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Preaching with fire, brimstone ... and a tent (with photo)

By MARK DAVIS, Cox News Service


-- The storm built slowly, as irresistible forces so often do.

Four guys clutched guitars and one smiling woman worked the keyboards. They leaned into their music.

There is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb . . .


(enlarge photo)


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Brother Eugene Turner anoints Wendy Davison during a tent revival meeting May 27 in a field near Cleveland, Ga. (JEAN SHIFRIN / Cox News Service)
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Outside, in the shadowed evening, vans and sport utility vehicles and pickups whizzed past as Atlantans headed for Helen or Blairsville or some other mountain haven on the Friday before Memorial Day. Black angus steers cropped a meadow across the highway.

The believers saw none of that. They nodded their heads, waiting. It was coming. They could feel it, building in the night air as surely as a late spring cloudburst atop nearby Mount Yonah.

The musicians turned up the volume.

Meet me at the table of the King . . .

Preacher Eugene Turner thumbed through his Bible, a King James Version limp with use. He waved away a fly zipping along a shaft of light as the sun sank behind a ridge, arching in the distance like a cat rising from a snooze.

Someone flipped on the lights. The band took that as a sign.

Praise the Lord, I saw the light . . .

And when Brother Turner picked up his microphone, holding it in a hand not much smaller than a catcher's mitt, everyone knew the storm was nigh. God was just outside.

Brother Turner opened his Bible to Psalms 91:3 and let him in.

"Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence."

Brother Turner paused and took them all in --- the halt, the lame, the retired man and the working mom, the 22 believers clustered in small knots among the steel folding chairs. They looked back, eyes wide, as the storm erupted.

"It's time, hallelujah! to open our eyes, hallelujah! and you know, hallelujah! I got to praying about it, hallelujah! and we let Satan try to hold us back . . ."

Amen! someone shouted.

"But we need to throw that off like an old coat, hallelujah!"

Rising like a mountain himself, this one-time club bouncer, this self-professed former drunkard, this saver of souls and denouncer of demons stepped from behind the plywood speaker's stand.

"Our lips get us in trouble, our mouths get us in trouble, but it's time for us to reach out, hallelujah! and say, 'Holy holy holy!' "

He shifted the microphone to his left hand, freeing the right to banish the aches and pains of the afflicted. It came to rest on the lined forehead of Elizabeth Hall, who'd stepped from the back row for some healing.

Hall rested her head in his hand, eyes shut, heart open. Turner lowered his big head against hers, and speaking low and fast, he ordered the arthritis to leave the 76-year-old woman's bones.

Hall writhed as if someone had touched her with a live wire. Four others leapt to her side, holding her as she lurched to the left, then the right. She spun around, her red floral skirt flaring slightly, then sank to her knees, spent.

Brother Turner paused for a heartbeat, then turned to the flock, corralled in the flimsiest of structures.

"You're a vessel, hallelujah! a little bit of clay, " he told the faithful. "God's molding you every day, hallelujah!"

Brother Turner, dearly beloved, is an old-time man in new-fangled days. He's a tent preacher.

'Reality TV of their time'

Tent preacher. For Bill Leonard, dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, the words resurrect decades-old memories of growing up in Decatur, Texas, where he got a double dose of religion --- every Sunday in church, and on summer nights when a tent evangelist passed through town.

His clearest memory? "Getting scared, " said Leonard, a professor of church history at the Southern Baptist-affiliated university in Winston-Salem, N.C. "They'd scare hell out of you."

They came with thunder in their mouths and lightning in their eyes, stormy men who excoriated pride and extolled piety. The preachers were as subtle as the flood that drowned Pharaoh's army. They came down, hard, on sin in all forms, and left little doubt about the place where drunks and fornicators and coveters and cheats went. It wasn't a hospitable spot.

"They were hellfire and damnation, " said Leonard, who's in his 50s. "People got saved hard."

