Son of a Preacher Man: A Rock And Roll Cowboy Grows Up Southern Baptist
Chapter V, The Lake of Fire and Brimstone, Part Two
As I’ve said. I'd attended scores of revival services before the summer of ‘57, revivals whose raison de etre was to rack up enlistees for God's army. The major recruitment tool was to make sure the potential soldiers knew they would certainly die and go to hell if they didn't enlist. It said so right there in God's word. (I'm not so sure about that, having read the whole thing from start to finish twice. The only reference I recall from the New Testament, aside from the wacky Book of Revelations, is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the main thrust of which is what comes around goes around.) I'd heard many an altar call, took pride in my father's successes, but none of that applied to me. It applied to sinners and I thought I'd been a pretty good boy up to that point.
John Ayers was a handsome man. He looked a lot like Fess Parker, my hero Davy Crockett. I had a little yellow 45 of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” I have no idea now what was on the B side.) The Reverend Ayers would later get exposed, like Jimmy Swaggart and many others, as a philanderer.
He was handsome, and I heard later from my father that he had a crooked right index finger from a football mishap so that when he pointed at you he might have intended to point at someone else.
Maybe it was the crooked finger or maybe the Davy Crockett resemblance, but the first night of the revival he was pointing at me, a six-year-old, telling me that if I didn't come down to the front of the church, confess my sins and publicly accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I was doomed eternally to a lake of fire and brimstone, which he described in lurid detail.
That was what he said-- come down here and fess up-- but I well knew it meant come down front, get down on your knees and we'll take turns praying over you until we let you up and then maybe the shouting starts, followed by being hugged and kissed by a series of snuff dipping old women.. The lake on fire and brimstone was a long way off but this other hell was right here and now.
So I wasn't going down there for that, but the next night he told a story about a kid he knew-- and I was to learn over the years that a lot of preachers seemed to have known this kid-- who told him he wasn't ready to accept Jesus that night. He had lots of time for that. On the way home this young man died in a car wreck, and Preacher Ayers could only hope that somehow he had found Jesus on his walk to the car.
They gave the Invitational, probably “Why Not Tonight?”, and I trembled with fear. Both hells were imminent. It was pick your poison.
For a year I lived in fear of satanic torture. I didn't think about it most of the time, but I did look both ways when crossing the street and every time I heard an Invitational I quivered, and when I lay me down to sleep I knew that if I died before I woke it was curtain number two.
Fear haunted my church-going until the following summer when my parents and I went to a revival service at the Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta. The evangelist was someone Daddy particularly admired, and he must have been good because he scared me so much my mother finally noticed. I'm sure that before that time it hadn't occurred to my family that at age seven I had reached the” age of conviction,” ( I never told them about the year I’d spent in fear of hell) but when my mother and I got in the car she asked me if I'd ever felt the need to answer the altar call. I said yes and started crying. She prayed and asked me if I accepted Jesus as my savior and I got saved right then in the backseat of a 56 Dodge.
When my father finished up his preacher talk with the other preachers he came out to drive us home and my mother gave him the joyous news. I don't remember what he said but I'm sure he was pleased, his pleasure possibly tempered by his unawareness that I was old enough to need saving.
I remember that he stopped on the way back to Holly Springs and bought me a Coca-Cola, the six-and a-half ounce returnable bottle kind, and I remember vividly how refreshing it was.
I felt supremely happy, not happy that I was going to heaven but relieved that I wasn't going to hell.
Damn, I'd beaten both hells!
From what I’d heard of heaven it was preferable only to the alternative. It would be boring-- no cowboys or saloons-- but I wouldn't have to be burned alive for eternity.
It's like the old joke where the preacher asks the congregation who wants to go to heaven. Everyone raises their hand except old Mr. Jones.
When the service is over the preacher takes Mr. Jones aside and asks,” Brother Jones, don't you want to go to heaven when you die?”
Mr. Jones looks relieved.” Oh, when I die, yes pastor. I thought you were getting up a load to go right now.”
This is my oldest sister Joyce about to be baptized by my father. She appears to be about ten, eleven. That would make this sometime during WWII. Beside her is my cousin Madeline and an unknown male waiting to take the plunge. On the far shore my sister Clara observes.