The Hell-Fire and Damnation Preacher vs HWA:
Fanaticism meets Something Worse
by Jesse Ancona
When I was fifteen and a half, and not at all religious, my good friend, "Kelly", who was Catholic, asked me a favour. "My little sisterís in the Christmas play at the Pentecostal church, and Iím scared to go by myself. Will you go with me?" Sheíd heard a lot about Holy Rollers, and their fall-on-the-floor antics, and even though I highly doubted thereíd be much frothing at the mouth going on at a Christmas pageant, I was amused and curious enough to go.
The preacherís son thought I was cute, and got another girl to ask me to the Young Peopleís group. I thought he was cute, too, and going to Young Peopleís and church services seemed to be de rigeur for dating a pastorís son, so I shrugged, and went along. When in Rome, after all.
So, thatís how I ended up hanging out with Christians. It wasnít like they were going to change me. Everyone just assumed sleeping in a barn makes you a horse, so they left me alone, and no one tried to convert me, but by this time, I was in the habit of going to church: it was part of my weekly activities, and these people were my friends.
As for the services, I much preferred to hear about God than about Jesus, whom I saw as a man. Iíd read about his life, preaching, and death, but that wasnít my favorite part of the Bible by any means. He seemed to be a feisty guy who stood up for himself and called a spade a spade, and I could respect that, but the end of that story was sad. The crucifixion was too horrible to even think about, and I found hymns talking about "washing in the blood" way too creepy, and it seemed to take a personís painful death way too flippantly. Frankly, even though I now understand the meaning behind imagery, I still donít like that kind of wording.
Another upside to going to the Pentecostal church was having the opportunity to travel to various "rallies" and hear other preachers. Our pastor, a good, decent, if overly strict man (no dancingÖnot sure about card-playing), originally an Anglican, was very tame and orderly, but on the rallies, we got to hear the real "hellfire and damnation" preachers. By this time, Iíd already acted in a few plays, and I appreciated the theatricality of it all, and enjoyed it in that light.
If I was impatient about people talking more about Jesus than about God, think about how I felt to hear people talking more about the Devil than about God! I found myself wondering just whose payroll they were on.
But theology aside, they were fascinating, and I still look back on those times and those rallies as a kind of pure theatre I have seldom enjoyed since. Having watched the movie, "The Apostle,"1 I was disappointed with how lacklustre the preacherís performance was, in comparison with what I had known.
Hellfire preachers donít just stomp and scream. Thatís part of it, but not the whole thing. Hellfire preachers are like rock singers. They take you slowly through various levels, until youíre ready to hear them scream. There is a rhythm and timing to the thing. There are pauses, there is pacing, and there are silences and stage whispers, so that when the thump of the pulpit comes, it shocks you, like the sudden appearance of the monster in a horror flick. Itís all very well staged. A good hellfire preacher doesnít just go for the jugular, he builds.
And the content is important, too. You are following a story, and youíre like children listening to a scary tale over the campfire, waiting for the inevitable time when the worst will come. The best hellfire preachers make you wait for it: they tease you, let you think itís coming, and they bring you down, then wind you up Ė finally, when they reach their main point, the loudness, the screaming, the stomping, the thumping, all emphasizes the point they have been working towards. Context is all. To take the loud part out and showcase it is to miss its impact.
To get a sense of how these white charismatic hellfire preachers operated, think about Johnny Cochraneís closing statement in the O. J. Simpson trial. Think of how he built up his argument, the rhythm and timing that he used, so that his method of delivery, and his oratory, became one with the message. That is more the idea.
But instead, take away the sing-song quality, and the overt use of repeated phrases (white hellfire preachers do this more covertly), and the use of rhyme, and substitute more range of volume in place of some of the poetic rhythm. That may give you some idea, but you really have to experience it. And like all live theatre, being there adds an electricity that does not translate into any other medium.
So, even though, at the time, I really wasnít religious, and had not committed to the Christian message, I did enjoy going to those Pentecostal rallies. But there came a time that I realized that this wasnít just entertainment, this was for real, and peopleís lives were affected by believing this stuff and the people who peddled it.
I particularly remember one rally, where the preacher was the best Iíd seen, going from stillness and quiet whispering, to a deep, resonant thundering shout, working the rhythm, building his story, being totally convincing. This guy was totally over the top. I stopped counting how many times he referred to God or Jesus versus the Devil. The Devil definitely won. He believed Satanists had moles in every little church, and I found this somewhat amusing, but most of the audience took this authorized paranoia quite seriously. He was really the epitome of this kind of preacher.
And he left nothing to chance. They all had the typical Pentecostal "Testimony time," where various people would stand up and confess their sins prior to conversion, but at a teen rally, these confessions tended to be a little anemic. He let the crowd give their testimony, and then it was time for the two pretty young teenage girls who worked on his team to get up and "testify." Weíd been getting to know and like them, so we were completely dumbstruck when they stood up and confessed their past as prostitutes.
I was immediately furious, because it was obvious that Mr. Hellfire and Damnation was bringing them around with him on his team just so they could give this testimony again and again, and humiliate them, and use them to make himself look good. Of course, none of the other kids spoke to the girls after that, because that was so beyond being just a normal "slut" in school that no one talked to either Ė actually being a prostitute was way outside of anything we could understand or even know how to get beyond.
