“Gimme Dat Ol’ Time Religion!”

25 May

A good deal has been written on the folk creations of the American Negro: his music, sacred and secular, his plantation tales, and his dances, but that there are folk sermons as well, is a fact that has passed un-noticed. I remember hearing in my boyhood, sermons that were current, sermons that passed with only slight modifications from preacher to preacher, and from locality to locality. Such sermons were: “The Valley of Dry Bones”, which was based on the vision of the prophet in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel; the “Train Sermon”, in which both God and the devil were pictured as running trains, one loaded with saints, that pulled up in Heaven, and the other with sinners, that dumped it’s load in hell. The “Heavenly March”, which gave in detail the journey of the faithful from earth, on up through the Pearly Gates to the Great White Throne. Then there was a stereotyped sermon which had no definite subject, and which was quite generally preached, it began with the Creation, went on to the Fall of Man, rambled through the trials and tribulations of the Hebrew Children, came down to the Redemption by Christ, and ended with the Judgement Day and a warning, and an exhortation to sinners. This was the framework of a sermon that allow the individual preacher the widest latitude that could be desired for all of his arts and powers.

There was one Negro sermon that in it’s day was a classic, and widely known to the public. “Thousands of people, white and black, flocked to the church of John Jasper in Richmond, Virginia, to hear him preach his famous sermon proving that the earth is flat and the sun does move. John Jasper’s sermon was imitated and adapted by many lesser preachers. I heard long ago in Harlem an up-to-date version of: the “Train Sermon.” The preacher styled himself: “Son of Thunder”–a sobriquet adopted by many of the old-time preachers–and phrased his subject, “The Black Diamond Express, running between here and hell, making thirteen stops and arriving in hell ahead of time.” Finnish blues guitar virtuoso Jari Rissanen and I wrote a song with the same title, and had a duo by that name in the early 1990’s. Everyone asked why we were called that, and it opened a door for much discussion on christianity.

The old-time Negro preacher has not yet been given the niche in which he properly belongs. He has been portrayed only as a semi-comic figure. He had, it is true, his comic aspects, but on the whole he was an important figure, and at bottom a vital factor. It was through him that the people of diverse languages and customs who were brought here from diverse parts of Africa and thrown into slavery, were given their first sense of unity and solidarity. He was the first sheperd of this bewildered flock. His power for good or ill was very great.

It was the old-time preacher who for generations was the mainspring of hope and inspiration for Black people in America. It was also he who instilled in them, the narcotic doctrine epitomized in the Spiritual, “You May Have All Dis’ World, But Give Me Jesus.” This power of the old-time preacher, somewhat lessened and changed in his successors, is still a vital force, in fact, it is still the greatest single influence among the Black people of the United States.

The Afro-American today is, perhaps, the most priest-governed group in the country. This history of the Negro preacher reaches back to Colonial days. Before the Revolutionary War, when slavery had not yet taken on it’s more grim and heartless economic aspects, there were famed black preachers who preached to both whites and blacks. George Liele was preaching to whites and blacks at Augusta, Georgia, as far back as 1773, and Andrew Bryan at Savannah a few years later. The most famous of these earliest preachers was Black Harry, who during the Revolutionary period accompanied Bishop Asbury as a drawing card and preached from the same platform with other founders of the Methodist Church.

In the two or three decades before the Civil War, Black preachers in the North, many of them well-educated and cultured, were courageous spokesmen against slavery and all it’s evils. The effect on the Negro of the establishment of separate and independent places of worship can hardly be estimated. Some idea of how far this effect reached may be gained by a comparison between the social and religous trends of Negros of the Old South, and the Negros of French Louisiana and the West Indies, where they were within and directly under the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of England.

The old-time preacher was generally a man far above the average in intelligence. He was, not infrequently, a man of positive genius. The earliest of these preachers must have virtually committed many parts of the Bible to memory through hearing the Scriptures read or preached from in the white churches which the slaves attended. There is the story of one preacher who after reading a rather cryptic passage took off his eyeglasses, closed the Bible with a bang and by way of preface said: “Brothers and sisters, this morning–I intend to explain the unexplainable–find out the undefinable–ponder over the imponderable–and unscrew the inscrutable.” The old-time Negro preacher of parts was above all an orator, and in good measure an actor. He knew the secret of oratory, that at bottom it is a progression of rythmic words more than it is anything else.

Indeed, I have witnessed congregations moved to ecstasy by the rythmic intoning of sheer incoherencies. He was a master of all the modes of eloquence. He often possessed a voice that was a marvelous instrument, a voice he could modulate from a sepulchral whisper to a crashing thunder clap.

The great legendary vocal Diva Aretha Franklins’ father, the late Reverend C.L Franklin (who sold gold records in the millions, back in the 1950’s and ’60’s, just of his preaching alone) is a very good example. The preachers’ discourse was generally kept at a high pitch of fervency, but occasionally he dropped into colloquialisms and, less often, into humor. He preached a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure enough Heaven and a red-hot hell! His imagination was bold and unfettered. He had the power to sweep his hearers before him, and so himself was often swept away. At such times his language was not prose but poetry. Reverend C.L Franklin for example, would stride the Pulpit up and down in what was actually a very rythmic dance, and brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice–what shall I say?..not of an organ or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice–and with greater amplitude. He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded–he blared, he crashed, he thundered. I am fascinated and deeply moved still each time I hear his recordings.

The old-time Negro preachers, though they actually used dialect in their ordinary dealings, stepped out from it’s narrow confines when they preached. They were all saturated with the sublime phraseology of the Hebrew prophets and steeped in the idioms of King James English, so when they preached and warmed to their work they spoke another language, a language far removed from traditional Negro dialect. It was really a fusion of Negro idioms with Bible English; and in this there may have been, after all, some kinship with the innate grandiloquence of their old African tongues.

To place in the mouths of the talented old-time Negro preachers a language that is a literary imitation of Mississippi cotton-field dialect is, for a lack of another statement, sheer vaudeville . The old-time Negro preacher has probably passed for the mostpart. The Gospel never.

May 2000
Christian-Charles Milton de Plicque
Angel House International rf 
Karleby Finland

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