There are basically two types of tent revivals.
First, there’s the hoopin’ an’ hollerin’, hallelujah-callin’ jumped up revivals, where everyone is dancin’ in the aisles and throwin’ their hands up in the air and shoutin’ praises. There’s lots of singin’ – some of it is even on-key – and folks sharin’ their stories and their joys and their lives.
The other kind is all fire and brimstone, hell and damnation and suffering eternal. You’re a sinful creature and you rightly belong in the deepest pit of hell for all of eternity. The preacher wants you to know you’ve done wrong, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do to overcome your depravity.
But they’ve both got the same message, the Good News, capital letters an’ all. In the good times tent revivals, it’s all about celebrating that fact, reveling in the joy of salvation. In the darker sort of revivals, it’s the spark of hope, the single lifeline to grab hold of an’ cling like the Devil his-own-self was tryin’ to drag you under into darkness. But you can only get there if you repent, if you accept your depraved nature and strive to earn that hope you can’t ever possibly earn.
When I was a kid, we had more of the latter kind of revivals than the former. My daddy wasn’t much for softness, either physically or emotionally. He’d hide us good when we did wrong – and my daddy could always find things you did wrong, even things you weren’t aware you’d done – and drive us hard even when we were doin’ the right thing. He drove himself even harder, though, preachin’ as though there was a fire in his belly eatin’ him from the inside out. He’d shout and holler and accuse, hurl invective and judgment from the pulpit like he was God sittin’ in judgment from His throne. My daddy’d sweat and spit and near as like to catch fire; he’d work himself up into a frothing lather, foamin’ at the mouth like a rabid dog, screaming at the depraved congregation.
And they’d take it, accept his judgments as God’s own truth. And they’d strive to be better folks. They believed every word my daddy told ’em, all evidence to the contrary.
When I was 16, daddy decided to try snake handling. He’d seen another preacher do it down in Okemah in early June, and he liked how it grabbed everyone’s attention. So daddy found a snake wrangler and bought a whole mess’a snakes and put them all in a glass case and brought them to the next revival.
Daddy was a good preacher, full of fury and fire and passion, but he weren’t the smartest guy around. He didn’t pay real close attention to the snake handler he’d seen, didn’t notice that the guy had only used harmless, non-poisonous snakes for his bit. Daddy missed that part, and ended up with a whole bunch of poisonous snakes. I dunno if the snake wrangler he used was stupid, too, or just didn’t care much for daddy’s preachin’, but he loaded daddy up with a couple dozen cottonmouths and a copperhead or two.
The night daddy tried out the snake handling, the tent was packed. Every makeshift pew – usually made with a couple of boards and a few barrels – was stuffed so full the boards sagged and groaned. People stomped and clapped and hollered along to the hymns, and the heat in the tent was so great that a couple of folks in the back passed out. Daddy said it was just the Holy Spirit takin’ hold of ’em, but of course he’d say somethin’ like that.
It was gettin’ towards the end of daddy’s sermon, and he was tellin’ everyone their faith weren’t strong enough. “But if you believe with all your heart and soul, the power of our Lord Jesus will descend upon you, and you can do wonders!” And he reached into that glass case and pulled out a handful of angry snakes. I remember watchin’ ’em writhe in his hands, coiling and hissing and lookin’ none-too-happy about the whole situation.
Of course, when a snake ain’t happy, it’s only got one way of lettin’ you know. An’ these snakes sure let daddy know. They sank their teeth into the flushed flesh of his hands and forearms, pumpin’ venom into him faster than the dickens. Daddy yelped and tried to rip them snakes off his arms, but it weren’t no use. They weren’t gonna let him go.
Daddy collapsed beside his pulpit and went into convulsions, shakin’ and shiverin’ like a body possessed. Folks cried out in fear and surprise; some figured it was the rapture, others thought it was demon possession, and some folks with a bit of know-how recognized it as the venom killin’ daddy. No one wanted to get near him, not with all those damn snakes sittin’ there, so we all just watched in fear and anguish as my daddy died.