The tent shows served more than people's spiritual needs, said Michael McKenzie, a professor of religion and philosophy at New York's Keuka College.

McKenzie has studied the revival preachers of the 19th and early 20th centuries who roamed the West, setting up tents and waiting for the entertainment-deprived to come in wagons and, later, rattly old cars.

A tent preacher's arrival in a community was akin to the state fair coming to town, with pickpockets threading through crowds and hucksters hawking bottled cure-alls. Others, said McKenzie, used the gatherings to answer earthlier urges: "There were sexual liaisons."

"They were theater, the reality TV of their time, " said McKenzie, 48. "They had everything."

Including money. Some preachers got rich.

Billy Sunday, a former professional baseball player who traveled middle America in the early part of the 20th century, railed against evolution, alcohol and liberal politicians. When ushers passed plates for a "love offering" --- a collection --- worshippers showed their love in a deep-pocketed way. Sunday became wealthy.

Aimee Semple McPherson, Sunday's contemporary, traveled the country in her "Gospel Car, " a 1912 Packard adorned with religious slogans. She warned of hell, with Satan holding the keys to a fiery place filled with "card-players, dance-hall frequenters, drunkards, dope-peddlers, [and] wicked women, " as The New Republic reported in 1926. McPherson's Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, dedicated in 1923, when she ended her wandering ways, still stands.

By the end of World War II, a new fire breather, Oral Roberts, was traveling the country. He became so popular that he kept getting progressively larger tents; by 1951, his canvas cathedral seated 7,500.

"They were gods and goddesses of their time, " McKenzie said.

How many preachers took to the road? No one is sure, Leonard said. The majority were nondenominational, never forming an association or paying dues to a convention, he said.

"They were all very individualistic, or quirky, evangelists, " Leonard said.

By the mid- to late 1950s, most of the tent preachers were gone, done in by changing times and tastes. Towns erected civic auditoriums that rendered the hot, leaky tents obsolete. The advent of television offered families a different sort of nighttime entertainment. The rise of the Internet created online ministries that further eroded the base of believers who, years earlier, would have packed themselves and the kids into folding chairs for a few hours of moral instruction.

Most of the tent preachers came and went like the storms they embodied --- here for a few days, then gone, the air seemingly cleansed.

Healing from the Lord

Brother Turner lives in White County, where he also is pastor of the Whole Word Worship Center, a frame church in Cleveland that grew out of his tent ministry. He commands the pulpit every Sunday, but some believers think his real altar is elsewhere.

Cleveland, Cumming or clear across the state line to North Carolina, it doesn't matter: Whenever he unpacks his tent and hammers it into the ground, they come.

Randolph Baxter of Gainesville came to the tent for the first time last year when he passed it on his way to Helen. He saw the big red vinyl structure on the edge of U.S. 129 just south of Cleveland, its roof emblazoned with a white cross, and resolved to return.

"I was in awful shape, " said Baxter, 79. His feet, he said, were "dead, " with all the sensation of a tree stump. During a tent service, Brother Turner knelt and washed his feet, Baxter said. When Baxter awoke the next morning, his feet felt better, and they progressively improved, he said.

"The Lord did the healing, you know, " he said. "I've seen a lot of miracles inside this tent, a lot of people saved."

Karen Hamby, 44, came from Gainesville. Her son, Cameron, 6, scampered in the dark, chasing lightning bugs, while his mother stood with her right hand held high, grasping for the power she felt in the air.

Tent sermons "are something special, " she said. "I guess it's the freedom of the spirit under a tent."

There's something else about tent meetings, the believers agree.

"Not too many people come to them now, " Baxter said. "People just don't come to church like they used to."

A terrifying baptism

Eugene Turner was a big boy, the son of a dairy farmer and chicken truck driver. He got equal doses of Baptist and Holiness churching. Turner grew into a big man.

