Margaret Faye Jones
Although the only time I ever saw my grandfather in church was at my grandmother’s funeral, he was a religious man. Everyone in my family knew to keep stories of drinking, swearing, or cheating far from his ears. He was a gentle, hardworking man who had only one fault in my eyes: he was given to the occasional extemporaneous sermon. His topic of choice was the imminent end of the world. So when I heard the words “Antichrist,” “mark of the beast,” or “666,” I knew that was my cue to run outside in the summer or into another room in the winter.
Now in some families, this would probably be written off as “Grandpa on his soap box again” and forgotten. But religion permeated the air of our small town like pollution did in 19th-century London, so thick and overwhelming that it couldn’t be escaped and came to be accepted as organic. The state of our eternal souls might be a topic at a Sunday family gathering or on the elementary schoolyard.
Or at the eye doctor. During one appointment, a nurse, after checking to see if could read the letters on the chart (I couldn’t), told me how important it was to be ready to meet God, especially in these, the end times. She asked, “Have you been saved?” Being a kid who liked to please people, I wanted to say yes, but then realized that God was probably listening. I knew that Jesus didn’t approve of liars, and I guessed that he would especially disapprove of lying about being saved. So I admitted I hadn’t.
My exam forgotten, she asked me to pray with her and to invite Jesus to be my personal savior. My only post-prayer feelings were embarrassment and discomfort with no trace of holiness. But perhaps, I thought, that part would kick in later, probably when I was in a church, not a doctor’s office. Years later, when I read Langston Hughes’s “Salvation,” I was relieved to know that I had not been the only person who was “saved” under false pretenses.
The nurse, however, was quite pleased with herself.
“I have wonderful news,” she said a few minutes later when my mother came into the room. “Miss Faye here has accepted Jesus as her savior.”
My mother’s expression indicated she did not find this news wonderful, and I started to wish that I had lied. Still, she gave a little smile and nodded. Then she asked, “Does Faye need glasses?”
The only comment my mother ever made about the experience was that the nurse was inappropriate and she had a good mind to talk to the doctor about it. But as far as I know, she never did. And my soul remained in peril.
So if the end of the world could come up at the optometrist’s office, it should be no surprise that it was also part of our daily school conversations as well.
Don’t me get me wrong; we didn’t discuss the Antichrist every day in the fourth grade. Most of the time, we talked about normal things: what was on television the night before, did Alabama or Auburn have the better football team, did anyone get the answer to number 3 on page 198, the general sorts of things children talk about. But several times during the year, especially when there had been revivals, the talk turned to the end times and/or whether or not you were prepared.
In our small town, there were no mosques, synagogues or cathedrals. There weren’t even any Episcopalians or Presbyterians. The most liberal church in town was the Methodists because they sprinkled instead of dunked during baptism. The Baptists were next. The Church of Christ, where my grandmother went, was the most conservative of the big three, because there were no musical instruments during worship services. But there were also many smaller denominations, and they were multiplying all the time. A new church would appear when a group felt their current church was growing away from its mission. There were the Missionary Baptists, the Holiness, the Pentecostals, and various branch-offs. Some varied little from the major denominations. Others were more fundamentalist, believing in baptizing in rivers, speaking in tongues, and prophesying. Some did not allow women to cut their hair or wear makeup. And while I never witnessed it, there was talk about a few small churches up in the mountains participating in snake handling.
We may have gone our separate ways on Sundays, but each Monday, we came together in our elementary school classrooms. And after a revival, the talk was enough to make a kid whose parents didn’t go to church at all totally despair of salvation, especially when mangled by fourth-grade interpretations. The Antichrist was (fill in the blank with some politician, rock star, etc.). He and his followers carried the mark of the beast, which someone somewhere had seen and could verify. Or their talk may have been of the Rapture. Some of the churches held firm to the idea that only 144,000 people would be saved. And those who attended that church had a much better shot of salvation than the rest of us. While they tended to disagree on some of the finer points, such as whether makeup would damn you forever, they agreed on one thing. The end of the world was coming soon.
I’m sure more than once I asked my parents about the end of the world, its imminent happening, and if it wouldn’t be a good idea if we all got baptized. My father, who had more than his share of such talk during his own childhood, had no desire to discuss it. Moreover, he was usually gone to his second-shift at the cotton mill by the time I came home from school. So my mother was the recipient of my fears and questions. But she was not prepared for such questions. She met my father when he was stationed in England for the Air Force. She was married at nineteen, a mother at twenty, and a resident in a foreign country at twenty-two. She was already overwhelmed by my father’s family. With nine brothers and sisters, there were people everywhere, always in each other’s business. And rarely a week went by without a detailed discussion of sin and repentance. While people in her family might occasionally attend church, no one felt the need to have discussions about the state of people’s souls. She had no idea how to talk to a curious kid about things like the Rapture and the Antichrist.
