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Tag: Bruce Turner

Good Independent Baptist Boys Don’t Dance

christian dancing
Not even this kind of dancing was permitted in the IFB church

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

In September 1971, I began my ninth grade year at Central Junior High School in Findlay, Ohio.  At home, my parents argued constantly, and seven months later they divorced. A few months after that, Mom married her first cousin — a recent Texas prison parolee — and Dad married a 19-year-old woman he met at the local dirt race track. She brought a toddler girl into our new “blended” family. 

Needless to say, life at home was anything but love, peace, and harmony. I hated my parents for getting divorced. I hated my Dad for marrying a girl who was only four years older than I.

I stayed away from home as much as I could. Dad was busy with his “new” family, so my siblings and I were left to our own devices. I spent a lot of time at the local YMCA. I didn’t have the money for a membership, so I learned the fine art of sneaking into the Y. The Y became my home away from home.

Dad started G and B Train Shop with Gary Zissler, a fellow deacon at the church. The store mainly sold Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and HO trains. I worked at the store in the evenings. Dad paid me twenty-five cents an hour, minus the cost of the pop I drank. Since we rarely had pop at home, I became a pop-a-holic while at the train shop. I also spent a lot of money buying comic books at the next-door drug store. I quickly learned how to sort the till to fund my habits.

Our family attended Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. Trinity was a large Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church pastored by Gene Milioni. Ron Johnson was the assistant pastor and Bruce Turner (please see Dear Bruce Turner) was the youth pastor.

After Pastor Milioni married my dad and his second wife, Dad and my siblings stopped going to church. I, however, immersed myself in the church, attending every time the doors were opened.

The church became my family. Most of my close friends attended Trinity, and the church provided me with everything I found lacking in my home life. Even though I am now an atheist, I will forever be grateful for the support and social connection the church provided for me.

In the fall of 1972, my tenth-grade year at Findlay High School, Al Lacy held a revival at Trinity Baptist. One night, I came under great conviction and I went down to the altar, confessed my sins, and asked Jesus to save me. A week later I was baptized, and not too long after that, I publicly confessed before the church that I believed God was calling me into the ministry. I was fifteen.

My life changed dramatically after I got saved. I started carrying my Bible to school, and I regularly witnessed to my non-Christian friends. My non-Christian friends, those I played sports with, thought I had lost my mind, and some of my Christian friends did too.

I have always been an all-in kind of person. I don’t do half-way very well, so when it came to being a Christian, I was 100% committed to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I took seriously what I heard the pastors preach. In my young mind, I saw the pastors as speaking for God. After all, everything they preached about came straight out of the Bible, God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word — KJV-1611.

Trinity was an IFB church, affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship. The pastors preached against rock music, premarital sex, mixed swimming, going to movies, short skirts and pants on women, and long hair on men. Remember, it was the early 1970s, and mini-skirts and maxi-dresses were popular and men wore their hair long. The pastors at Trinity were anti-culture, believing the love and peace generation was destroying America.

Like a good Baptist boy, I tried to follow the rules to the letter. God (or the pastor) said it, I believed it, and that settled it for me. One sin the pastors were against was any kind of dancing. Not just some types of dancing, they were against ALL dancing.

I vividly remember ninth-grade year at Central Jr High. The Phys Ed teacher decided to teach square dancing. I was all for learning to square dance. This would be my only opportunity to touch the cheerleaders. Unfortunately, Pastor Milioni put an end to my carnal desires. He came to school and made a fuss about the square-dancing class. Next thing I know, I am being forced to sit with the fags (talking as we did in the 1970s — I do not use such language today) who refused to take Phys Ed. This was a punishment worse than death. Pastor Milioni would later come to my school to complain about the choir singing Jesus Christ Superstar. I had to quit choir.

Both my junior high and high school held dances, social events that everyone attended — well everyone but this good Baptist boy. I went through a period of time when I was really upset about all the rules and restrictions, so I would stay overnight with non-Christian friends so I could go to the dances with them. I did this numerous times. I don’t know if my parents ever caught on. If they did, they never said a word.

