During the mid twentieth century, very few automobiles traversed western Maryland at night. People ate dinner at home and stayed home. The narrow, shoulderless roads west of Cumberland had been constructed atop 18th and 19th century cow and wagon trails. With no overhead illumination, no moon, no stars, not even the pale glow from a distant city, one was wise to drive carefully.
Our cocoon in this blackness, was a1950’s vintage V8 Buick Woodie station wagon. Its driver and my caving partner and I were headed towards Shephardstown, West Virginia to spend the night with a fellow spielunker who was to introduce us to some of the local area caves. As if wearing an underwater mask, our view of the Buick’s cockpit was an oval that showed only some dashboard lights and through the windshield, a mesmerizing vision of our two headlights, glaring orbs that jiggled threateningly, but never seemed to advance; a scene that kept our eyes wide open, always straining to see beyond.
When conversation lagged and only automobile sounds filled our black void, we’d turn on the radio and dial up station WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia. A font of country music, gospel and evangelical preaching.
During any week day evening, one could rely on hearing men preach the virtues of Jesus Christ. These men, each in their unique way, had only a few minutes to grasp their audience and reaffirm Christ the Saviour’s ability to redeem a life born of sin, wash those sins away, heal a life of uncertainty and fear, and save souls for eternity. Life Everlasting at the right hand of God the Father.
They were preaching to the converted. Their Gospel and evangelical audiences did not need to be convinced of Christ’s mercy as much as having it reaffirmed, regularly. Then as now, West Virginia was one of the poorest states in the U S. Many of its people endured lives of hard work and poverty. Jesus Christ was, if you will, their emolument.
Almost every one of these religious shows featured music. Hammond organs and pianos were popular solo instruments or accompaniments for singers, small choirs, a soprano, tenor or bass. The music was well played by the bye.
Firmly rooted upon a scriptural foundation, the sermon was the keystone of the preacher’s quarter hour. And it was often entertaining. He might begin with a simple gospel text and within a few sentences be somewhere in outer space, far, far gone. Though the credulity of an unconverted listener might begin to unravel, the preacher’s voice compelled attention. Sure enough, believer and sceptic alike would arrive back in Wheeling, emboldened and somehow understanding what the point of the sermon had been.
There were moments devoted to speaking in tongues, ala today’s Robert Tilton. This form of verbal expression is cited in the Bible and I believe, used on these broadcasts to verify the preachers religious credentials. Then, once or twice an hour a Praise God Almighty-Cast Out the Devil-Slap the Pulpit and Praise Jesus Sermon would erupt from the Buick’s speakers to remind us what Fire and Brimstone meant. These rants were often uninteresting unless we were lucky enough to hear one recorded before a black congregation. Then we’d have to watch our speed. A polyphony of shouting, stomping, clapping, singing, yelling, cries, responses, tambourines, drums and guitars. Oh my.
And, last folks, send your blessings in to keep this ministry on the air. A vial of coloured liquid blessed by the Reverend, Pastor, Minister or Brother himself might be sent to you along with a copy of his latest thoughts on “How Jesus Saves Souls”. They could charm a cold water bi-valve into opening its shell to present its life’s flesh as an offering.
At the time all this was a hoot. Riveting, but still a hoot. Years later I saw Tammy Faye Bakker (1942-2007), her mascara and her eyelashes, Benny Hinn’s hairdo and Jimmy Swaggarts tears. But there was no mystery in those folk. They were on TV and their religious messages were lost amongst tacky furniture, tacky schticks and bad acting. They couldn’t hold a votive candle to my line up.
The West Virginia radio clan had provided me with hours of entertainment, wonder, befuddlement, humour and amazement, some of them unforgettable. I pictured most of them in a spartan cinder block radio studio eeking out a living in the Pan Handle. Tacky never entered my mind. “Goodness Gracious” as my Grandmother used to say, these guys were good. I’d never join their flock, but I admired their oratorical skills. I could feel the comfort they beamed out over WWVA through the night.
I’ve not tried hooking up with WWVA since the late 1950’s but in preparation for this article I visited their web site. They have a Babe of the Day photo and an archive of past Babes. One can click on the Newser, Read Less Learn More and Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity each have 3 hour consecutive segments from 9:00 am till 6:00 pm. When I typed in Religion, I was sent to iHeart Radio which appeared to be recorded Christian music. To listen, one has to sign in with name, e-mail and password. I wondered where old evangelists go. To Heaven?
A friend sent me a video clip of John Oliver’s recent excoriation of Tele-Evangelists who promise cures for cancer and lupis if their viewers Planted Seeds, a euphemism for sending them money. After watching, I kinda felt like apologizing to John for the hold my old evangelists maintain on me, but I didn’t. I have no reason to apologize.
Instead, I called John Oliver’s Our Lady of Perpetual Redemption hotline and heard John’s latest request for a peace offering. Toll free: 1-800-844-7475.
How is everyone?