A good many years ago I grew up in the Congregational Holiness church. Every summer we had Camp Meeting. It lasted for a week, from Sunday to Sunday. There were lots of classes for teaching scripture and doctrine, but the best part of Camp Meeting was what happened at night.
The faithful would gather in the tabernacle, an open-air structure consisting of a great peaked roof supported by huge beams and a concrete floor. The pews were open slat affairs that were dreadfully uncomfortable. One mustn’t forget that one had to suffer for one’s faith. A stage was elevated at the front of the tabernacle. This is where the choir was seated, flanking the piano and organ. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. The preachers all sat on the frontmost benches looking wise and solemn. The preacher who was to “bring the message” leafed through his Bible as the choir sang, absently tapping his toe in time to the music. Occasionally he would look up from his Bible, raise his face heavenward and with eyes closed sing a few bars of the song currently in progress.
As a young boy and teenager I was certain there was no more beautiful sound in the world than that of those voices raised in praise. These singers, for the most part, had no formal musical training. Some had attended the little one-week “singing schools” old Mr Ingram would conduct in various churches. He taught shaped-note singing. In my day I could sing shaped notes with the best of them.
Somehow, though, all those voices would blend to produce a sound I can hardly describe even today. They always sang four-part harmony. The men, on the left, with their bass and tenor voices melded perfectly with the alto and soprano of the ladies. Depending on the hymn, you could be transported into throes of rapture or cast into the despair of self-examination. The experience was something akin to an emotional roller coaster.
After a quarter-hour or so of singing Mister Fair would waddle into the pulpit. First he would thank everyone for coming out to “the house of the Lord tonight.” “We’re just so proud to see each and every one of you.” Everyone would be invited to “worship the Lord in the beauty of truth and holiness.” “And we especially want to thank the Lord for this beautiful music tonight.”
Well, after all the verbal glad-handing and accolades were dispensed with, Brother Fair got down to the business at hand. And his business was to receive the evening offering. Lord how he could pour it on. The expenses of this and the rising costs of that. “Now brothers and sisters we’ve just got to raise at least $250 here tonight.” As I would look around in wide-eyed wonder I just knew there was no way could shake $250 out of this crowd. There was old Miss Watson. She didn’t even have two nickels to rub together. She was a poor woman who depended on the kindness of her neighbors just to get by. Mr Parris had a houseful of kids he could barely support on the little money he earned over at the cotton mill. And on and on, the stories were similar. Shopkeepers, farmers, foundry workers and brickmakers. Mr Fair would call the ushers and pray over them and ask God for a “bountiful offering.” Slowly the baskets would pass down one pew and up the next, urged on by the ushers. Coins would clink and bills would pile up. As I dropped my quarter into the basket I would note that very few Lincolns were peering out from amongst the multitudes of Washingtons and I would know in my faithless heart that Mr Fair’s goal would not be reached tonight.
When the baskets were brought to the front, Uncle Havis Albea would stand up and raise his hands causing the choir to stand and once again we were whisked away in visions of glory as the rafters rang with the music.
Huddled in a back pew a few of the menfolk would count the take. Invariably there would be solemn countenances as a slip of paper was handed to Mr Fair. When the hymn ended Mr Fair was back in the pulpit where he would announce that only $136.14 was taken. That’s when he really stoked the fires of guilt. “Christ Almighty His own Self came down from heaven, paid the ultimate price of dying on the cross just so we worthless sinners could be here tonight and partake in His salvation.” “And for all that we can’t even come up with $250.” Brother Vanderford had to come over here all the way from Georgia to bring God’s word and didn’t he have to eat? And didn’t his automobile burn gas?