I remember going up to one of them later, and saying, "Do you really have to do this each time? Couldnít you just say youíve confessed this already, and not do it any more?" She shrugged, looked sad, and said, "Thatís why weíre here." After that, when people were signing up to go to rallies, I didnít put my name down: I couldnít see it as entertainment anymore.
In retrospect, the depth of her sadness was so profound, I think about this ruthless middle-aged man travelling the countryside with two lovely ex-prostitutes, and I now wonder if he wasnít taking advantage of more than their testimony, though I was too innocent to wonder such things at the time. I hope, for the girlsí sake, that this was not so.
How did this affect my later impressions of the Worldwide Church of God? Certainly, nothing said from the pulpit could ever seem as wild as one of the Pentecostal rallies, and Herbert at his spittle-ranting worst never even approached the frothing intensity of these fellows. But even though the Hellfire preachers were way more outrageous, they were in control, they were sane. While Herbert was nowhere near as wildmouthed as they were, he had a different, chilling quality.
After years of listening to Garner Ted preach, I finally had my first tase of Herbertís preaching in the late 1970s. It was on a tape, but when I first heard him rant, I thought, This man is out of his mind. It repelled me. I tried to be generous, and think of him as an old man who had been afflicted with dementia. I tried to imagine the man he supposedly once was, and felt his son was probably trying to protect him from exposure, and from his own bad judgment. I didnít want to think the worst, though I had a nagging sense that I was avoiding my true reaction.
When I think about it, the feeling I had, which I tried to suppress, was that the man was evil. He gave me the same shudders as Charles Manson or Ted Bundy. It was not simple dementia. It was not mere egotism. It was the full-blown megalomania of a Hitler, with, thankfully, less power. But the psychological effects on the man were irrelevant. He was connected to an evil power source, and however it manifested itself in him was only of passing interest. Of course, I pressed down this initial reaction, telling myself the "poor demented old man" story, and over time, I got used to not flinching so much when I heard his voice, though I never could stop stiffening and bracing myself when I heard his harsh tones. I made myself ignore what I knew, until, eventually, I forgot, and I could grudgingly accept listening to him when I had to, though I never did so willingly (such as getting tapes).
So, even after exposure to the most outrageous of the old "Hellfire and Damnation preachers," Herbert W. Armstrongís ravings shocked me, not in being more extreme, but in being completely different in kind. Herbert may have clumsily used some of the tricks of the trade, but theatrical artistry was not the source of his power.
I still shake my head when I think of it. How easy it was to discern the evil of that hellfire preacherís exploitation of those girlsí testimonies; how much more subtle was HWAís exploitation of thousands of followers in every area of their lives. While his actions were subtle, his manner was not. I donít doubt this was one reason Garner Ted was the spokesman for many years. Church members said it was because Ted was "a smooth speaker" and obviously better looking, but I think it might be something simpler.
I know that my mother, who never joined the church, liked to listen to Garner Ted, and when Herbert tried to take over the show for awhile, she stopped watching. She was instinctively repulsed by him, as I suspect most people outside the church would be.
We have all heard, by now, of the Kennedy-like sexual excesses of Garner Ted, and no one could claim that Herbertís son was blameless in all his ways, but the listening audience could easily tell that Garner Ted was still a normal human being, whereas Herbert had crossed the line so far that the ordinary man could instantly spot that he was someone who was not quite right. Even when I was in the church, I could spot that in an instant, though I did my best to suppress it.
When he had to take over the broadcast, Herbert did his best to act in a way that could be accepted by the public, capitalizing on his rotund, hobbit-like looks, and trying for the "benevolent grandfather" image, though the gruff, growling harshness of his voice always belied this image. At least, he saved the worst of the spittle-flinging rants for the church membership. Still, I donít think he did well in the media after Garner Ted left, because audiences were still repelled by him.
To this day, I think Worldwide and many of its offshoots have the problem of failing to come across attractively in the media: too often, there is a dead, robotic quality to their delivery and demeanour. Perhaps Garner Tedís rebelliousness preserved enough independent personality that he could maintain a semblance of lively personality in the media.
All this aside, I am glad that I had those early experiences with those Hellfire preachers to be able to distinguish their style clearly from the delivery of Herbert Armstrong, so I could more clearly discern his true nature. This contrast is another clue into the enigma of the man.
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1 According to some reviews, the aim of the film was to show poor Southern Pentecostals held together by a community of faith, rather than emphasizing a "hellfire and damnation" slant.
My criticism of Duvall's performance is not because he plays the role badly, but because he plays it well enough to be taken seriously and compared with the real thing, which is where I find him lacking, though his is the closest cinematic performance I have seen to what these preachers are like.
TITLE: The Apostle;
DIRECTOR: Robert Duvall; WRITER: Robert Duvall; CAST: Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Todd Allen, John Beasley, Miranda Richardson, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash, Walt Goggins, Billy Joe Shaver; DATE OF RELEASE: 1997; COUNTRY: USA; RUNTIME: 2 hrs, 14 minutes; Color; LANGUAGE: English; RATING: USA: PG-13; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Barry Markowitz; EDITOR: Stephen Mack; PRODUCER: Steven Brown, Rob Carliner, Robert Duvall, Ed Johnston; PRODUCTION COMPANY: Butchers Run Films; COMPOSER: David Mansfield; DISTRIBUTOR: Lauren Film (Spain), October Films (USA), United International Pictures.