I came through the 1970s with my Baptisthood intact. I never smoked cigarettes, drank, or toked marijuana. I didn’t listen to rock music, I kept my hair cut short, and I successfully made it through high school as a virgin. Not that I didn’t want to have sex — I did — but I was afraid of what might happen if I did, and I didn’t think any of the church girls I dated were “willing.” I found out a few years ago, after talking to some of the girls I went to church with, that they were more “willing” than this naïve Baptist boy thought they were.

The first time I danced was at the wedding of one of my children. This was the first time for my wife too. My daughters-in-law cajoled us into dancing. Oh, what a sight we were. We may have been years away from our Fundamentalist youth, but it was quite evident that we didn’t know the first thing about dancing.

How about you? If you were raised in a Fundamentalist Christian home and attended public school, how did that affect your ability to be a normal student? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Listen to my Interview on the Preacher Boys Podcast with Eric Skwarczynski

polly bruce gerencser cranbrook gardens bloomfield hills michigan 1978
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Cranbrook Gardens, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Spring 1978, two months before wedding.

Last week, I was interviewed by Eric Skwarczynski for his Preacher Boys Podcast. Eric is a Christian, formerly a part of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. I had a delightful time talking with Eric, sharing my story, and giving my opinion about the health and future of the IFB church movement. The interview is over an hour long. I hope you will take the time to listen to it and let me know what you think.

I appreciate Eric’s kind and thoughtful words. I get a lot of negative press, so it is nice to hear someone speak well of me. I hope I live up to Eric’s lofty introduction.

You can listen to the podcast on Spotify and Apple.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

1973-1976: Bruce, The Wandering Baptist

bruce gerencser 1976
Bruce Gerencser, 1976

In the spring of 1972, after fourteen years of marriage, my parents divorced. By then, my mother was generally considered a nut job. Her post-divorce actions: suing (and later winning) Winebrenner Nursing Home over wage discrimination, and marrying her recently-released-from-Texas-prison first cousin, only reinforced how she was negatively viewed by others. My adulterous father, on the other hand, was viewed as the aggrieved party. Several months after my parents’ divorce, my father married a nineteen-year-old local girl with a baby. Gene Millioni, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio — an IFB church — performed the ceremony.

I was angry. How could my parents divorce, adding yet more turmoil to our home? And how could my supposedly Bible-believing pastor marry my father and his new teenager girlfriend? And who was this woman who thought she was going to be my new “mom?” After several months of seething anger, I calmed down a bit, accepting my new reality. Shortly after my father remarried, he moved us from a rental home on Cherry Street to one on the south side of town. This was par for the course when it came to my father. Rent a house, live there awhile, get behind on the rent, run out of ways to manipulate the landlord, and then be forced to move. At least this move was in the same town, same school.

bruce gerencser 1971
Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade, 1972, wearing “welfare” glasses. I was so embarrassed that I quickly earned enough money to buy wire-rimmed glasses

After my parents’ divorce and my father’s remarriage, my parents and siblings stopped attending church. I, however, threw myself headlong into the church. That fall, I was saved and baptized, and a few weeks later I announced to the church that God was calling me to be a preacher. I was fifteen. The church became my surrogate family. My parents had stopped being responsible caretakers years before, so I was pretty much on my own. I spent very little time at home. School, playing sports, attending church, and hanging out with my friends consumed most of my time. I wanted nothing to do with my father’s new wife, a feeling that was returned in spades. Our relationship would later explode, with her hitting me in the face with a leather belt, and me picking her up and hurling her into a cement wall, fracturing a vertebrate in her back.

In early March 1973, my father gathered us together and let it be known that we were moving to Tucson, Arizona. Not when school was over, but soon, as in, right away. My father was trying to outrun his creditors. Two weeks later, our household goods were auctioned off, and what remained was packed into a U-Haul. Off we went, 1,900 miles to Tucson. I cried on and off during our trip. My father had moved us here and there repeatedly over the years. A great adventure, he called it, but I hated him for repeatedly uprooting my life. We had lived in Findlay almost three years; the longest we lived anywhere. I attended the same school system for eighth, ninth, and most of tenth grades. Finally, my father was getting his act together. I had made friends both at church and school. I played city league basketball and baseball, and was actively involved in youth group activities. I had even preached my first sermon. And now, with a snap of his fingers, my father was burning my life to the ground. I felt I had a number of reasons to be wrought with emotion.