Brother Turner is 6-feet-4. He's 50, and looks sort of like a younger, taller Burl Ives, with silvering hair curling about his ears and tickling his collar. Wrinkles radiate from the edges of his blue eyes like cracks in a windshield. His fingers are as wide as hot dogs. His shoulders, when shoved into a sport shirt, look like cantaloupes about to break out of a sack.

He started drinking at 20, said Brother Turner, and by the age of 22 drank as much as a quart of apple brandy every day.

He worked as a bouncer at a Gainesville nightclub, hoping that the next drink would make him forget that his marriage was falling apart. One winter night in 1987, "just about loaded, " he attached his bass boat to his truck and drove to Lake Lanier.

There he eased the boat into the lake's black water, gunned the engine and headed out for some nighttime fishing. He anchored at a promising spot and started casting a homemade lure, waiting for a bass to strike.

One did. The fisherman reached over to bring his catch on board, but he leaned too far. Splash! The lake swallowed him. Sinking fast, Brother Turner said, he looked up, saw the silhouette of his boat hull and knew he was a goner.

What happened next turned a drinking man into a sober one and bounced Brother Turner from nightclubs to church.

"Something grabbed me, pushed me out of the water and threw me back into the boat, " Brother Turner said.

The bouncer, boated as neatly as a fish, gasped and shook his head.

Then he heard the voice, said Brother Turner. "It said, 'I am the Lord thy God who has saved you this night, ' " he recited.

Brother Turner crouched and listened. God told him he would give up drinking, pick up the Bible, save souls and "preach the Word, the whole Word."

Brother Turner needed no more convincing.

His marriage didn't last, but Brother Turner's belief did. He preached part time for years, drawing a regular paycheck in a variety of secular occupations. Sundays always found him at a pulpit, where he preached the Gospel --- the "whole Word" that God exhorted him to preach when Brother Turner got his sudden baptism in Lake Lanier.

His first outdoor revival took place nine years ago in Dawsonville, where he erected four poles in a meadow, topped it with a set of 2-by-6 rafters and adorned them with tree limbs. It was a brush arbor, the predecessor to tents.

In 1997 he bought a 16-by-32-foot Army tent from a Cleveland surplus store. He also bought a 1973 Dodge camper, its textured carpet stained and smelling slightly moldy, and behind it attached an enclosed trailer to carry his tent, sound equipment and folding chairs.

The rolling ministry was a success. At one meeting, held in 1997, Brother Turner said he cast out seven demons; one, in a woman, howled and flew into the sky, he said. Sixty people came to the Lord that night, he said.

In 1998, God told Brother Turner to get a bigger tent. The preacher agreed, worriedly, and offered his old tent to another minister. The night Brother Turner gave his tent away, a woman who had been at one of his sermons said she would buy him a new one, a 40-by-50 vinyl structure that was cooler, drier and a lot prettier than the old one. That tent, which Brother Turner still uses, has been a mainstay outside Cleveland for the past seven years.

It's also a familiar sight at other hill towns on either side of the Georgia-North Carolina line --- Dahlonega, Lula, Cumming, Murphy and Hayesville, N.C.

The travel is expensive. He's worried about the tires in his old Dodge camper, praying for the cash to replace them. His collections from church and the tent meetings do little more than pay for gas, food and electricity, he said.

No matter. God, said Brother Turner, has blessed him, blessed his ministry. He conducts three group baptisms a year, wading into the same dark body of water where he saw the light all those years ago. In Lake Lanier's shallows, he anoints new believers, praying that their human frailties will tumble into the Chattahoochee and vanish.

"You need to have your sins washed down a river, " he said.

These days, Brother Turner said, he's moving a little more slowly than he did when he first put up his tent and opened its flaps. As on his Dodge camper, the miles are adding up. "It's a hard road, sometimes, " Brother Turner said.

Yet Christian soldiers march on. The battle calls for a storm, a force of nature. It calls for a tent.

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