"You Gotta Go Crazy First Before You Can Be A Minister": Accessing A Speaking Role in the Primitive Baptist Church

By Susan Roach


The Primitive Baptists, a fundamentalist sect which believes in absolute predestination, do not require schooling of their ministers; instead the ministers are "called by God " Personal narratives recounted in an interview in 1984, with two ministers of the Oak Grove Primitive Baptist Church, a small rural church in Winn Parish, Louisiana, reveal the Primitive Baptist worldview and parallel mystical experiences and transitional ordeals undergone by these men upon their conversions when they received their call to preach.

According to these two ministers, "Elder Godwin" and "Elder Mercer," as they are addressed by church members," the role of the Primitive Baptist minister is primarily to speak words of comfort to "the flock" through sermons, which are chanted and formulaic in form. Unlike most denominations, which pay their ministers, the only remuneration received by the Primitive Baptist ministers is the reciprocal comfort they receive by giving God's children comfort.

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Oak Grove Primitive Baptist Church

Primitive Baptists also differ from other Baptist groups in that the ministers and other members do not seek to convert others, since the Primitive Baptists do not believe in proselytizing. Researchers outline the background of the Primitive Baptists, noting that the sect grew out of the anti-missionary movement in the late 1800s. Some Baptist groups resented the attempt by the church government to demand mission support from the various member churches; because they resisted fellowship with other mission-oriented Baptists, they were termed "Hardshells."1 These groups believed that God had determined before the creation of the world who was predestined to salvation; therefore, any missionary attempts to convert the non-believers was both useless and offensive (Miller 1975:267-268).

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Elder Godwin at Oak Grove Primitive Baptist Church

Like other Primitive Baptists (see Miller 1975:269), the Oak Grove church meets one or two weekends per month on Saturday and Sunday. Services begin with singing from hymnals which contain words only without musical notation. The song service is followed by prayer. Then, depending on the ministers present, one or two sermons are delivered. Ministers typically begin their sermons "speaking naturally," and then they begin chanting their formulaic sermons. Elder David Godwin describes how he begins his sermon: "To me, I'm just going by what I feel when I get up there. To start off, I've got no thought or whatever of what I'm going to say. I've got no outline; I just start talking and it comes to me. And it's kind of a picture in front of you, and this picture- what's in with the scriptures in the Bible, and it comes to you and it just rolls as a film, and you preach as it rolls."

This type of preaching typically done by the folk preacher is dependent upon Divine power. Rosenberg, in analyzing the call of such folk ministers, states: "A person may be called to do the Lord's work, but to preach requires 'spiritual power.' This feeling that one is divinely summoned is important in understanding sermon techniques. Only spiritual power allows one to preach well; that can come only from God..." (1988:29). Hilton Mercer confirms this: "Can't no man preach. Preaching is done by the spirit. The man, it's just done through him. That's all it is. We are just an instrument in the hands of almighty God, that through us he sends that unto the children; we deliver that that is delivered unto us."

The stages of learning to speak as a minister in the Primitive Baptist Church parallel those stages of the development of the Yugoslavian guslars studied by Albert B. Lord: 1) the nonparticipating listener (listening to the stories and language of the performing singers); 2) the apprentice first beginning to sing; and 3) the singer moving freely in the tradition (Lord 1965). Rosenberg also notes that the folk preacher has similar stages of development: 1) as young children, potential ministers sit in church, absorbing the stories, melody, and rhythm of the pastor's preaching; 2) as they grow older, they attend church more frequently and take on roles such as deacon and delivering short prayers and short sermons; and 3) the preacher takes his own church (1988:31). This second stage of development, in which many ministers are called to preach, encompasses the conversion period covered by the narratives of the two ministers discussed here.

These two ministers' quest to obtain this power which gives them access to speak in the church takes them through an arduous rite of passage (see Turner 1965 and Van Gennep 1960), requiring them, as they metaphorically express it, "to go to the depths of Hell." In their conversion narratives, which cover the liminal stage of this passage, the patterns and motifs of their individual "calls," which would eventually place them as ministers in the same church, are similar.

The stories of their conversions can be examined by using psychological models of conversion.2 According to Spilka, Hood, and Gorsuch (1985:205), classical psychological perspectives categorize conversions as either gradual or sudden. In the sudden conversion, 1) the convert is passive and feels in the grip of forces beyond himself. There is an otherness that confronts the person often in a crisis; 2) there is an act of surrendering or giving in to this "otherness"; and 3) there are intense feelings of unworthiness, sins, and guilt. Conversion is then the solution to the burden of sin and guilt found unbearable before. On the other hand, the gradual conversion involves 1) a gradual and increasing search for meaning or purpose; 2) absence of emotions, especially intense feelings of guilt and sin; and 3) active assent to a faith perspective (Spilka et al. 1985:205).

