That Old-time Religion

My Dad was a strict disciplinarian, but my Mom allowed us a certain degree of latitude in our behavior. However, there were some things she drew the line on. How we looked and how we behaved in church, for example, were not negotiable. She starched and ironed our church dresses to perfection, and every Saturday one of us was assigned the task of polishing and shining the shoes. She saw to it that we looked like little ladies when we went to church and she expected us to act accordingly.

Our two older sisters were in charge of getting my younger sister, Garnetta, and me dressed on Sunday morning. Winifred would fuss with my hair because it had some natural curl. How I hated sitting still as she created ringlets with a curling iron that she heated in the kitchen stove! I would watch my little sister jumping about in freedom while I was held captive. I envied her short, straight hair. I do admit, though, that I would take a furtive glance or two in a mirror when Winifred finished the Shirley Temple style curls and attached a bow that matched the dress I would wear.

We walked the two miles or so to Central Methodist Church. It was always a pleasant walk, watching the seasonal progression of wildflowers along the road. We could hear the church bells from both the Methodist and the Baptist churches. Surely one of earth’s most heavenly sounds was that of church bells over the country-side, calling the residents to worship. What a tragedy that they are no longer heard! If we arrived early enough Uncle Bill would let us help him pull the ropes that made the heavy bell ring.

We had Sunday School every week, and the preacher came on the fourth Sundays. Momma allowed no irreverence during “preaching.” She sat Garnetta on one side of her and me on the other. Should we squirm, or Heaven forbid, look around at the people behind us, she would thump us on the head with her strong middle finger. We would never even think of putting our feet on the pew in front of us. Even today when I see a foot on the hymn rack or the back of a pew it is hard for me not to reprimand the offender even when the offender is an adult.

The pastor was a “circuit rider” with several churches on his charge. His tenure was at the whim of the Methodist Conference that met each June. My fondest memories are of “Preacher Dugan.” He was a young man just out of the seminary when he was sent to us. He was single and a lot of fun. He enjoyed walks in the woods, studying trees and wildflowers. He played games with the children and visited the public school at least once a year. That was before Madeline O’Hare, so it was acceptable for him to bring small New Testaments to distribute. The students were all either Methodist or Baptist, with two families of Primitive Baptists. Our teacher even started each day with Bible reading and we recited the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes we memorized scripture passages and received gold stars on a chart for reciting them. Maybe it was Preacher Dugan who initiated that.

The preacher was a frequent visitor in our home. In the summer he would deliver jars for my mother to fill with produce from the garden for the Methodist Orphanage. As all of our pastors did, he frequently ate with us. There was one time when my mother was making a special fuss with the dinner. Preacher Dugan was bringing his new bride! I was not at all excited about that. Why did he have to go and get married anyway? Now he would be a grown-up and would probably never play with us again!

Methodist pastors, like Preacher Dugan, were seminary graduates. It was difficult for a kid to follow their well-outlined sermons. However, there were ways to cope with the boredom. Often I recited to myself the poems I had learned at school. Other things to do included counting the boards in the wall or the prisms hanging from the kerosene-burning chandeliers. Sometimes I just counted as far as I could go. I wondered what the last number was and how I would know when I got there.

We often attended preaching services, especially revival meetings, at Baptist Union Church. Their services were more entertaining than those at the Methodist church. One feature of the Baptist church was the prayers of “Sister Sarah,” a cousin by marriage of my mother. My mother made sure our heads remained bowed throughout her long emotional prayer. My survival technique was to anticipate her next phrase before she got to it. She always prayed in the same manner, remembering, among other things, to pray for the salvation of “our neighbors, and our neighbor’s children, and our children and our children’s children.”

The Baptist pastors were usually men of little formal education. Often they were Bible-pounders and shouters. The long, loud sermons were delivered at rapid speed with occasional gasps for breath. One could occupy oneself for quite a while counting between the gasps to see how long he could continue his promulgation before he had to take the next breath. Or if it was a revival meeting at night, one could watch the insects circling around the chandeliers, often getting too close to the flame and leaving this life in a burst of glory. Sometimes they would fly around the preacher’s head and I wondered what would happen if he should inhale one with a gasp for air.

Lest I seem too frivolous I must say that even then I think I knew that these preachers did far more than entertain careless minds such as mine. The extent of their ministry and influence can never be measured on this side of eternity. It was at a revival service at Baptist Union when I was perhaps 10 or 11 that I really heard what the preacher was saying and felt the moving of the Holy Spirit for the first time in my own heart. He preached from the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22) and the guest who entered without the wedding garment. He preached long and hard and concluded the sermon in a hoarse whisper, “Friend, do you have on the wedding garment?” I was always a painfully shy child, but when the altar call was given I mustered up enough courage to make my way to the front and ask for prayer along with several other people, most of whom were adults. “Sister Sarah’s” prayer had included me this time.

How wondrous is the work of God! The place may be a cathedral or a storefront. The messenger may be illiterate or a Doctor of Theology. As Jesus taught Nicodemus, God’s Spirit is like the wind, moving unhindered wherever He wills.

September, 1997