First of two parts
James Wilburn Chauncey does not think of himself as a prophet. In fact, he doesn't even consider himself deeply religious.
Chauncey, a 73-year-old Fayetteville, Ga., retiree, does believe, however, he has been to paradise and back and has come face-to-face with Jesus Christ.
A native of Walden's Ridge, Chauncey has written a book, "Eyewitness to Heaven" (Tate Publishing), which includes his vivid account of a near-death experience when he was 7 years old.
Chauncey writes that he was transported to paradise by angels through a phalanx of fearsome demons after being pronounced dead from bacterial meningitis at what is now Children's Hospital at Erlanger here in the mid-1940s.
He was dubbed the "Miracle Boy" in local news reports for his miraculous overnight recovery from one of the era's most lethal illnesses, he said. At that time, more than 99 percent of bacterial meningitis patents died within 12 hours, Chauncey said.
His book is one of a growing collection of titles to treat the subject of heavenly visions. "Heaven Is For Real," the story of a 4-year-old Nebraska boy's journey into the afterlife, is the No. 1 best-seller on the New York Times paperback list, and "The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven," is another popular book with a similar theme.
Chauncey said he has not read the other books, and, in fact, he said he has fought a lifelong urge to bury his childhood experience so as not to invite derision from skeptics.
"The titles have been brought to my attention," he said in a telephone interview last week. "I have intentionally stayed away from material on this subject. I'm afraid if I read something like that it might alter my memory."
Chauncey said his recollections of his near-death experience in the summer of 1946 are as crystal clear as the day they happened.
This is his story, as told in his book:
As a child growing up on Walden's Ridge, he remembers being hounded by an older sister who considered it her duty to make sure he "got saved." Young Wilburn -- he went by his middle name -- resisted her invitations to attend worship services, but one night he felt inexplicably drawn to a tent revival on Taft Highway. He remembers being prayed over by a local evangelist and feeling a spiritual awakening before finding his way home by starlight.
His parents were frantic he had wandered away from home that night but greatly relieved at his return, he recalls. He would come to learn they had already lost three children, one boy who was hit by a car as an infant and a pair of twins who both died shortly after their births.
Young Wilburn's case of meningitis started as an angry headache one day in the summer of 1946 and soon became excruciating. A doctor was summoned and broke the news the boy would almost surely die within hours.
Horrified they might lose another child, the family insisted on transporting Wilburn to Children's Hospital, where he was quarantined (as was his family). Doctors and nurses did what they could but were soon also resigned the boy would die. Eventually, his breathing stopped, and a doctor signed his death certificate. A bed sheet was pulled over his face.
Chauncey still remembers the sensation of his soul leaving his body and watching in horror as his parents reacted to the news of his passing. Two angels came to escort him to paradise, he remembers, although he begged them to let him stay to comfort his mother and father.
Eventually, the angels calmed him, and the journey began.
He writes: "I could see light ahead. All around me was darkness and stars. ... One angel told me to hold on to him and not to turn loose no matter what I saw or what happened."
Chauncey said he began to see "strange and terrible looking creatures. They were the most horrible things I have ever seen. They were trying to grab me and were screaming for me to go with them. They told me that I could have all that I ever wanted if I would come with them."
Chauncey recounts that the angels fought with the demons before eventually delivering him to paradise.
There, he writes, he was met by his brother Ralph, who had died as an infant. He also met a boy and girl in white robes, referred to as the "no-name twins," who Ralph introduced as his two other siblings who died as babies.
Soon, Chauncey said, he was surrounded by hundreds of dead forebears, who all looked sad. The angels explained the sadness as a reaction to the news that Chauncey would be asked to return to Earth.
"No, I won't go," Chauncey remembers saying. By then, he was captivated by the wonders of paradise.
While in heaven, Chauncey says, he was given a vision of his parents fighting back on Earth, an argument that would turn deadly if he did not return to intercede. He said the archangel Gabriel told him Jesus would extend his years and give him a glimpse of the future of Earth if he would agree to go back.
He even glimpsed Jesus, he said, and to this day has a clear memory of his physical features that do not match the delicate face often depicted in paintings.
As his visit unfolded, Chauncey was given a vision of his future wife and daughter. He also believes he saw highlights of a coming world war foretold in the New Testament book of Revelation, a war he now believes will happen within the next generation.
"It was so frightening that I haven't been able to put it out of my mind for more than six decades," he said. "I think about it every day."
Again with an angel escort, Chauncey said he came back to Earth and re-entered his body, which was still in the hospital room awaiting cremation.
In his book, Chauncey describes what happened next:
"Alone, a [hospital] housekeeper walked slowly to the side of a lone bed. She reached out her hand slowly to lift the sheet from my face.
"As she did, I gave her a big smile and said, 'Hi!' "
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...