools, wrote in a circular newsletter of meeting Sister Frank Martin, whom he called “a mother in Israel”. He added: Sister Martin has been a succourer of many, and like Paul I can say, “and of me also”… she has spent a good portion of her life in the truth, and what a colorful pilgrimage it has been… Sister Martin has taught the truth to many and is still watchful over God’s children and keeps the brood under her protecting wings… she is loved and respected by all who know her, in the truth and those not in the truth. She lets her light shine before men, as her nephew, Lyndon Johnson the [United States] Senator, said of her when someone remarked of her not being at home: “Aunt Frank will not be found home until the Christadelphian gathering is over.” Truly a wonderful testimony from one not in the truth to one that is in the truth, and it was not spoken in sarcasm, but with a soundness which he knew and also fully respected; for as men and women can see that our sister has been with Jesus.
One incident about Aunt Frank stands out in my memory, as told years ago by one of my older cousins. It was about 1922 when two circumstances converged, more or less. First, Aunt Frank’s husband, not yet a Christadelphian, was district court judge for the Hill Country region. And second, the brothers and sisters meeting regularly at the old campground, just down the road from their ranch near Stonewall, felt they needed more than just the old building and the outdoor covered “tabernacle”; they needed a proper meeting hall on the Christadelphian land. The problem was they lacked funds even to buy building materials. As she listened to the brothers trying to figure out how to raise the necessary funds, Sister Martin volunteered that she would take care of the money if the brothers could manage the building project itself, and they readily agreed.
My cousin could tell this story because she accompanied her aunt on her tours around the Hill Country. Aunt Frank decided that it was only right that, as the wife of the judge in the region, she should pay calls to as many constituents in the area as possible, to introduce herself and get to know them better. Taking her young niece along and driving herself, she set out, day after day, to make her rounds. In addition to letting folks know who she was, and especially who her husband was, she talked with them about anything and everything else in their lives.
Then, before she departed from each place, she mentioned that, by the way, she was also collecting funds to help build a Christadelphian church at the old campgrounds. Not surprisingly, perhaps, practically everyone was happy to donate to this worthy cause. When she had finally collected all that was needed, she delivered the funds to the brothers and informed them that her work was finished, but theirs was just beginning. I can add that the church structure still stands today, more or less as it was when first finished almost 100 years ago.
In her later years, and when overseeing the ranch itself became too much for her, she sold her house and lands to her nephew Lyndon Johnson, then a United States Senator. Frank herself, with another Christadelphian lady Margaret Martin as a companion, took up residence in a small house in nearby Johnson City, the house which had been a Johnson family residence and Lyndon’s boyhood home. This much smaller residence also became a destination for many folks to visit during her last years — Christadelphians from around Texas and the country. My brother Wesley and I slept a number of nights on the screened-in porch of that house during the summers, while our mother and grandmother were visiting Aunt Frank.
Sister Frank Martin died in 1962, at the age of 91, and is buried in the Johnson Family Cemetery alongside so many relatives and other Christadelphians.
Meanwhile, the old ranch house, refurbished and expanded, became the famous Texas White House during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency from 1963 to 1969, and a place where various important politicians and heads of state visited. It is still part of the Lyndon Johnson National Historical Park.
To be continued.
This post is part of a series authored by brother George Booker. Click here to see all previous posts in the series.