Autobiography of a Black Sheep: Chapter Seven, Old Time Religion

Chapter Seven: Old Time Religion

Our lifestyle and world view were shaped by a subculture of religion. Our family lived in great isolation, except for the church and school. We had few outlets to the society. Mostly it was limited to the church. The family also had little contact with relatives.

My parent’s world view had been shaped by the Pentecostal Revival of the l930s. They were part of a solidarity group bound together by this fundamentalist revivalist religious movement that swept across the United States during the Great Depression. It was also called a Pentecostal Movement. Between 1926 and 1936, the Assemblies of God churches grew from 47,950 to 148,043.

My mother was terribly poor and repressed and went to small, white churches in Arkansas. It was through traveling preachers that my mother came to North Missouri in the early 1940s. In Arkansas it was not uncommon for some church members to belong to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

When I was young, we were constantly being taken to Sunday school. The church we attended religiously (and sometimes irreligiously) every Sunday was the Assembly of God. This church was at the bottom of the socio-economic class pecking order in Princeton. In terms of classes, there were the upscale churches where the Princeton business and professional elites attended like the Christian and Methodist churches. Below these was the Baptist Church which was lower middle class. Finally came the Assembly of God Church. There were church denominations further down that could be said to be of poor whites and more authoritarian in outlook, such as the Church of God, Holiness, but there was no church of that denomination in Princeton.

Besides the lower middle class and farmers, the Assembly of God Church was also the place where the poorest whites from the “West End” would sometimes attend. This was the poorest part of Princeton. However, most of the time not many from the West End attended and they were looked down upon by some in the church. They were not genuinely welcomed by some who attended regularly. They were of the class which is called “White Trash” in the South.

The Assembly of God Church in Princeton was a nice old wooden building which was built in the classical style of a church. It had a steeple and even a bell in the belfry but I do not remember it being used. There was only one floor in the church. There were beautiful old wooden pews and platform in the front. In front of the benches were altars. These benches were hard to sit on through a long sermon and kept one squirming. Before renovation, there were no special rooms for the Sunday-School classes. So the classes gathered in different areas for the “Sunday-School” portion of the program on Sunday morning. The primary class that I attended as a small child was back in a corner of the church behind a curtain.

One Sunday when I was around five years old, I went into the church with bubble gum in my mouth. I was told not to chew it in class. So I took it out of my mouth and held it in my hands. It soon melted and stuck all over my hands until I was in a terrible fix. I should have just stuck it under the seat, like most kids did, but I did not know that trick. When we got home, my father took me out to the gasoline barrel and ran gasoline over my hands to remove the bubble gum. This caused my hands to burn. It was a traumatic experience with bubble gum and church.

A difficulty for kids was that there was no toilet in the church and if I needed to go to the bathroom my father had to take me outside. But there was no toilet outside either. It meant going across the street and into a sort of alley between two buildings. This was next to a liquor shop which was littered with broken whiskey bottles and beer cans. Finally, when I was in high school, the church was renovated and bathrooms installed in the basement along with Sunday-school classrooms.

I think the part of the service that I actually enjoyed somewhat was the singing. I liked some of the old songs we sang. They would get on my mind and I would sing them when I was not in church. “Bringing in the Sheaves,” was a favorite, which I thought was “Bringing in the Sheep.” Anyway, I liked sheep and there was a lot about sheep in the Sunday school lessons. “I am on my way to Heaven,” was another. There was an alter call song: “Come Home.”

But a problem for the kids was that after Sunday school one had to stay for the sermon. This part of the program would go on for at least another hour. We would hope that the preacher would wind it up and stop preaching by twelve noon, but it was hardly ever the case. Once he got wound up, he couldn’t stop and he only got a shot at it once a week. Sometimes he was in a fighting mood and wanted to keep whacking someone in the audience with his comments. Sometimes the sermon would drag on for another half hour until everyone was very hungry and was dying to get out of the church. At least it was true of children.

