Revival Meetings in Benzonia

waiting-train-catton-1987For our Thursday history post today we return to Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train (Wayne State University Press, 1987), the multifaceted story of his life growing up in northern Michigan, specifically, Benzonia and the Crystal Lake area.

Chapter 10 is our next chapter to reference, and in “At Halfway House” he describes his final year at the Benzonia Academy and his family’s life in the halfway house there (You may remember that his father was the headmaster).

There is a lot going on in this chapter (as is true in all of Catton’s essays) – from his strenuous education to the fun he had with family and friends. But the chapter also includes his portrayal of a deep spiritual struggle going on in his soul. As a sixteen year old he wrestled with the fundamentalism of his strict Protestant upbringing while his world and worldview were also expanding through his education and exposure to significant histories and works of literature. He was trying to find his “faith,” holding on to the core doctrines of the Christian faith (he mentions specifically the Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus) while also starting to question and even doubt many of the Bible’s teachings and history. It is in many ways a revealing chapter, a glimpse into the soul of this man who was raised in such a strong Christian environment.

One of the more interesting (and revealing!) parts of this chapter to me had to do with his description and evaluation of a week of revival meetings that came to town one year. He saw right through the Arminian and charlatan tactics of the evangelist. Here’s a part of that story:

…I had an especially hard time when I was sixteen and our church put on a solid week of revival services, complete with an imported evangelist, magic lantern, colorful slides to illustrate the more imposing parables, and passionate appeals to sinners to repent and come to the mercy seat. Why our town had such services I have never been able to understand, because there cannot have been a village in all the middle west that needed them less than we did. I know Father did not altogether approve, and the word was passed that academy students were not expected to attend.

…However, I went to all the services, (I think this worried my parents a little, because they did not care much for the way this evangelist whipped up youthful emotions, but they they did not say anything to me about it.) I had been worrying about my soul just then, and this seemed a good time to expose myself to the eternal verities. The result was not good. The speaker had the evangelist’s trick of frightening people so that they would give up their sins, and inasmuch as he was an eloquent man he frightened me and made me eager to repent. Unfortunately, I had no impressive sins to repent. Benzonia just was not the place to lay in a stock of them and I had never enlarged on the few opportunities that seemed open. However, I had had doubts – still had them, and nursed them along with some pride, and to have doubts was to sin. The evangelist said so, unmistakably.

At this point Catton relates the powerful story the evangelist told at one of the meetings –  “part of the standard equipment carried by any proper evangelist” – about a young girl who was told by the minister that she ought not risk delaying for one day a profession of faith. But she chose to “take the chance,” and that very night she was killed on a sleigh ride with some friends. “The evangelist did not need to add that she had certainly gone to hell.” To this, he adds this scathing critique:

Tough, beyond question; and, equally beyond question, contrived and phony. I was just bright enough to see that, and it made me furious with this glib, shallow man who demanded that I accept something monstrous. I had never felt that the faith in which I grew up was oppressive and crippling, but suddenly he made it seem so. For the moment I wanted no more of it.

Rather telling, is it not? Catton is quite perceptive about the false methods of such evangelists and how they preyed on people’s emotions, including his own. He felt betrayed by his own faith, and well he should have when it is represented in this way.