My mind and thoughts have been drawn back to old-time Pentecostal experiences in the last week. Last night (8/30/10) even provoked those thoughts even more. Being part of the Alabama District UPCI, I belong to Section 8. For the last couple of years the sectional ministers will meet in a central location at a restaurant and spend some time eating and fellowshipin’ as they say.
Last night, we had a group of about 20 or so and the conversation turned toward the dramatic conversions of some of the ministers. It is always amazing to listen to some of the stories of God’s dramatic grace pulling debauched sinners out of some of the most dreadful situations. One of the men, Jerome Owens, hails from the north Alabama, north Mississippi, and south Tennessee regions. As the stories continued, we continued to drift back in time to the 1940’s and 1950’s as the Pentecostal experience trekked its way across the south.
We have come a long, long way from our roots which is not all bad but it has definitely robbed us of some of the traditions and experiences that made the Pentecostal movement grow in the early days. In earlier times, Pentecostals were made up mostly of poor working folks who barely had enough resources to make it from week to week. They were common laborers, a lot of farmers, share-croppers, and various other low-end spectrum sorts of situations. But despite the hardships, their whole lives seem to revolve around God, His Word, and the church. The church was literally the connecting point both spiritually and socially for these people.
During those times, it seemed as if a perpetual campmeeting kind of atmosphere marked these churches. They would build what is commonly called brush arbors which were more of a pole barn kind of apparatus. On the corners and the sides of the brush arbor were posts that usually were constructed out of trees that had been cut down. Then a loose network of branches would be placed on top of the contraption and then added to the top of this would be brush, pine straw, and leaves to form a primitive roof. If there was a nearby sawmill, they would take sawdust and scatter it about the floor of the arbor. Then makeshift pews would be constructed with smaller blocks of wood and coarse wooden planks. More than one worshiper found out that those pews had to be carefully and gingerly navigated so as to save an important part of the anatomy and prevent it from being seriously pinched.
Occasionally when an outburst came from those worshipers in these pews, it wasn’t the Spirit that motivated it but rather a painful injury caused by shifting boards and so forth. Besides the sawdust, the primitive meeting place, and the treacherous “pews” during the spring, summer, and fall of the year there was a constant battle with bugs. Skeeters and moths seemed to enjoy the revival meetings as much as the worshipers.
However, when the arbors would be set up, some of the unconverted heathens would show up to watch the show from the perimeters. More than one preacher had to contend with catcalls, rotten fruit and vegetables being thrown at them.
Occasionally a preacher would have to contend an angry husband whose wife had gotten in the church and the husband would accuse the preacher of “brainwashing” his wife because of the dramatic change that had taken place in her life. On even rarer occasions, some of the local rednecks would gather up a snake and toss it up on the pulpit while the preacher was preaching. But in the midst of all of the ridicule and scorn heaped on these poor people their faith in the Lord sustained them and the church grew!
Last night, my father-in-law started talking about some of the moonshiners and whiskey runners that came into the church during the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. In fact, if you have ever heard of Buford Pusser the sheriff who walked tall, this is where my father-in-law grew up. McNairy County with towns like Selmer and Adamsville, Tennessee were just spots in the road but the revival fires burned large in these little burgs. On a side note, Buford Pusser is buried in the same cemetery where my father-in-law’s parents were laid to rest.
He told us a story about a fellow who was running moonshine whiskey in a gas truck. He had three compartments in the storage tank. One was for high-grade gasoline, the other was for mid-grade gasoline, and the third compartment was for moonshine whiskey. He did well selling gas and whiskey. The folks knew when they saw him coming that if they had a container, could fill it up with moonshine. It was as clear as water but packed a 180 proof kick to it. Those fellows would get their jugs filled up and then they would drink it straight out of Mason jars and within just a short period of time would be rousing, singing, fussing, raging, funny, and fighting drunk.
The problem with this fellow was that some of his family got in the Pentecostal church and they started praying for him. The more they prayed the more under conviction he would get. The Lord would talk to him while he was driving his truck selling gas and making other special deliveries. One night he had as much as he could stand and went to church and ended up being filled with the Holy Ghost. He quit selling moonshine much to the chagrin of his regular customers and the next thing, God called him into the ministry. For years he pastored a church after the Lord delivered him. He passed away a number of years ago but his dramatic conversion had a huge impact on a little community in Tennessee.
He told us another story about a young man who grew up in the home of a moonshiner. This young man knew what it was like to run from the Revenuers as they called them back in the day and lived a young life very dangerously close to the edge. One night he went to a revival meeting, more out of curiosity and boredom than anything else. He had not reckoned on what would happen to him before he went. It wasn’t too long into the service that with the joyous singing, heart-felt praying, and vibrant worship that the Lord started pulling at him. The preacher preached a soul-stirring message and the young man found his way to the altar and ended up receiving the Holy Ghost and being baptized.
But to complicate matters, he had some buddies that weren’t real happy with the change they saw in this young man. So one afternoon they persuaded him to go with them with the promise that later on in the day they would take him to church. What the young man did not know was that in the trunk of the car they had some moonshine. After getting out on the road, they all started drinking and picking at this young man and ridiculing him. For a great while, he managed to resist them but after all of their wicked influence finally broke him down and he started drinking. He got uproariously drunk and the devils’ brood then decided they would take him to the brush arbor revival.
They made a big show when they pulled up with him, got him out of the car, and leaned him up against the car. All of the worshipers under the brush arbor looked out and saw him in that condition and their hearts were smitten with grief. Almost the whole congregation went to their knees and started praying for him. He drunkenly watched it all leaning up against the car. He would later tell that the Lord spoke directly to him and said, “Son, you have to make up your mind what you are going to do but you can’t take a step until you do.” The young man decided that he would push off from the car and walk away. However, when he shoved his hands off the car, his feet were locked to the ground and he fell straight forward into the dirt. He ended up with a mouthful of dirt and a bloody nose and abraded face but some of the good saints saw it all take place and walked out to where he was. When they rolled him over, he told the Lord that he would do everything He wanted him to do.
The young man prayed through right there on the ground and the Lord dramatically refueled his soul. This young man would later acknowledge a call to the ministry and pastored a church the rest of his life also.
These dramatic conversions are what make the experience of Pentecost so powerful and compelling. The church I am serving also has its share of incredible stories of how people so lost and down and out were literally scooped up and delivered. We can’t afford to lose our message or forget our heritage. . .