One day, I came home from school after another harrowing day of Armageddon warnings. I asked her if she didn’t think we should be all get baptized so we’d be saved and not go to hell.
“You are already saved,” she said, her back to me as she was washing up some dishes. Her tone didn’t reassure me, and I was tempted to ask for details. But then I realized it didn’t matter. Even if I had been baptized, since I didn’t remember it, it would have to have been a christening, which according to the kids at school, didn’t count. But my mother’s tone and stiff back told me that she wanted no more discussion on this particular topic.
. . . it never occurred to me that Jesus would come in the daytime, despite one of the ever-present religious tracts which showed Jesus doing exactly that, with people in suits and hats flying up to him out of their cars.
So I kept my fears to myself. When an article in the paper stated that a religious group in Arkansas predicted the Rapture would come in the next week and then locked themselves in a church to spend the remaining time in prayer and repentance, I said nothing to my parents. Instead I lay on the living room floor each night pretending to watch television but actually looking outside. (This was one of the summers before we had air conditioning and the doors and windows were always open.) It seemed logical that if Jesus was coming, he would come by the way of the full moon, which, with my near-sightedness, always seemed to have a hazy cross around it. Oddly enough, it never occurred to me that Jesus would come in the daytime, despite one of the ever-present religious tracts which showed Jesus doing exactly that, with people in suits and hats flying up to him out of their cars. In any case, within a few days, the moon ceased to be full, the deadline passed, the people in Arkansas returned to their normal lives, and me to mine.
This was the rhythm of my childhood. There would be an article in the paper or a revival, and all we could talk about was the end of the world and the flames of hell. Then there would be football or baseball or the fall festival or the spring carnival, and the end times would recede from our minds. Until the next revival.
Then one Sunday afternoon, my grandfather started on a prophesying streak before I could leave the room. He said one of the signs of the end times was that the biggest church in the world would be built. And then he pointedly called out the Whitesburg Baptist Church.
All the churches in my home town were small. Even the largest was nothing more than a sanctuary that would hold maybe a hundred people, a wing to the left for Bible school, and a wing to the right for fellowship. So the Whitesburg Baptist Church did stand out for its size, and it became my own personal symbol of the end of the world. It didn’t help that there was a large mosaic of Jesus on the front of the building, which reminded me of the Jesus in the Rapture tracts. And the church stood at the intersection where we turned each Saturday to go to Murphy’s Mart and Winn Dixie to do our shopping. No matter how happy I was when we started the drive, as we approached Whitesburg, I could feel the fear surging in me, and I tried not to look at the church. Sometimes, I would look out the other window for a count of twenty until I was sure we were safely past. Other times, especially if the light stopped us at the intersection, I wrapped up in a ball on the floor of the back seat, much to mother’s chagrin and irritation. Each Saturday, as we drove by, the church seemed to say, “You don’t have much time to get your soul in order.”
Ironically, this is one fear I could have shared with my mother. Being from England, she could have told me that bigger churches had been around for centuries. But by that time, I had learned to keep my religious fears to myself.
The saving grace of being a child is that you have no real comprehension of long periods of time. After a month or two when the world didn’t end, I stopped feeling the fear when we passed the church. Then my fear gradually gave way to anger at the unfairness of it all.
“What about the Hindus? Are they going to hell?” I asked a classmate one day. I have no idea why but the Hindus were always my go-to religion when we had these discussions.
“They’ll have to accept Jesus.”
“What if they’ve never heard of Jesus? That doesn’t seem fair of God.”
“That’s why there are missionaries.”
But it occurred to me that if the Hindus gods were the real ones and Hindu missionaries tried to make me believe in Shiva, I wouldn’t trust them because my whole life I’d been raised to believe something else. I couldn’t get over the injustice of it. And finally, I gave up on even trying to understand. Then I gave up on belief.
I remembered my fear a few years ago as I was sitting in a pew in Notre Dame in Paris, a church centuries old that could dwarf poor Whitesburg Baptist if they stood side by side. I laughed out loud at my childish simplicity and gullibility. But there was something magical about such stalwart belief, no matter how frightening, that I sometimes almost regret losing.