While both Mercer's and Godwin's conversions are not instantaneous, the pattern of their conversions seemingly follows the sudden rather than gradual model, but actually we find ele-ments from both models. A later, more complex model of gradual cult conversion developed by sociologists Lofland and Stark (as delineated by Spilka et al. 1985) more adequately fits the present data. This model notes the factors contributing to conversion. First, there are the following predisposing factors: 1) an experience of tension or dissatisfaction that 2) is interpreted within a religious perspective 3) by persons who perceive themselves as active religious seekers. If the following situational contingencies arise, conversion will occur: 1) encountering the religion at a crisis point in one's life, 2) with strong affective attachments established with one or more committed believers, 3) combined with minimal non-believer contact, and 4) intensive interaction between the seeker and the believers (Spilka et al. 1985:212-213).

These factors appear in both men's narratives to varying degrees; however, there are also other elements for which the model will not account. Both narratives also demonstrate the psychological crises and threatening accusations of insanity they endured before accepting their call to their new roles. Both withdrew from their families and friends who were non-members for a period and were drawn to church.

Although neither minister had joined the Primitive Baptist Church before his conversion which called him to preach, both had fond feelings, affective attachments, for the church through family members. Elder Godwin, who had joined the missionary Baptist Church as a boy because family members had insisted, remembers: "Daddy was Primitive Baptist; I loved the old Baptists." Likewise, Mercer agreed: "I've always had a love for the Primitive Baptist people because I was raised amongst them and f knew quite a bit about them, but I still didn't know anything. I had been going and sitting under the sound of their voice, but I didn't understand the doctrine because I wasn't given to understand it by the spirit of God."

Mercer's narrative opens with the model's characteristic feelings of anxiety, tension, and dissatisfaction to which he gives a religious interpretation and seeks a religious solution:

You hardly ever hear of a younger person before thirty-five joining the [Primitive Baptist] church. I was about forty years old when I joined the church. I had already received a call before baptism. I was at my work in the mill whenever my first experience of grace. Anyway, I was at my work, and something overshadowed me, and I was made to know...that all of my sins and everything I had ever done come before me, and I realized that there was something wrong; I didn't know what it was. I knew there was something wrong. See, I lived a pretty hard life. What I mean, I used to drink; I was bad to drink; in fact, I stayed drunk one time about six months in my life, and I drank just about every day of my life. But all of that, the desires of all of that left me just like that. Well, my wife and kids was in the Methodist Church in Quitman where I was living at that time.... I know that there was something wrong. I knew that I wanted to go to a church. I wanted to hear some preaching; I wanted to do something. I said, "Well, I'll go to church with them." Every time I planned to go to church with them, there was something that got in my way that I couldn't go.... And I went on for a long time and I got so bad that it got to where I'd hide from people, didn't want to be around people. I'd hide from them. [At work] if I didn't have that dragline in motion, I'd get back there and hide behind the motor. I was like that for a good while...six months, I imagine. I never could get myself reconciled... you know, I kept getting in deeper trouble, just deeper trouble...spiritual trouble.

At this point, Mercer has reached the crisis stage which further places him in a situation for conversion in a group to which he has already formed affective attachments. An intense interaction with the minister at the church heightens this crisis:

So finally, I come in from work one Saturday afternoon; my dad lived with me, made his home with me and my brother, and they was sitting on my front porch, and I walked in, and they told me, said: "Old Brother Lambert is going to be at Mount Olive Church; I'd like to go over to church tonight. Do you feel like going?"

I said, "Yeah, I believe I would." ... Brother Lambert got up and made a few remarks. He read a little bit in the Bible from the twenty/eighth chapter of Romans where he said that all things work together for good for them that loves the Lord.... He started from that, and he preached about an hour and fifteen minutes. He didn't take his eyes off me from the time he started until he finished. Well, that was the first sermon I had ever heard a hardshell preacher preach. As many times as I had been under the sound of their voice, I had never heard them preach. And that was the first that I'd ever heard any preaching since the beginning of my experience that satisfied me. So I was made to know that that was what I believed, what was preached that night, which was absolute predestination, and that's what he preached.

