Good morning, y’all. Another fine day in the mountains, but the temps are starting to rise. There doesn’t appear to be any rain forecast for the coming week. I’ll have to double check that. I can probably look at the weather map for Houston and New Orleans and do a better job of predicting the weather than the Whiz O Meter at Channel 11. I guess they have to justify the costs of all of their expensive equipment by actually using it. Such a shame.
Rationalizing costs is something we all do, and that brings us back to the history of the “Little Church in the Valley”. Well, as much as Hiram Hoakum wanted his little church to be about the message, and not the money, it didn’t take long before he realized that the little abandoned church was going to cost money to maintain. Hiram felt that he could donate his services as pastor, but that the constant costs associated with keeping the church in a minimal state of repair should be born by the congregation. Not too long after getting set in the new church, the grocer turned preacher started passing the plate. The pickings were slim.
From his training as a grocer, Hiram knew that he had to give the public what they wanted, or it would sit on the shelf. He also knew that people would pay a little more for what they considered to be “speciality items”. A peach is just a peach, unless it was grown in the soil around Savannah where the “tangy salt air” helps to bring out the sweetness of the peach. Hiram knew he needed something special to set his church apart from the bigger denominations. Handling venomous snakes was a big draw, even though some of the novelty was wearing off.
Ironically, just as attendance was starting to dip, some of the faithful started coming forward at the end of the service to handle the serpents themselves. The “Testament of Faith” as Hiram called it, brought the bolder members of the congregation into the inner sanctum. The “hands on experience” was just the VIP experience Hiram was looking for to increase his coffers. Hiram was careful to match the right serpent to the right soul, and he kept a close eye on the snake for any sign of irritation. Keeping an open jar of gasoline nearby to anesthetize the snake was also helpful in keeping unexpected outcomes from occurring. Later on, purists would decry the practice of doping the snakes, but Hiram was on the cutting edge of a movement, and he couldn’t afford to have the movement, or a neighbor, die unnecessarily.
Hiram turned the reins of the church over to his son Levi in 1921, on Levi’s twenty first birthday. Hiram was nearly fifty and in poor health. His one vice, dipping snuff, was killing him, and in a hideous fashion. The lesions from inside his mouth had spread to his chin. He had lost all of his lower teeth and the cancer was eating through the flesh of his jawline. It was painful for him to talk, and probably impossible to understand what he was saying. Levi had been in training for quite a while, and so he just stepped in to the family business.
When Levi took over, the Little Church in the Valley was the dominant congregation in the area. Slowly but surely, the “Foot Washing Baptists” were sliding into the back pews of the Little Church in the Valley and becoming members of the “new church”. The Hoakum’s cash flow problems were behind them, and the church had prospered enough to provide Levi with a parsonage. It was in this parsonage that Levi Hoakum heard his first Pentecostal sermon. The sermon was delivered on the airwaves via the little radio gifted to the young pastor at his confirmation as pastor. The sermon was from William J. Seymour, and the message would forever change the direction of the little church. Levi was introduced to the concepts of Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, and the laying of hands.
Like any successful entrepreneur, Levi did market testing before delivering his new product to market. Levi arranged his family about him in the general store, just like his Daddy used to do, and proceeded to deliver next Sunday’s sermon. About ten minutes in, Levi’s eyes rolled back in his head and he started spouting gibberish in about four different octaves. When his family rushed about him, thinking he’d been taken over by a seizure, Levi reverted back to his natural speaking voice and continued to deliver his sermon. The look of absolute bewilderment and amazement on the faces of his family was just the outcome that Levi was hoping for.
Glossolalia was introduced into the services that Sunday. Fortunately, Hiram was still above ground and able to explain to the acolytes what was going on. Hiram quoted, as best he could, 1 Corinthians 14:2, “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” When it was “revealed” to Levi that he had spoken in tongues, Levi used the opportunity to reinforce to the congregation what a “spirit filled church” they had.
Being “spirit filled” was a recurrent theme in Levi’s sermons. In fact, Levi encouraged the congregation to describe the church as “spirit filled” when speaking to others. Being “moved by the spirit” was a great explanation for speaking in tongues, and it would provide the springboard for the next ecclesiastical miracle, the laying of hands.