“The Night the Holy Ghost Visited the Methodist
Remember Ray Steven’s crazy song about the Mississippi squirrel causing a revival in the Pascagoula church? I’m here to tell you about a similar event that took place in Carthage.
It happened during a “Watch Night” service. For those who don’t know, Watch Night is a long service on New Year’s Eve that includes about 5 hours of singing, testifying, and preaching lasting up until midnight when the church bell rings in the new year. This is held in order to discourage those hours being spent in carousing and less spiritual behavior.
Carthage had three churches. A number we felt sufficient for a population of 528.
“Watch Night” was passed around between the three and, in 1957, the honor fell to the Methodists.
A visiting preacher was often sought in hopes his message would jump-start attendance for the upcoming year. That year, the Methodists invited an especially fiery evangelist from East Texas. Taking the pulpit we were surprised by his striking resemblance to Bela Lugosi…”the spittin’ image” one member remarked. His voice was loud and booming and he had a peculiar way of talking. At the end of the song service, he turned to the choir loft and announced,
“You may re-tar from the quar if you so de-sar.” They sat in puzzlement until one of the altos figured he meant they could return to their pews if they wished.
As they descended, the congregation twittered–especially we teenagers sitting in the back where we could whisper and pass notes undetected.
Bro. Bela , we’ll call him, began his sermon in that booming voice and drew instant attention. He cited frightening stories of the devil’s wiles and painted vivid pictures of hell, relating all that the unrepentant could expect should they not heed his message.
Next, he invoked the power of the Holy Ghost to come upon the place and convict the wayward in a mighty way. Pausing only long enough to wipe his face, his booming voice was muffled behind a large white handkerchief and that made it even more eerie. Shortly after nine, we were dismissed to the fellowship hall for refreshments and to let Bro. Bela regain his voice. A lady near us nudged her friend, “Mabel, are we sure this man’s a Methodist with all this ‘Holy Ghost’ business?”
We shuffled off to a corner where one of our bunch resumed his complaining. “I’m gettin’ outta’ here soon as I finish this!” He was the school clown and adored by all the teachers who always called on him to read aloud because of his radio voice. It had deepened unnaturally after puberty.
“You better not! Your Mama’ll kill you!!” Mary Lou warned.
“Don’t worry! I’ll be back in time for the bell ringin.’” Thus, minus one, we marched back in to our back row for two more hours of preaching.
Finally, we saw the clock turn to 11:45 and woke the snoozers among us.
“He’s not back yet!” Morgan whispered. The minutes continued to tick toward midnight when Bro. Bela wiped his brow one last time and began the benediction. His prayer was a long and eloquent one with him yet again invoking the Holy Ghost to come upon this congregation and convict it of its sinfulness.
At that very moment, an unearthly voice echoed from the dimly lit vestibule,
“Brother, I have heard your call!” All heads swivelled around to see a ghostly apparition clothed in white.
What followed next was utter pandemonium in Carthage Methodist Church! Several women screamed…Mrs. Watson shouted…Mrs. Griffin appeared faint…men’s faces paled, …and a beauty operator ran up front and threw her package of Lucky Strikes on the altar!
The following Sunday the Methodists enjoyed the largest attendance in years with an addition to the church.
Although we kids knew who was beneath that sheet, we said nothing, but the word eventually got out. Of course, our mischievous friend was sorely admonished, but it could have been profitable for him…the following year it was rumored he got a pretty good offer from the Presbyterians.
1996-2013 Moved to Austin, Texas area. Wrote feature columns for two area papers.
2009 First book, SUMMER NIGHTS/DIXIE DOG DELIGHTS…And Other Memories published.
2012 Second book, MILES OF MEMORIES published.
2013 Awarded 2nd place in column writing by South Texas Press Association
2013 Moved to Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. Began writing for GateHouse Publishing and other Arkansas newspapers.
My husband, Freemon Miles, and I have one married daughter, Melissa Murphy of Houston.