There are countless adjectives to describe my hometown. Near the top of almost anyone’s list of Lennox Valley descriptions, including my own, would be "religious."
Talk to any old-timer about memorable events at area churches, and a few notable memories rise to the top. In the 1930s, a female Pentecostal minister came through town as part of a "Holy Ghost Revival." The evangelist, it was told, dressed in a police uniform, sat in the saddle of a police motorcycle and blew the siren over and over. According to the story, the motorcycle engine made a deafening roar as she drove across the access ramp to the pulpit, slammed on the brakes, then raised a white gloved hand as she shouted, "Stop! You’re speeding to Hell!"
More recently, most remember Todd Cecil’s visit to Lennox Valley in 1998. It was rare a celebrity made it to my hometown, but it happened twice in 1998 when both Cecil, a famous TV evangelist from Missouri, and singing sensation Tangi Blevins made appearances in our town.
In June of that same year, the Rev. Sarah Hyden-Smith arrived, perhaps topping the all-time list of momentous events in the life of Valley churches. Let’s face it, those Methodists – with their reputation for peace and composure – sure know how to stir things up.
Theologians and historians refer to three main periods of "Great Awakening" in American religious history. The first was ushered in by the great British evangelist George Whitefield, when he arrived in the early 1700s to spread the gospel to America.
The second "Great Awakening" occurred in the first half of the 19th century, resulting in several reform movements such as temperance, abolition, and women’s rights.
The third "Great Awakening," which took place in the second half of the same century, was marked with the creation of several denominations still prevalent today, although they are not so prevalent in Lennox Valley.
As Clarence Southerland once wrote in a letter to the editor of Hometown News when rumor spread a non-denominational church might be coming to town, "We’ve got enough religion in the Valley. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Catholic church, then let me urge you to go to some other town to find it."
I would suggest America’s fourth "Great Awakening" took place in Lennox Valley in 1998. Between Todd Cecil, Sarah Hyden-Smith and the events on Reformation Sunday at First Baptist Church, a lot of what we had become accustomed to would be changed forever.
True enough, Baptists don’t usually celebrate Reformation Sunday. That’s normally reserved for the Lutherans among us. But as Juliette Stoughton rose from her seat upon hearing Brother Billy Joe Prather offer the invitation to come to the altar as the congregation began singing "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior," some things would never be the same again.
It was often said Billy Joe’s smile was so bright, the reflection lit up the entrance to heaven. His smile was never more radiant than that morning, when he saw Juliette walking toward him down the center aisle.
As the congregation sang the final verse of the hymn, Billy Joe leaned into Juliette so she could hear him.
"Sister," he said, clasping her hand in the right hand of Christian fellowship, "are you coming to be baptized?"
She could barely speak, "Umm. No."
Not deterred, Billy Joe continued. "Are you coming to transfer your membership from another congregation?"
"No," she muttered, "I’m not."
"Then you’re coming to reaffirm your faith?" asked Brother Billy Joe, beginning to run out of options.
"No, not that, either," Juliette stuttered.
"Tell me, Sister," Billy Joe asked as his smile dimmed just a little, "What can I do for you?"
Some say it was divine providence. Others call it a coincidence. But at the very moment Juliette raised her voice so Billy Joe could hear her speak, the hymn concluded and silence came over the church.
"I want to sign up for the men’s breakfast and turkey shoot," she shouted, not realizing everyone could hear her.
Iris Long had made the mistake of attending the Lutheran church that fateful morning, thinking Raymond Cooper was up to something newsworthy. Who knew the events at Lennox Valley Lutheran Church would soon be overshadowed by Juliette’s assault on one of the most hallowed annual events in our community?
For once, Brother Billy Joe was momentarily speechless.
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