Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chapter 12: That Old Time Religion

Next to family, church was the most important influence in my life as a child. Church was not only a place to learn about God and worship Him; it was also the center of my social activities and the source of most of my friends and acquaintances.

My earliest memories are of services when I was a toddler at the Church of God in Leadwood, Missouri. But it was after we moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, that I was old enough to really become involved in church life.

For virtually all of my growing up years, I lived within a short walk to the North Cleveland Church of God, which happens to be the headquarters church for the denomination and also the oldest continuously operating local Pentecostal congregation in the world.

North Cleveland was a sizeable church, although not nearly so large as it has become today. There were between 500 and 600 people attending on a Sunday morning. This was decades before the birth of the current phenomenon of the mega-church. For the 1950s and ‘60s, it was a huge church.

Despite its size, in the 1950s North Cleveland operated in much the same way as did smaller country churches. There were only two paid people on staff, the pastor and the custodian. Everything that they didn’t do -- music, youth work, secretarial help, etc. -- was carried out by volunteers.

Worship at our church was frequent and fervent. On Sundays, there was Sunday School followed by Morning Worship and then an “Evangelistic Service” was held on Sunday evenings. Wednesday night was prayer meeting and Friday evening we met for YPE, the Young People’s Endeavor. Our family didn’t miss a service.

There were also other activities such as the Lamplighters Club and special functions for children and youth, often held on Saturdays. Revival meetings, with nightly services, were held about four times a year, and they often lasted for two weeks, unless the Holy Ghost got into the arrangements. In that case, the services were extended for an even longer period. In addition to the revival services, there were missions’ conferences, training courses, an annual church music school, and other special events. A dedicated church member could easily spend half or more of his evenings in church. We were dedicated church members.

Worship services were somewhat predictable, but varied, depending on how the Lord moved. Too much planning was frowned upon. A little forethought to a service seemed okay, but it was always important to leave room to let the Lord have His way. I’m not sure whether or not we believed in printed church bulletins, but we didn’t have one.

The church also didn’t have a regular trained choir. When service time came, the volunteer music director would get up and call people to the choir loft, which seated about 80 people. Adults and children were all welcome; I called it the “Whosoever Will Choir.”

Sometimes the music director had to do a little pleading if there weren’t enough singers. It wasn’t unusual for him to say, “Alright, we can’t start service until we get about ten more people in the choir. Come on now, we need a few more altos.” We always needed altos.

If not enough people responded, the music director would call a few singers out by name. Some of the good altos seemed to always wait until they were called upon individually. I think they just liked the attention.

Everything we sang was out of the red-back Church Hymnal, with shaped notes, which was published across the street from our church at the Publishing House. I knew every song in the book by heart, and I also knew its page number. I even knew the writers of some of the songs, men like Vep Ellis, because they attended our church.

After going to church several times a week for many years, most folks didn’t have to turn to the page in the hymnal. They knew that if #57 was called for, we were going to sing Amazing Grace, #120 was Victory in Jesus. And if the music director announced #86, I got really excited because that was one of my favorites: O Happy Day.

The congregation always sang along for every song. Those in the choir only served as song leaders.

In addition to the choir and congregational songs, there were always one or more “special singers” in a service. This could be a solo, quartet, or some other combination. Occasionally the music director would feel led to call on someone who had not been notified in advance to sing. Usually they were ready and willing; sometimes it took a little public prodding.

Different men took turns leading the music, but usually it was Brother McClain. He had a way of pausing between verses, and exhorting the congregation, laughing and crying and talking about how good the Lord is. There were times when he would look out over the congregation and say, “I notice we have the makings of a quartet here today. Brother Cross, come up and sing bass; Brother Melton, you can handle the tenor. Brother Thomas, come sing baritone, and I’ll furnish the lead.”

