Monday, April 26, 2010
Chapter Two: Wallace Gets the Call
Shown in the photo are my Father with his hand raised,my sister Joyce about to be baptised, my cousin Madelyn holding the hand of a person I cant identify, & my sister Clara on the shore. This Picture was taken around 1940.
Once when he was eighteen he lay on his belly in the night. It was 1927. I can see him there in the forest on Jack's River, high in the Cohuttas. He is barefoot and his toes dig into the cool thick humus. It is summer, but the mountain breeze is cool and the air is sweet – rhododendron and laurel and sweet clear water running over smooth, slippery stone.
At the edge of the clearing is the Lower Jack's River Meeting House. He is transfixed by the white painted cubicle, the only painted building for miles, and he listens to the Celtic gospel singing. It is revival and the one room building is packed. Children sit in the open windows and men mill about outside smoking, drinking homemake liquor.
No one sees my father as he lies on the soft mossy earth. The church sits on a prize piece of flat land but Wallace lies in the woods, on the hillside above, his feet higher than his head, his arms folded under his chin.
“I will arise and go to Jesus;
He will embrace me in his arms.
In the arms of my dear savior,
Oh, there are ten thousands charms.”
Another verse begins but he does not arise. A still small voice whispers, “Wallace, answer the call,” but he does not go, and after everyone so inclined gets a turn to testify or pray aloud, (though he hears his mother beseeching the Lord to save her son Wallace, a sinner,) the service ends and he joins his mother walking home. Wallace is “under conviction,” and he is scared to answer the call and scared not to.
He did not arise, he often told people later, because he knew that answering the call did not mean, for him, merely entering his name in the Lamb's Book of Life and going back to the farm. His days of roaming barefoot through the hills, herding sheep by day, drinking corn liquor and whittling by night would be over. For he knew that, if he went to the mourner's bench and prayed with his mama, he would have to preach, and that scared him. He did not want to preach because he would have to tell the truth. It would be hard, he was uneducated and people would laugh at him.
But of course we know Preacher Millsaps answered the call. Whether people laughed at him, I don't know. He began as an ignorant, ranting, hellfire-and-brimstone mountain preacher – the only kind he'd ever seen – and went on the educate himself, reading the Bible, of course, but also John Bunyan, the Jewish historian Josephus and daily newspapers. He was particularly fond of the legendary Atlanta Constitution Editor, Ralph McGill.
He soon aligned himself with the Southern Baptist Convention, a relatively progressive group at the time compared to the independent mountain churches. He attended Mercer University Extension classes and obtained some kind of degree of which he was very proud. He became friends with many of its leaders. I am named after a Dr. Ellis Fuller, one of those leaders, and by the time I came along, his sermons relied more on humor and intelligent discourse than volume. In the 1960's, I remember the Governor of Georgia eating at our house and speaking at our church.
Preacher Millsaps baptized over a thousand individuals. I have heard it said that he was one of the first mountain preachers to make a living from preaching alone – most worked at a regular job and preached on Sundays – pastoring five and six “part-time” churches at a time during the Great Depression, supporting a wife and what come to be four daughters by the second World War.
But he always farmed. I grew up watching him behead chickens and pluck them – and they do run around like a chicken with its head cut off – helping butcher hogs of which we usually keep one fattening behind the house, walking behind him as he and someone's mule laid out rows in what was always a vast vegetable garden of mostly corn and beans.
Next week – Chapter Three: The Preacher Takes a Bride