Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fire & Brimstone

One hundred years ago, on the water dimpled plains of Minnesota, religion was a big deal. The farmer milked his cows morning and night but otherwise did no work on the sabbath. His family dressed in their best clothes, the kids put on shoes and mom wore a hat, and they all piled into the wagon to clip clop their way to church.

Church was a small white building with a steeple above the entry doors. It held about forty parishoners seated on uncomfortable wooden benches or pews. In front of the pews on left there was an elevated stage with a podium fronted by a wooden structure that went down to the floor. This construction was the pulpit and was where the preacher stood when addressing the parishoners. Behind the preacher on the raised platform and to the right were three short pews. Each one could seat about six people. This was where the choir sat in their floor length maroon robes. Opposite the choir and directly behind the preacher's pulpit was the organ, and sitting there was an older lady also wearing a maroon choir robe. For some reason the organist always had grey hair and plastic rimmed glasses. I never figured out why.

Before the service started the organist played some of her favorite hymns while everyone else bustled around to find a pew with enough space to seat their family. After most of the people were seated, the choir entered the room from a side door behind the pulpit. They went to their assigned places in front of their pews and stood. Then the choir director entered, held up his baton, the parishoners hushed, and the organist started to play the preamble to a selected hymn. At the proper instant the baton dropped and the choir began to sing the selected hymn. The parishoners voices joined in. Everyone was standing and sharing a hymn book as they repeated 'Rock of Ages' or some other familiar religious music. At the end of the hymn everyone sang Amen.

The preacher then came through door behind the pulpit and stepped to the lecturn. He motioned everyone to sit and began the service with a scripture reading. Sometimes he would read it himself, and sometimes he would ask one of the parishoners to step forward and read it. The scripture reading was typically a verse or excerpt from the Holy Bible that had some relationship to what was to be the subject of the Sermon. When the reading was over, and everyone had said Amen again, the choir director stepped in front of the choir and raised his baton once more. The organist played as the parishoners searched for the right page in their Hymnals, and when the baton dropped, everyone sang.  At the end they said Amen and sat down - except for the preacher who stood silently in his pulpit and waited until it was absolutely quiet. The big moment had arrived. The preacher then took a deep breath and began his [fire and brimstone] sermon.

In those days God was depicted as a large and great and powerful parent - with lots of flowing grey hair and clothed in heavy white robes. We were assured that God would punish us with thunder and lightning and a finger pointing at us from heaven should we ever break one of his rules. In those days long ago, God was not a warm and friendly guy. No one questioned that He was a man and not a woman,  and that he was powerful, vengeful, and strict. He was sure to punish people harshly if they defied his commandments. The preacher told  the parishoners that they would surely go through fire and straight to hell if they didn't obey God.  He found confirming verses in the Holy Bible to prove it.  Now and then he would describe hell fire and damnation to remind everyone of what was in store for them should they fail to act as a Christian should.

The preacher (Reverend-Father-Pastor, etc.) thundered and quaked for an hour or so. He talked about miracles a lot, events that the parishoners would have to believe because that is what "faith" is all about. Virgin birth. Walking on water. Feeding the multitude with one fish. Jonah and the whale. Noah and the ark. Rising from the grave. Feet washing. Curing ailments with prayer. Parting the Red Sea. Moses coming down the mountain with the 10 Commandments. The Three Wise Men, and so forth. According to the preacher, if a parishoner didn't believe in all that he or she would surely roast in hell forever. After talking to the parishoners about one or more of these topics from the Holy Bible, and reciting back-up passages verbatim, the preacher would pause for the collection.

A couple of people were designated to pass the collection plate. They began at the front of the church and walked toward the rear in the center aisle, one row at a time, passing a special wooden dish that everyone was expected to put money in.  Father would put a dollar in for he and the mother, and the children each put in a coin. The wealthy families sometimes put in a little more, and made sure that their neighbors saw the amount they donated. It was a source of pride when a family could donate more than a one dollar and a couple of coins.  When finished,  the ushers returned to the front of the church and handed the collection plates, now filled with money, to the preacher - who blessed the offering, dismissed the ushers to their seats, and signalled the choir director to begin the next hymn. Everyone stood and joined in singing something like : "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him above and from below . .  etc.".

After the hymn and while everyone was still standing, the preacher raised both hands and pronounced the Benediction ending the service. Everyone said Amen. The preacher quickly went out the side door and raced to the back of the church where he stood by the open entry door to shake hands with each person as they left the church.

This describes an old fashioned country church with typical farming families as parishoners. I attended this church near Grand Rapids, Minnesota many years ago. Today, this kind of church has pretty much disappeared - and I doubt that is a good thing . . . .


1 comment:

Rain said...

It still exists but in the country. What you describe is very like the local church near where I live. It's out there and if you are involved in it, on a working level, you find out it's no more idyllic than anywhere or anything else. It's just people