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Monday, February 27, 2012
Highways and Hedges - The New Project!
And the lord said unto the servant. "Go out into the highways and hedges..."
It has been a while since I have been around to write, as I have been waiting on a printer before I write too much as I do copy these articles and save them in a large book I have in my office. But, after the first of the year and with a new job and all, I have been catching up on some reading. Anyone who has followed these posts enough knows I am a person of varied interests (perhaps too many!). However, one of those interests has been ongoing for many years and I wanted to finally move it forward to the next level. Today, that is what I want to talk about.
I of course became a fully sacramental Catholic just over 16 years ago, and I would not trade that for anything, as the sacramental aspect of my faith has enriched me so much. But, I also have another side - it has roots in the Appalachian Holiness tradition I grew up in, and although I am not formally part of it anymore, it is still an integral part of my history, and a lot of it is good. Many of the Holiness churches I grew up around were independent fellowships, many of which had no denominational structure whatsoever - churches like Rev. Jeff Carbaugh's little Pentecostal church my step-grandmother attended in Falling Waters, WV, as well as the Sycamore Grove Church just outside of Parsons, WV (where I was born) and Calvary Temple in Mount Storm, which was for years pastored by a very dedicated minister named Pastor Wesley Georg who used to broadcast on local radio. The unfortunate thing about so many of those tiny congregations was that they never properly recorded their history, and what a loss that was - they, more so than big Pentecostal groups like the Assemblies of God, represent the essence of what Pentecostals started out as. Therefore, I have had this interest over the years in finding out about some of these little groups and churches, and in doing so I have uncovered a rich legacy of faith that oftentimes the history books neglect. Some of these are independent congregations that are basically self-contained autonomous units, while others are small fellowships of congregations over a given area, but they all have pretty much the same traits - they are generally small in number (megachurches are unknown among them, as a congregation of 50 is oftentimes considered large by their standards), are generally pretty conservative doctrinally, and they are largely rural or small-town congregations (although a few are in the cities too). As I learned more about many of these groups, a number of them have caught my attention in particular, and they are the ones I have spent a lot of time tracking down and getting to know. In the days that come, I hope to get together some material to begin focusing on some of these groups as a bit of a project, and being I am starting back to graduate school early next year, they will also be the core of my thesis. And, now the project has a name - Highways and Hedges!
I chose this name because in reality a lot of times you have to go into the proverbial "highways and hedges" to find these churches and fellowships, and sometimes the hedge can be thick to penetrate too! Some of these groups I am still coming up empty on - I know they are out there, and that they exist, but it takes some work making the initial contact and getting material from them. But, it makes the project more fun. And, for pretty much all of the contacts I have made, I have met and befriended many wonderful people in these groups that I still keep in touch with. Obviously, they are not perfect - they are small churches and have their problems and issues just like anyone else, and they themselves are very honest about that fact - but their sincerity is inspiring and they have been a witness to me of their own faith. Therefore, that is why I want to tell their story. In the months and years to come, it will also mean a lot of interviews, visiting a lot of revivals and campmeetings, and of course lots of photos for the project, which of course will require funding. I am in the process now of making some applications for grants and endowments to take this project to the next level, but this too will take time as well. And, it of course will take a lot of prayers, which is what I ask of you now who read this. And, unlike many projects and books where the initiating scholars are often detached from their projects and research, this will not be the case - the campmeetings for instance, are something that will be spiritually beneficial to us, and I am going to be treating these people as my fellow Christians and not merely as some lab rats to be observed through a fishbowl. And, it means being honest with them - I won't agree with them on everything to be sure, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate and respect them either. Too many people think that all these churches are exactly alike - they are Pentecostals or Holiness, so there is supposed to be some uniform stereotype according to such people. Nothing could be further from the truth - many of these groups I will be focusing on are groups that have their own histories, many of them are regional fellowships that are part of the identity of where they are located, and some of them have colorful stories behind their