As I had done numerous times before, I adapted to my new circumstances. I found a new church to attend, the Tucson Baptist Temple. I tried to involve myself in the church’s youth group, but I never felt like I belonged. Besides, I missed my friends in Ohio. After classes ended at Rincon High School, I packed my meager belongings, hopped a Greyhound Bus, and moved to my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio. Bryan wasn’t Findlay, but I did have some friends there from my days attending First Baptist Church in the 1960s. Reacquainting myself with these friends provided a short respite for me, but as summer wore on, I found myself yearning for the seeming stability and normalcy of my past life in Findlay.

In August 1973, I moved to Findlay and enrolled in eleventh grade at Riverdale High School. A young family at Trinity Baptist had agreed to let me live with them. While I would have to attend yet another new school, I would still be going to Trinity and have my old friends back, so I thought I could live with attending Riverdale. Besides, Riverdale was a small country school. This would afford me the opportunity to play high school basketball. Unfortunately, after a month or so, the family I was living with had a falling out with the pastor of Trinity, and they decided to start attending a Bible church in nearby Arlington. Once again, I was forced to abandon my friends for people I did not know.

In early October, the family I was living with let Bruce Turner (Please see Dear Bruce Turner), the youth pastor at Trinity, know that I could no longer live with them. No reason was given as to why other than it was “not working out.”  As I ponder this point in my life, I can’t help but wonder if the real reason was that the husband thought I was getting a bit too friendly with his wife. Regardless, I had to move. Bruce found me a new home, this time with Gladys Canterbury. Gladys, in her sixties, was a devout Fundamentalist Baptist. While I wondered how it would work out living with a senior citizen, doing so allowed me to regain much of the life I left behind when my father moved us to Arizona, so I agreed to move in with her.

Gladys went to court and had me made a ward of the court. This action gave me access to medical insurance and provided Gladys with a monthly check for caring for me. To provide for my own personal needs, I started working at Bill Knapp’s Restaurant as a busboy. I arranged my class schedule in such a way that I would be finished with my classes around noon. I would then walk or ride my bike to Bill Knapp’s, arriving in time to work the lunch schedule. Afterward, I would take an extended break and work the dinner schedule. Once again, I adapted to my new reality.

By May of 1974, I was tired of living with Gladys. She was a taskmaster, and often refused to let me hang out with my friends. I was used to going and doing whatever I wanted, so I found Gladys’ approach to caring for me to be quite oppressive. Certainly, she meant well, but I didn’t want to hang out with a senior citizen.  I suspect my feelings weren’t much different from those of my friends. Teenagers, right? I had also learned that Bruce Turner was leaving Trinity. He was my surrogate father, and his departure left a huge hole in me emotionally.

The second week of May, I called my mother and asked if I could move back in with her. She said yes, and a week later she drove to Findlay and picked me up. My secretive move caused quite a bit of turmoil. Gladys threatened to have the police return me to her home, but nothing came of her threats. I started attending First Baptist Church of Bryan, quickly reconnecting with old friends. I found employment at several places: Bob’s Dairy Freeze, Everhart’s Restaurant, and Myer’s Marathon.

I turned seventeen in June of 1974. I took driver’s training at Bryan High School, and prepared to enroll in my senior year. However, Bryan High told me that I would have to repeat eleventh grade; not because of failing grades, but because I left Findlay before school ended. Findlay High denied me credit for my entire junior year because I missed the last ten days of school. I was so angry over this decision that I decided, “fine, I’ll drop out of school!” And so I did.

By October of 1974, my mother was, once again, a patient at Toledo State Mental Hospital. For the next six weeks, I was the head of the home. Both of my younger siblings were still in school. I made sure they went to school, and then I went to work. Outside of that, life at my mother’s house was pretty much one long party. Somehow, my father got wind that we were living without parental supervision, and in November he came to Ohio, picked us up, and moved us back to Arizona. By then, he had moved to Sierra Vista and opened a gun store with a settlement check he received from Ohio Workmen’s Compensation for his back.

