Adventures in the Bible Belt

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

For many years, I was my newspaper’s religion reporter and, believe me, I met some amazing denizens of Appalachia’s Bible Belt.

Consider Clarence “Tiz” Jones, the evangelist-burglar. He had been a state champion amateur boxer in his youth, but succumbed to booze and evil companions, and spent a hitch in prison. Then he was converted and became a popular Nazarene revivalist. He roved mountain communities, drawing big crowds, with many coming forward to be saved.

But police noticed a pattern: In towns where Jones preached, burglaries happened. Eventually, officers charged him with a break-in. This caused a backlash among churches. Followers said Satan and his agents were framing the preacher. They formed a “Justice for Tiz Jones” committee and staged protest marches.

Then Jones was nabbed red-handed in another burglary, and his guilt was clear. He went back to prison.

Another spectacular Appalachian minister was “Dr.” Paul Collett, a faith-healer who claimed he could resurrect the dead – if they hadn’t been embalmed. Collett set up a big tent in my town of Charleston and drew multitudes, including many in wheelchairs and on crutches. The healer said he had revived a corpse during a previous stop. He urged believers to bring him bodies of loved ones, before embalming.

Collett moved his show into a former black movie theater and broadcast over radio stations. One night he said a cancer fell onto the stage. Another night, he said he turned water into wine.

I attended a service and wrote a skeptical account – focusing on his many money collections. After the article appeared, 40 of Collett’s followers invaded my paper’s newsroom. Luckily, it was my day off. The night city editor called police, and also summoned burly printers from the type shop, who backed the throng out the door.

Collett claimed to have 10,000 adherents. For five years, he collected money to build a 12-doored “Bible Church of All Nations,” which was to be “the biggest tabernacle in West Virginia.” Then he moved to Canada, leaving not a rack behind.

He returned some years later and preached at a serpent-handling church in a mountain hollow. (I often wrote about the ardent rural worshipers who pick up buzzing rattlesnakes and thrust their hands into fire to show their faith. They’re earnest and decent people – even though they have a high mortality rate during prayer services.)

The leader of the serpent church – who never took money from members – began to suspect that Dr. Collett was bilking his congregation. In an Old Testament-type showdown, the two ministers scuffled, one shouting “Manifest him, Lord!” and the other yelling “Rebuke the devil!”

Then Dr. Collett vanished for good. Meanwhile, the serpent churches spawned other tales:

Once a weekly newspaper printed photos of church weddings, including one in which the bride and groom each held a rattler.

Another time, we heard that politicians in a rural county allowed serpent-handlers to meet in the dilapidated courthouse. Some snakes escaped into crevices in the walls – and emerged weeks later, causing bedlam among courthouse employees.A former University of Charleston sociologist, Dr. Nathan Gerrard, studied the serpent phenomenon. He administered a psychological test to the serpent flock, and gave the same test to a nearby Methodist congregation as a control group. The serpent-handlers came out mentally healthier.

Once the great Harvard theologian Harvey Cox accompanied Dr. Gerrard and me to a different serpent church. When the worshipers began their trancelike “dancing in the spirit,” we were surprised to see Dr. Cox leap up and join the hoofing.

Later, visiting professors accompanied us to a third serpent church. One professor’s wife, barely five feet tall, was an opera soprano. The worshipers – whose music usually is the twang of electric guitars – asked her to sing. She stood on the altar rail and trilled Musetta’s Waltz from La Boheme while the congregation listened respectfully.

Meanwhile, the parade of colorful evangelists never stopped. One was faith-healer Henry Lacy, who handed out calling cards saying simply “Lacy the Stranger.” He often came into our newsroom to lay hands on reporters to cure their hangovers.

He once offered to halt a cold wave if state officials would return his driver’s license, which had been confiscated.

And there was roving healer A.A. Allen, who visited West Virginia with jars containing bodies that he said were demons he had cast out of the sick. (Skeptics said they were frogs.) He vanished after a revival at Wheeling, and was found dead of alcoholism in a San Francisco hotel room with $2,300 in his pocket.

(Marjoe Gortner, the boy evangelist who later confessed that his show was a fraud, said Allen once advised him how to tell when a revival was finished and it was time to go to the next city: “When you can turn people on their head and shake them and no money falls out, then you know God’s saying, ‘Move on, son.’”)

And “the Plastic Eye Miracle,” the Rev. Ronald Coyne, visited town. He was a former Oklahoma farm boy who was blinded in one eye by a piece of baling wire. He said a faith-healer enabled him to see through his artificial eye. Several of us in the audience wrapped tape over his good eye, and he read items aloud, using his empty eye socket. It seemed legitimate, and I was mystified. I guessed that maybe his optic nerve had regenerated a glimmer of vision.

Those were heady days in the Bible Belt – before evangelists created million-dollar TV empires and became the ayatollahs of the Republican Party. The holy rovers of yesteryear provided marvelous theater. Today’s mountain religion seems pale in comparison.

(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. This column appeared in his newspaper on Dec. 7, 1993, and was reprinted in his 2008 book, Fascinating West Virginia.)

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