You may have read my post back in February about Camp Meeting. If you did, you’ll know from that story that church was a big part of our lives. Camp Meeting was meant to be a kind of “super-duper, extra delicious treat with a cherry on top” experience. From what I could gather in my observations of the older generation it was all that in spades. Not that anyone in the Congregational Holiness church in those days would use that turn of phrase. We all knew that playing cards was the Devil’s game and that led to three things: gambling, drinking rotgut whiskey and consorting with loose women. And those three items, make no mistake about it, led down the broad, smooth road to eternal torment in the unquenchable flames of Hell!
I spent the early part of my life, well into my twenties, living in abject terror of making a slip-up and damning myself to Hell. I had many sleepless nights worrying about it and, on the nights I was able to sleep I was tortured by nightmares of the judgment of a hateful deity.
Now, let’s get a little historical perspective before I start spinning my little yarn here. The Congregational Holiness Church is a Pentecostal organization clinging to Wesleyan doctrine. Back in 1921 the members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church got into a pissing contest about the role of medicine in divine healing. The Pentecostal leaders didn’t hold with doctors and medicine, saying believers should seek healing from God. So, a couple of ministers and a handful of faithful were forced out of the Pentecostal movement and they organized the Congregational Holiness Church in High Shoals, Georgia in that same year. Today, the Congregational Holiness churches in the United States number around 25,000 members in 250 states.
Now, these folks taught us that we were living in the end of days and that the “rapture of the church” could happen at any moment. Anyone admitted into membership had to stay away from places of worldly amusement, such as “moving picture shows”, baseball games, picnics, circuses, dancing halls, pool rooms, billiard tables, gambling dens of all kinds, county and state fairs, and absolutely any game of chance. The use or sale, growth, harvesting, curing and manufacture of tobacco, and alcohol in any form was similarly forbidden. Modest dress was required, as in skirts should cover the knees at a minimum, no makeup was to be worn, and men should wear long-sleeved shirts, buttoned to the neck. Jewelry, artificial flowers, feathers, costly apparel, or needless ornamentation were right out.
So, basically, one had to stay home, read the bible, pray constantly, and eschew any forms of entertainment in order to be ready to jump through the Pearly Gates.
And, above all else, we mustn’t forget EVER that ten percent of everything we earn had to be given to the church. Additionally, a free-will offering was strongly encouraged. That was the sole support of the church because any kind of fundraising was forbidden, too. No festivals, ice cream suppers, oyster stews, fairs, bazaars, or any other business that could raise funds for the church were allowed.
Every Sunday morning at 10 o’clock we had Sunday School. At 11 it was worship time with lots of singing. That was my favorite part. I loved to sing and I loved to sing loud! Then, along about 11.20 or so came the part I dreaded most. The pastor picked up his worn, black bible and moved into the pulpit with the solemnity of a judge about to pronounce the death sentence.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ…” he’d begin, just loud enough to be heard in the back pew. From there he’d begin to speak in a lilting and melodic cadence designed to sweep everyone along with him, like a fallen leaf in a stream. It was all so slow and easy; almost lazy. But, in the back of my mind it was still there. I could strain my ears and almost hear the roar of the rapids in the distance.
It was too late to get out of the water by then. The Preacher’s voice had lured me too far away from the riverbank. I had no choice but stay for the journey. As each minute passed, the nerves throughout my body tightened and began to vibrate ever so subtly. Oh yeah, I can definitely hear the rapids up ahead. Let’s get out of the water!
But the Preacher wasn’t having any of that! Oh no, we’ve got to go the distance now. And we picked up speed without really noticing and suddenly the white water was roaring like a steam engine! Jesus was coming back and I wasn’t ready to meet him! The Father was madder than an old wet hen because of the horrible sins of cussing and attendance at the Ritz Theatre I’d been indulging in.
And then… silence. For at least ten seconds there wasn’t a sound in the house.
Very quietly the Preacher would say, “While they get a song…” The was THE ABSOLUTE WORST part of the day! He’s already got me feeling guilty as hell because I’m a black-hearted sinner. Now, he’s telling me that Jesus is standing right there; right there! asking me to let him into my heart. But as I sit there in my pew I’m telling him that there’s no room for him with me. It’s like a slap in his face and I’m the one delivering it. Because of that, there’s an excellent chance that I’ll die in a car crash on the way home and never get another chance to live a good Holiness life.
Now, I ask you; is it any wonder my mind is a twisted remnant of what it might have been??