“Now, who’ll give the Lord $20?” Slowly, almost reluctantly, a few hands would rise. Excitedly Mr Fair would direct the ushers in the direction of the Twenties. He would continue in this fashion down through the Tens, the Fives and finally the Ones until he had what he had come for. I never knew him to leave the pulpit until his goal had been reached. We kids used to call him “Old Beggin’ Fair” — but never in earshot of one of the grown people who respected him as a “great man of God.” He also had the reputation of being a great preacher, as did his wife Josie, but I never heard either of them preach. I always assumed it was just another legend. I do remember, though, that Mrs Fair had the most beautiful head of white hair I had ever seen. And it was done in the beauty shop every Saturday, I had heard. No one in my family had ever been to a beauty shop that I knew of. That was a thing for people with money. My aunts got together fairly regularly down at Aunt Grace’s house where they would break out the scissors and single-edged razor blades and cut each other’s hair.
When the collection was finally done it looked like most of the spirit had drained off the congregation. Now it was time for the choir to get going again to get everyone’s mind off the unpleasant subject of money. And oh, how they’d sing. You’d have thought Jesus Himself and a good many of the disciples and prophets were there. The hymns promised glory, eternal life and happiness and every person there was buying into it.
After a few minutes of that came the “special singers” who had trekked all the way to Piedmont from such far-flung places as Georgia and Tennessee just to thrill us with their singing. Most were good, a few were great and some were just downright pitiful. I made the mistake of mentioning the fact that a certain woman couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. I got a slapped face for my trouble. I was told that it didn’t matter whether she could sing, she was singing for the glory of God. I was also assured that God enjoyed it. I had my doubts about that, but my still reddened, stinging cheek reminded me to keep that particular opinion to myself.
Once the congregation was in the proper mood the preacher for the week was introduced. Boy oh boy, it’s time to pay the piper now. Hellfire and damnation was generally the theme. And weren’t we glad we wouldn’t be in that large, unfortunate group that will spend eternity in Hell where “the fire is not quenched and the worm dieth not?”
It was another emotional roller coaster. This one, though, was far more sinister because there was every chance you might be one among the multitudes who would hear the Good Lord say “sorry, I never knew you.”
Hands were waved in the air as the faithful prayed. Amens and halleluias were heard being shouted all over the tabernacle. Here one would leap up from the pew and begin to pray in tongues and there another would fall to the floor, writhing about as though he or she were in great agony. I remember my Uncle Bill’s mama refused to go to those meetings. She was a staunch, quiet Baptist and she said she’d heard stories about Camp Meeting. “Why, they throw some kinda itching powder on you and before you know it you’ve fallen down on the floor having some kinda fit!” No siree, she wasn’t having anything to do with such goings-on.
Suddenly all would become quiet. This was the moment I’d been dreading. Prayers were being quietly murmured all over the tabernacle. Tears flowed as trembling hands anxiously grasped the air. “Now, while the choir sings and every head is bowed and every eye is closed, I want you to think about where you’ll spend eternity.” “There may be one here tonight who is lost and undone without the Lord and this may be your last opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour because this very night your soul could be required of you.” “You could die in a car wreck on the way home or you could die in your sleep.” “What would you say to the Lord when he said ‘I knocked at the door of your heart but you wouldn’t let me in’?” “You’ve hardened your heart and now you will spend eternity in Hell.” “Think about it, this could be the very last opportunity you’ll ever have to accept the Lord.” A brief pause and then “Is there one who will come?”
Slowly people would begin to file down toward the altar. Always they looked sad, a little frightened. Some were tearful as they came; the faithful came to pray with them. The cries and wails would rise from the group as they prayed. This part always lasted the longest and I usually chose this time to make my escape to gossip with the other kids.
Smoking, cussing, and spitting were the favorite pastimes of the kids who gathered outside the church whilst the elders prayed. Everyone usually had at least one bent, wrinkled cigarette he had snatched from the parents that was passed from hand to hand as we threw out hells, shits, and damns to demonstrate how accustomed we were to cussing. However, no one ever used “god damn” or “fuck” in those days. Everyone knew that using God’s name was the worst kind of sin. The only people we knew who used those words were grown men and boys who had been in jail and reform school. That fact alone was enough to convince us that using that word was the highest form of blasphemy and we meant to avoid it at all costs.