Whatever Happened to Fire and Brimstone?

Here’s a piece I wrote several years ago, after a hot summer Sunday when the air conditioner wasn’t working at church.  Enjoy!

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional boyhood home of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, air conditioning (A/C) was placed in the same category of suspicion as “dishwashers, automatic transmissions, frozen dinners, and liberal theologians,” but until last Sunday I didn’t understand why.

For reasons too complicated to explain we didn’t have A/C at my church last Sunday and things began to get a little warm.  With the temperature nearing 90 degrees outside it was well above 80 inside.  Women with flushed faces began using their church bulletins as fans.  Men pulled off their jackets and loosened their ties.  Children squirmed in the pews.  And then the heat began to have another effect: it began to make people drowsy.  From the pulpit I could see heads nodding, eyelids beginning to close, and there, halfway through the sermon and desperate for an audience, I got what I can only describe as a “fire and brimstone” feeling:

I wanted to preach LOUD!

The way I see it preachers used to face a regular problem with the heat, especially in the South.  Even with the windows up and the funeral home fans flying, a southern summer Sunday morning could sap the attentive powers of an entire congregation.  A wasp bumping lazily across the ceiling would be enough to distract them.  A dramatic pause in the sermon and half of them might drop off to sleep.

Naturally, the preacher began to raise his voice, just to wake them up, and for a while that was enough (“…and MOSES saith unto PHARAOH, ‘Let my people GO!'”).  But people get used to things, and they eventually got used to loud preaching.  So the preacher began to punctuate his sermon by pounding on the pulpit (“…and MOSES [Bam!] saith unto PHARAOH [Bam!], ‘Let my people GO!’ [Bam! Bam!]”).  But they got used to that, too.  Until finally the preacher had not choice but to preach on matters of life and death, Heaven and Hell (“…CAST them [Bam!] into the FURNACE [Bam! Bam!] of FIRE [Bam! Bam! (and) BAM!!]”).  And that worked.  That kept the congregation awake.  And it was in that context that one of the great homiletical punch lines of all time was developed: “You think it’s hot NOW!…”*

But then along came A/C, and suddenly those same people who had been dozing off before were sitting upright in the pews, wide awake, with eager, attentive expressions on their faces.  Preachers found to their amazement that they could speak in their normal voices, and even wander off into such tepid subjects as “Providence,” or “Humility,” while their listeners hung on every word.

As you might imagine that was the end of fire and brimstone preaching, and evidence enough that there is a closer connection to A/C and liberal theology than you might guess.  As Garrison Keillor says about some of the people who move away from Lake Wobegon: “They get A/C first thing and crank it up to Cold.  They drape themselves over it.  Then they find a church where God is the gentle mist rising from the meadow and the smile on a child’s face.

“They don’t want to get sweaty anymore if they can help it.”**

*Little wonder that the wide band of fervent faith known as the “Bible Belt” stretches across the sultry South and not the lukewarm North; those Southerners have had just about all the heat they can take!

**Lake Wobegon Days, p. 132

10 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Fire and Brimstone?

  1. You laugh, but I tell you, it’s funny!

    Do you suppose the same factors explain the inimitable Gospel style of so many black churches? There are more ways to wake people up than thumping the podium. Can I hear an “Amen,” brother?

  2. Trust me, “fire and brimstone” is still available if that is what one is looking for. You can still catch a little of it if you watch some of the preachers on television. You suggest that preachers used “fire and brimstone” preaching to keep the congregation awake and alert in church on those warm Sunday mornings before air conditioning. I have attended some churches where the only air conditioner you had was an open window and a good stiff breeze. With the prevalence of air conditioning in our churches today, I wonder if preachers use a good old “fire and brimstone” sermon to keep the congregates warm when the air conditioning might be working a little to well and they might be getting a little chilly. Having been raised in the pentecostal holiness faith and having heard a good number of “fire and brimstone” sermons over the years, I know of no better way than a good old “fire and brimstone” sermon to warm up a congregation that may have gotten too chilly either physically or spiritually. Squirming in your seat in the pew during a particularly pointed “fire and brimstone” sermon will help to warm you up physically and the squirming in your soul during such a sermon will hopefully warm you up spiritually. Either way, a “fire and brimstone” sermon will get your attention but, unfortunately, this type of sermon might prompt you to want to live your life in such a way that you are more focused on avoiding the uncertain fire and damnation of the future as opposed to living your life in such a way that you more focused on being a blessing to yourself and others in the very real here and now.

  3. I remember when the line at First Baptist was “Come worship in the warmth of Christian fellowship and the comfort of Air Conditioning” back in the days when only movies, and some businesses were air-conditioned; otherwise you went for a nice country ride to cool off before going home and turning on the fans, or if very well-to-do, flipped the switch on your window unit! Bob Freeman once told his granddaughter writing an essay on “Inventions which have most Shaped Society” that air conditioning has to rank right up there for the South,especially. I’ve never been especially impressed with the “fire & brimstone” crowd, since I want to think and believe without being frightened into it!

  4. Back during the early 1970s, I was attending college and working a the local hospital in Bristol, TN, my hometown. On Saturday night, the night nurses aid (a/k/a “Orderly”) for the unit I was on did not come in so the nursing supervisor asked me to fill in for him that night. The next morning, I thought that since I was up already, why not go on to church. So, I went to our church with my brother. The Senior Minister (“Pastor”) was preaching and as he preached I kept getting sleepy until my head fell over on my brother’s shoulder. I startled awake when the Senior Minister, noticing me, decided to wake me up by preaching in THUNDERING volume. I was alert but then started to fall out again only to be reawakened by the thundering of the Senior Minister. This happened several times. Later I saw him in the hall and he laughed and said that he was pleased that he could still preach a “fire and brimstone” sermon and keep people awake(by the way, your cartoon illustration looks a LOT like my old Minister!). Fast forward to about 1997, having taken an evening job that would allow me to available to care for my daugher, who was having some lung problems back then, during the day, I was working evenings for a local security firm. One of the midnight shift did not show up, one Saturday night, so I was asked to stay over. I did and, the next morning, thought, well, I am am alert enough so I will take my wife and daughter to church at First Baptist. We were sitting in the balcony, near the front of the church when, during Dr. Flamming’s sermon, I started to fade and, this time, was on my wife’s shoulder. Suddenly, I heard Dr. Flamming THUNDER that part of his sermon, to emphasize a point! I startled awake and saw Dr. Flamming smiling directly at me, looking very satisfied with himself. This happened twice more so, finally, my wife started to poke me in the ribs and whisper “Honey, WAKE UP!” so I managed to stay awake for the rest of the sermon! My wife drove us home, after church, and tucked me into bed!

  5. Jim, I’d love to find a hell fire and brimstone church, but they don’t really exist in Houston. I’d settle for a church that preaches from the KJV and a church that still sing out of the hymnal, and there are fast songs in a hymnal. Is there anywhere in Houston that has this kind of message where they don’t preach John 3:16 every service but rather where they expound on the Word of God so that we can one day get out of drinking milk and one day eat the Meat of the Word? If only!

  6. Jim, that would be great. I know it’s asking a lot, but I’d love to find a Church that preaches from the KJV also. Thank you!

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