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.
Reverend Daniel shared an addiction for tobacco with his granddaddy, but his vice of choice was cigarettes. It was also widely rumored that Reverend Daniel had an addiction for corn squeezings, of the untaxed variety. There were still plenty of places within easy driving distance to find liquid refreshment in Mason jars, if you knew where to look. Reverend Daniel knew all of the nooks and crannies in the surrounding mountains from ministering to his flock.
Reverend Daniel did not share the fecundity of his predecessors. Daniel had one son, Evan. Evan, or “Bubba” as he is called, showed great promise until his accident. Actually, it was the Reverend Daniel’s accident, but Evan bore the scars and the loss of brain function. Coming back from one of Reverend Daniel’s “mission trips”, on the border of Georgia and North Carolina, Reverend Daniel lost control of his car and plunged down an embankment. Bubba was tossed through the windshield, and would have been lost forever had he not hit a tree head first on his way over the cliff. The Reverend Daniel was unscathed, but Bubba’s brains were scrambled. The promise of a fourth generation of Hoakums in the pulpit was dashed that day. Bubba was twenty-five.
Bubba’s recovery was long and arduous. While he remembered every sermon and hymn he’d ever heard, he was hard pressed to name the President or day of the week.
Fortunately, since he was grounded in the church, Bubba was always where he was supposed to be. The only question was if it was Sunday service, Monday Men’s Bible Study, or Wednesday Prayer meeting. Bubba sang on Sunday and recited Scripture on Monday and Wednesday. Bubba had a beautiful bass voice, and it was felt that his voice would carry him to the heights of other singing evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart. The car crash ended those dreams.
The car crash also ended the marriage of Reverend Daniel and his wife Sara. It took a while, and it didn’t involve lawyers. Sara just gave up after recognizing the damage that had been done to her only child. Rumors were that the Reverend Daniel had always been a tough task master, particularly with Bubba. Sara had hung in there, the loyal dutiful wife, until her husband broke forever her most prized possession. After a few of years of trying to “bring Bubba back”, Sara realized that her baby was not coming back. She just gave up life. Sara quit eating, quit coming to church and eventually took to her bed and wasted away. No amount of entreaties from the pulpit to pray for his wife could stay the path Sara chose. Sara died in spite of the entreaties, or maybe to spite the entreater. The year was 1985 and Bubba was 28 and Sara was 45.
Various women of the church took turns caring for Reverend Daniel and Bubba. All of the household chores were assigned and a schedule developed to ensure that the Reverend and Bubba got at least one hot meal a day. In truth, Reverend Daniel could have hired all of the help he would ever need. He was a man of considerable means. He was also a believer in the old adage, “you can’t keep it, if you spend it”. If the women of the community were willing to provide services for the blessings they received, it was a fair swap as far as Reverend Daniel was concerned. Bubba didn’t seem to notice. Bubba tagged along with his daddy the same as he had as a boy. Until Reverend Daniel announced his retirement.
The announcement came the Sunday before the beginning of Revival Week. In a voice that made the sound of a rasp against oak, Reverend Daniel announced his retirement, and charged the congregation with attending each revival session. The congregation was going to be auditioning their new pastor, and what better way than to watch them in practice? In what must have a been a brief moment of clarity, Bubba cried “no!” from his spot in the choir. Whether or not Reverend Daniel had discussed his plans with Bubba before the announcement is not known. What is known is that Bubba left his spot in the choir and was found later crying under the crawl space of the church.
The following night, auditions were to begin for what was possibly the most important position in Nunsuch, Georgia. Certainly one of the most powerful.
Previously the ministers for the “Little Church in the Valley” had come directly from the Hoakum family tree. Since Bubba was incapable of looking out for himself, it would be foolhardy to try to continue the Hoakum family tradition by inserting Bubba into the role as pastor. While it was true that Bubba had attended seminary, and was ordained, it was also true that Bubba would be hard pressed to spell cat if you spotted him the “c” and the “a”. Bubba was damaged goods, and the best he could hope for was the continued care, and feeding, provided by the parishioners.
