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Adventures in the Bible Belt

[This article was adapted from a Gazette column, Dec. 7, 1993.]

In a famous essay titled “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” Bertrand Russell concluded the negative.

But I disagree, in one regard. He overlooked the amusement contribution.

Society is treated to a carnival each time a TV Elmer Gantry is caught in a bordello — each time Catholics see miraculous tears dripping from a statue — each time a guru sets another wrong Doomsday date — each time a faith-healer sees a 900-foot-high Jesus — each time a supermarket tabloid proclaims that Christ has returned — each time a glitzy preacher in a lacquered hairdo fleeces the rubes.

If this tawdry spectacle didn’t exist, America would miss it.

A jaded lawyer in my town once started an Ernest Angley Fan Club, enlisting his friends to watch TV shows of the squat, toupee-topped, Akron evangelist who screamed “Heeeeaaalll!” at swooning believers, and claimed he could see angels and demons.

In my long career as a Bible Belt newspaperman, I’ve covered enough religious lunacy and chicanery to fill an encyclopedia. One renowned incident involved mountain Baptists who quarreled over scripture and attacked each other with “seng hoes,” the implements used for digging ginseng roots. Here are some other West Virginia tales:

— Clarence “Tiz” Jones was an evangelist-burglar. He had been a minor boxing champion in his youth, then slid into crime and spent a hitch in prison. He “got saved” and became a popular Nazarene revivalist. He roved the mountains, drawing crowds, converting yokels.

But police noticed a pattern: Wherever Jones preached, burglaries happened. Eventually, officers charged him with a break-in. Loyal believers exploded, saying that Satan and his agents were framing the preacher. Nazarene protest marches were held, and a “Justice for Tiz Jones” committee raised money.

Then Jones was nabbed red-handed in another burglary, and his guilt was clear. He went back to prison.

— “Dr.” Paul Collett was a healer who claimed he could resurrect the dead — if they hadn’t been embalmed. He set up a big tent in Charleston and drew multitudes, including many in wheelchairs. He said he had revived a corpse during a previous revival (giving a new meaning to the word). He urged believers to bring him bodies of loved ones, before embalming.

Collett moved into an old movie theater and broadcast his shows on radio. One night he said a cancer fell onto the stage. Another night, he said he turned water into wine.

I attended a service and wrote a skeptical account, focusing on his many money collections. After my article appeared, 40 of Collett’s followers invaded my paper’s newsroom, looking for me. Luckily, it was my day off. The night city editor called police, and also summoned burly printers, who backed the throng out the door.

Collett claimed to have 10,000 adherents. For five years, he collected money to build a 12-doored “Bible Church of All Nations,” which was to be “the biggest tabernacle in West Virginia.” Then he moved to Canada, leaving not a rack behind.

He returned some years later and preached at a serpent-handling church on Scrabble Creek, near Charleston. (Ardent mountain worshipers who pick up buzzing rattlers, drink poison, and thrust their hands into fire to show their faith are a colorful part of Appalachia. They’re sincere folk — even though they have a high mortality rate at prayer services.)

The leader of the Scrabble Creek church, who never took money from members, became suspicious of Dr. Collett’s demand for offerings. In an Old Testament-type showdown, the two ministers scuffled, one shouting “Manifest him, Lord!” and the other yelling “Rebuke the devil!” Then Dr. Collett vanished for good.

— Serpent churches spawned other tales: Among its photos of church weddings, a rural newspaper showed a bride and groom holding rattlers. Another time, politicians in a hill county allowed serpent-handlers to meet in the dilapidated courthouse. (Separation of church and state is little-known in the mountains.) Some snakes escaped into crevices in the walls — and emerged weeks later, causing bedlam among courthouse employees.

After I wrote news accounts of the serpent churches, sociologists visited and studied the congregations. One administered a psychological test to the Scrabble Creek flock, and gave the same test to a nearby Methodist congregation as a control group. The serpent-handlers came out mentally healthier.

Once the great Harvard theologian Harvey Cox accompanied a professor and me to a serpent church. When the worshipers began trance-like “dancing in the spirit,” we were surprised to see Dr. Cox leap up and join the hoofing.

Later, visiting professors accompanied me to another serpent church. One’s wife, barely five feet tall, was an opera soprano. The worshipers — whose music usually is the twang of electric guitars — asked her to sing. She stood on the altar rail and trilled an aria from La Boheme while the congregation listened respectfully.

— Roving healer A.A. Allen visited West Virginia with jars containing embalmed bodies that he said were demons he had cast out of the sick. (Skeptics said they were frogs.) Allen vanished after a revival at Wheeling, and was found dead of alcoholism in a San Francisco hotel room with $2,300 in his pocket.

(Marjoe Gortner, the boy evangelist who later confessed that his salvation show was a fraud, said Allen once advised him how to tell when a revival was finished and it was time to go to the next city: “When you can turn people on their head and shake them and no money falls out, then you know God’s saying, ‘Move on, son.”‘)

— “The Plastic Eye Miracle,” the Rev. Ronald Coyne, visited Charleston. He was a one-eyed evangelist who said a faith-healer had enabled him to see through his artificial eye. Several of us in the audience wrapped tape over his good eye and handed him items to read aloud, which he did. I was mystified (but I’ll bet that James Randi could explain it).

— Faith-healer Henry Lacy, who handed out calling cards saying simply “Lacy the Stranger,” often came to our newsroom to place curses on his opponents. He once offered to halt a wave of cold weather, if state officials would return his revoked driver’s license. Occasionally, he laid hands on reporters to cure their hangovers.

All the holy rollers, holy hucksters and holy hokum lend a carnival tone to Appalachia — and variations blanket the world. Although I’m a hard-bitten rationalist, I think it might be boring if the carnival ended.

“Adventures in the Bible Belt” is copyright © 1997 by James A. Haught. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of James A. Haught. All rights reserved.

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