origins and growth. And, they are not like your typical First Assembly of God or charismatic megachurch either - a lot of times these little groups view the bigger ones as worldly and apostate, and they lament the fact (as do I) that some of these larger Pentecostal denominations have lost their way. Many of them were at one time part of a bigger group like the Assemblies or the Church of God, but as modernization crept into these bigger bodies, many of these people felt displaced and felt that the only way to preserve who they truly are was to pull out of the bigger denomination. There are many small, strong Assemblies and Church of God congregations in the same area too, many of whom are indistinguishable from the independent fellowships in practice, but they manage to hang on as part of the larger group. It is one thing that makes American Pentecostalism as colorful and interesting as it is, but unfortunately it is a source of shame and contention to the bigger denominations who seek to find "respectability" and often do not like to be reminded of what they came from, and these small churches remind them loudly! I think it is a good thing though - many "mainline" denominations have lost something as they seek to follow the fads and fashions, essentially focusing on the quantity of the church rolls that make them look good in front of the denominational brass, rather than focusing on quality discipleship to make solid church people. It is a scandal in American Christianity, and I believe one of the reasons why our nation is experiencing so many problems today - we have strayed from and fotgotten our roots. However, these little rural independent fellowships represent a remnant, a ray of hope, in the midst of the spiritual desert much of American Christianity has gotten itself lost in, and perhaps by sharing the testimony of the "little people" of the Church to the wider Body, it can be a witness and a challenge to the rest of us. So, this project has a spiritual as well as an academic purpose.
So, in coming months, I will be sharing some of project in this blog too, as I introduce many of you to groups like the Holiness Baptists, the Wesleyan Pentecostals, the Baptist Purity Association, the Living Word of Faith Fellowship, and the Free Will Baptist Holiness Church, among others. I also want to include some independent Catholic groups as well that are part of this, as it isn't limited to just Pentecostal groups - jurisdictions such as the Orthodox Church of the East, headquartered in Vashon Island, WA, and an unusual but interesting group called the Pentecostal Orthodox Church, come to mind automatically. And, there are a few non-Pentecostal traditions - I have come across groups like Primitive Free Will Baptists, independent Churches of the Nazarene in Indiana, and the Christian Baptist Church of God in Ohio. All-in-all, I would say that this project over the years has entailed some 40 or more groups. And, more could be discovered as time goes on and I find out more. Just that random sampling gives you an idea of how diverse this really is, and if you think that is interesting, wait until you hear their stories individually! But, I warn you - if you think Church History is a boring subject, or if you are one of those people who laments about "all these denominations,' then you may not appreciate this as much. "That we all may be one" is unfortunately something that will not happen in this life, as our limited human nature is ever-present, and the reality of denominational divisions is an evidence of that fact. Therefore, instead of worrying about "so many denominations," why don't YOU take the first step and do something like this and get to know who the people in those other denominations are?? You might surprise yourself if you are open to it.
And, then there are the scoffers and skeptics who like to belittle and explain the way the existence of such small groups as "ignorant holy-roller hillbilly churches" or something to that effect. People like that I have little respect for, because they are the ones who are ignorant and stupid - I am sorry to be so blunt, but fact is fact. It amazes me that those who claim to be so "enlightened" are often the worst as far as being bigoted, prejudiced, and small-minded - they may have college degrees, and think they are something, but the Bible has something to say about those people - Romans 1:22 says that these people, professing to be wise in their own eyes, have become fools, and by fools, truly stupid. Many of these same people also claim to be atheist or agnostic, and on that the Bible really says something - the fool saith in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1). It is unfortunately not the first time these types have belittled the little churches, particularly those in the Appalachians, as it started with one thing - greed! David Kinbrough, in his excellent book on the serpent-handling churches entitled Taking Up Serpents (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002), discusses this at length starting on page 82, when he says that these greedy super-capitalists (the "Robber Barons" of the late 1800's and early 1900's) had a willing ally in some supposedly enlightened (in their own eyes anyway) "Missionaries" of the mainline churches, who viewed the Appalachian people as barbarians and savages in need of "civilizing." So, with the "missionary" wolves in