Bubba probably recognized his shortcomings on some level, but never acknowledged them. His face was in a perpetual grin. Sadly, Bubba had lost most of his front teeth in the accident, and his daddy didn’t feel like replacing them was worth the expense. Reverend Daniel rationalized that Bubba didn’t have to worry anymore about making a good impression. Bubba seemed to have lost the part of the brain that makes people self-conscious, or had accepted his lot graciously. Either way, Bubba greeted everyone he came into contact with with the enthusiasm of a first grader eating ice cream. Everyone was his friend, and he was always happy to see you. He had trained all of his life to follow in the footsteps of his daddy, granddaddy, and great granddaddy. Bubba wanted nothing more than to be a good shepherd to his flock. Now the prize he cherished so, was going to be raffled off to some unknown revival preacher.
Revival meetings can take different forms, but are predominately used to expose a congregation to “specialist” preachers. A couple of metrics could be used to determine if a revival would be considered successful. The first would be an increase in new membership. Bringing new members into the fold is always the first aim of a church. If a little extra expense at revival time does it, it is money well spent. The second measure would be if the regular attendance of existing members rose. It’s just as important to get those “backsliders” back into the pews as gaining new members. Revival ministers can be very useful in recharging the batteries of members who have decided that it’s more important to watch ESPN on Sunday than to attend services.
Typically, the summer revival week would correspond with the “Third Sunday” celebration. The “Third Sunday” celebration was when the church had what would be best described as a giant family reunion to observe a time of collective mourning. The church secretaries would start a month in advance of “Third Sunday” going through the church address register. The secretaries would then send invitations to all of the members, current and past, no matter how far they may have wandered. Part of the “Third Sunday” service was devoted to the pastor “calling out” each family that was recognized in attendance and acknowledging any gifts to the church the family may have made in the past year.
The service then dismissed to be reconvened in the church cemetery. The pastor would then give an invocation that would usually include John 10:28-30, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”, or, John 3:16,“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The congregation was then free to wander about the cemetery and decorate the headstones of their dearly departed. Fresh and plastic flowers were available for purchase from the Ladies Auxiliary to use to pay your respects to your kin.
Eventually the various family groups would wander back to the church parking lot, where they would tailgate like it was game day. The Ladies Auxiliary made sure everyone was well fed, even if you were the last surviving member of your family. The Pastor and Elders worked the crowd, twisting arms for promises to attend the upcoming revival. “You’ve already come so far, you should be able to stay just one more day”, “your family would love to visit with you some more”, “we’d love to visit with you some more”. Whatever needed to be said, even extolling the virtues of the upcoming revivalists to the point of heresy, was all fair play if it filled the revival tents.
This year Reverend Daniel had gone the extra mile to ensure a bumper turnout at the revival. He had sent the Ladies Auxiliary into Blairsville to place revival announcements under the windshield wipers of the cars parked at the Walmart. While the ladies had about a twenty percent rejection rate, they just uncrumpled the rejected circulars and reused them. They rationalized that the rejected missive had at least two chances to bring someone in. Recycling the advertisement also helped them keep in the good graces of the Walmart management.
The Ladies Auxiliary was approached by people wearing the familiar blue vest on their first day in the parking lot, but had managed to disarm them with one question. “Do you love Jesus?”, they asked. It’s real hard to find somebody in these parts that would admit to not loving Jesus, so they were allowed to stay, as long as they kept the area clean. To show their service to the community, the Ladies Auxiliary picked up all of the trash in the parking lot as they went, not just the discarded circulars. They even returned the shopping carts back to the buggy holders. The Ladies Auxiliary exemplified their creed as it was related in Galatians 6;10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Back at the Little Church in the Valley, the tents were being pitched, and the vendor tables were spread about for maximum exposure. The week of events that would set the course for the “Little Church in the Valley’s” future was about to begin.
