For a great many people Fred Allman, aka the Old Prophet, was a nuisance. I was one of those people, for a time.
Most only knew Fred by the name he used in his newspaper and radio advertising, as well as on the sidewalks and in the parking lots of Columbus where he handed out tracts outlining his beliefs. He wanted to use it on the many letters he wrote to the editor, but since we required that writers acknowledge their identity in print, he used his real name. Of course, right below it he added the “Old Prophet.”
He was a preacher who was determined to deliver his message to others, no matter what their reactions might be. His approach irked a number of people. More than once he was threatened with arrest if he continued to put tracts on the windshields of cars in parking lots. Some people expressed the feeling that he was overly aggressive in handing out the pamphlets to pedestrians.
Bud Herron, the former publisher of The Republic, summed up pretty well the perception many had about the Old Prophet. “Those who never took the time to stop and talk to Fred just dismissed him as a street-corner fanatic, long on religious fervor and short on intellect,” Bud said last week. “Those who actually took the time to talk with him soon discovered a man with a quick, self-educated mind.”
Bud was one of those who took the time to listen to what Fred had to say. He had come to know him over the past 20 years, a relationship that ended Feb. 21 when the Old Prophet died at the age of 88.
A lot of people had come to know Fred but jumped to other conclusions based on the way he approached his beliefs and the attitudes of others. Sometimes his written word, either in the tracts or his letters to the editor, did resemble those of hell-and-brimstone preachers.
But as I became familiar with his philosophy through his letters to the editor — I had to in order to clear them for publication — another Fred Allman emerged, a thoughtful and insightful man who marched to his own drummer.
There were about him vestiges of the 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who preached in his own way the gospel of civil disobedience, conscientious objection and simple living, among other things. I don’t know that the Old Prophet shared the same beliefs as Thoreau, but they were as one in one respect: Each was perceived by many to be outside the mainstream.
Not that Fred couldn’t work within the system. He had many pulpits from which to spread his word. His pamphlets and letters to the editor were just part of his arsenal. He also utilized social media, posting many of his sermons on YouTube.
He walked the walk in his ministry, even paying to get his word out. For years he took out small ads in The Republic and on local radio stations. John Foster, station manager and director of programming at the local White River Broadcasting stations, recalled some of the initial reactions to Fred’s weekly addresses.
“I caught a fair amount of grief over the years because of my relationship with Fred and providing him the on-air forums for his opinions,” he said last week. “However, Fred paid every week for those Old Prophet broadcasts, and for a guy with little more than a monthly Social Security check providing income, I had high respect for his commitment to his message.”
Some critics were turned off by the Old Prophet’s message. John recalled that Fred “had a real passion for saving souls and felt he was called to do so. His fervency and at times tactless approach was due to his belief that an eternity of nothing awaited those who did not believe in Jesus Christ.”
On the other hand there were those who didn’t like how he spread his gospel. Business owners and customers complained to city officials about his placing his tracts under the windshield wipers of their cars in store parking lots. He claimed to have received several tickets for those practices but continued doing it until a few years ago when he admitted that the threat of potential imprisonment caused too much pressure on him.
Then there were those he approached on public sidewalks, again trying to hand out his pamphlets and engage in conversation. Some complained that he tried to coerce them into listening, and a few even called the police.
Fred’s friends tried to intervene. John suggests that Fred “was a public relations nightmare to the vast majority of people he encountered, and I had hoped that I might be able to get him to buffer his message a bit, not change it but package it differently, so that folks might actually listen to what he had to say.”
Fred was not hesitant about challenging others on their beliefs. He often took local ministers to task for some of their printed beliefs in letters to the editor. Through his relationship of approximately 20 years, John came to know Fred as being “well-read.” “Not only could he quote the Bible verses at the drop of a hat, but he intermingled his talks with quotes from various philosophers that he had read.”
Bud echoes similar sentiments. “Fred loved a good debate and was always on the lookout for someone who would take the time to listen to his beliefs and share theirs. And he was a good listener. One of his best qualities was that he never was disagreeable when he disagreed, and his judgments were never judgmental. He and I had very little common ground in our beliefs, but we were always friends.”
Different as Fred’s approach might have been to some, it left a mark on those who knew him well. Bud captured the essence of the man in a simple observation:
“Fred never backed away from what he saw as his divine mission. He was faithful to the God he knew to the end. Agree with his beliefs or not, how many of us can say that?”
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.