The Grist Mills of God


The stories I tell of an Apple Pi Inn are actually housed in the” Kanawha Hotel”; that’s its proper name on the National Registry. It began as a three-story, hand-hewn log structure built by Manlove Beauchamp in 1800 near a landing on the Little Kanawha River. It’s believed to be the oldest building in Wirt County, WV. Its documented past includes the white settlers’ period (1784) as a cabin, then a tavern, then a “hotel” that housed travelers until the early 1920s. Its style is called “vernacular architecture”. That seems a fitting description for the Apple Pi Inn: the use of local materials and knowledge with no “professional” oversight.


The focus on local materials and knowhow is critical when it comes to survival. The Registry states: “As a stimulus to the milling industry, and to provide a more convenient way of getting bread stuff, the Beauchamps (brothers and father) made a wooden dam across the river…A structure to be used for milling purposes was built at the southern end of the dam. In it machinery was installed in such a way as to obtain the power created by the fall of the river water as it was diverted above the dam. With that power, the milling machinery was turned, and the stone burrs ground the corn into meal and the wheat into flour as the grains were passed through between them.”


Down by the old mill stream was a water wheel, and stone burrs or millstones to create grist, the grain that’s separated from its chaff to produce flour or meal. Bread is a staple of life, grainy glue for community. Bread stabilizes life, so a grist mill requires life sustaining knowhow.


This is why I’ve been following the bread crumbs back to a particular phrase used during my rearing: “The gristmills of God grind slowly, but always exceedingly fine.”

It’s the wisdom saying that was used to sustain us when we encountered bare-naked evil or whenever the whirlwinds of chaos threatened to overwhelm.


I know my maternal grandparents said it, since they’d reared us, but how did they acquire it as part of their local knowhow?  I try tracing the line back to its source. It survives as a “saying” only because someone writes it down. Its author is an unknown poet cited by Sextus Empiricus, a Greek philosopher and physician of the 2nd or 3rd c.  “The millstones of the gods grind late, but they grind fine.”


I borrow one of Bill’s books on the history of skepticism to make sense of Sextus.  I get grist for the mill from his treatise, Against the Dogmatists. My summary: Don’t be dogmatic. Tranquility will follow suspension of judgment only if you do not grasp it. Freedom from the anxiety that an unanswerable question causes comes by refusing the question after carefully considering the contradictory answers.


I’m still working hard, however, over grasping the meaning of God’s grist mills. The question the proverb raises is beginning to feel like a millstone. I learn Sextus’ writings, including this quote, were rediscovered in the 16th century. The phrase became a favorite of the Protestant Reformation, thanks to the reformer, Erasmus, and the Germans.  I track it into English through George Herbert in his collection of proverbs in 1652 “God’s mill grinds slow but sure.”


The gods become God’s, but slow and late match up, as do small and fine, if you’re thinking about grinding grain. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow provides the clearest clue to its presence in my ancestors’ vernacular with his translation of a German poem:

“The grist mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;

Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all”


Perhaps this is the schoolroom recitation that got ground down to my grands’ version of God’s inevitable justice that “grinds slowly but exceedingly fine.” Several old McGuffey Readers reside in the schoolroom of the Apple Pi Inn.


The trail of grit ends here. I’m left with the task of separating wheat from chaff in this season of famine, this drought of wisdom. How can this national grinding away of life, liberty and the common good be evidence of God? Perhaps I’m turning into a skeptic in the modern sense of the word.  I certainly resonate with a quote from Plutarch’s On the Delay of Divine Vengeance: “Thus, I do not see what use there is in those mills of the gods said to grind so late as to render punishment hard to be recognized, and to make wickedness fearless.”


As the results of this election grind on, setting people and things in opposition, I’m recalled to my senses. I go to the kitchen to open a new package of flour to make an apple pie, my one cooking skill retrieved during pandemic quarantine.  I read the label: organic wheat flour, organic malted barley flour. Contains: Wheat.


“Truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. ” (John 12:24)


Trust the grinding. It will be exceedingly fine.