Long before there were rock stars demanding MM’s in their dressing room with all of the brown ones removed, or large flower arrangements of colored flowers with no chrysanthemums, lilies, carnations, or daisies, there were traveling preachers who demanded that their every request be made perfect before they would take the stage. Apparently the conditions had to be just perfect for Jesus to do his work, or at least work through his servant, and the traveling ministers made long lists of their demands. The more famous Evangelists even had entourages that had to be catered to as closely as the “star”.
The accommodations for their stay had to be perfect, even if the minister had to be housed in the closest town that afforded that level of luxury. Menus had to be strictly adhered to lest the minister come down with some local malady and be put out of commission for part of the revival season. Many of the revival preachers had flocks of their own, and used their vacation time as an opportunity to pick up some extra cash.
Being treated like royalty by the local communities while doing “what came natural” was a Godsend for ministers who usually had to get by with what their following could afford.
Developing a name for yourself on the revival circuit could result in securing full time employment on the circuit. Being on the circuit full time could be far more rewarding than the renumeration of a full time preacher, even one with a large congregation. The demands on the Evangelist were far smaller than on their hosting counterparts.
First, the Evangelist needed at best, six sermons, and that was if he was a keynote speaker at the revival. It was true that they needed to be six really powerful sermons, but, at the end of the revival, the Evangelist would move on to a new congregation that had not heard his repertoire. The preacher with his own church had to come up with something new every Sunday, for as long he held court.
Next, the Revival minister was promised a larger portion of a much larger gate than the local preachers were ever exposed to. The traveling Revivalists could make as much in one week as the local minister made in a year, and the Revivalists had none of the responsibilities to the flock. At the end of the week, the Revivalist was off to the next town and the next set of sinners needing salvation. If a “healing” the Revivalist had done had worn off, or never materialized, it would be left to the local minister to explain that the, “Lord works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform”. There were no refunds in the Revival business.
If an Evangelist reached the super star status of a Billy Graham or Oral Roberts, he wouldn’t have to wait for the Hereafter to walk on the “streets paved of gold” or pass through “pearly gates”. He could just have pearly gates made for his compound, and have the streets paved with actual gold. Being in the upper echelon of the Evangelist game has that kind of wealth. Evangelist Benny Hinn has an estimated net worth of 42 million, and is less well known than Elmer Gantry. Doing well on the circuit was something that held great rewards for the preachers that could get their names on the top of list.
This was the competitive market that the congregation of the Little Church in the Valley found themselves in at Summer Revival 2010. There were six revivalists scheduled for the week, one headliner and five hopefuls. Two of the hopefuls were fresh out of the seminary, while the other three were currently employed by other churches. Each of the hopefuls would open for the headliner, the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson. After the fifth hopeful preached on Friday night, the pastor selection team would vote to determine who would be asked to preach again on the sixth and final night. If the chosen hopeful filled the selection committee with the same enthusiasm in his second sermon as he did in his first offering, the selection committee was charged to make an offer.
The committee knew the offer had to be sweet enough to lure the visitor to settle in the small mountain community. The selection committee was prepared to offer an unusual set of perks. First, was the finely outfitted parsonage, three bedrooms, two and a half baths, with all of the furniture and kitchen appliances provided. Next, was a late model four wheel drive vehicle suitable for use in ministering to the flock in the most remote of locations. Gasoline for the vehicle would be provided by the Hoakum General Store, along with a generous grocery stipend. Utilities were included and the only thing the new minister would be out of pocket for would be clothing and any personal items he didn’t want to run by the cashier at the Hoakum General Store.