The four brethren would stand at the pulpit and thumb through the hymnal until they agreed on a song. Maybe it would be Just a Little Talk with Jesus; In the Sweet Forever, or Everybody Will be Happy Over There. The lyrics to the majority of the songs were about how weary life was here on Earth and how wonderful it was going to be When We All Get to Heaven. The folks in our congregation who were the most downtrodden rejoiced most when we sang the Heaven songs.

When prayer time came, the pastor would usually ask if anyone had a request. Several people in the congregation would speak up, telling of a relative who was ill, or some other need. There was almost always a request to pray for someone’s lost loved ones, and for those on the mission field and the battle field.

We prayed in unison, everyone praying aloud at once. The pastor might say, “Let’s all stand, and each one of you pray as though you were called on to lead in prayer.” The prayers were loud and long. Hundreds of people praying fervently at once is like only one other sound I have ever heard. That was when, at the age of 19, I stood for the first time beside Niagara Falls. I remembered the Apostle John had said God’s voice is “as the sound of many waters,” Rev. 1:15.
During congregational prayer was the perfect time for a potty break. If you hurried you could be out and back and no one would even know you were gone.

There were a dozen or more elderly ladies, mostly widows, who always filled the second and third pews in the front center section of the church. By watching them, I could pretty well gauge how the Holy Ghost was moving.

If Grandma Bryant, Sister Whitmire, or one of these other sainted pillars of the church got out her white handkerchief and began to wave it to the beat of the music, I knew the Lord was about to bless.

My young friends and I usually sat just behind these ladies. We took the waving hanky as our signal to begin clapping a little louder and singing with all our might, doing our part to encourage the Lord to move. If the music director felt the Spirit, and at such times he usually did, he might lead the chorus over and over again. I’ve seen him lead it seven or eight times without a break, each round with a little more zeal than the one before:

There is going to be a meeting in the air,
In the sweet, sweet by and by:
I am going to meet you, meet you over there,
In that home beyond the sky
Such singing you will hear, never heard by mortal ear
‘Twill be glorious I do declare!
And God’s own Son will be the leading One
At that meeting in the air.

Before we finished the chorus the third time, Grandma Bryant would stand and move out into the isle, her handkerchief hoisted like a flag. She waved her hanky and danced her way across the front of the church. Three or four of the other sisters would usually follow. Some of those who danced in the Spirit seemed to glide on air; others did a funny little jerk. However they did it, they danced before the Lord for the pure joy of being in His presence, and I always felt the Heavenly Father smiled down on us when they did.

As the sisters danced, I hoped fervently that the Holy Ghost would take over the service. That meant there would be no preaching today.

When the service got lively, it wasn’t unusual for someone in the congregation to let out with a loud, unintelligible shriek. This meant either that they were under conviction or they were getting a blessing. About this time, one of the brothers sitting over to the left in the “Amen Corner” might commence to running.

The usual route was to charge down one aisle, across the back of the church, and back up the other side at a full gallop. A second brother often followed the first, as if in hot pursuit. And if the Lord really got to moving, all four aisles of the church might have a runner at the same time. People accused us Pentecostals of running the aisles and swinging from the chandeliers, but they were wrong. We didn’t have any chandeliers.

When the saints got to dancing and running, you could pretty well count on the fact that Holy Ghost conviction was falling hard on any sinners or lukewarm Christians who might be present. If someone made a sobbing lunge for the mourner’s bench, the service was all over but the shouting.

Several saints would jump up and gather around the penitent seeker. The whole congregation would be either on their feet or on their knees by this time, and many would rush forward for prayer. I loved church when it was like that.

Revivals were especially fun. If the evangelist was good, and the Lord was blessing, it was not unusual for a revival to be held over for three or four weeks -- sometimes even more. Our family was almost always present.

North Cleveland drew the best evangelists in the country and a favorite of mine was T. L. Lowery. Brother Lowery was charismatic in every sense of the word. No Hollywood type caster could have dreamed up a more perfect image of an evangelist.