We went to many revivals and tent meetings too. If there was a revival meeting going on somewhere my father could be a fanatic about going every night, even though it would take a team of horses to get him off the farm to go to any kind of event at the school.

Travelling preachers would come and hold revival meetings in the small town of Spickardsville, which we just called Spickard, sometimes in the summer. It was a little town about seven miles south of the farm on the highway. Whether the children wanted to go or not, they had no choice. Before there was TV, there was more of an attraction to go. But when everybody started getting TV, it was harder to get people to come to the meetings and they started to die out.

In the summertime, the revival meetings would be held under a tent with rows and rows of chairs. I liked going someplace in the evenings after farm work. The tent meetings could be sort of fun, I thought, under the tent in the cool of the evening. Especially, it was good if one could just sit in the back and look around. But the meeting itself could become rather traumatizing for kids before the service was over. Once the preacher started harassing you, one would be made to feel guilty and threatened with going to hell during the altar call. The tall tales the preachers told were very scary and it made one afraid to go out in the dark after that. It made one want to look over his shoulder to see if the Devil might be following him to do him in some way. Some preachers could be quite effective in terrorizing children. For example, tales of someone dying and then those gathered around would see the flames of hell leaping up around their feet as they died and were dragged down into hell. There was another story about someone who refused to get saved and then got hit by a truck and killed as they left the meeting. I was always looking around for trucks after that. I was not taking any chances.

I always felt a relief in leaving the tent, as if I had been spared the wrath of God and it would be good to get out of there and back home, having survived. I would look forward to going back to work in the field the next day, in the bright sunshine, having escaped the wrath of God. Still, one could not exactly get rid of the guilt that it instilled in one.

There used to be tent revival meetings in Spickard too. This was in the fifties. We would go early and sometimes before the meeting started, I would walk with my mother and sisters up the street to a little store to buy some chewing gum or candy. Near one run-down house, we would see an old woman sitting outside with a very large goiter on her neck. It made an impression on me to see her awful condition. My mother always said that she should go and get it prayed for so that God would heal her.

Sometimes my parents would take us to the Assembly of God Church in Spickardsville. I only remember going during a revival meeting. There was a heavy-set red headed man who wore overalls. Sometime during the sermon, he would get excited, seem go into a trans, and start jumping wildly around the church. He would go up one aisle and down another taking high leaps, jumping like a big jackrabbit. Even though his eyes were closed, he never ran into anything. It was both scary and funny for me. Of course, one was afraid to laugh. It was something very strange. This sort of behavior seemed to be common among the white lower class socioeconomic groups. I later wondered if they were just letting off steam from being socially and economically repressed.

When this small church suddenly burned down there were stories that some people had seen a vision that it was going to happen. Maybe they should have alerted the fire department. Maybe they knew a little too much about why it burned. I’m not sure if it was an accident or if somebody was out to get rid of the church. There seemed to be some suspicion about it.

We went to many revival meetings at Princeton too. One revival went on for some seven weeks and my father was determined to go and take us every night. It was difficult if one was in school and had to do homework. One had to get up and go to school the next day after the meetings went on until quite late. All the singing and shouting and piano playing and plunking seemed to be the religious equivalent of a honky- tonk.

For some it seemed to be a chance to stay out late so the church service became a sort of counterpart to the tavern in the secular world. Maybe it was just a source of entertainment before television in a small boring town. The preaching would go on for a long time and then there would be a long period of praying and shouting and making as much noise as possible. Somehow, try as I might to be a good person, I just couldn’t quite get into the spirit of things. I seemed to be a pretty complete failure when it came to being a good Christian.

The object of these revival meetings was to get people “saved” and “filled” with the Holy Spirit. The altar call was to persuade people to come down to the front of the church, get down on their knees at the altar, and repent and “get saved.” This involved a great deal of voluntary intimidation, after being browbeaten into submission, so it was only superficially voluntary. Much psychological pressure was put on people and they were made to feel guilty. The message sent a strong message that something terrible might happen to them if they did not get saved that very night. They were not only in danger of hell fire if they did not but in danger of something terrible happening to them even before they got home. So the preacher told hair raising tales. The preacher poured out his greatest effort to make one feel like a sinner.