At this point in his narrative, having had intense interaction with the preacher through concentrated eye contact, Mercer has rationally accepted the sermon, but he has not yet reached conversion. Yet according to the Lofland and Stark's model, all factors are present for a gradual conversion. He must have additional trials and an authenticating mystical, visionary religious experience to assure him of his calling. He continues:

Well, I rocked on and rocked on, and I got to where I would go with my Dad to church, and he was not a member, but he went regular all the time.... I got to where I was losing a lot of sleep. I got to where I would walk the floor a lot at night, shed tears, and I got in a terrible shape. Well, one night I had a dream or a vision whichever you want to call it, in my sleep. I dreamed that I was an old bending man, gray headed. I saw myself just as plain as I am looking at you, and I was in the pulpit preaching. And I don't know what I was preaching, but I was preaching real hard. I was just saying it off; that's the way I was at it, and the pulpit down there at Oak Grove was where I was at. That's the pulpit I was in, the pulpit at Oak Grove; the little church was just as plain as if I was standing in front of it. So I woke up, and there was an awful burden on me, an awful burden, and the burden was to preach, to preach the gospel and to comfort God's children. Well, I vowed that I wouldn't do that; I didn't belong to the church, to the Primitive Baptist; I'd been going, but I didn't belong. So I said, "I'll just show them something. I won't join the church and they won't preach me; I won't have to preach if I don't join the church. I won't join the church." So I got to going to church every time I could get a chance....

So I said, "I'll just show them something. I won't join the church and they won't preach me; I won't have to preach if I don't join the church. I won't join the church." So I got to going to church every time I could get a chance....

So one night I was in deep trouble; I hadn't slept any, and along about midnight, maybe after, I'd shed tears all night, maybe walked the floor; I was in awful shape. My wife, she couldn't sleep. Finally, she asked me; in fact, I was sitting up on side the bed. She sat up on the other side of the bed, turned around and looked at me, and said, "I want to ask you a question. I want to know what's wrong with you?" She said, 'There's something wrong with you, and I want to know what it is." She says, "I'm gon' get up and make you some coffee."

I said, "Baby, coffee won't do me no good."

She said, "Well, what in the world is wrong with you? I want to know."

I said, "I been called to preach." I said, "I'll die and go to the bottom pits of hell before I'll preach." And I vowed upon vows upon vows that I would die and go to the bottom pits of hell before I'd preach the gospel, that I was not no fit subject to get before God's people to pro-claim the doctrine, to stand on the walls of Zion and cry aloud and spare not the things he asked for his children, that I was not fit for that and wouldn't do it.

She says, "Well, I'm goin' tell you one thing: if you're called to preach, you just as well to get at it because you're gon' have it to do."3

Anyway, I said that I would not preach. I wasn't goin' do that. I went every time [to church].... And I really enjoyed it.... The little old church over here [Oak Grove] was not active for a while; it was down because there was no pastor there. They got a little old preacher from out there in east Texas-Brother Wilburn Morris- come in there, and he come up there and took over, but he had had a vision, a dream himself, and he had saw me and Brother David [Godwin] in this vision as ministers. And the first time that he saw me, when I walked around the corner of that building there, he said, "There's the man, one of the men I saw in the dream. There he is right there." He was talking to two or three people. He said, 'There comes a man that I saw in a vision"; says, "that's one of them right there"; said "he's a hardshell preacher."

I said, "No, I'm not." I walked on up. Well, during conference [the meeting], they started singing "Amazing Grace" and extended the privilege of the church. I got up to go on outside, and I landed in his arms and asked him for a home in the church.

Mercer then, in his ultimate surrender to his predestined role, loses control of his body. Intending to go out the door, he finds instead his feet take him in the opposite direction to the altar. Thus, this segment of his conversion process resembles the classic sudden conversion wherein the convert is in the grip of forces beyond himself and finally surrenders completely to it.

Elder Godwin's conversion narrative mirrors Elder Mercer's in many ways, but where Mercer had dreams about his destiny, Godwin had visions, although earlier in his life, he also had what he termed "spiritual dreams": "When I was a child I would dream of heaven and earth." Like Mercer, Godwin also was searching for religious answers before he had his ultimate conversion experience. Along the way to his Primitive Baptist conversion, he attended the Assembly of God church and had religious visionary experiences:

The first time I ever heard a voice [was when] my sister, [who] was an Assembly of God minister, asked me to take her to church; she was to speak to them; I took her. I got far in back as I could; she was sitting in pulpit. A voice called my name; it sounded like her voice calling to me. I didn't say anything [about it]; I had to take her back and forwards [to church]. I was in with them, and I was trying to get what they had, which they said was the Holy Ghost, and it might have been. I tried to go with them, and the more I tried, the harder it was, and I went on that way for two or three weeks.