To make way for the new minister, Reverend Daniel and Bubba had began moving their belongings to their new home. Daniel’s nephew, Zeke, had offered a small cabin at the backside of his property which abutted the cemetery. It was the original dwelling on the property, and Zeke had reclaimed it as a machine shop. Complete with in door plumbing, the cabin would be re-purposed for the two bachelors until they made better accommodations. The cabin was within easy walking distance of the church, and would provide a comfortable nest for the Reverend and his son until the next mission was revealed.
Lights were strung and the concessionaires made their last minute preparations. The first sermon was to begin at 7PM, with the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson scheduled for the main tent for all six nights. Cars began arriving at 4PM. It was going to be a memorable revival, in more ways than one.
The Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson’s motorcade arrived promptly at 5PM. There was one large tour bus and two Cadillac Escalades in the convoy. One Escalade held security and the other Hap T. Johnson’s backup singers, “The Hummingbirds”. The tour bus held the Right Reverend and whatever sycophants that were lucky enough to have the Right Reverend’s favor. The bus included a master bedroom with separate bath, and a very efficient kitchen facility. Once the bus was hooked to electrical and water, it was a home away from home.
When the cavalcade arrived, the Elders could see why the Right Reverend demanded a thousand dollars a day, guaranteed. It had been written into the contract that the Ladies Auxillary would be providing three meals a day for the support staff for the duration of the stay. The Ladies Auxillary were also charged with securing the groceries for the Right Reverend’s personal chef, who traveled with the Right Reverend everywhere he went. The personal chef was an attractive woman in her early thirties, who also acted as the Right Reverend’s scheduler and secretary. Some people presumed that there were other duties that the young lady performed, but there are always those who want to spread scandal and rumors. Being named Crystal Chandle Leer probably did not help the assistant’s credibility.
Upon arrival, the Right Reverend and his chef/scheduler/secretary sought out Elder Cheatum, who was in charge of handling the financials for the revival. Elder Cheatum handed the Right Reverend Johnson ten crisp one hundred dollar bills from a stack of bills that would have choked a horse. Elder Cheatum then asked the Right Reverend to sign in the Elder’s ledger book that he had received payment for the first day. Elder Cheatum then directed the Right Reverend and Ms. Leer to the Ladies Auxillary booth to get further details about meals and accommodations for the rest of the entourage.
Elder Cheatum was greatly relieved that his headliner was on site. While it was true he was getting the other five preachers for the price of one Hap T. Johnson; it was Hap T. Johnson that was going to be bringing in the crowds. People who hadn’t darkened a church house door in years would be coming to hear the Right Reverend Johnson mix fire and brimstone and repackage it as salvation. The Right Reverend’s healing powers were legendary, and the afflicted would be coming from far and wide to get in line for healing. While it was said that the Right Reverend’s serpent skills were sub-par, his skills as an orator and healer were top shelf. Like a major league baseball player, it was rare to find a player that could hit forty home runs, average over three hundred and steal ninety bases. If you got two out of three, then you had all star player, and so it was with Hap T. Johnson.
Rounding out the field of revivalists were: Al Bino from Suwanee, Georgia, Bill Foldes from Asheville, North Carolina, Brighton Early from Cleveland, Tennessee, Rockefeller (Rocky) Rhoades from Ithaca, New York and Dale E. Bread from Homosassa Springs, Florida. Two of the hopefuls were fresh out of the seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee, Bill Foldes and Brighton Early. The other three Evangelists were on vacation from their churches and trying to pick up a little extra money. If a better situation opened up along the way, then who could argue that it wasn’t God’s will that created the opportunity for advancement? Certainly not the auditioning minister.
The “opening” ministers were assigned their nights to deliver their message alphabetically. Reverend Daniel felt it was as fair a way to do it as any other.
First up, on Monday night, was Al Bino. As awkward a twist of fate as ever has befallen a man, Reverend Al Bino did suffer from a skin pigmentation problem. While he was not Edgar Winter pale, he was darn close. The Bino family, immigrants from Italy had no idea that their son Alfredo’s name would be shortened to the nickname “Al” when he reached first grade. Thereafter, he was known as Al Bino. It took a while for his classmate’s language skills to catch up to the fact that they had irony in their midst. A very pale boy named Al Bino.