“Won’t you, oh won’t you take that first step for Jesus.” “He’s watching and he’s waiting.”

One started thinking about all the things one had done that would likely come under the rubric of a sin. One might have gotten saved in the past but if one was not a practicing Christian, going to church, regularly, then one was said to have “backslidden” and it was necessary to repent and get saved all over again.

It all depended upon one’s conscience and one’s conscience always told one that he was guilty as hell. Almost everything one did was considered a sin, even many thoughts.

One night during a long alter call, the preacher kept saying “someone, someone is lost and without God, a sinner. Won’t you, won’t you take that first step for Jesus.” Then there would be another prayer. Everyone had to keep their heads bowed for the whole process, “every eye closed, every head bowed, no one looking around.” But it was terribly tempting to peak out of the corner of one’s eye to look around. Everyone was guessing who the “sinner” or “sinners” were. Who was guilty? Finally one woman cried out: “My God, That’s my Son,” in her rough voice. She was from the “West End,” of Princeton. I knew the poor kid well as he was in my class at school. They were the lowest and most repressed class of people in the town. Some people had been “saved” over and over again, but were still considered sinners, since they didn’t attend regularly. And while each soul counted equally as one soul saved, they were certainly not considered equal socially.

One had to have a good deal of courage to go and bow down at the altar in the front of the church in the presence of all the people there. They were all watching, of course. Their eyes were supposed to be closed, but some people would watch out of the corner of their eyes to see who was owning up to being a sinner. It would be said, “Oh John, or Mary, or Charles, got saved last night.” But getting saved was only the first step and didn’t really cut much ice when it came to being a serious Christian. It was just a start. Indeed, if one was not very careful, one would keep accumulating sins every day, so one had to keep wiping them off daily from then on. At least it seemed that way to me. One could just not be that perfect. I had made the courageous trip down to the altar more than once as the psychological pressure was simply too great to resist. But it didn’t seem to do the trick and take care of the guilt. I was not really sure if I was saved or not, because it was pretty hard to avoid sinning if one was going to do any actual living.

Parents did nothing to soothe the child’s anxiety over this, that one need not do it again.

Once at the altar one would have to wait out the rest of the alter call, feeling the greedy hot eyes on you. Yet, one was not left alone. They were determined to pound the last ounce of humiliation out of one.

Finally when the alter call would end, when there was no hope of terrorizing and softening up those poor souls any further, then the whole audience would be asked to come forward to pray at the altars. This was a fortunate chance for those to leave who had successfully resisted the guilty feelings during the alter call. One could safely sneak out the back door during this time but not during the alter call. To leave during the alter call marked one as dead guilty. Such slipping away from God was inviting the worst possible treatment from God. It was “tempting God.” You were like a helpless ant that God could squash any time he took a notion. Yet one was supposed to “love God” and he “loved you.” But when he turned against you, then you were in a heap of trouble. He might give you a number of chances, and then finally one’s luck would run out and after that, God, jealous as he was, would have it in for you. Then you had better watch out. You were likely to get struck by lightning or run over by a speeding truck at any time.

Some other people who were officially in good standing, saved beyond a doubt and in church all the time, would gather around and start praying that God would save you, a sinner like you. Perhaps God wouldn’t save you unless they prayed you through. They seemed to want everyone in the church to hear what they were saying, how they were praying. They would start shouting in one’s ears and one would feel their hot breath on the back of one’s neck. Not only one, a whole crew of these squawking geese would gather around one and start screaming, crying and “speaking in tongues.”