After settling into my new reality, I found a stocking job at Food Giant. I learned that I was quite good at grocery work, skills I would later ply into several good jobs. After visiting several churches, I decided to join Sierra Vista Baptist Church — a Conservative Baptist Association congregation. I quickly became involved with the church’s bus route and helped teach Sunday School. It was not long afterward that I started dating a girl named Anita Farr. Anita was, I believe, two years older than I. Anita would become my first real love. I was smitten, and it was not long before we talked of getting married. Anita was in college, so marriage would have to wait, but I had no doubt that she was the one for me.

I turned eighteen in June of 1975. Two months later, Anita returned to college. We planned to see each other as often as we could on weekends. I drove to Phoenix several times that fall. I would stay in the dorm and then we would spend the weekend running around and attending church. Everything seemed headed in the right direction, until it wasn’t. You see, I was immature and prone to jealousy. Anita was a free spirit who loved flirting with men. It was not long before our relationship crashed and burned.

polly bruce gerencser cranbrook gardens bloomfield hills michigan 1978
Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Cranbrook Gardens, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Spring 1978, two months before our wedding.

Two weeks later, I packed up a couple of suitcases and caught a Greyhound Bus to Bryan, Ohio. I moved back in with my mom and took a job at Foodland as their dairy manager. I spent the next ten months having one of the most thrilling times of my life. I was an adult, had a good job, rented an apartment, owned my own car, and spent every waking hour either at work, church, or running around with my friends. I had no interest in serious relationships with the opposite sex. Anita cured me of that. I dated a good bit, but the moment things started turning serious I was off and running away. I was what you might call a serial dater.

In the spring of 1976, I decided it was time to act upon my call to the ministry. One friend of mine, Randy Rupp, laughed at me when I told him I was going to Bible college. He said, “you’ll never go!” But go I did, packing up my earthly belongings once again, and moving to Pontiac, Michigan to enroll for classes at Midwestern Baptist College — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution. And with this move, my wanderings came to an end. Well, kind of . . . well, not really . . . but for twenty-nine months Midwestern was my home.

It was there I met the love of my life and got married. I thought, “everything is moving in the right direction!” Get married, graduate, start a new church, that was the plan. However, God/Bruce had other plans. Seven months after Polly and I said “I do” we . . . you guessed it . . . moved. And over the past forty years we have moved numerous times. New houses, new communities, new churches. The reasons and circumstances for these moves are many, but the driving motivation was, I believed at the time, God. After years of counseling, I now know that wanderlust drives my desire and need to move. Even today, wanderlust whispers in my ear and says, “hey wouldn’t you like to live in ____________?”  Always restless, I am — a restlessness birthed a lifetime ago as my father moved me from town to town, state to state, and house to house. While my reasons for moving  — mostly religious in nature — are different from my father’s, I still followed in his footsteps. We try so hard to break free from our parents, yet when it comes time for me to give an account of my life, it seems that the proverbial apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Like it or not, I am the son of Robert and Barbara Gerencser. Well, not really. Have I told you the story about my father not being my “real” father? I’ll save that for another day.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Going All the Way for Jesus: Being an All-In Type of Person

all in

A commenter on my recent post, Jesus Said: Go Sell All That You Have and Follow Me, described me as an “all-in” type of person. I have often thought about being an all-in person. Was I always this way or did external forces turn me into that kind of person? I have rummaged through the first fifteen years of my life and concluded that I was NOT naturally an all-in kind of person. The best of example I found comes from my team sports experiences. I played Little League baseball, Pony League baseball, city league basketball, and one forgettable year of junior high football. I thoroughly enjoyed playing sports. I had enough talent to garner me a spot on teams, but my seat on the bench was usually right next to the water boy. Basketball was the only exception. I was a starter. This fact, however, shouldn’t be taken as a statement of my basketball prowess. If anything, all it says is that some of my teammates weren’t very good. I was a starter, then, on a very average team.