A Georgia native, who had pastored in the coal fields of southwestern Virginia, Lowery was long and lean, with a thick shock of black hair that he kept combed back in a greased wave that would fly like a Holy Ghost banner when he was under the anointing. He wore expensive suits and pointy toed shoes, and had a smile that melted the hearts of the women.

Because of his busy schedule, North Cleveland was only able to book Lowery for one week. He had a huge tent he set up for many of his meetings -- much larger than our church building, which accommodated five or six hundred.

The Lord moved so marvelously in Lowery’s meeting that he canceled some other engagements and stayed over for three weeks. Each night the church was packed beyond capacity. There was no problem filling the choir, and extra chairs were set up down the aisles and along the back of the church. On one end of the platform, a door was left open that led to a Sunday School room which was filled with people. On the other end of the platform, an open door led to the church office, which was also jammed with people. Others stood in the lobby and spilled out into the church lawn, unable to get inside. The local Fire Marshall said he was going to shut down the overcrowded meeting, but he was too afraid of the Holy Ghost to carry through with his threat.

Lowery had a specialty in praying for the sick and many people claimed to be healed in his services. One night a grey haired lady, whom I had never seen before, came to church in a wheel chair. She sat in the right aisle up near the front. Toward the end of his message, Lowery stopped and pointed his long forefinger at her. With a rasping voice he commanded authoritatively, “Sister, you there in the wheel chair, be healed! Stand up in Jesus’ name!”

The woman began to shake and weep. The congregation watched with baited breath as she placed a hand on each arm of the wheelchair and slowly pushed herself up. Standing there, she raised her face and both arms toward heaven and praised the Lord, while the congregation had a hallelujah breakdown. I never saw the lady again after that service.

Every night Lowery had a prayer line, and when he laid hands on people and prayed for them, he did so with a vengeance. Anyone could get in line. It seemed to me that during the course of the revival, half the population of Cleveland went through it. Some came for salvation, or for healing, and others sought to be sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost. Many just came for a blessing.

When Lowery prayed for people, he often ended with a loud, “In Jesus’ Name!” As he did, he would thrust his powerful right arm forward, palm extended, and give the person for whom he was praying a wallop on the forehead. Lowery hit so hard that you could hear the slap of his sweating hand against the brow of the seeker.

Many people fell backwards to the ground. A couple of men stood behind to catch the fallen, if they could, and lower them to the floor. After each person fell, Lowery gingerly stepped aside a few feet and prayed for another and another until once I counted more than thirty people lying on their backs across the front of the platform.

One night a reporter from the Cleveland Daily Banner came to the service and took a photo showing the floor full of people. After the picture appeared in the next day’s Banner, some of my friends at school asked me why they stacked people up like cord wood on the platform at our church. They wanted to know if the people were Holy Rolling. I told them they would just have to come out and see it for themselves to understand.

More than anything in the world I wanted feel the power of God that these people seemed to be experiencing. Some called it “falling under the power,” and others said it was being “slain in the Spirit.” Whatever it was, I was a candidate for the blessing. Once during the revival I got into the prayer line, along with scores of others, and slowly inched my way forward.

When my time for prayer finally arrived, I raised my hands, closed my eyes, and expected the Holy Ghost to strike. The Holy Ghost must have missed His cue, or else He was busy blessing someone else at that moment. I didn’t feel the Holy Ghost, but Brother Lowery hit me so hard I saw a flash of white light and my ears rang. I staggered but did not fall, although I desperately wanted to. It would be sacrilege to fall unless it was the Holy Ghost that knocked me down, and I didn’t think He needed my help or Brother Lowery’s. I walked back to my pew disappointed. It was only later that I learned many of the saints helped the moving of the Holy Ghost by doing a “courtesy drop.”

Sometimes before he prayed for a person, Brother Lowery would say into the microphone, “Tell me Sister (or Brother), what do you need from God tonight?” When he asked one lady, she reached up and touched first her forehead and then the back of her neck saying, “Brother Lowery, it’s where you prayed for me last night.” He was gentler with this sister the second time around lest he compound her prayer induced whiplash.