The higher objective was to get “filled” with the Holy Spirit. For some lucky ones this could happen at the same time they got saved. This was a little like getting hypnotized and then starting speaking in “other tongues.” Glossolalia or “speaking in other tongues” was the definitive sign that one had been filled with the Holy Spirit. But no one could understand what was being said. It was believed to be a real language but no one knew what language. I wanted to be one of the happy souls that got filled with the Holy Spirit, and join the inner circle. Maybe I would not have to go around feeling so poor in front of the holy rollers. One had to go down to the altar and pray to seek the Holy Spirit. But try as I might, I just couldn’t get to that point. When I kneeled down to pray, some big men would gather up around me and start shouting extremely loud and I would start to feel disgusted and want them to just go away and leave me alone. If one tried and tried and didn’t get it, it was very discouraging. I could never quite get in the mood no matter how I tried. When I started feeling self-conscious, I couldn’t concentrate on praying. Sometimes I would start to think of a sexy girl or going to the Tastee Freeze after church for ice cream, and that didn’t seem to be the way to reach heaven, at least not the kind of heaven they were thinking of. The people around me would start shouting: “God fill him with the Holy Spirit…” as if God was just waiting to be asked by one of the local farmers before proceeding with his blessings. I was put off by such shouting and yelling in my ears and wished they would just go away and leave me alone.

A woman would start playing a lively tune on the piano and singing loud to keep the momentum going and not let the excitement die down. The best Christians were those who spent the longest time at the alter and made the most noise.

One was supposed to slip into a mystical trance and babble at the mouth. This was the true sign of a Christian, your salvation. No matter how many times you repented, you were on very shaky ground until you could “speak in tongues.” And one had to do it with a lot of people around them. Some people tried for years and were never able to go off the deep end into this religious trance.

Some, on the other hand would be going completely berserk. I found it strange how somebody could lose complete control of themselves and start talking and shouting in an unpredictable and very irrational way, in a trance and not knowing what they were saying and doing.

They would be flailing their arms in the air and shouting “Jesus, Jesus. Jesus.” They would fall over backward, crying, jumping, jerking, shrieking and getting lost in a trance. Others would fall flat on their backs and go through all kinds of contortions, or get up and run wind sprints from one side of the church to the other, while whooping and hollering and doing a lot of shouting and making as much noise as they could.

I wished that I could be like that. I thought people who were going completely crazy were great Christians. I was always jealous of those super Christians who were having such a great time going completely out of their minds.

For sinners like me nothing was sweeter than finding the chance to get up and slip away back to the benches and even sweeter still, when it was possible to slip silently out of the building into the cool night air. It was certainly more comfortable there in the dark. But then I would remember the old Bible verse: “Men prefer darkness because their deeds are evil.” Evil or not, it sure beat the hell out of being in that church.

It was a great relief as if one had escaped the inquisition. I began to feel that my career as a Christian was pretty much a failure.

The results of the revival meeting would be added up in quantitative terms. How many were “saved” and how many were “filled.”

The Baptist, Christian, Methodist, churches were more liberal and more affluent but not fit for these people, the Assembly of God, because they were too liberal. There was nothing like the terror that reigned over our services.

My mother’s main ambition for me was to become a singer in the church, like the young men she had seen sing in the church. She made me take piano lessons and practice. However, I hated practicing the piano and had no interest in it. I wanted to be outside doing something else. Working was much better than practicing the piano. It was a big disappointment to my mother when she idolized me as being a singer in the church and I turned out to be a political scientist. It is harder to imagine a bigger disappointment but I couldn’t help it. I could not get interested in making church music. Perhaps, I could have, if we had known some music other than church music and had been allowed to learn to dance.

By the time I got to the university and started understanding the absurdity of it, I started objecting to all this. Then during Sunday school “lessons” one wanted to ask some serious questions that were not being raised but were being glossed over. To ask questions, of course could not really be done. That was strictly verboten. One would be told to be quiet. It seemed that one was not supposed to approach it as an educated person.

