The original meetings of The Full Gospel Original Church of God were held sometime in 1902 in the general store owned by Hiram Hoakum. Prior to Reverend Hoakum breaking from the First Baptist Church of the Apostle, Hiram had been the senior Deacon in the church. He was often called upon to deliver sermons due to the failing health of the pastor, Ima Drunque. Pastor Drunque was rumored to have severe bouts of “flu” after ministering to some of the parishioners who lived in the outlying areas. It was widely believed that these parishioners lived in remote areas to discourage government oversight into their business ventures.
The relationship seemed to work for all parties until Hiram introduced a new twist to the sermon. One Sunday, Hiram decided to focus on a specific piece of scripture, Luke 10:19, “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” To prove his belief that he was “speaking truth”, Hiram pulled a very fat copperhead from a gunny sack, and proceeded to bounce about the stage of the church in a rhythm that only the snake understood. Others were encouraged to take part, though none did.
The bold action by Hiram was not lost on a good portion of the congregation, and many perceived Hiram to be the true messenger of God’s word.The Southern Baptist Convention intervened, and while they made allowances for member churches who practiced “foot washing” they had no provisions for the handling of deadly reptiles. Hiram was asked to cease his “blasphemy”, but he would not, and so Hiram and his followers began to meet each Sunday in his general store.
Well, rumors spread like a brush fire in the little community. This was way before TV and people looked upon their trip to church each Sunday as a relief from their day to day, and a time for community. It wasn’t long before the community had found that the new “hot spot” for entertainment was Hoakum’s General Store. Hiram put his shelves on rollers so they could be easily rolled out of the way to provide more room for followers. It wasn’t enough. People were packing into the general store like sardines in a can. Hiram had to stand on a little wooden table so that everyone could see him. A precarious perch for one handling venomous serpents.
Finally, Hiram purchased a big tent and pitched it alongside of the grocery. While the tent was an unexpected expense, it paid for itself by stopping the outrageous shoplifting losses the general store was experiencing. It had gotten to the point that Hiram was asking his wife to mark down where people were standing during the services. Hiram didn’t mind if people shopped during services, he just wanted to be able to charge their accounts. Fortunately, the expansion to the tent prevented the possibility of a “billing error” leading to bloodshed. Mountain folk are proud folk, and being called a thief is worse than being called a fornicator.
For folks that see “signs”, almost anything can be construed to solidify their viewpoint of the world. When the little Methodist church in our area gave up, they forced the balance of their followers to worship at the Methodist church in Blairsville. That is, the worshippers who had not already migrated to the “Foot Washing Baptists”, or the “Snake Handlers”. Hiram and his followers considered the Methodists move a “sign”, and he pounced on the abandoned church. The “Little Church in the Valley” was born with its first official service on August 10, 1902.
Well, as much as Hiram Hoakum wanted his little church to be about the message, and not the money, it didn’t take long before he realized that the little abandoned church was going to cost money to maintain. Hiram felt that he could donate his services as pastor, but that the constant costs associated with keeping the church in a minimal state of repair should be born by the congregation. Not too long after getting set in the new church, the grocer turned preacher started passing the plate. The pickings were slim.
From his training as a grocer, Hiram knew that he had to give the public what they wanted, or it would sit on the shelf. He also knew that people would pay a little more for what they considered to be “speciality items”. A peach is just a peach, unless it was grown in the soil around Savannah where the “tangy salt air” helps to bring out the sweetness of the peach. Hiram knew he needed something special to set his church apart from the bigger denominations. Handling venomous snakes was a big draw, even though some of the novelty was wearing off.
Ironically, just as attendance was starting to dip, some of the faithful started coming forward at the end of the service to handle the serpents themselves. The “Testament of Faith” as Hiram called it, brought the bolder members of the congregation into the inner sanctum. The “hands on experience” was just the VIP experience Hiram was looking for to increase his coffers. Hiram was careful to match the right serpent to the right soul, and he kept a close eye on the snake for any sign of irritation. Keeping an open jar of gasoline nearby to anesthetize the snake was also helpful in keeping unexpected outcomes from occurring. Later on, purists would decry the practice of doping the snakes, but Hiram was on the cutting edge of a movement, and he couldn’t afford to have the movement, or a neighbor, die unnecessarily.