Godwin's narrative goes on to illustrate how his youth spent in the Primitive Baptist Church influenced his search:

We were living over there at the mill. I'd talk it-the religion-to my wife, my sister, and all them over there at the mill. I was trying to convert people, I guess, so one day I went out to one of the members of that church, Pentecost [Pentecostal church], and I told them, "Let's go pray." How in darkness [I was]! It was like I was in a dungeon, so we went and he prayed and I couldn't [get the Holy Ghost]; I tried, but I couldn't. I went back to my sister's house and drank a cup of coffee. When I did, well, this light, just like it was, I guess, with the Apostle Paul, I don't know; it was just everything opened up to me, and they said I preached a hardshell sermon. That's what they told me at the time. Of course, I wasn't aware of all that was going on. I hadn't joined that church [the Primitive Baptist].... It just came out; I had nothing to do with it whatsoever; it just rolled in and rolled out just quick as it come to me. That was the starting of it.

Godwin's description of how he felt after this typifies the mystical experience (Spilka et al. 1985:176): "I felt light as a feather after that opened [up]. There was no burden whatsoever; it was everything was in peace and harmony, and it was a good feeling.

However, he learned that his experience with the chanted sermon did not fit into the religious framework of the Pentecostal beliefs of the Assembly of God, where sermons given by the Holy Spirit are characterized by glossolalia, "speaking in tongues." Interestingly, even though he finds he does not fit with this religious group, these friends' questions lead him to see where his experience eventually will take him:

Later on though, why, when I went back out there and I said, "I got the Holy Ghost."

They said, "Did you speak in tongues?"

I said, "I preached a hardshell sermon."

They said, 'That ain't the right kind of Holy Ghost."

I told them, "Well, that was the way it came to me."

So they asked me where I was called then. So whenever they asked me that question, that little [Primitive Baptist] church house over yonder at Oak Grove flashed in front of me just like if I was a looking right at it at the time. I said, "Over at Oak Grove, that's where I was called." So it went on from there. Naturally, I thought at the time that I was in good shape; I wouldn't have to worry anymore, but that was just the starting of it...When that light shown on me. I thought I was all right then. I just thought I was feeling so happy, but it came back, and I didn't want to preach. No, no! There wasn't no way I was gonna preach. I run from it just as hard as [could go. Tried to keep out from it, but it caught up with me.... I was preaching all the time, and I couldn't stop hardly, and everybody that'd come to me, I'd preach to them. There were a lot of times [I'd preach to] just things out yonder; I get out there and run upon a squirrel, or something like that I'd preach to it just like if I was preaching to anything else. You gotta go crazy first before you can be a minister. I'll tell you that. They talked about taking me to the asylum. Naturally they wouldn't. I'd be off out there in the woods hiding from everybody.... I stayed in the woods most of the time; I prayed all the time. I'd come in, and my wife, she couldn't stand me, and I'd get out.

When asked why he spent time in the woods, Godwin replied, "I didn't feel fit to be around anybody; I didn't feel worthy. I felt like every sin I had ever done come up before me, and T just didn't feel worthy to be around people." Also we might postulate that this time of separation was a period where Godwin learned and practiced for his new speaking role.

This liminal near-conversion state of self-induced isolation and misery continued for a long period. Godwin felt that he himself had nothing to do with working through the problem, but that the "spirit" was working for him. His narrative ends with an account of his unusual baptisms wherein he finally resolved his torture:

Well, I didn't work, the spirit worked for me. It just took time. Finally, they baptized me and ordained me as a deacon for two or three years. Even after they baptized me, I wasn't satisfied with my baptizing at the present time. That was part of the experience. That's the way they're called.... I said, "Well, I think I'll go baptize myself; that's just how crazy I was. So I went up to the mill creek. There was a big black moccasin; I got me a club and run it off and waded off out there and crossed my arms. I said "I baptize you, Brother, in the name of the Father, the Son, grace, and the Holy Ghost," I said, and I went under. Well, I wasn't satisfied with that, so it was coming up a cloud from in the west, it was a thundering and lighting, and I was way back off down the creek, so it just come to me: ''Well, if I can just get over that fence over that line into to my land, and it comes a-raining on me, then God will baptize me." That what was going through my mind, and sure enough, I did; I made it over on to my land, and it rained and got me wet and I's pretty well satisfied then. Naturally, as time went on, why, I got more reconciled to it, and that faded away. And then they ordained me as a minister.

Both ministers agreed that when they were experiencing their religious callings, they were unsure of their sanity, and neither had ever heard of anyone else undergoing such experiences. However, they later learned from others that their ordeals were typical of members of their faith. According to Mercer, "Yeah, that's the way hardshells gets their education. That's just the old Primitive Baptist. It's altogether different what we go through."

