By Dale Brown
In an Indiana factory town in the 1950s, my family labored as a backbone piece of the Madison Avenue church of Christ. (They insisted on the small “c” for “church” as they were not a denomination—not by a long shot.)
Evangelicals commonly talk about where and when they “met the Lord,” and I suppose a “meeting” of that sort happened to me in that Madison Avenue venue—not a commercial center by any stretch—but a fake tan brick building on the wrong side of the tracks where most of the important stuff of my young life came together.
We were at church all of the time, it seemed to me, or “fellowshiping,” as we called it, with folks we knew from Madison Avenue. The sisters babysat me, and the brothers taught me how to hold a bat. If it wasn’t the Lord I met, it was at least a group of absorbing people who have shaped me in ways I am still discovering half a century along.
We had chili suppers and played Rook; we had visitation Thursdays, lively business meetings, and song-leading practice—a cappella, of course, the only scriptural way to make music. Our lives were dominated by that church in ways not unlike those of the cults we would be hearing about in the 1960s.
We were utopians, I suppose, living out the kingdom of God in hostile territory. Our neighbors were enraptured with high school basketball or making a living, but we were all about eternal matters.
Because it was a mutual ministry outfit, “no located minister,” we’d say, we never knew who might hold forth on any given Sunday. Sermons were as apt to be about something that happened at the PayLess parking lot as about the Ten Commandments. But there was always a good bit of Bible mixed in alongside the moral instruction implicit in the table talks and down-home piety, constant reminders about the core meaning of human existence.
FULL OF DRAMA
Reminiscences of the 1950s tend to stereotype the era as one of complacency and passivity, but our little church was full of drama. I still recall, for example, those truly remarkable weeks reserved for the traveling evangelists who came through regularly to “hold meetings.”
They had wonderful names: Ketcherside, Mabery, Higginbotham, Garrett, Hensley, Getter, Brumback, and Crum. They dressed better than most folks in my blue-collar world. Their gold watches flashed from beneath cuff-linked starchy shirts as they held forth with remarkable fervor.
Brother Ketcherside was rumored to read two books a week, brother Brumback loved Pepsi-Cola, brother Mabery came from far off, exotic St. Louis, and brother Getter had a past as a wrestler, of all things. He loved to refer to himself as “go-Getter.” The visiting preachers were both entertainment and education to me, a child without television in the prevideo age. I could tell stories on each of them.
We were wrapped up in something called the Restoration Movement. Our business was restoring the New Testament church—“speaking where the Bible speaks” and being “silent where the Bible was silent,” as we put it. It was indeed a glorious crusade, complete with historical heroes like Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell and contemporary foes like the Baptists, the Catholics, the Pentecostals, and, well, most everybody else as it turned out.
There’s a good bit about that world to be gotten over, I suppose, a fair-sized pile of baggage of doctrinal nonsense and theological misdirection. But deep in my bones resides the sense that much of what I am and want to be has its origins in that small “c” place.
PREFERRING THE SPIRIT
“We live the given life, not the planned,” or so says the occasionally wise King Lear. And Madison Avenue was my given life.
Among these “people of the book” I heard marvelous words like bestow, beseech, and bewail—words you could tip your hat to. And the prayers: “Guide, guard, and direct us here on Thy footstool, oh Lord.” All those words with “e-t-h” attached. The fine songs in four-part harmony, alto dominant—“Hilltops of glory I now can see,” “He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,” “This world is not my home—I’m just a passing through.”
Indeed, it was in that church that I learned a certain suspicion of what my church called “the world.” But I also learned a high regard for words and a reverence for matters of the spirit.
In that church I memorized the wonder-making verses: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed” (Romans 12:2)*. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Immersed in the cadences and rhythms of King James English, I found my own voice in this caldron of biblical earnestness.
Because so many of the congregation were Southern transplants come north for factory jobs, the words came in the soft rhythms of the South. To this day, Tennessee tones seem warmer, more sincere.
The memories are vivid and powerful still. The building had pews enough for 100 or so worshipers and a high stage with an ancient wooden lectern. A trapdoor behind the podium would be lifted to reveal the baptismal tank. The table in front of the stage had “In Remembrance of Me” lettered across the front. That was the focus of the weekly Communion service, the “table talk,” the central moment in our week. No balcony, no air conditioning, no nursery or fanciness at all.
I remember the traveling evangelist Borden Higginbotham. He overwhelmed the pulpit like a giant man riding a pony, and I sat under his sway—I was maybe 9 or 10—very engrossed. I had never been to a movie, but from my front-row seat I could not imagine more excitement than this.
Mothers waved funeral home fans at their wiggling children. Sweating believers crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, knees firm against the pew ahead. Nervous recruits and unbelieving spouses; reluctant listeners pressured to come to the revival after a day on the line and a casserole supper. A dampish people-smell like the produce section at PayLess Market; the noise of shifting bodies, clearing throats. And Higginbotham’s rolling tones of judgment, damnation, and the tiny keyhole of salvation. “Few there be that find it.”
Our theme for that week was “Watching You”—a title taken from a hymn, number 564 in Sacred Selections. A popular revival song by J.M. Hensen dating from the early 20th century, the hymn featured stirring lyrics:
All along the road to the soul’s true abode,
There’s an Eye watching you;
Every step that you take this great eye is awake,
There’s an Eye watching you.
Watching you. Watching you,
Ev’ry day mind the course that you pursue;
Watching you, Watching you,
There’s an all-seeing Eye watching you.
Someone had even sketched a huge eye that brooded over us from a huge poster hanging just above the pulpit. That eye followed me around that whole week and, in some ways, ever after.
Then came a sit-you-up-straight surprise. In the middle of it all, the pulpit-pounding Higginbotham suddenly struck the wooden lectern with the back of his hand.
I was close enough to see the spurt of blood when the preacher’s fist split open. But brother Higginbotham, captured in his own spell, whipped out a handkerchief, wrapped the wound, and pounded on without missing even one beat.
I was caught up. I wasn’t caught up like the prophet Elijah or the apostle John, but I knew even then that I would remember that moment always. And I have. The Higginbotham moment meshed deeply into the fabric of my life.
LEARNING THE ESSENTIAL
Because my mother’s name is Martha, the first Bible verse I recall memorizing was the one my father frequently, humorously, quoted to her: “Martha was cumbered about much serving” (Luke 10:40). You remember the story in Luke 10, of course. Christ himself chastises Martha for worrying over the wrong things. “One thing is needful,” he tells her (Luke 10:42). Most translations render that line as, “Only one thing is essential.”
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to parse that verse, but I’ve come to think that the essential is what I learned at Madison Avenue. Beyond the sometimes deadly literalism and the impossible dream of restoring the early church, beyond the ugly episodes of disfellowshiping and divisive arguments over “the narrow way,” I remember a people devoted to living righteously—a notion that has a good edge we too easily besmirch by seeing only the smug religiosity that it can spoil toward.
At Madison Avenue I learned earnestness, learned that everything was secondary to living out the faith—everything. It set my mind on fire with words and ideas and with the sense that things of faith mattered more than anything else.
I could have done worse.
*All Scripture verses are from the King James Version of the Bible.
Dale Brown is professor of English and director of the Buechner Institute at King College in Bristol, Tennessee. His extensive interviews with more than 30 American writers have appeared in his books Of Faith & Fiction and the just published Conversations with American Writers: The Faith, The Doubt, and the In-Between.