The second coming of Christ was presented as a real and present danger of everyday life. Jesus could return at any moment, with one loud trumpet blast by way of announcement. If you were not saved you would be left on earth, which would become hell, complete with Satan, fire and demons, where you would burn forever and ever. Everyone who had followed directions would be whisked away to heaven and it was all going to happen in the blink of an eye. Let’s just say I had some anxiety as a child.
Everyone was going to hell when the rapture took place, except for the handful of earth’s population who belonged to the United Pentecostal Church. No other Christians of any flavor, nor even other Pentecostals if they were not part of the UPC sect, would be saved. Period. No salvation for you. Once, when I was a kid, I asked my mother about people in other countries who had never heard about Jesus. Would they go to hell? Missionaries were a big deal, we heard a lot of stories about their coercion of poor brown skinned folks in other lands. Mom said that was too bad for them. Their ancestors shouldn’t have rejected God. Thus the big push for missionaries, I guess. This seemed remarkably unfair to me. All those people were going to burn in hell forever and ever without having had the chance to choose Jesus. I mean, if you personally rejected him, then you had it coming. But to never have heard and still have to pay? Rough.
The constant fear of the rapture could only be assuaged by being saved in a very specific way. There were three steps: repentance, baptism by complete submersion and speaking in tongues, in that order. Repent for your sins and volunteer to be dunked in Jesus’ name. You could not be dunked in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as that was acknowledgement of the Trinity, which was basically evil. All three were one and the same and it mattered a lot. They were absolutely not three separate beings and to believe otherwise was blasphemy. You had to get the wording right or it didn’t count. The last step, speaking in tongues, was by far the hardest. You could repent and be baptized easily enough of your own free will, but receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost was beyond your control. It seemed to happen to people during periods of free form worship during church. Hands raised, eyes closed, praying out loud. The Holy Ghost was supposed to take over your tongue and make you speak in another language. Not a real language, just gibberish. Apparently, you had to be praying out loud for it to happen. I don’t think you could be praying silently and the HG would activate your vocal cords. In retrospect, I’m not real clear on that.
Anyway, I repented about a million times for my kindergarten sins and got baptized when I was six. The water in the baptismal was warm, which I was happy about; although it was weird to be wet in a long white robe. I got good pats on the head for it, though. Now, to get the Holy Ghost. I prayed and prayed and prayed… seven years later… still nothing. No unseen force ever took over my tongue. Not once, not even close. Finally, I just faked it and called it good. I knew it wasn’t real, knew I was just forcing babble out of my mouth and the deep unsettling fear of being an unsaved faker hung like smoke from the fires of hell. Not really, I don’t remember worrying about it all that much. As a matter of fact, it was kind of a load off because people stopped asking me if I had the Holy Ghost yet. I stopped being afraid of hell about that time, in early adolescence. Started smelling the bullshit.
Up until then, the fear of hell was real. I couldn’t go to sleep at night, especially after church. Preacher after preacher, especially those goddamn traveling evangelists, would tell tall tales of untimely deaths and tragic accidents. If only they had come to Jesus right before that truck hit ‘em! They would wax eloquent, in great detail, about the torture and flames of hell and how those things would feel. Some preachers said the rapture would save us all in the nick of time from the horrors of the Book of Revelations. My dad said he didn’t believe we were going to get out without a scratch; meaning some of us would be tortured and killed for our beliefs before the rapture. So he was no help getting to sleep.
There was a traveling evangelist named Brother Richard Heard. He would visit the church, preaching nightly, sometimes for weeks at a time. The Rapture was his thing. He could scare the shit out of you before halftime. I distinctly remember him saying, “I don’t think we are going to see 1977.” It was 1976, I was 10 years old and had to sing myself to sleep with happy little tunes to shut out the voices.
One Saturday morning, I slept in. When I got up the house was quiet, my parents having gone about their day. It felt eerily empty. I thought the rapture had taken place and I was completely alone. I ran down the hall, heart pounding, with a scream in my throat until I saw my sister asleep in bed. TERROR.