Hell fire and brimstone
By Ken Root
In this season, when the message from the pulpit is joy and happiness, I can’t help remembering back to my youth when Protestant ministers focused primarily on hell, rather than heaven. The message was aimed mostly at adults but was inflicted on any who were able to understand expressions; body language and words of those who were moved by the spirit to step out and face the devil head on, to the delight of some and emotional scarring of others.
I grew up as a Methodist and we attended Sunday morning and evening services plus bible study on Wednesday nights. I also was exposed to the Baptist and Christian churches as my classmates and I attended summer bible school so our mothers could get a break from screaming kids. We didn’t overlap much with the Pentecostals due to their style of religious service that included shouting and speaking in tongues, which went beyond the decorum of most in the community.
Ministers, who rotated through the small town, were mostly young and fiery but of very meager means. The family was given the keys to the parsonage, a small salary and church members would throw in canned goods when they had a food donation drive called “pound the preacher.” Most of these men were upwardly mobile so they wanted to get to a larger church that paid more money and the best way to do so was to speak about the devil.
They would be very reverent in the first part of the service with the choir singing and the creed being recited but then they would have an opportunity to cut down on some serious preachin’. The congregation would sit silently as the minister warmed up with a bible reading and some intellectual analysis of the verses, but then it was customary to cry out about the evil in the world and the fires of hell that awaited every sinner. Well, this was effective, because it always scared the hell out of me! Beginning at about 9 years old, I would listen to a listing of sinful behavior, which became a great index for my teenage years, and tried to understand why the devil had made these things available to us and why God hated those who sinned and was eager to punish them.
Through the years, I noticed that every defined sin, from drinking to smoking to gambling and womanizing was done by several members of our congregation, even though they were there every week to hear of the consequences. It finally came to me that this was a form of entertainment that had been popular for generations.
My father, who designated himself as the family storyteller, described “Brush Arbor” meetings of the early 1900s. The church people would build a rough framework of poles and cut fully vegetated tree limbs over it to make a shade and shelter that would last for a week. They would invite in an evangelist who spoke each night. The song: “Brother Love’s Travelin’ Salvation Show” is a very good description of the events that included group singing and then a dramatic description of the fires of hell and the joys of salvation. “He would scream at the top of his lungs then whisper to the crowd,” remembered my father, “and then they would pass the collection plate. That always seemed to follow the sermon as either a means to express the gratitude of the congregation or to buy one’s way out of sinful behavior. Every church realized that they had to have money to keep the doors open and the lights on but getting struggling farmers and flinty business people to give was very difficult unless you caught them at a weak moment.
The problem with this message for me was that I was not old enough to digest it as a prescription for how to live a good life. I ingested it as a near lethal dose of fear. One summer at the Baptist bible school, we were put in the auditorium with a young minister who began preaching about the wages of sin to third graders. He kept it up for an hour. The girls began crying and most of us set there bracing ourselves for the next verbal lash. He made a call to come to the altar and most of us went up just in hope that this act of contrition would silence him and let us go back outside in the sunshine. He told us to tell our parents that we had decided to accept our savior and join their church. When he mercifully let us go, I saw one of the ladies go and speak to him. We never told our parents about the session and he never followed up as he said he was going to do.
A humorist friend from North Carolina had a great story of an evangelist coming to a small community where they had church meetings that lasted all day. “Preachin’ and eatin’ on the gounds” was the order of the event and the minister preached so long and loud that he lost his voice. The raspy voiced minister positioned himself outside the tent to thank everyone personally as they left and hope for a donation. A heavy set woman came by and he said: “How did you like the service today?” She replied: “It was wonderful, I couldn’t eat another bite.” Her young son was in tow and the minister asked him the same question. He replied: “I’m like momma; I had a belly full of it too!”
Today, we have ministers who never mention hell and some who profess that it doesn’t exist. They talk of love and emphasize those teachings of Jesus that back up their arguments. I cannot say, definitively, that either heaven or hell will be my final destination. I do know that I’ve done a lot more to stay out of hell than to get to heaven. My mother put right and wrong in me by the time I was 5 years old and the ministers pounded my brain with enough visions of the devil’s wrath and God’s vengefulness to scare me for a lifetime. Now, I listen to the priest or preacher’s words and contemplate the origin of the ancient scripture that is applied to the modern day. I see the children who are awakening to the message and I am thankful that they aren’t subjected to the adult entertainment and childhood horror that I endured.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.