My religious upbringing

I awakened this morning recalling that I knew a man such as the one in the painting. His name was Ira Redd, and he was my girlfriend’s great-grandfather when I was in my teens. Ira was in his 90s at the time, which was a very advanced age in 1967. Grandpa, as I called him, spent his days sitting in the same spot on the sofa reading his Bible. He was a kindly man who liked to talk of the old days (which would have been the 1800s for him), and one to whom I enjoyed listening. He never spoke to me of God, but I can still hear the prayer that he offered over his food: “Thank the Good Lord.” He was in the Church of Christ and always had been, although he had stopped going because of his frailty. My father’s father and his father before him had been preachers in that church, and most of my relations on my father’s side were still in it.

I had by then started attending the Episcopal Church occasionally, but I hadn’t completely stopped going to the Church of Christ. I even remember driving thirty miles one night to the little community of Four Corners to preach. You might say that I was being “groomed” for the ministry, so it wasn’t unusual for me to preach short sermons before the real preacher conducted the main event, but my Four Corners’ sermon marked the only time that I was the main event.

No C of C sermon was complete without the promise of eternal hellfire for sinners, and the description often included excruciating details about what it would feel like for a person’s entire body to be immersed in a “lake of fire.”  It was sometimes said that it would like touching a hot stove, only the pain would extend over your entire body and never end, which meant that you would be writhing, screaming, and colliding with other damned souls for a million years times a million years, and even that would be a drop in the bucket compared to what awaited you. I was exposed to such sermons from infancy, and would sometimes hide under the bed in terror when I got home.

I was baptized at age twelve. This was about what most people considered “the age of accountability,” which meant that I would have gone to hell had I died unbaptized. My best friend and I had “come forward” after a revival sermon in a country church one night and, the only baptistry being in town, we were taken there immediately because it was believed that, even after you asked to be baptized, you could still go to hell if you died before it happened.

I felt very good about myself afterwards, because I was free of sin, and because I had made a major step toward manhood. The feeling lasted until noon the next day when I had a sinful thought, and was back in danger of going to hell. The main benefit of being baptized was that I could now serve communion in church. The Church of Christ has communion every Sunday, and in my congregation, it took five men (it had to be men) to serve it. One man stood in the middle of the other four behind the communion table, said a few words, and offered a prayer. He would then hand the other men the large, silver-plated servers containing the Matzo crackers, and they would pass them up and down the rows.

Once they reached the back of the church, they would walk back to the front and start off again with trays of Mogen David. The four trays were stackable when not in use, and contained a lot of tiny glasses each of which nestled in its own little slot. After the bread and wine came the collection. There were no pledge envelopes because the Church of Christ doesn’t believe in pledges. Aside from girls, I thought that everything about communion was just the coolest thing in the world, so I helped with it every time I could which was fairly often. I also led the singing at times, despite the fact that I can’t consistently carry a tune (I didn’t know about this problem until I married Peggy, wives being quick to point out that kind of thing).

Everything about the Church of Christ flows from its belief that it’s the only true church, that it has been in continuous existence (mostly underground) since Biblical times, and that it believes and operates exactly as Jesus intended. The truth is that it originated in the late 1800s, and has since split into three groups. The liberal group (ha) uses communion trays for the wine and has women Sunday School teachers. The conservative group uses only one glass for the wine (because that’s all Jesus used), and women aren’t allowed to teach Sunday School. My group was middle-of-the road in that it allowed communion trays but wouldn’t let women teach Sunday School. Because the C of C contains more than one division, and because every congregation is a law unto itself, it’s impossible to make belief statements that apply to every congregation, but, except for the part about women, the following should come close:

The Bible is perfect in every detail and should be taken literally except in cases of obvious metaphor.

If the Bible were shown to contain a single minor contradiction or to be in error about the least thing, the entire Bible would be discredited.

If a person seeks God with his whole heart, God will lead that person to the C of C even if he lives all alone on a desert island or in deepest Siberia.

Every adult who isn’t a member of the C of C will go to hell. Babies and little children will probably go to heaven, but we can’t know for sure.

It is essential to “Speak Where the Bible Speaks, and Be Silent Where the Bible is Silent.” For example, since the Bible doesn’t mention instrumental music, our singing is entirely a cappella. For the same reason, women aren’t allowed to so much as make announcements in church or ask questions during Wednesday night Bible study.

Only C of C baptisms are valid, and they must be done by immersion.

No church was more rigid because we simply couldn’t be wrong or acknowledge that any other church had the least valid point. As with all hardcore groups, the only reason we cared about other people’s beliefs was so that we could point out the error of their ways, yet we weren’t encouraged to look for converts due to our belief that if a person truly sought God, God would lead that person to us.

Around age twelve, I started to develop an intense and open-minded interest in other churches. Until my preacher stopped me, I went door-to-door with Jehovah’s Witnesses (at the time, the group consisted of three young men who had come to town to start a Kingdom Hall), and I eventually visited every other denomination in town. On the one hand, I would defend C of C doctrine tooth-and-nail, but on the other, I was losing my belief in it. From age eleven, I was angry with God because I had started to discover that much of the Bible portrays him as uncaring and unjust, although it claims the opposite. In my mind, this made his appear both vicious and hypocritical. A year or so later, I cursed him aloud, only to immediately worry that I had committed “the unpardonable sin.” 

Fire-and-brimstone sermons had left me in terrible fear of God since my earliest remembrance, and this new fear put me almost into a blind panic that returned again and again for years, but I was so ashamed of what I had done that I couldn’t tell anyone. One night, I went to the home of the preacher who had baptized me with the intention of telling him what I had done, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it. In college, I met someone who said he had once discussed religion with an atheist, and I developed an interest in that, but I couldn't make sense of it, and I had no avenue by which to explore it.

There’s no way I can know the extent to which the C of C made me who I am, but I suspect that the church’s influence is far-reaching in my life even today and even into my relationship with Peggy. For example, I have wondered if her customary certainty that she is correct about all manner of things comes from her Baptist childhood, and my need for endless validation from my C of C upbringing. I say this because when a person is determined to not be the way he or she was raised, it’s easy to unknowingly carry out the same mindset but in different channels. In both our cases, religious certainty was emphasized, but her church lacked the requirement that she never admit that another person’s viewpoint was even a little bit rational. Therefore, could it not be that her need for certainty came from what she was taught, and my need for validation from what I was denied when I started to lose my faith?

Likewise, I have two former Jehovah’s Witness friends who complain of their inability to feel close to others. This makes sense when you consider that non-JW friendships were forbidden to them. While it was relatively easy for my friends to escape JW doctrine, they might never escape being the kind of people that the church made them. I know that, in my case, I was regularly told that, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (I Corinthians 15:19) and the like, and while it was easy for me see the idiocy in the church’s teachings about pianos and how much water to use during baptism, I have never succeeded in escaping that, and I’m 66-years-old. Can I know that I wouldn’t feel a similar despair had I been raised a secular humanist? No, because it’s the old nature versus nurture conundrum.

It is my thought that all religion is to some degree like the JW and the C of C, so I strongly believe that religious indoctrination constitutes child abuse or something close to it. Readers who say that religion is a private matter, and I shouldn’t attack it, completely miss the point. Religion isn’t a matter of chocolate versus vanilla; religion is Satan, or at least it would be if Satan existed. The harm of the Hitlers and Stalins is minuscule compared to that of the christs.