Hiram turned the reins of the church over to his son Levi in 1921, on Levi’s twenty first birthday. Hiram was nearly fifty and in poor health. His one vice, dipping snuff, was killing him, and in a hideous fashion. The lesions from inside his mouth had spread to his chin. He had lost all of his lower teeth and the cancer was eating through the flesh of his jawline. It was painful for him to talk, and probably impossible to understand what he was saying. Levi had been in training for quite a while, and so he just stepped in to the family business.
When Levi took over, the Little Church in the Valley was the dominant congregation in the area. Slowly but surely, the “Foot Washing Baptists” were sliding into the back pews of the Little Church in the Valley and becoming members of the “new church”. The Hoakum’s cash flow problems were behind them, and the church had prospered enough to provide Levi with a parsonage. It was in this parsonage that Levi Hoakum heard his first Pentecostal sermon. The sermon was delivered on the airwaves via the little radio gifted to the young pastor at his confirmation as pastor. The sermon was from William J. Seymour, and the message would forever change the direction of the little church. Levi was introduced to the concepts of Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, and the laying of hands.
Like any successful entrepreneur, Levi did market testing before delivering his new product to market. Levi arranged his family about him in the general store, just like his Daddy used to do, and proceeded to deliver next Sunday’s sermon. About ten minutes in, Levi’s eyes rolled back in his head and he started spouting gibberish in about four different octaves. When his family rushed about him, thinking he’d been taken over by a seizure, Levi reverted back to his natural speaking voice and continued to deliver his sermon. The look of absolute bewilderment and amazement on the faces of his family was just the outcome that Levi was hoping for.
Glossolalia was introduced into the services that Sunday. Fortunately, Hiram was still above ground and able to explain to the acolytes what was going on. Hiram quoted, as best he could, 1 Corinthians 14:2, “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” When it was “revealed” to Levi that he had spoken in tongues, Levi used the opportunity to reinforce to the congregation what a “spirit filled church” they had.
Being “spirit filled” was a recurrent theme in Levi’s sermons. In fact, Levi encouraged the congregation to describe the church as “spirit filled” when speaking to others. Being “moved by the spirit” was a great explanation for speaking in tongues, and it would provide the springboard for the next ecclesiastical miracle, the laying of hands.
Living close to the Earth is something the folks in this area have done for hundreds of years. I guess if you include the Native Americans, that might extend to thousands of years. Being aware of the signs in nature to determine when to plant and harvest were just part of the survival skills that people that lived a subsistence living learned. Home remedies, and natural cures were something that each family learned to utilize. The closest “real” doctors lived miles away, and cost money. Reliance on midwifes, and practitioners of folk medicine to handle the everyday medical needs of the community were just part of living in an isolated rural community. Serious ailments, like cancer ran their course. When it was “your time”, it was “your time”, and chasing after cures was something only the wealthy could do. That is, until it was learned that healing could be brought about by faith, and the laying on of hands, by a spirit filled minister. Then the game changed.
Healing, by the “laying of hands”, goes back to the New Testament days and the countless miracles attributed to Jesus. Therein lies the rub. How does a minister purport to have the powers of Jesus, without being blasphemous? Heresy will get you run out of town on a rail quicker than chicken stealing. Recognizing the razor thin tightrope he was walking, Levi Hoakum invoked the scriptures to describe his newly discovered powers. Levi related in his weekly sermon that he had been studying his Bible, when he read Acts 19:11-12,”And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
Levi felt such a power within when he read the verses that he felt compelled to tell his wife, Ruth, straight away. Ruth suffered from severe headaches and was at that time laying in their bed trying to regain her balance. Levi related to the congregation how he gently placed his hands on either side of his wife’s head and asked her to pray with him, asking for healing. Hardly any time passed at all when a feeling like an electric current passed from Levi’s shoulders through his fingertips. Ruth was jolted in bed as if struck by an electric current, and then passed into a quiet sleep. When she awoke, the headache was gone.
