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Adventures in the Bible Belt

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Adventures in the Bible Belt

By James A. Haught

For many years, I was my newspaper's religion reporter and, believe me, I met some amazing denizens of Appalachia's Bible Belt.

Consider Clarence "Tiz" Jones, the evangelist-burglar. He had been a state champion amateur boxer in his youth, but succumbed to booze and evil companions, and spent a hitch in prison. Then he was converted and became a popular Nazarene revivalist. He roved mountain communities, drawing big crowds, with many coming forward to be saved.

But police noticed a pattern: In towns where Jones preached, burglaries happened. Eventually, officers charged him with a break-in. This caused a backlash among churches. Followers said Satan and his agents were framing the preacher. They formed a "Justice for Tiz Jones" committee and staged protest marches.

Then Jones was nabbed red-handed in another burglary, and his guilt was clear. He went back to prison.

Another spectacular Appalachian minister was "Dr." Paul Collett, a faith-healer who claimed he could resurrect the dead if they hadn't been embalmed. Collett set up a big tent in my town of Charleston and drew multitudes, including many in wheelchairs and on crutches. The healer said he had revived a corpse during a previous stop. He urged believers to bring him bodies of loved ones, before embalming.

Collett moved his show into a former black movie theater and broadcast over radio stations. One night he said a cancer fell onto the stage. Another night, he said he turned water into wine.

I attended a service and wrote a skeptical account focusing on his many money collections. After the article appeared, forty of Collett's followers invaded my paper's newsroom. Luckily, it was my day off. The night city editor called police, and also summoned burly printers from the type shop, who backed the throng out the door.

Collett claimed to have 10,000 adherents. For five years, he collected money to build a 12-doored "Bible Church of All Nations," which was to be "the biggest tabernacle in West Virginia." Then he moved to Canada, leaving not a rack behind.

He returned some years later and preached at a serpent-handling church in a mountain hollow. (I often wrote about the ardent rural worshipers who pick up buzzing rattlesnakes and thrust their hands into fire to show their faith. They're earnest and decent people even though they have a high mortality rate during prayer services.)

The leader of the serpent church, who never took money from members, began to suspect that Dr. Collett was bilking his congregation. In an Old Testament-type showdown, the two ministers scuffled, one shouting "Manifest him, Lord!" and the other yelling "Rebuke the devil!"

Then Collett vanished for good. Meanwhile, the serpent churches spawned other tales:

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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