Unfortunately, my children never experienced a real, live traveling tent revival. When the subject came up recently, they even professed ignorance of the subject. Seizing the moment, I explained how traveling evangelists would appear on the outskirts of small towns back in the 1950’s and 1960’s and set up what appeared to be a circus big top — in actuality a surplus Army tent. For a week or so the evangelists would hold nightly services. The sermon was always a fire-and-brimstone call for sinners to repent, eschew worldly ways, accept salvation in Jesus Christ and to give a few bucks to the messengers so they could keep spreading the word.
Many young folks today don’t know who Elmer Gantry was, having not read the book nor seen the film with Bert Lancaster. They don’t know of little Marjoe Gortner sensationalizing the traveling evangelical circuit as a three-year-old quoting whole books of the Bible from memory; or how, in adult life, Gortner revealed how his parents tortured him with pillows until he nearly suffocated, making him learn those scriptures.
Whenever I share these stories with a much younger audience, I’m met with looks of curiosity and, sometimes, outright disbelief.
It’s all true, of course. Unscrupulous folks have always been around making a living off others in the name of God. The hard part is separating the wheat from the chaff. But, in the end, one reaps what one sows.
Today, taking a page from those fire-and-brimstone messages of yesteryear’s traveling evangelists, I want to talk about moral behavior and the occasional lapses of some in our society. Southerners call such lapses back-slidin.’ Technically, I reckon it’s "sliding back," but we tend to turn phrases around (i.e.; everwhat, peckerwood) and drop our g’s, so it becomes back-slidin.’
One hot, humid, hazy evening in the late 1950’s our family drove to the western city limits of Greensboro, Ga., where an evangelist had set up his tent in an accommodating farmer’s field. Folks parked all around, walked gingerly to avoid cow pies, sat on folding chairs, and cooled themselves with hand-held funeral home cardboard fans.
Now it was already hot, but when the evangelist started preaching it got sho’nuff hot! He yelled about the wages of sin and how hot the fires of Hell burned, and exhorted folks to avoid eternal damnation by giving their lives to Jesus Christ. Some people stood up and shouted, others ran to the makeshift altar in a frenzy, and by week’s end nearly 100 folks had been saved.
All of this made quite an impression on this young altar boy from a tiny Episcopalian church, where folks didn’t shout and get wild. As all of the Greensboro folks I knew were of good character, I was amazed that so many felt they’d been back-slidin’ and needed to get right with God in an Army tent in the middle of a cow pasture.
But today, as I look at American society, I wonder if it isn’t time to bring back those old fire-and-brimstone messages. Let us sweat a little and think about whether we’re toeing the line or letting it slide.
Last week Southern Cal’s athletic director departed in disgrace. Head football coach, Pete Carroll, bolted for the NFL before the NCAA meted out penalties for violations committed during his tenure.
Meanwhile John Calipari coaches Kentucky’s basketball team to the tune of over $2 million annually. The NCAA forced Calipari’s two previous schools, UMass and Memphis, to vacate victories and Final Four appearances for violations on his watch, yet Calipari coaches on, untouched by the misdeeds.
The University of Kansas announced the retirement of athletic director Lew Perkins in 2011 in the wake of several scandals wrought by his administration. Perkins admitted no wrong-doing but accepted KU’s retirement offer. Perkins arrived from UConn, a school which fired two assistant coaches for NCAA violations. Head basketball coach Jim Calhoun is the highest paid state employee, for Connecticut operates UConn’s athletic department, yet Calhoun continues unscathed, as if he were not responsible for his assistant coaches.
Even the hallowed Southeastern Conference is reeling from new revelations of improper professional agent interaction with players and unseemly conduct by school officials at numerous schools.
If Americans, in general, and Southerners, in particular, allow back-slidin’ in sports, is it any wonder our political house is in disorder?
The fact is that back-slidin’ exacts a price. And the only way to stop back-slidin’ is for decent, honest and upright people to step forward and rededicate themselves to what is right and good.
So I’m sayin,’ folks, that we might ought to pitch that tent and preach a little gospel, before America back-slides into oblivion!
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.