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Putting On The Show

I find the vocal characterizations and stage presence of our modern day televangelists fascinating. It is almost as if they had all attended one or both of two “schools” in preparation for their chosen calling.

The first supposed school must have instructed in the use of exaggerated mannerisms and pitched vocal histrionics, to be used with just a smattering of scripture and a lot of “feel good.” There are many disciples of this style in evidence on any Sunday morning both from pulpits and on television. The second school must have instructed in a more polished yet subdued form of delivery, appealing less to emotion while recounting smart and compelling tales, in a less passionate style and presentation, yet also with the emphasis heavily focused on feelings. The model of this more subtle style today is Joel Osteen, multimillionaire pastor for the largest “church” in the country. (Brent Kercheville is working a specific critique on pastor Osteen, his style and lessons.)

Let’s suppose for a moment that there were such schools. If there had been, something else would also be true: neither could be accused of having taught much of the bible – even though they might have taught these other things.

While the two schools are fictional the styles certainly are not. There is a history to these things to which some may be unaware. This has been identified recently by Thomas Sowell in his book of essays, Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

“Religious denominations, practices, and churches differed as between crackers and rednecks of the South and those of the white population in the rest of the country. As in other things, the greatest contrast was with the role of religion in New England. This did not mean that there was uniformity across the South, for the Virginia elite tended to be Anglicans and there were also Quakers in the South, for example, but most Southerners were either Baptist or Methodists. Those Northerners or foreigners who visited the South found the style and manner of religion among most white Southerners distinct – and distasteful. These visitors ‘viewed with contempt people who whooped and hollered, chewed and spit tobacco in church.’ Many Southern religious gatherings were not held in churches but at outdoor ‘camp meetings’ – a style that went back to practices of these Southerners ancestors in Britain. So too did the oratorical style of Southern preachers and the behaviors of their congregations, whether in churches of outdoors.

“Frederick Law Olmsteds description of a typical preacher in the antebellum South noted that ‘the speaker nearly all the time cried aloud at the utmost stretch of his voice, as if calling to some one a long distance off,’ that ‘he was gifted with a strong imagination, and possessed of a good deal of dramatic power,’ that he ‘had the habit of frequently repeating a phrase,’ and that he exhibited ‘a dramatic talent’ that included ‘leaning far over the desk, with his arms stretched forward, gesticulating violently, yelling at the highest key, and catching his breath with an effort.’ Similar scenes were described a century earlier in Virginia and at a camp meeting in Scotland, where the preacher was ‘sweating, bawling, jumping and beating the desk.’

“This melodramatic and emotional oratorical style could still be seen in twentieth-century America, not only in religious services but also in politics, both among white Southern politicians of the Jim Crow era and among black leaders of the civil rights movement in the South and community activists in the Northern ghettos.” (Sowell, Black Rednecks pages 24 – 25)

Sowell goes on to say that things were different in most of the North, where the “meeting and lecture approach” was typical. The “addresses tended to be closely argued statements of great density… He continues that the Northern Anglican services were “less emotional and dramatic. (pg. 26)

Perhaps you have seen such styles of delivery evidenced in the pulpits where you have attended services, or on television on a Sunday morning.

Sowell closes this section of the essay with the following: “Many Southerners did not go to church at all, or did so intermittently, or when not distracted by other activities. Again this was a pattern found among their ancestors in Britain. Among the reasons given by contemporaries for low church-attendance among Southerners was that they got drunk on Saturday morning and were in no condition to go to church on Sunday morning.”