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February 14, 2018

My “Reel Life” Discovery of 1950’s Worship

After my father’s death in 2009, I found a box of reel-to-reel audio tapes in the garage of his home in the California desert. I had seen them pretty much all my life, most of that time in a battered plastic bin on a closet shelf or stacked in the garage. I can’t recall the last time I saw a reel-to-reel tape machine, so I had never heard the tapes. But Mother (she died in 2011) once told me they were recordings of my father’s sermons.

I took them home, only to have them sit in my own garage for years. Having them digitized is something I’d wanted to do for some time now, but it’s never been a priority. I did send them off to a lab once, along with family movies on VHS, only to have them returned as the lab did not handle reel-to-reel audio. I finally came up with the time and the resource: DiscHounds in West Chester, PA, and dropped them off in December.

They were a little backed up and said it might take a while; I couldn’t convincingly demand a rush job, as the tapes were from the 1950’s, so I let them deal with them on their own timeline. I received a call to come and pick them up earlier this week.

I did so – and yes, indeed, they contained Dad’s sermons. In fact, entire worship services from the early years of his career, before I had been born. I believe these were recorded from his first full pastorate at First Baptist Church of Oliver Springs, in East Tennessee.

In this blog, I’ll share my observations after listening to the tapes from family, cultural, and faith perspectives.

It isn’t hard for me to conjure up the sound of Dad’s voice in my memory, but I didn’t recognize it on the tapes. My first thought was disappointment, thinking they were recordings of a visiting pastor. But eventually I realized a few things.

Dad was much younger then, and our voices do change with age. He was also much more “Southern” sounding. Dad was born and raised in East Tennessee – a region whose people are either outright mountain folks, or very much influenced by mountain culture with its distinctive accent. (This region is geographically known as Appalachia, although Southerners from the region – at least in my experience – don’t refer to themselves as “Appalachians,” but rather by their Southern, statewide, or local identities. And by the way, if you do describe this mountain region by its geographical designation, please take care to pronounce it correctly.)

Also, Dad was speaking in the East Tennessean ecclesiastical tradition: that is, “church speaking.” Prayers, for example, were always spoken in King James English. (Other translations of the Bible were available in those days, but never read in a proper Baptist church – and often regarded with suspicion. My Dad’s library, however, featured what must have been every English language Bible and Greek New Testament in publication. He was partial to the J.B. Phillips translation, but often preached directly from his Greek New Testament, translating as he read.)

And there is an emphatic quality to his speaking – a rising and falling of tone, and a careful, selective emphasis – that was taught in the seminaries that produced young Baptist ministers in those days. Dad had attended both Southwestern and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminaries, ultimately taking his Divinity degree from Southeastern in Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the mid 1970’s, Dad took up his first non-Southern pastorate, in Gardena, California. During that experience and the years to follow, his Southern accent in general, as well as his preaching style, certainly mellowed.

There are other characteristics of worship services during that period that are notable, at least to one raised largely in a succession of small town Baptist churches.

Preaching and praying were taken seriously in those days. And sermons were more formulaic than their modern-day counterparts. They focused much on the Gospel message – each sermon was expected to deliver the Gospel – and they lay as close as possible to scripture. The Bible readings were lengthy, and the preaching wasn’t expected to deviate much from that text except for the occasional observational anecdote. The sermon linked below from II Kings, the story when Elijah passes the flame so to speak to his successor Elisha, is illustrated with a brief anecdote from Dad’s seminary days relating to a Billy Graham Crusade. (Such a story today would often be told in a lighter tone. Jokes weren’t much of a feature of sermons in the period.)

Likewise, worship music was quite formal. You’ll hear organ music and choral singing (it’s not hard to pick out Dad’s big baritone in the choir; he had been the beneficiary of singing lessons as a child, and many’s the neck I’d seen pop and swivel in the churches we’d visited over the years as Dad cut that big voice loose with a hymn during singing services).

Perhaps most notable to me is content. Sermons of the period spoke persistently of the impoverished spiritual state of humankind, defining the need for redemption – and calling explicitly for the same during the service. This what we called the “invitation” in my day, although some call it the “altar call.” And it seems to have largely disappeared from services of the contemporary era. Additionally, there is a certain vocabulary in use: words and phrases that are sprinkled (sorry: that’s a bad joke) through hymns, lessons, sermons, and prayers.

Despite the formulaic nature of the period, it’s helpful to recognize that Baptist churches are often vastly less structured than mainline protestant churches. Baptist churches are congregationally-led – that is, governed by the members of their congregations rather than by authority figures. They are also autonomous. There is no human authority outside the membership of a local church, whose members alone have the sole authority to buy and sell church property, hire and fire church staff, and chart the church’s course in matters small and large. No bishops, no courts, no presbyterys, or synods. Just baptized (and therefore qualified to vote) church members in the pews.

This ecclesiastical anarchy affects the Baptist tradition and practice in numerous ways, subtle and profound – and can lead to misunderstandings between Baptists and their brothers and sisters who practice the Christian faith in other traditions. For example, Baptist bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention exist to funnel money from its member churches into common causes and resources – but they have no governing authority over their member churches and cannot act on their behalf. Try explaining that “structure” to a roomful of Roman Catholics.

But back to Dad’s sermon tapes. I treasure these artifacts of an earlier age. For me, in terms of faith tradition, it’s a time capsule. I no longer live in the South, although I miss it sorely. And I’ve drifted, largely for reasons of geography, into American Baptist Churches rather than the Southern Baptists of my boyhood.

And they bring to mind many, many hours seated (often squirming) on a hard, wooden pew, with Dad’s voice rolling across an often hot and sticky church sanctuary.

Most of all, I miss my Dad. Rest in peace.

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