After the sermon, the altar call and testament of faith were packed to the point of straining the floors of the little church. People who were deathly afraid of snakes pushed forward in the hope of catching the attention of Pastor Levi Hoakum. Truth be told, even people who were in the best of health had some nagging infirmity that they hoped to have cured. Dentists were not in abundance in the mountains and people tended to just let a toothache resolve itself. With the promise of no pain or ache too small or too big, the faithful crowded forward to receive a blessing from Pastor Levi.
The first official “healing” at the “Little Church in the Valley” lasted over two hours and the results were mixed. For those who did not receive immediate relief, they were encouraged to go home and study the Scriptures and their hearts. Pastor Levi invoked Matthew 13:58, “And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. “, as explanation for his lack of total success in healing all of the ills of the congregation. Having been brought up, literally, in the church, Pastor Levi knew that one well motivated vocal skeptic can undermine the best laid doctrines. Pastor Levi recognized that unless there was a component dependent on the individual’s behavior and deep faith, there were going to be skeptics in the congregation. By giving skeptics an opportunity to explain an unsuccessful cure as a result of the unworthiness of the afflicted, Pastor Levi insulated himself from most criticism.
The “laying of hands” component of the service transitioned over time from weekly to monthly to the semi-annual revivals. Pastor Levi was always available for special ministrations, always ready to lay hands in those circumstances when an individual showed the depth of their belief through giving. The church, and the Hoakums prospered during those times. The Great Depression came and went. The Hoakums were able to help some of their neighbors during the hard times, and help themselves as well. Levi’s six children were gifted with parcels of land if they stayed in the area. Levi’s two daughters married and moved away, but his four sons took their place in the community as prosperous landowners. The youngest son, Daniel, was to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
Not everything was sunshine, lollipops and rainbows during this period. In 1941, the state of Georgia made snake handling a felony punishable by death. Like the early Christians of Roman times, the “Little Church In The Valley” continued to practice their faith fearlessly. While not as open as they had been, the church continued their Testament of Faith in spite of the threat of capital punishment. One could argue that since the faithful were already tempting the fates by death from venom, that the potential of death by electrocution didn’t loom as large. The righteous were vindicated when the law was repealed in 1968, and the congregation moved their practice back out into the sunlight, literally.
The semi-annual revivals were now week long affairs bringing followers and curiosity seekers from all of the surrounding mountains. To accommodate the crowds, sometimes numbering a thousand or more, the church pitched giant circus tents on the grounds surrounding the church. Visiting Pentecostal preachers from other areas would come in and either tag-team in one tent, or, if the preacher was a big enough draw, hold down one tent to himself. Even within the context of people preaching the same message, there was a variety of styles that compelled one follower to follow one revivalist over another. There were guest ministers who were known as “great healers”, and their tents were standing room only. It was into this environment that Daniel Hoakum found his calling.
Danile Hoakum, Little Daniel, as he was known, took over the mantle of the church from his daddy in 1964. He was the first Hoakum to attend seminary, The Pentecostal Theological Seminary over in Cleveland, Tennessee. Daniel was also the first Hoakum ordained, and therefore entitled to the title Reverend. Reverend Daniel took over the church in one of the most turbulent times of American history. There was a war in Southeast Asia that was dividing the country in two. Even though Daniel was immune to the draft, being an ordained minister, he was not immune to the feelings of the young people he tried to minister to.
Since World War II, the population had been shifting from the rural areas to the cities. “How are you going to keep them down on the farm, once they’ve seen gay Paree”, was playing out all over the country. Young people were going away to college and not coming back. Farming was becoming more industrialized and less labor intensive. The good paying jobs were in the cities. Reverend Daniel had gone away himself. His interest in coming back to the Little Church in the Valley was more from the tradition of the Hoakum family than the opportunities it afforded.
