Personal Ecclesiastical History (childhood into adolescence): Twilight Musings Autobiography
I need to drop back and describe my early religious and social life, from childhood to graduation from high school. The center of my social life has always been connected with my family’s church attendance. We went to church at least three times a week, as did many people of my generation. We had two hours of Sunday School and worship services on the First Day of the week, and then there were regular evening services on Sunday and Wednesday night Prayer Meeting. In addition, my father, as an elder of the South Side Church of Christ in Abilene, TX, often went to “business meetings” on some other night of the week. Once or twice a year, especially in the summer, we would have a week-long “meeting,” an evangelistic effort for which we gathered every night to hear an out-of-town guest speaker. We were supposed to invite our neighbors to attend in the hope that they would “obey the Gospel” by going up to the front of the tent, confessing their faith in Christ, and being baptized. Ideally, they would then become a part of our congregation. Often those who were already Christian would go forward to confess their straying from the Lord. This was called a “restoration” and would be counted along with the baptisms to evaluate the success of our Meeting. During the mornings that week, the guest speaker would conduct classes, mainly for the ladies, since the men were at work.
The South Side congregation was at odds with the other congregations of the Church of Christ in Abilene, and indeed with all of the “mainline” Churches of Christ in the country. We all in common practiced taking Communion every Sunday, did not use instrumental music in worship services, and insisted on immediate baptism as a part of the conversion experience; but we differed in our views of what the Bible taught about the End Times. We, the minority group of the Churches of Christ, were premillennialists, that is, believers that the Second Coming of Christ would usher in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, along with His faithful followers. Mainline Churches of Christ were vehement rejecters of this doctrine, asserting that the thousand-year reign mentioned in Rev. 20 was figurative, not literal. The family of my best friend in boyhood were members at a mainline Church of Christ only two blocks away from my church. That congregation had been established primarily to combat the heresy of their wayward brothers and sisters down the street. Both their regular preacher and most guest preachers for their week-long evangelistic meetings would target the South Side church in their sermons. My friend often tried to win me away from my error, but I stood firm in my belief.
This rivalry would have been comic if it had not driven such a wedge between congregations which were much more alike than different. However, being a persecuted minority did open us up, years before the mainline began to have this insight, to an understanding of the power and importance of prayer, and of the truth that we are saved by grace and not by works. These two elements in Christian belief and practice would seem to be self-evident from Scripture, but mainline Churches of Christ for many years were quite comfortable combining their emphasis on being the true “New Testament Church” with what amounted to embracing a kind of salvation by works, since their main emphasis was proving that they fulfilled all the requirements set forth in the New Testament to be identified as the True Church. It was a highly rationalistic approach to religion, one that was not sensitive to the “feeling” side of religious experience.
My earliest memory of attending the South Side Church of Christ is of my pre-school Sunday School teacher, Miss Addie Prater—just “Miss Addie” to all the kids. She handed out little picture cards to illustrate the stories she told us. She was a kind woman and was beloved by all. I don’t remember having a personal attachment to any of my other Sunday School teachers, but I felt quite comfortable in my general interactions with adults. I became friends with the other children whose families were regular attenders, and several of these endured through my high school years.
I have memories of the physical layout of the church building. Inside, it was arranged like most Churches of Christ, with a Communion Table in the front center of the auditorium, and a raised podium with a pulpit, and behind that a built-in baptistry, a layout reflecting the church’s emphasis on weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper and baptizing new believers immediately after their confession of faith in Christ The church was heated by floor heaters fueled by natural gas. They had to be lit with a match attached to a long stick. These heaters with their grates received frequent unintended contributions of coins held too loosely in children’s hands. In the summer, cooling had to be supplied by pulling down the tall top windows with a long pole with a hook at the end. Very few churches were air conditioned in those days.
The outside of the building had wide steps leading up to a covered porch supported by three or four tall pillars. On either side of these broad steps, extending out from the porch, were broad concrete “arms” extending horizontally from the top of the steps to the bottom, creating a drop-off at the end of about 4 or 5 feet. It was a wonderful place for show-off boys to jump down from, sometimes pretending to be Hitler jumping off a cliff.
Behind this “new” brick building was a white frame building that was the former church building, which in my young days was used for Sunday School rooms at one end and to house the preacher’s family at the other end. There was no connection between the two buildings, and in rainy weather, one had to make a dash in the open air to get to a Sunday School class.
The big lawn beside the church building, in addition to being used for tent meetings, was also often the site of “dinner on the ground,” that is, a potluck meal. I doubt that even in the early days the food was actually spread out on the ground, like a big picnic, but certainly in the 40s and 50s long tables were set up to hold the food and to seat at least some of the eaters. The home-cooked dishes that were shared on these occasions attracted probably more than did the tent meetings. It was certainly a time of good cheer and fellowship.
This lawn was also a wonderful place to play croquet, a favorite game of the young people’s group during my teen years. The youth group met weekly usually on a Thursday night and was overseen by the preacher and his wife. There were indoor table games as well. Some of them included throwing dice to determine the number of spaces to move on a game board. My father, who was an elder in the church, did not allow dice or playing cards in our home, and he objected to the use of dice in the young people’s games. So our preacher, Karl Kitzmiller (the earliest in my memory), made a spinner that took the place of the dice. Those nights of youth activities were satisfying and full of fun. I was closely bonded with about a half dozen other young people. I still remember the names of some of the people I knew best: Ray Conant, Frances and Wanda Prater, Janice Evans, Barbara Burroughs, Rita Hagar. On Wednesday and Sunday nights after church, we would often go over to a drugstore on Butternut St., about a 15 minute walk, for fountain refreshments. Since I lived within walking distance of the church and the drugstore, I would drop off at home as we walked back. Other preachers I remember from those days were a newly-married couple from Kentucky named Frank and Pat Gill, and a mature man, Jimmy Hardison, who had a daughter named Sylvia, for whom I later, after her family had moved to Louisville, KY, had a brief infatuation. She was the first girl with whom I held hands! But the romance was squashed by her father, who informed me through a letter that she was too young to be courted.
I was an earnest believer in my youth, and I even made occasional forays into personal evangelism. There was a boy 2 or 3 years older than I in the congregation named Jimmie Evans, son of one of the elders. Jimmie was a football player and not by temperament a pious young man like me, so I undertook to bring him to Christ—specifically, to persuade him to be baptized. I would sit with him in a car outside the church between services or after church and preach to him. Amazingly, he finally went forward and was baptized, but it didn’t seem to have much affect on his life, for he became increasingly wilder as time went on. He married right out of high school, and as I remember, the relationship didn’t last. I don’t believe his “conversion” was a very strong validation of my evangelistic methods.
Growing up in the South Side Church of Christ was certainly a spiritually nurturing experience and laid the foundation for my continued church involvement through my life. I learned the value of fellowship with a spiritual family, and much of my identity as a Christian was established in this setting. Sadly, the personal ties made there did not long survive my family’s move away from Abilene, but while they lasted, they helped form my character. I will speak more of my church experience during the next two years in Rule, my high school town, and Stamford, where I lived on my own and had a full-time job during the year between high school and college.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)