Vol. II, No. 2, Fall 1988


The Church as Entertainment

by Robert K. Gilmore



The young people are about to lonesome to death!"

That was the cry of a correspondent to a Texas County, Missouri, newspaper in 1902, who went on to lament, "Such a pity the church can't be finished so we can have prayer meeting, Sunday school, and preaching."

Today's Ozarkers, young people and old alike, are much less likely to "lonesome to death" than their turn-of-the-century forebears. Nearly constant entertainment is available through the home TV set, enhanced by VCR's and backyard satellite dishes. Good roads and dependable automobiles bring shopping malls, movie theatres, video arcades, concerts, operas, plays, and a myriad of other distractions within easy access to all. It was not always so.

Rural Ozarkers of an earlier time had to rely on their own resources and those of their communities for diversion from the difficult and often lonely business of everyday living. Picnics, literaries, pie suppers, barn raisings, quiltings, and other such gatherings were popular entertainments---as were religious services of all kinds.

"It came almost as a shock to think of these various (religious) meetings as being a form of entertainment, but it was," a Stone County, Missouri woman told me. "That was what you went for." Religious services provided an opportunity for a community to gather in social fellowship, and the opportunity was seldom missed. A newspaper correspondent wrote, "The people of New Site, always bent on having a good time, have been attending all the camp meetings, picnics, and so forth for miles around," and an elderly Douglas County, Missouri man allowed that "the church was your outstanding social function because there you met all your neighbors that you hadn't seen for a week."

Congregational Church Picnic in 1901 at Clarkson Springs, Lawrence County, Missouri. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri.

Stony Point Church, Wright County, Missouri, ca. 1890s. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri.

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The inhabitants of the Ozarks were predominantly white, Bible-believing, traditional Protestants who took their religion seriously but seldom somberly. Although they realized that they enjoyed a freedom from the concentrated vices of the big cities, these Ozarkers were strongly aware of the presence in their midst of the ever-zealous devil and were equally zealous in their efforts to rid themselves of him and his manifestations of evil.

Evidences of the "Old Gentleman's" efforts to corrupt were seen principally in many types of amusements and, of course, in the intemperate consumption of alcoholic beverages. The church made clear its position on certain worldly activities, as in this edict from the Elders of the Ash Grove Church of Christ in 1896:

We believe that the Bible clearly teaches that the modern dance; card parties and card playing, either for amusement or for a wager or prize; theatre going; fornication; adultery; stealing; lying; perjury; the use, sale, and manufacture of alcoholic spirits as a beverage; betting; covetness; neglect of the worship of the house of the Lord; and all other disorderly conduct are hurtful and pernicious, both in themselves and in their consequences ....

Because of the church's attitude toward many recreational opportunities, the people of the early Ozarks turned increasingly to the church itself for their entertainment. While they enjoyed such religious gatherings as children's day exercises, baptizings, and religious debates, the most popular were regular preaching and protracted meetings.

Few rural communities were large enough or prosperous enough to support a full-time minister. The preacher held services every second or third or fourth or fifth Sunday, visiting other communities during the intervening weeks. Most country ministers did not depend for financial support upon their religious vocation for their livelihood, but pursued other occupations, such as farming and schoolteaching during the week. Many wanted no money from their ministry and would accept none, reasoning that since Christ and his disciples had received no pay, preachers should ask for none. One minister termed himself "the cheap preacher," a title arising, he explained, from the way he had been reimbursed of late.

One correspondent excoriated those who came Sunday after Sunday to be "entertained" in the church but did not give of their means to it.

When an itinerant evangelist or circuit preacher arrived in a neighborhood, he might find people of different demoninational traditions, but basically of one simple evangelical Protestant faith. The fundamentalist message that he preached was free of sectarian spirit and one that "all Christians irrespective of creed or denomination could endorse." Many preachers prepared sermons on a particular text, which they used over and over again, even before the same congregation. One elderly lady recalled that the young people of her community used to say, as they prepared for the monthly trip to church, "Well, let's go hear about Lazarus and the rich man again."

A minister who gained a reputation for eloquence in the pulpit soon acquired a loyal group of admirers, and his sermons were enthusiastically reviewed by parishioner-correspondents who wrote of their performances in glowing terms: "The most brilliant and oratorical sermon that it has been our privilege to hear." "An interesting and effective talker, startling at times, but always commanding attention." "One of the grandest sermons ever heard in this community."

Through these self-proclaimed press agents many Ozarks preachers attained local star status.

Although regular church services and their featured preaching was much enjoyed, it was the revival, or protracted, meetings which were among the most anticipated entertainment events of the year. 'I'd give a hunnert dollars right now to go to a real old-fashioned camp meeting for thirty days!," a retired Taney County, Missouri preacher said longingly.

The visiting evangelists who were invited to conduct the services at a protracted meeting were exciting performers who preached lengthy and emotional sermons, and who encouraged audience participation. I was told of one testimony meeting which started one night about a half hour before preaching was to begin:

That thing broke loose, and they got that testimony meetin' started, and it lasted till after two o'clock, and they was thirteen conversions came out of that testimony. The preacher couldn't do nothing with 'em. He tried to stop them, but they wasn't nothin' doin'. They was testifyin' all over the place.

A revival meeting was counted a success when it resulted in a large number of conversions. "...Forty four additions to the church up to the tenth day of the meeting." "Shouts in the camps, twenty souls...saved to God," There was rejoicing over the eighty accessions to a Christian County, Missouri revival meeting, but a plainspoken correspondent was more concerned about those who avoided the church's embrace:

There was quite a number of accessions from other churches besides those who had heretofore joined and then danced themselves out of the church but came back to the fold. A few old toughs like Don Wilson, W.M. Randolph, H. W Stewart, Alex West, Ab Stiffler and Mrs. Amos were all that made their escape and they had to hide out.

After "some of the wickedest sinners were converted and repenting sobs were brought from those who were never known to shed a tear," the community basked for months in the afterglow of remembered fellowship, emotional stimulation, and spiritual satisfaction.

The crowds who jammed the meeting houses, brush arbors, or tents came eager not only to hear the message of salvation and to be reminded of the dangers of eternal hellfire, but also to partake of the excitement of the spectacle, to witness the dramatic performances of the preachers, to observe the emotional displays of others, and to abandon their own emotions in full empathic response to the dramatic climate of the occasion. A good protracted meeting had all of the elements of good theatre.

Early Ozarkers looked to their churches not only for nourishment of the spirit but for recreation for it as well. Any enjoyment and entertainment dis-covered in the sincere expression of religious conviction was free to be enjoyed in full clarity of conscience.

Robert K. Gilmore is an Editor and Publisher of OzarksWatch. This article was adapted from his book about turn-of-the-century Ozarks entertainments, Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

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