You might think that as 12 noon approached, we’d be done with all that rigamarole for seven days. You’d be wrong, though. You sure would.
After Sunday morning services we’d all make for Sunday dinner. How many things, even today, can top Sunday dinner with family and friends? Slowly the terror would begin to wane. The guilt would begin to fade, just a bit. And then, just as you’re getting comfortable again and maybe letting a cuss word slide out the side of your mouth, it’d be 7 o’clock and time to go back for another dose of the holiness elixir.
No Sunday School at night. Just that good singing, leading up to yet another sermon. The Sunday night sermon was usually a bit more rambunctious. There was lots of shouting of “Amen!”, “Hallelujah!”, “Praise the Lord!” and variations on the theme. Once in a while someone would “speak in tongues” and, you should pardon the expression, all hell would break loose then. I generally waited for the excitement to rise up to almost pandemonium level and then slipped out the back door. I’d dash down to my grandparent’s house and on lucky nights I could see nearly half of a Bonanza episode.
I’ll never forget poor old Miss Watson. She was solely responsible for one particular revival being extended for another week. She was sitting in the pew in front of me and my brothers and cousins. It seemed to us that the service was going to drone on until the Second Coming. Then cousin Stevie got the bright idea to liven things up a bit. When we stood for the Preacher to pray, he spied Miss Watson’s hat pin and gently slid it out of her hair. About ten minutes into a sermon that was so dry I fully expected to see dust falling out of the Preacher’s mouth, Stevie stuck Miss Watson’s generous backside with the hat pin. She jumped up and screamed like the very banshee. Before you could say “Jack Robinson” half the members of the church were shouting or speaking in tongues. Two or three fell out and writhed about on the floor. We boys of the back pew made tracks out the back door to smoke the unfiltered cigarettes my cousin had lifted from his dad.
Wednesday nights were “Young People’s Meeting” and the first Friday of each month was the “Youth Rally”. The Youth Rally was a kind of traveling show. Every church in the district would host it in rotation. We met lots of new people but I can’t really say I got any other benefit from it. During the summer we’d always have a “Revival” that lasted anywhere from a week to a month “depending on the Spirit”. I always suspected it was more dependent on the generosity of the flock than on the leading of the Spirit. When the nightly collection plate began to fill with more coins than dead presidents, the Spirit more often than not just petered out. Voicing that opinion though, got me in way more trouble than it was worth so I generally kept that one to myself.
Once a year, the second Sunday in June was marked as “Homecoming”. As usual for a Sunday morning there was Sunday School, followed by the worship service. Most times a former pastor was invited back to give the sermon, after which we had “dinner on the grounds”.
The area between the church and the graveyard was shady and high above the church. The elevation was a good 12 feet higher. Some of the men had constructed a very long table from cement and it was covered with tablecloths of every hue and description. There was fried chicken (of course), a ham or two and maybe a turkey or two. All provided by Christian women and prepared in their very own kitchens. There was sliced sandwich bread, biscuits, cornbread and green beans with new potatoes, pinto beans, mashed potatoes, corn salad, corn on the cob and fried corn. Several varieties of coleslaw stood proudly beside cornbread dressing and buttermilk pie. And, at the very end of the table sat the desserts. Those womenfolk of Community Congregational Holiness church could show out in the kitchen and it was amply demonstrated in the cakes and pies on offer. Red velvet, chocolate, lemon, butter, and German chocolate cakes competed for attention with peach cobbler, apple pie, coconut cream, lemon icebox and of course the Queen of Southern Desserts, Banana Pudding!
After everyone had eaten and drunk their fill, we were back inside the church for the all day singing. Guest quartets came from three states, local singers came, and of course the “special singers” from Community. They brought down the house, and it was by far the best day of church in the entire year.
Looking after the good Christians and trying to lure poor sinners was a big job for the church in those days. They terrified me, yes, but they also thrilled me and gave me memories I’ll cherish forever. Some of the kindest and most wonderful people I’ve ever known were there. Sadly, most are gone now but they continue to live in my memory. I hope that by sharing my stories they will continue to live long after I’m gone.
Thanks for coming by today. While you’re out and about why don’t you pop in and visit a few of my friends?
- You can find some great recipes at The Southern Lady Cooks
- The SciFi Magpie is one of my favorite bloggers
- and, for some really wonderful stories, visit Little Write Lies.
If you haven’t read New Yesterdays, this is a good time to hop over to Amazon.com to get your copy. I promise, you won’t be sorry you did!