My family also went to religious tent meetings to hear Oral Roberts before we had TV. One of the meetings was in Des Moines, Iowa, which was about a hundred miles away. Another was held in Wichita, Kansas which was farther away. We went to hear Oral Roberts under his big tent.  If it hadn’t been for grandparents and preachers, I would never have gotten to travel anywhere as a child. At least, religion gave us the opportunity to make some trips outside of Missouri.

In Iowa, the huge tent was pitched near the Iowa State Capital building in Des Moines. My father made the one hundred mile trip every day, religiously, for several days during one of Oral Robert’s meetings. The meeting lasted for a week or so. In Wichita, we stayed in a motel. In the evenings, we went to the meetings. I walked around the outside of the tent with my father. The huge size was enormously impressive for us. Being farmers, we started thinking about how much hay it would hold.

I went to the altar call one evening. Those who had come were gathered up at the front of the tent near the stage and then taken to a little side area where there were attendants who prayed with them. Another event at the meetings was the prayer line where people lined up to have Oral Roberts pray for them. In this case there was a long line and people came through to be prayed for.

This was the mass marketing of evangelism but the tent was soon to be replaced with the TV camera and vacuum tube.

My father had become a big fan of Oral Roberts. A radio repair man who had a small business in Princeton, Wayne Thogmartin, helped my father to buy a large reel to reel tape recorder. He purchased several of Oral Robert’s sermons on tape and then arranged to play them at the Princeton Band Stand on the square on Saturday nights. It did not seem to me that it was much of a success. It did not seem that people wanted to listen to a preacher on Saturday night. I was rather embarrassed by the whole thing and sat in the car while it was going on. Oral Roberts was sometimes disliked by the local pastors, partly out of jealousy, no doubt. They feared that they would lose some of their tithe dollars to the radio and TV preachers as they became more popular. They were quite critical of TV preachers.

Before we had TV my father wanted to watch Oral Roberts on television. That is how we started going to friends and relatives’ houses to watch TV on Sundays. Sometimes we went to my aunt Mary Ann and Uncle William’s place in Princeton. We also went to Harve Wright’s place which was up the road a couple of miles from our place. The objective was to watch Oral Robert’s program, although we didn’t leave when it was over but stayed to watch other programs.

Some shows were for kids such as “Lassie” and “My Friend Flicka,” about a dog and a horse. How such programs could be construed to be harmful to children, I never understood. But most people in the church were still saying that watching TV was a sin. We were spellbound by TV. We were in seventh heaven, eating popcorn, and watching those programs. Even the commercials were utterly fascinating and we couldn’t take our eyes off the screen for a minute. TV preachers were a threat to the local preachers, so they discouraged people from getting a TV. We were one of the first in the church to get one. Nevertheless, as they got to be cheaper, people were beginning to break down and buy TV sets.

I believe that religion can serve as a liberating force at particular times and places. But in my case, when I was growing up in Princeton, it did not serve that purpose. In many ways it was tied up with being poor. Economic distress had driven the Pentacostal Movement. In the fifties, the economy was expanding. With television and urbanization, rock and roll and Elvis Presley, the society was changing.

After World War II America was in an economic boom. There was greater prosperity but we were living in a rural backwater. People were farmers and generally poor. By the l970s many of the old Assembly of God churches in North Missouri were dying out as the youth fled to the cities for jobs.

In some places, new Assembly of God churches that were trendy were established, as in Princeton. The new generation had new songs that sounded like rock and roll music. My mother and father liked the old fashioned emotional ones, “preachin, prayin, singin, shoutin,” and could not tolerate attending the new ones with new catchy youth songs. The old ones were grounded in the l930s style of a revivalist movement. The new ones represented the trends of a new generation. They were somewhat less puritanical and attuned to the emerging popular culture.

Before long, everyone had a TV. It was TV age fundamentalism. It seemed to be at one with popular conservative political culture. The marketing of religion shifted to the television screen. The giants of the screen in those days  were Billy Graham and Oral Roberts.

 

 

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