As a result of the constant teasing from his peers, Al chose to ostracize himself and look for answers of a spiritual nature to explain his plight. His parent’s Catholicism was not the answer. Al felt the “one size fits all” dogma left too many unanswered questions. Finally, the only girl who had ever acted friendly to Al asked him to come to her church. It was an Evangelical, spirit filled church. Al was overwhelmed by the emotions he felt while attending the service. At the altar call, Al came forward and dedicated his life and service to Jesus. Now, here he was, eight years later, auditioning for the pastorship of one of the oldest Evangelical churches in the country. He was on fire and filled with the holy spirit.
It is the first night of Summer Revival 2010 and the crowds are filing in. The Ladies Auxillary has set up booths to provide the crowds with whatever food and liquid refreshment they could possibly need. Most folks are coming directly from work, and they appreciate being able to buy something onsite. The Ladies Auxillary has provided the very best of carnival food, from corn dogs to snow cones, in the hopes of fostering a fun experience for all ages. There is a T-shirt booth displaying shirts with the current year’s theme: “I Found Jesus at Summer Revival 2010”. There is a spray paint artist on hand to personalize the shirt with the customer’s name, for a five dollar charge. There is a small booth setup to sell small bric a brac items with the Little Church in the Valley logo emblazoned wherever possible.
In fact, the bric a brac booth had been a point of contention with the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson. The Right Reverend traveled with a full line of Evangelical artifacts specifically blessed by Hap T. Johnson. Who had the right to sell what, came down to a line by line listing in the contract. The Right Reverend was willing to provide his followers with a complete line of memorabilia, from Bibles to seashells with the sign of the cross painted on them, at his souvenir booth. Prices were set so that everyone could afford to take away something to remind them of their experience.
The awning for the booth attached to the side of the tour bus and ran a full forty feet. It provided about four hundred square feet of retail space, and customarily provided the Right Reverend with about $10 a square foot in sales per night. If the revival was particularly forceful, the Right Reverend’s gift booth could expect to double their average sales on the last night of the revival. This revenue was strictly Hap T. Johnson’s, and he did not share any portion with the host. Twenty five to thirty thousand in souvenir sales was not an uncommon week for the Revivalist. Like his healings, there were no guarantees and absolutely no refunds.
Promptly at 7PM, the lights throughout the parking lot flickered and the speakers spotted about the area started playing a hymn later identified as “All Are Welcome”. Almost everyone had taken their places before the warning. People listening to the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson had started filling the folding chairs in tent number one at about 5PM. Tent number one was double the size of tents two and three, where the hopefuls would be biding their time to do warmup for the Right Reverend. Using a baseball analogy, it was like on-deck and in-the-hole, with the hopefuls rotating through tents, and start times, to give the crowds ample time to sample the preachers. It was the hope of the Elders that everyone would get to hear Right Reverend Johnson, but, if not, they wouldn’t feel cheated for the experience.
Tonight’s schedule was Al Bino opening for Hap T. Johnson in Tent One, Brighton Early opening for Dale E. Bread in Tent Two, and Bill Foldes opening for Rocky Rhoades in Tent Three. As Al Bino looked out over the seated crowd of five hundred, and another one hundred or so clamoring for standing room, he prayed for the strength and guidance to reach the souls gathered before him. He also prayed for control of his voice and his intestines. One of which had quit working, the other was working overtime. Pastor Bino was introduced to the crowd as a “young spirit filled minister taking time from his flock in Suwannee, Georgia, to bring his message of love and salvation to the folks gathered there tonight”. And like that, there he was in front of the biggest audience of his life. Fifty-five minutes later Al Bino was passing a beautiful, well fed, four foot copperhead between his legs and behind his back while he danced with the spirit of the Lord and the ferocity of a dervish. Al had hoped to pass the snake directly to the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson as sort of a “passing the baton” like moment, but the Hap Johnson people made it clear there would be none of that. Instead, Pastor Bino placed the snake back in the box and exited stage right.
