Saturday, January 19, 2008
My reference to Langston Hughes in the blog entry below about Julie Larson, the cartoonist, prompted an email from a friend of mine, another ex-Amish boy whom I have known for 40+ years. He commented that he studied Hughes's autobiographical essay, Salvation in a class at Flint Junior College (where I also took my first college courses)and that it helped him work his way out of the Amish structures we both knew.
I found the Hughes essay online here and remembered having read it before, maybe 40 years ago at Flint Junior College. It is a wonderful essay. Go read it now, but remember to come back because I'm not done yet.
The Flint Junior College reading that helped me deal with my Amish past was Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature of Mass Movements, which is a concise and clear explanation of the appeal of mass movements, such as Christianity and communism, and posits that the movements are mostly interchangeable because the factors that motivate people to join them are the same.
But my "salvation" was already in danger long before I read Hoffer. Like Hughes, I grew up in a church that subscribed to the idea that "accepting Christ" and joining the church was a voluntary act that should be performed only by one old enough to understand what they are doing. In theory, the Holy Spirit convicted one of one's sins, and this conviction led one to accept the saving grace of Jesus who would forgive one's sins. One expressed this acceptance of salvation by going forward at a revival meeting, like Hughes did, or alternatively, telling the ministers that one had accepted Christ and was ready to join the church and then making a public confession at a Sunday morning service.
In practice, if a young man or woman did not "voluntarily" get his/her salvation taken care of by the right age, the pressure mounted, to the point that it became almost unbearable. I was not a particularly sinful young man at age 16, lying only when absolutely necessary; practicing "self-abuse" no more than once a day, and not doing anything illegal -- well drag racing my father's pickup truck didn't really count. Most of the adults in our church probably considered me an exemplary young man since I was well spoken and could offer up a passable public prayer when called upon, as I frequently was.
But, like Hughes, I could not make myself raise my hand or go forward at the semi-annual revival meetings. Although the Mennonite churches of my youth were considerably more restrained than the revival service Hughes describes, we would get preachers who would thunder and cry and plead for just one more person to raise his/her hand or to come forward to accept Christ. Revival meetings generally lasted one week, with the preacher starting out gently, preaching about the love of God on the first night and gradually escalating to either yelling or crying about the tortures of hell on Saturday night. More than one preacher used the apocryphal story of the young man who left the revival meeting with a stubborn heart, only to never get a second chance because of a fatal automobile accident on the way home. The eternal tortures that would be suffered by those who did not voluntarily accept the offer of salvation were described with great relish.
I would sit there, as the congregation sang, "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling," and the preacher begged and pleaded for just one more soul, and I wouldn't raise my hand. I was not yet sufficiently well-read to discount entirely the threats of what would happen to me if I did not respond, but neither was I guilible enough to entirely believe what I was being told. All of my contemporaries had long ago been baptized. My cousin, Milt, and my friend, Willis, I particularly considered traitors because they had succumbed to the pressure and gone forward at a tent revival, and I knew they were no more saved than I was.
Finally, when I was about to turn 18, my parents got desperate enough that my father took things in hand. He took me with him in the truck to the rock quarry, a trip that took about an hour each way. He spent the two hours twisting my arm, pointing out that I was the only person left of my generation who had not joined the church and telling me that it was high time I did so. He volunteered to take care of things with the ministers so I would not have to make a public spectacle of myself walking up the aisle at a revival meeting. Like Hughes, the pressure finally got to be too much and I agreed. Unlike Hughes, I did not cry in shame afterwards. But it was a crucial step, along with others, like reading Hoffer, that got me to where I am today, an aging ex-Amish skeptic.
I don't want to discount the salvation experience for those who have found it meaningful for their spiritual development. I think there are people who have a sense of their sinfulness, and who, for one reason or another have felt "saved" by their faith in Jesus, or some other power. My problem is that I just never did sin enough to feel motivated to turn to a higher power for my salvation. I don't have any exalted view of my own powers, but I think if I'm going to be saved, I'm probably going to have to rely on myself to do it.