Thus, the Primitive Baptist conversion, with its complex psychological ordeals, mystical experiences, and need for authentication, has elements of both the sudden and gradual conversion models. This suggests that the psychological model used here must be extended to deal with such complex conversion processes as that called for by religions such as the Primitive Baptists.

Analysis of the conversion rites can be further extended by applying Van Gennep's model (1960) of initiation rites. Thus, the transition phase of conversion (separation) ends with the ritual of baptism (incorporation) after which the ministers are "liberated" to preach and later ordained. Mercer recounts how his baptism led him to the pulpit, where he mystically can perform in his new role:

And the next day, he carried me over there to a pool, a pond and baptized me; he [the preacher] said, "Well, this is the first one I baptized and I baptized a hardshell preacher." Walked out to the water's edge and he said, "Well, here's y'all's gift to the church; we'll start using him."

And it wasn't [long] after that until he invited me in the stand, and I said, "No, I ain't going in the stand," but I did; it just seemed like something picked me up, and I was up there .... I got up there, and when I did, it [the sermon] come to me. They said it was just as pretty as it could be, so from then on, I been a trying to preach the gospel. I been, I hope that's what it is; I don't know; I may have never preached the gospel in my life. In fact, I haven't, but the spirit that dwelleth within me has. It's not me that does it [the preaching]; it's the spirit that does the work.

Undoubtedly, Mercer would interpret this as the spirit taking over and leading him through his first speaking attempt in the church. According to the ministers, their baptism liberates them to speak, after which they are given opportunities to preach in the pulpit. Anywhere from two to six months might pass between liberation and ordination, depending on the "kind of gift you had." Godwin describes this step in the ordination process:

If you was gifted and really preached a sermon, then they would ordain you. But if you got up there and talked and the spirit didn't hit you just right, and if you didn't bring the right kind of message, they would wait and try you again later on. But whenever it hit you and you preached a sermon, then they knew it; then they ordained you. They called for our [Mercer and Godwin's] ordination at the same time.

Thus to complete the stages of their development, the ministers cross from the second stage with their beginning sermons, to the third stage where they are officially ordained ministers and competent to perform.

Detailing the events from their initial religious crisis to their ordination, these narratives of the conversion process demonstrate dramatically the ways in which their religious mystical struggles, when viewed in the matrix of folk belief, authenticate the spiritual calling. The group's belief that God chooses "the elect" calls for intense unmistakable signs that one has indeed been chosen.

Initially, both men had mystical experiences which told them of their new destiny: Elder Mercer had a visionary dream of himself as an "old bending man... preaching in the pulpit at Oak Grove Church." Similarly, Elder Godwin's experience came to him in the form of "this light, just like it was I guess with the Apostle Paul, ... [when] everything opened up to me, and...I preached a hardshell sermon." Both men, having received calls around age forty, actively fought against the call, vowing upon vows that that they would rather "go to the bottom pits of hell before preaching the gospel." In spite of their resistance, both men found themselves destined to become ministers, especially after hearing another Primitive Baptist minister's account of a mystical vision he had of both of them as ministers of the Oak Grove Church, which was in search of a minister at that time. With such authentication of their new roles, both men were compelled to answer the call and, thus, were given access to the speaking role of preacher, who as an "instrument of the almighty God" "comforts the flock," and serves the Primitive Baptist Church with chanted sermons.4


Lord, Albert B. 1965. The Singer of Tales. New York: Atheneum

Miller, Terrv E 1975. "Voices from the Past: The Singing and Preaching at Otter Creek Church." Journal of American Folklore 88 (349):266-282.

Rosenberg, Bruce A. 1988. Can These Bones Live? The Art of the American Folk Preacher. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Spilka, Bernard, Richard L. Gorsuch and Ralph W Hood Jr. 1985. Psychology of Religion. EngleCliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Turner Victor. 1965. "Betwixted and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage." In Reader in Comparative Religion, ed. W.W. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt. Pp. 338-346. New York: Harper and Row.

Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1. Interestingly, the ministers said that this term originated in the fact that all the members of the sect had a difficult time being converted, that they were hard for the Lord to reach.

2. I would like to thank Jerry Tobacyk and Marianne Fisher-Giorlando for their suggestions on theoretical models.

3. Interestingly, Mrs. Mercer, who married Mr. Mercer in 1939, understood the concept of "the call" even though she was not a Primitive Baptist, but a member of the Church of God, a church also in which the ministers may be called to preach.

4. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1989 annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This article was first published in the 1993 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Susan Roach is a folklorist in the English Department at Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, Louisiana.