Elder Diggum stepped up to the microphone and introduced the “man who needs no introduction”, the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson. From the brochure handed out by Hap’s people, the congregation had learned that Hap T. Johnson was born Happy To-a-tee Johnson to disgraced members of the Johnson and Johnson empire. Hap’s father had protested against the family’s conglomerates exploitation of third world countries to the point of being expunged from the board of directors. He was told to shut up or he would be completely disinherited. Hap’s father decided to take up painting, golf, and tennis. Not having a strong father figure to pattern after, but having been taught of the evils of the family business, Hap was at a loss for a career choice. Hap exhausted twelve years of college life pursuing assorted disciplines until settling on Divinity school.
Once Hap figured out he could interpret the Bible for people who were desperate for a message, he was on his way. When he found that people actually believed he had “healing” powers he was shocked, but was happy to receive the adulation that came from the believers. Drawing on his stipend from the family fortune, Hap promoted his message and marketed his brand throughout the country. Hap was able to cut short the time from neophyte to super star by decades. Using his family fortune, and the marketing techniques he had learned in six years of business school, Hap had “arrived” in just under five years.
Now, as Hap stood before the congregation stretched out before him, his mind went through the mental checkdown necessary to bring off a successful revival. It was Monday, therefore sermon one, he was in Nunsuch, Georgia, as the guest of the Little Church in the Valley, an unaffiliated Pentecostal church with a long tradition of snake handling. He had made sure that his snake box was filled with harmless corn snakes and Northern water snakes, which bear a strong resemblance to copperheads and rattlesnakes. Part of Hap’s security team’s function was to ensure that Hap’s snakes were not co-mingled with any other snakes, and vice versa.
Hap checked his vest pocket to make sure that the anti-anxiety pill he would take thirty minutes into the sermon was in place. Snakes made Hap’s flesh crawl. The anti-anxiety pill taken with the tea glass of Bourbon before the show would need a booster to keep Hap “level” when it came time to start “dancing with the snakes”. Hap looked to each side and saw that there was a security member in place, and they were watching the crowd and not his backup singers. Satisfied that his checklist was complete, Hap stepped up to the microphone and straightened the knot in his Armani tie. With a brief shrug of Hap’s shoulders, the piano player hit the first note as Hap began to sing, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”. The Hummingbirds joined in close behind in harmony and the Summer Revival 2010 was begun.
At the end of the final verse, Hap raised his hands to mid-shoulder height and lowered them, signifying to the audience, and his entourage that it was time to sit down. In a voice trained by graduate level public speaking courses, Hap went into sermon number one, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.
For ten minutes straight, hardly catching a breath, Reverend Hap spoke about the importance of obtaining the friendship of the man from Galilee. Then, as if struck by lightning, the Right Reverend stood straight as a board, his eyes fixed on some remote object, and the Right Reverend “spoke in tongues” for three minutes. No words were decipherable, no language or languages discerned, just the physical manifestation that the holy spirit was in attendance at this revival, and was making his presence know through his disciple Hap T. Johnson.
When defined by linguistic experts, Glossolalia or “speaking in tongues”, is the melodious vocalizing of speech-like sounds that are incomprehensible to the listener. When defined by members of the Pentecostal faith, they reference the Bible passage Acts 2:1-4, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. When defined by the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson, it meant a break in the action and the opportunity to refresh himself with whatever libation was available.