Reverend Daniel was looking at an aging congregation, and he believed that he would be the last Pastor of the little church. Then the counterculture movement began in the late ’60’s, and young people started buying farms in the surrounding mountains and valleys. Several communes popped up in the area. Some of the newcomers wanted to get back to their “roots”, some wanted to escape the rat race, all of them wanted to live according to their own value systems. Reverend Daniel was challenged with trying to rebuild his congregation with people who were more likely to believe in Krishna than Jesus. It was a trying time.
Making the challenge more untenable, was the acceptance, or the lack thereof, of the newcomers by the existing congregation. While dress codes were relaxed at the “Little Church in the Family”, torn jeans, tie dyed shirts and bare feet were a little too relaxed. Reverend Daniel was at risk of losing his remaining followers back to the “foot-washing” Baptists when providence interceded. During the Testament of Faith, the entire clan from the “Happy Dale Farm” walked to the front of the altar and began passing the serpents about like they were licorice whips. Rather than utilizing the typical “tap dance for Jesus”, the Happy Dalers moved in the fashion of a Grateful Dead follower dancing at a Dead concert. Their slow gyrations and almost Tai Chi like moves provided a tremendous contrast between the two sets of acolytes.
What happened next spawned a legend that has never been disputed. One of the elder “hippies” laid on the floor and invited his fellow communers to place the serpents on his body; burying him in venomous snakes. Old Ben, as he was known to his friends, laid supine for a minute or so before winding his way back to standing. As he rose, he passed the snakes off to his mates, being careful to not lose track of any of the ophidians. When Old Ben returned to his feet, he continued his dance until the end of the hymn. The snakes were returned to their sacks and the followers returned to their pews.
The ice was broken, the bridge between the old and the new had been built. In spite of their “long filthy hair” and their “stinky dirty feet”, the newcomers were accepted into the church and the community. As the newcomers developed their arts and crafts market they brought needed tourist dollars into the area. Tourists from all over the surrounding area came to the assorted communes in search of pottery, blown glass, wicker furniture and wooden bowls. In truth, they came to look at the hippies, too, but that faded over time.
The tourists were almost obligated to buy gas at the Hoakum grocery. Not many people could drive by without purchasing the fruits and vegetables from the various truck stands setup by the valley residents. Boiled peanuts were a hot commodity, even though the peanuts were imported from South Georgia. Who could doubt, “God moves in a mysterious way: His wonders to perform.”? Certainly not the members of the Little Church in the Valley.
Years later, Old Ben, who in real life was known as Ben Weisman, revealed in an interview to the North Georgia News that the group had really been on a quest that serendipitous Sunday. The commune had been reading Carlos Castaneda’s “Teachings of Don Juan”. To begin their journey of self enlightenment, the group had ingested peyote together, along with, what they were sure, were magical mushrooms. The group was not conscious that they had wandered into a church, or that they had disrupted the service. They were vaguely aware of music and dancing, but don’t remember in what context.
Ben recalls that various members of the church came visiting the farm the following week. Some made small purchases, others brought items. There were jams and jellies and something called chow chow. One nice lady brought a brick of homemade soap. The group felt a great karma to become a positive force in the little church and threw themselves into every project they could. Before long a synergy was formed, and as the “hippies” aged, the differences between the old members and the newcomers were less apparent.
Nunsuch, Georgia was incorporated in 1971 on land donated by the Hoakum family. City sewer and water did not reach every homestead, but did provide services parallel to all paved roads in the jurisdiction. The Nunsuch Police Department and jail were located on the edge of the Hoakum’s General Store parking lot. The Nunsuch Post Office had been built adjoining the store, in the same spot that the tent for Sunday meetings had stood. Thanks to the thriving artist community and postcard perfect views, Nunsuch became a popular spot for second homes. Basically a two hour drive from Atlanta, folks could slip out a little early from work on Friday and have the whole weekend to relax in the countryside.
In spite of an aging congregation, the Little Church in the Valley held its own through the 70’s and into the new millennium.Whether to satisfy curiosity, or a deep need to attend a religious service on Sunday, tourists could be counted on to comprise a quarter of the congregation each Sunday. Reverend Daniel kept them entertained right up to his retirement in 2010. There was no question that he was winding down as he got into his seventies, but he was as tough as a pine knot and did not give in easily.