sheep's clothing slowly trickling their sweet-tasting poison, the industrialists cheated many of these mountain families out of their land to exploit and pollute it, and many people ended up in poverty, and it is something our people in the Appalachians still haven't recovered from even today. Dr. Loyal Jones, one of my mentors and a real scholar who is himself a son of the Appalachians, calls these people in his book Faith and Meaning In The Southern Uplands (Urbana, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999) "agents of uplift," because all they wanted to do was make mountain people conform to their image and they were anything but true missionaries (if anything, they should have been evangelized themselves by those unlettered but godly mountain preachers!). However, later it was to get worse when an evil woman by the name of Margaret Sanger birthed a monster called Planned Parenthood, which had a single goal of ridding society of "human weeds" (Blacks, Catholic immigrants, Appalachian mountain people, and anyone else that Sanger viewed as "inferior"), and once again, mainstream "missionaries" spread this perverted "gospel of destruction" with the full bankrolls of the Rockefellers, the Fords, and others backing up their work. I remember stories when my mother worked in Hopemont State Hospital in Terra Alta, WV, when I was in high school of patients (or "residents") being forcibly sterilized because they were mentally retarded or physically handicapped because in Sanger's eyes such people shouldn't be allowed to breed in order to create a "master race" of "thoroughbreds" out of ideal human specimens without the "pollution" of the genepool by these "inferiors" - that is what is called eugenics, by the way, and it is the biggest waste of scientific research ever! Yet, a lot of times, it didn't stop perverted "aides" from abusing and raping these poor people (which resulted in more murdered babies by abortions incidentally, as one of Sanger's minions - usually a quack doctor that flunked out of med school and did abortions to fatten his own bank account - was readily available to "take care of the problem."). Pardon me for going off on the rabbit trail with this, but it proves my point - good people get a lot of persecution from those who are pseudo-intellectual (my interpretation - they are dumb enough to believe a fable that a gorilla was their grandpaw!) because it isn't "sophisticated" enough for their understanding. Well, again, God addresses that subject too - His Word says in 1Corinthians 1:27 that oftentimes God will use things that are considered "foolish" to confound the "wise." Simply put, it needs to be looked at through different lenses - who truly is the fool?? That, again, is another reason for the Highways and Hedges Project - it is time some of these "foolish things" (at least to some) get their due respect. In that vein, I want to now say that in relation to this project I have come across two remarkable individuals who demonstrate to me true scholarship, but they are not lettered in any way. One of those is Reverend Richard Crayne, who pastors a tiny Free Holiness Church in Morristown, TN. Pastor Crayne has never been to college, and he pastors a church of fewer than 100, but when it comes to independent Holiness/Pentecostal groups, he is the man with the material. He published a small book 30 or so years ago called The Pentecostal Handbook that tells the stories of the independent Holiness/Pentecostal movement in such intricate detail that even known scholars in the field of Pentecostal studies, such as Dr. Cecil Robeck, have taken notice. Another man that is even more humble in appearance nonetheless possesses a wealth of knowledge on his tradition, and he too has written a book, although the man never finished high school! The man I speak of is Pastor Jimmy Morrow, and he pastors the Edwina Church of God in Jesus' Name in Tennessee - I might add also that he believes very much in taking up deadly serpents as part of his faith. Yet, with the assistance of Dr. Ralph Hood of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he wrote one of the best histories of the serpent-handling movement that contains information you won't find in many of the books out there, but he knows what he speaks. I have had the privelege of getting to know and befriend both Pastors Crayne and Morrow, and their books actually have been valuable resources in my own research. As a matter of fact, I plan on expanding on some of Pastor Crayne's information on a couple of the groups I am focusing on in my project, and intend to give him full credit for laying the groundwork - he deserves it because he did a tremendous job. That all being said, I have now given you an introduction to Highways and Hedges.
A lot of work lies ahead for me in the coming days, as it's a lot of ground I must cover, but I look forward to it because it will be a fun project as well as both intellectually valuable and spiritually edifying. Keep in touch, and you will see some of that fruit coming to harvest here as well. Any rate, I have rambled for enough today, so I will go for now until our next visit. Just remember though that when the main road gets too boring and you start groaning "Ugh!' at what you see, look to those hedges and get off the beaten path - you might be surprised at how much more exciting the trip will get! God bless until next time.