The crowd waited patiently for the Right Reverend to compose himself. After a couple of minutes, he charged back into his sermon as if there had been no break. For the next twenty minutes the Right Reverend extolled the importance of having Jesus for a friend. Jesus could “protect us from all harm” and “pave the path to prosperity” for those who were ready to accept Him as their Lord and Savior. After twenty minutes the Right Reverend was ready for another little break, and so, with a shrug of his shoulders he started the piano player into a medley of gospel songs. The Right Reverend began the chorus of the “Old Rugged Cross”, and then let The Hummingbirds take over for the next ten minutes. The musical interlude was the perfect opportunity to pass the collection plate, and the Elders of the Little Church in the Valley worked swiftly and unobtrusively to complete their mission. Hap reached into his vest pocket and swallowed his anti-anxiety pill. After taking a big chug of water, Hap T. Johnson was ready to “bring it home” for the final ten minutes.
Having convinced his audience of the importance of having Jesus for a friend, Hap spent the next ten minutes describing the horrible loss in this life, and the next, of Jesus’s friendship. The horrors described in this life rivaled the tribulations of Job. One could expect ailments and afflictions coupled with crushing poverty if one couldn’t “get right with Jesus” today. The horrors for the next life were incomprehensible, with living in a lake of fire almost sounding like a condo on the beach by comparison. Hap T. Johnson was at his best when describing the pains of eternal damnation. By the time he had finished his last segment, the audience was primed for the altar call and testament of faith.
Once again, the Right Reverend Hap T. Johnson shrugged his shoulders and the piano player broke into “Love Lifted Me”. The Hummingbirds broke into song behind him as Hap pulled the microphone loose from the pulpit, and carried it with him down to the floor in front of the altar. Hap’s most trusted security guard reached into the wooden crate painted white with “Private Property of Hap T. Johnson Ministries” stenciled in black on the side. The head of security reached into the crate and selected a sluggish, well fed corn snake to pass to the Right Reverend. Mustering all of his courage and love for the coin of the realm, Hap took the snake and began his “tap dance for Jesus” while hollering out whatever scriptures popped into his brain. After making a single pass of area between the aisles and the first row, Hap returned the snake to his security man and called into the microphone, “Who’s ready to accept Jesus into their souls?”
Lines were formed in both aisles, and security filled the queue in front of the Right Reverend to pass the lost souls back for Redemption. People who were requesting healings were pre-screened in line, and were pinned with a colored ribbon that indicated the body part or disease that needed to be exorcised. To the audience, the Right Reverend looked prescient when he announced to the audience what the afflicted were suffering from. The infirmed’s contact information was gathered to facilitate being added to the Right Reverend’s prayer list, and by extension, solicitation of donations for the ministry.
The lines going down both aisles looked endless, and the Right Reverend suspected that there were followers sneaking in from the other tents, hoping to take advantage. Security, and the Elders, were supposed to be keeping things straight, but, sinners can be very resourceful. The plans were to pass out blessings for an hour before wrapping up the meeting with a prayer. To the Right Reverend’s skilled eye, there appeared to be at least two hours of “laying hands” as fast as he could lay them. This overflow condition created the opportunity to do private healings, which could be very lucrative. Hap would not slow his process to create additional opportunities, but he would also not work overtime to catch up. His contract specified one hour, and one hour it would be.
At the end of the “hour of healing”, the Right Reverend waved his hand above his head and the piano player began playing, “Just As I Am”. The Heavenly Hummingbirds picked up the cue, and Reverend Hap headed back up the steps to the stage. Placing the microphone back in its stand at the pulpit, the Right Reverend looked out over the audience and beamed brightly. “I think we’ve made a good start you all, and I hope you can come back tomorrow night and share in the miracles we’re about to perform.” Reverend Hap waved goodbye and he and his entourage exited the tent. Feeling particularly gregarious, Hap decided to work at the gift booth signing his name to memorabilia. An autograph was ten dollars, whether it went in a Bible or on a sea shell with the sign of the Crucifixion. The requests Hap received for healings were passed off to his scheduler. Hap sought out Elder Cheatum for an accounting of the collection. Once Hap was satisfied with the accounting, Hap collected his share in cash and headed back to his bus for the night.