One night a visiting preacher stepped forward in the prayer line. As he did, Lowery paused, stood silent a moment, and then in a theatrical gesture proclaimed, “My dear Brother, I don’t need to pray for you. You need to pray for me.”

He handed the visiting preacher the microphone, and silently, dramatically lifted his hands to receive God’s blessing. The visiting preacher began to pray, reaching out as he did to touch Lowery gently on the forehead. As soon as contact was made, Lowery dropped like a rock.
Audible gasps could be heard across the auditorium. Those who were not already standing jumped to their feet. Lowery lay in a heap, quiet and motionless, for a full minute. Nobody moved, but I heard several in the congregation weeping and praying softly, “Bless him, dear Jesus.”

When Lowery stood again, he did so with a flourish and with what he called a fresh anointing. With his second wind, Lowery continued to pray for people until long into the night.

On the third and final Sunday morning of the revival, it was announced there was to be a water baptismal service. About 50 people had signed up to be baptized, but after another great move of the Holy Ghost that morning, several more souls decided they too wanted to follow the Lord in water baptism. I was one of them. I had already been baptized in water by my daddy when I was nine years old, at the Riverside Church of God in Atlanta. But that morning I wanted to make a recommitment to the Lord. Re-baptisms weren’t encouraged at our church, but neither was there any prohibition against going for a second dip.

The pastor announced that this morning’s baptismal would be different than usual. There was a small dressing room on both sides of the baptistery, which was a pool behind the choir loft. This morning there were far more people to be baptized than could be accommodated in the dressing rooms.

It was explained that all those to be baptized would form a single line along the left side wall of the church and enter the baptismal pool through the ladies dressing room, exiting on the other side, through the men’s room. Those who wanted to change clothes could do so in a restroom or in one of the Sunday School rooms. Since half of us who were being baptized had not decided until that morning to do so, it didn’t matter. We would just have to go home wet.

I was about halfway down the side of the church awaiting my turn for baptism, when suddenly I heard a loud bellowing in the right rear corner of the church. It was Mr. Griffith, the daddy of one of my friends. He was a self avowed sinner, and it was also rumored that he had a drinking problem.

Mr. Griffith came to church often and sat on the back pew with his wife, who was a devout Christian and church member. I had prayed for him many times, agonizing for his soul, because his daughter constantly requested prayer for the salvation of her daddy in youth group meetings.

Mr. Griffith had been to church several nights during the revival. It was a mystery to me how any man could just sit there and fight off the conviction of the Holy Ghost when the Lord was moving in such a powerful way. I’d watched him resist a hundred alter calls, unmoved.
But that morning was different. Griffith jumped up from his seat, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Oh Lord, I’m a sinner. SAVE ME!”

He then lowered his head and ran down the aisle like a charging bull. When he reached the platform, he surmounted it in a single leap. The astonished choir parted like the Red Sea, and Griffith bounded up the risers through the middle. The entire congregation was on its feet.
T. L. Lowery, watching from his waist deep position in the baptismal pool, was a masterful showman. He seized the moment. Dramatically raising his hands, palms forward, Lowery stepped to the side, making way for Griffith’s entrance into the soul cleansing water.

Not hesitating, Mr. Griffith plunged head first over the low glass barrier, belly busting into the pool with a tremendous splash. As he went down, Lowery pounced on him like a lion on its prey, and with both hands pushed him under. “In the name of the Father!” Lowery shouted above the tumult.

Griffith came thrashing to the surface, slinging snot and gasping for breath. Lowery shoved him down again, “In the name of the Son!”

Again Griffith fought and clawed his way to the surface, sucking air. “Wait, I’m not done yet,” Lowery roared even louder than before. “In the name of the HOOOOOLY GHOST!”
That time both men sank completely beneath the water. When they surfaced through the foam, they were hugging and snorting, shouting and sloshing water out onto the choir. The congregation went ballistic.

They say Brother Griffith never touched another drop of liquor from that moment until the day he died, many years later.

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