Magazine article The Spectator

Falling from Grace

Magazine article The Spectator

Falling from Grace

Article excerpt

When I was a boy there was a dramatisation oi iN ainamei riawinorne s i ne race in the Rock on Children's Hour. In this a face had formed as a natural feature in the mountain above a village, the inhabitants of which waited for the day when he would come, the living man whose face this was. And one by one they did come, naturally to disappoint them, the Great Politician, the Great Soldier, but it was the third man who now makes me feel very old, for today there would be no place for him. He was the Great Preacher.

The English establishment has been nervous of such men, and of the emotions they could unleash, since the Peasants' Revolt. But in Wales I grew up in a society which could still quote whole passages from sermons which were part spiritual injection, part entertainment, part terror. There was the one preached in Carmarthen at the turn-of-the -century Revival, in which a damned soul after aeons in the outer darkness returns to the gates of Hell, 'and on the great clock the second hand has not even moved'. The man who remembered that, a professor of French, could also remember his own fright across 70 years.

But the tradition was ending, and I heard the last of the Great Preachers in 1955, a man called Dr Martin Lloyd Jones. Posters had announced his coming, the chapel was packed, and after his sermon I watched in fascination as a matron lifted her large left breast to show a friend across the gallery what its effect had been.

The result is that- unlike most of mv English contemporaries, I do not find ft easy to sneer at Revivalists in America, where the tradition continues at full blast, or to see these preachers as charlatans. Right-wing American politicians, on the other hand, cannot afford to. In 1984 80 per cent of fundamentalist evangelicals voted for Ronald Reagan who had assured them that the fire and brimstone in the Book of Ezekiel were nuclear weapons, and that the nation of Gog was the godless Soviet Union. 'It can't be too long now,' said Reagan chattily. In 1988 93 per cent of them voted for George Bush.

The power and the energy of their preachers are alarming in an electronic age. Jimmy Swaggart's sermons are beamed to 195 countries, and the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination to which he belongs, funds the largest missionary effort in the world, for, whatever the mainstream churches have abandoned, these have not. Some of their ministers, like the Early Christian fathers, even claimed to carry out miracles. A. A. Allen in the 1940s said he could raise the dead, an accomplishment he abandoned when he got into trouble with the American postal service on account of the corpses being sent to him by mail. …

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