The Rev. Marshall Roberson was accompanied for seven walks down the hall to the execution chamber at the Tennessee State Penitentiary, but he made the return trips by himself.
The Church of God pastor, chaplain of the prison for eight years in the 1950s and a pastor before and after that at several Chattanooga area churches, was tasked with counseling people who had been sentenced to death in the electric chair.
"In [the case] of each of the men he witnessed to," says Eddie Roberson, son of the pastor and the former Chattanooga resident, "each one confessed to my dad. He believed in the concept of the death penalty -- that corporal punishment is warranted and is condoned and permitted in the Scripture. He still has that philosophy today."
The longtime pastor, now 91 with limited sight and hearing, lives in Cleveland, Tenn., and is the subject of a new book by his son, "Chaplain of Death Row: The Life of Reverend Marshall Roberson."
Despite the condemned men's confessions, each walk with one "was a difficult situation for my dad," says the younger Roberson, a former city of Chattanooga school board member and chairman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.
The feelings, he says, were compounded by what his dad felt was the undeserved execution of his favorite uncle, Homer Simpson (really), a World War I hero and the youngest police chief ever elected in Bradley County who "took a wrong turn and was convicted as an accessory to murder."
"It molded my dad's thinking," the younger Roberson says.
The elder Roberson was appointed to his position by then Gov. Frank Clement, whom he had met and introduced to a crowd at a Soddy-Daisy fish fry when Clement was running for governor in 1952.
During each of the executions when Roberson was chaplain, the death penalty-wary Clement would accompany the chaplain to the death-row cell, look the prisoner in the eye, assure him he had pored over the records and trial transcripts and tell him he found no
fault in them. The prisoner, the governor said, should "prepare to meet your God."
Roberson would then accompany the prisoner throughout the night, join him on the walk to the death chamber, then pronounce a final prayer at the electric chair.
"Many of them accepted Christ in the wee hours before they were executed," his son says.
One in particular, Charlie Sullins, "had such a peace about him" that he initially knelt in the electric chair to pray, then stood up and said, "I hope to see all of you in heaven," before receiving 2,300 volts.
Roberson was so popular as chaplain, his son says, that attendance at weekly services grew from 30 to 40 when he arrived to more than 500 inmates just before he left. He later became the first minister appointed to the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The book also covers other episodes in Marshall Roberson's career such as how he responded to a request to handle snakes and a visit by the Ku Klux Klan to his church.
In the former, when Roberson was pastor at a Sweetwater church, two members asked if they could bring snakes into a worship service and handle them in order to show their faith in God.
"I can't see where it says in Scripture where it would permit the handling of snakes," Eddie Roberson says his father ultimately told them. "He would not allow that type of fanaticism."
In the KKK incident, as the pastor prepared to preach at Soddy Church of God in the 1940s, the doors of the church burst open and in walked six to eight robed, hooded members of the white supremacist organization. As members gasped, the robed men walked down the aisle and said they had something to say.
One of the Klansmen removed his hood, praised what the church was doing for widows and orphans in the community, said the group wanted to make a donation to the church, dropped a donation in the offering plate and left
As they exited, the pastor said, "Come again, any time you'd like to give an offering."
His father believed that "God protected the church," the younger Roberson says. "The church was making such an impact, even the KKK recognized the good [it] was doing."
The book is available in hardcover or softcover through Amazon.com or through the website chaplainofdeathrow.com.
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...