Fundamentalist Sundays

It was 1950, and for our family, Sundays were different than weekdays. We were Fundamentalists—conservative, baptistic, churchgoers who took the Bible literally and eschewed the outside world. Without question or debate, every Sunday we went to church. Our house had only one bathroom, so we boys had to get in there before 7:00 a.m., jump in fast and then jump out. Dad lit the gas flame on the water heater about one-half hour before bath time. I filled up the tub and lay there steamy and soaking, ignoring my sisters banging on the bathroom door—“Jamie; are you done? We need to get in there!”

Mother said, “When the water heater gets hot, be sure to turn it off so it won’t explode.” I gazed at my young self in the huge vertical mirror that hung opposite the sink, and harbored visions of flying shrapnel bloodying my naked body.

We always dressed up. Mother would put on a black hat with a black ribbon and half veil, black low-heeled shoes, and always dark hose (no shaved legs.) I think the hat and veil were a hangover from pre-war customs, because women under 40 never wore them. Mom and the girls always wore dresses well below the knee. Even in summer Dad wore a suit, white shirt, and tie. He was president of the county-wide Christian Evangelism organization, and on his lapel he always wore his cross-and-crown CE pin. I usually wore a collar shirt, slacks, brown shoes, and a little brown sports coat with matching pen and pencil in the pocket.

We drove to church in our black 1939 fastback Ford, a car which Dad bought just after World War II. Mom carried Mary in her arms while Dad drove. Virginia and I sat in the back seat, or sometimes I stood on the front bench seat between Mom and Dad. No seatbelts or child seats. We drove eight miles to church—down Cambridge, turn right at Fairhaven, cross the tracks and go south on Santa Clara to 17th Street, west on 17th Street to Edinger Street, then left. We parked near the little white church with its squat bell tower sitting on a sandy lot. It had no air conditioning. Knotty pine walls lined the auditorium, and in both corners above the platform, Scripture verses were painted on white boards. “He that hath the Son hath life…” I memorized them.

Sunday at Silver Acres Church was an extended affair. Opening Exercises started in the auditorium (we never called it a sanctuary). Age-graded Sunday school followed—Sunday school was big at Silver Acres. I sat in Mrs. Wallace’s class, fascinated. She would place the cloth figures on her “flannelgraph” board: “Here is Jesus, and here is Peter and John getting into the boat.” Then we went back to the auditorium for Closing Exercises.

After a short break the church service began with Pop McIntosh up front in his suspenders, leading the singing and waving his arms to keep time. Brother Cantrell’s 40 minute sermon, the morning’s highlight, always came last. He used to say, “Sermonettes make Christianettes,” and, “If you’re looking for a church to join, we are Fundamentalist, Bible-believing, independent, unaffiliated, non-denominational, pre-Tribulational, and pre-Millennial.” I thought, If you understand all that, you deserve to be baptized!

Most Silver Acres men worked blue collar. Dad carpentered for forty years, Ben was a mechanic, Cliff sold lumber, Earl ran a gas station, and Mr. Zanstra milked dairy cows. Regular, unpretentious, Godly people. They and their wives became my surrogate uncles and aunts.

Purity—that’s what we were after. The liberal theology of “Modernist” churches alarmed us, along with the general decay of American morality that began in the 1920s. Brother Cantrell said, “You need to live a life separated from both the polluted world and from the Modernists.” Modernists, which included Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopals, had different doctrines and they didn’t believe in inerrancy.  Brother Cantrell warned us against Modernists such as Norman Vincent Peale and Harry Emerson Fosdick. He taught passionately about the virgin birth, atonement, pre-tribulational rapture, and inerrancy—arcane doctrines I learned thoroughly by the time I was ten. And his certainty fired us up—the Bible was self-explanatory, and its teachings were fixed for the ages. It contained doctrine you could take to the bank.

 

 After church ended, we would drive home to a huge meal. Although we rarely ate rich meat, I never suspected we were poor. On weekdays we would eat hamburger and “organ meats”— tongue, heart, or liver. But Sundays were special. We ate roast beef and potatoes, green beans, and sliced tomatoes, with ice cream for dessert.

On Sunday afternoons, peace reigned. Dad would take a nap. No playing in the neighborhood. No radio. We couldn’t read The Santa Ana Register. We were never allowed to go to the movies. No friends over, unless they were Silver Acres friends. No weekend trips away. Once my friend Jerry asked me, “Wanna go on a camping trip with us?” I asked Mom. She said “You can’t go because it’s over Sunday.” Jerry went to a Modernist church (Methodist).

We did play some in the two and a half acres of orange grove behind our house—pulling a wagon up and down the rows or organizing illicit orange fights. Back in the house we read, played checkers, or played Christian music on the Victrola (a wind-up phonograph player with big 78 RPM records). I read Power, a take-home pamphlet from church. Sunday afternoons were quiet, peaceful, home- and family-based. I read good books and learned lots of Bible verses.

After supper we all piled back into the Ford and drove to church for “evening services.” Pop McIntosh led singing—Power in the Blood, At Calvary, The Old Rugged Cross, Jesus Saves; plus Gospel choruses—I’ve Got a Home in Gloryland, Deep and Wide, and Do Lord. I loved these songs and knew them by heart. Dad and I played our clarinets in the church band. I hoped that my platform performance impressed Linda, who sat in the front row.

Our family was a little island, separated from our non-Fundamentalist neighbors. The unworldliness of Fundamentalism turned me in toward family friends and family values, kept me home-centered, secure, and it kept me from the world. As I grew up Fundamentalist, I felt a strong foundation under my feet, a circle of people that cared about me, a set of sturdy, Bible-based beliefs that inspired me. I felt part of a larger family that cared for and protected me. I got saved when I turned five and baptized when I was twelve.

 

Today, I hope I’ve rejected the narrowness, intolerance, and holier-than-thou attitudes I acquired in my childhood. I try to embrace a more generous orthodoxy that makes room for Modernists, Catholics, and others.

And yet I still feel like a dried-out drunk at an AA meeting—“Hello. I’m James, and [it’s like confessing a sin] I’m still [sort of] a Fundamentalist.”

5 thoughts on “Fundamentalist Sundays

  1. I grew up in the Lutheran Church, accepted Christ as a pre-school youngster. I made another decision after Teacher Training which was good. I know the Baptists did not think Lutherans could be Christians but I knew the Lord and loved Him.

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  2. Jamie, don’t shun your fundamentalism. Maybe the way it was practiced, but not fundamentalism. Very well written article and revelatory of some of who you are. I still love you…I think.

    R

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    1. Yes, the longing for the certainty. And yet, the very nature of God’s earth is uncertainty, and our response of faith.

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