c. 1905 | United States

Clad in Robes of Spotless White

James Weldon Johnson attends a camp meeting.

“Big meeting” is an institution something like a camp meeting, the difference being that it is held in a permanent church, and not in a temporary structure. All the churches of some one denominationof course, either Methodist or Baptistin a county, or perhaps in several adjoining counties, are closed, and the congregations unite at some centrally located church for a series of meetings lasting a week. It is really a social as well as a religious function.

The people come in great numbers, making the trip, according to their financial status, in buggies drawn by sleek, fleet-footed mules, in ox carts, or on foot. It was amusing to see some of the latter class trudging down the hot and dusty road, with their shoes—which were brand new—strung across their shoulders. When they got near the church, they sat on the side of the road and, with many grimaces, tenderly packed their feet into those instruments of torture. This furnished, indeed, a trying test of their religion. The famous preachers come from near and far and take turns in warning sinners of the day of wrath. Food, in the form of those two Southern luxuries, fried chicken and roast pork, is plentiful, and no one need go hungry. On the opening Sunday the women are immaculate in starched, stiff, white dresses adorned with ribbons, either red or blue. Even a great many of the men wear streamers of varicolored ribbons in the buttonholes of their coats. A few of them carefully cultivate a forelock of hair by wrapping it in twine, and on such festive occasions decorate it with a narrow ribbon streamer. Big meetings afford a fine opportunity for the younger people to meet each other dressed in their Sunday clothes, and much rustic courting—which is as enjoyable as any other kind—is indulged in.

This big meeting which I was lucky enough to catch was particularly well attended; the extra-large attendance was due principally to two attractions: a man by the name of John Brown, who was renowned as the most powerful preacher for miles around, and a wonderful leader of singing, who was known as Singing Johnson. These two men were a study and a revelation to me. They caused me to reflect upon how great an influence their types have been in the development of the Negro in America. Both these types are now looked upon generally with condescension or contempt by the progressive element among the colored people, but it should never be forgotten that it was they who led the race from paganism and kept it steadfast to Christianity through all the long, dark years of slavery.

John Brown was a jet-black man of medium size, with a strikingly intelligent head and face, and a voice like an organ peal. He preached each night after several lesser lights had successively held the pulpit during an hour or so. As far as subject matter is concerned, all of the sermons were alike: each began with the fall of man, ran through various trials and tribulations of the Hebrew children, on to the redemption by Christ, and ended with a fervid picture of the judgment day and the fate of the damned. But John Brown possessed magnetism and an imagination so free and daring that he was able to carry through what the other preachers would not attempt. He knew all the arts and tricks of oratory, the modulation of the voice to almost a whisper, the pause for effect, the rise through light, rapid-fire sentences to the terrific, thundering outburst of an electrifying climax. In addition, he had the intuition of a born theatrical manager. Night after night this man held me fascinated. He convinced me that, after all, eloquence consists more in the manner of saying than in what is said. It is largely a matter of tone pictures.

The Church says that the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in the shadow than in the Church.

—Ferdinand Magellan, 1510

The most striking example of John Brown’s magnetism and imagination was his “heavenly march”; I shall never forget how it impressed me when I heard it. He opened his sermon in the usual way; then, proclaiming to his listeners that he was going to take them on the heavenly march, he seized the Bible under his arm and began to pace up and down the pulpit platform. The congregation immediately began with their feet a tramp, tramp, tramp, in time with the preacher’s march in the pulpit, all the while singing in an undertone a hymn about marching to Zion. Suddenly he cried, “Halt!” Every foot stopped with the precision of a company of well-drilled soldiers, and the singing ceased. The morning star had been reached. Here the preacher described the beauties of that celestial body. Then the march, the tramp, tramp, tramp, and the singing were again taken up. Another “Halt!” They had reached the evening star. And so on, past the sun and moonthe intensity of religious emotion all the time increasingalong the milky way, on up to the gates of heaven. Here the halt was longer, and the preacher described at length the gates and walls of the New Jerusalem. Then he took his hearers through the pearly gates, along the golden streets, pointing out the glories of the city, pausing occasionally to greet some patriarchal members of the church, well-known to most of his listeners in life, who had had “the tears wiped from their eyes, were clad in robes of spotless white, with crowns of gold upon their heads and harps within their hands,” and ended his march before the great white throne. To the reader this may sound ridiculous, but listened to under the circumstances, it was highly and effectively dramatic. I was a more or less sophisticated and nonreligious man of the world, but the torrent of the preacher’s words, moving with the rhythm and glowing with the eloquence of primitive poetry, swept me along, and I, too, felt like joining in the shouts of “Amen! Hallelujah!”

John Brown’s powers in describing the delights of heaven were no greater than those in depicting the horrors of hell. I saw great, strapping fellows trembling and weeping like children at the “mourners’ bench.” His warnings to sinners were truly terrible. I shall never forget one expression that he used, which for originality and aptness could not be excelled. In my opinion, it is more graphic and for us far more expressive than St. Paul’s: “It is hard to kick against the pricks.” He struck the attitude of a pugilist and thundered out, “Young man, your arm’s too short to box with God!”

Black and white photograph of poet, diplomat, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson.

James Weldon Johnson

From The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The lawyer, Broadway songwriter, and civil-rights activist worked on Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign, later serving as a U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He anonymously published his only novel, The Autobiography, in 1912, joined the staff of the NAACP in 1916, and was a leading member of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.