As I comb through my past sports experiences, one fact comes to light, regardless of the sport: I was never an all-in player. Sure, I would be at every practice and play pick-up games with neighborhood boys, but I was never the type of player who worked day and night on his skills. I enjoyed the fun and camaraderie that sports afforded me, but I was never going to be a lone gym rat, for example, shooting hundreds of shots a day to work on my foul shooting. My dad showed no interest in my athletic efforts. I don’t remember a time when he tossed the ball with me in the yard or attended one of my games. I want to think, surely, that he attended one or more of my games, but I have no recollection of him doing so. It was my grandmother who bought me my first baseball glove (and ball). I do have several memories of Grandma Rausch and my mom attending some of my Pony League games. I vividly remember hearing Grandma loudly telling the umpire while I was batting, THAT WASN’T A STRIKE! Never mind that I couldn’t have hit it even if it was. I was a terrible hitter, often used as a late-inning defensive replacement or a pinch runner (I am left-handed, and I was, in the day, a speedy base runner). I was never going to be Babe Ruth or even Mario Mendoza.

I can safely conclude, then, that I was NOT an all-in person in my younger years. However, as I turn my thoughts to my life from the time I was saved and baptized at age fifteen though my first decade in the ministry, I see a very different Bruce Gerencser. I see that once I became a Christian and declared I was called by God to be a preacher, I was all-in when it came to matters of faith. My transformation took place during the same time my parents divorced and my dad married a girl four years older than I. Yes, you read that right. She was 19. My father was 36. His new wife had given birth the previous year, leaving me wondering if the child belonged to my dad. Nonetheless, my familial circumstances greatly changed the year I got saved. My parents and siblings quit attending church, leaving me as the only Gerencser still a member of Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. I disconnected from my family, and directed most of my time and energy into attending church, working on a bus route, learning how to be a preacher, and running around with my church friends. The church became my family. I spent as little time at home as possible, often not coming home until it was time for bed.

During this time period, Bruce Turner, the youth pastor at Trinity, became a surrogate father of sorts. (Please read Dear Bruce Turner.) I have nothing but good things to say about Bruce. He was a real help to me at a vulnerable time in my life. That said, he was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher, and his theology, worldview, and way of living made a deep impression me. By the time I was sixteen, I was an all-in IFB Christian — a True Believer®. When Trinity would host Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship meetings, I would skip school so I could listen to the big-name IFB preachers of the day. Not one of my church friends joined me. I was alone when it came to a thirst for hearing these men of God. I am sure my church friends, if I asked them to comment on my younger years, would point to the changes that took place in my life after Jesus and I became best buddies. Not that I was no longer a fun-loving, humorous, girl-chasing redhead. I was, but my conduct and language changed, as did the kind of girls I was interested in. I only dated girls from the churches I attended, but after I was saved, I looked for girls who were as serious about their faith as I was. My first serious girlfriend after I was saved was the sixteen-year-old preacher’s daughter — Charlotte Brandenburg.

I was all-in with Jesus, so it made sense for me to only date girls who had similar motivations. The last girl I dated, of course, became my wife. We shared similar sentiments about spiritual matters and what it was God wanted us to do with our lives. And for the first three decades of our marriage, I was an all-in pastor, a man who demanded total commitment from himself, his family, and the churches he pastored. I had little tolerance for laziness, and I had no time for golf-playing ministerial colleagues. There were souls to save, churches to build. How could I devote one moment of time to the pleasures of the world while people still needed to hear the Evangelical gospel? Now, I don’t want to paint a picture of someone who was free from temptation and “sin.” I wasn’t, but the arc of my life was bent towards holiness, preaching the gospel, and doing all I could to help people mature in the faith. I often heard preachers talk about “balance.” For many years, I rejected calls for “balance,” choosing instead to devote most of my time and effort into the work of the ministry. Better to burn out than rust out, I proudly told myself.

As I look at the overall arch of my life, I can see how being all-in has helped me when it came to computers, photography, and writing. I tackled all three of these things without any training, choosing a path of self-education. I continue to work on knowing more about these things. I most certainly want to be a better writer and photographer. Computers? I just want the damn things to work when I push the “on” button. In other areas of my life, thanks to chronic illness and pain, I have learned to let go and let Loki. I am still learning to “not give a shit” about some things, even if all-in Bruce still wants to dive into the deep end of the pool. Maybe at age sixty-one, I am learning “balance.”  Or maybe, I have learned that it is okay to not be all-in on some things; that it’s okay not to know everything about e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Evangelist Bob Harrington: It’s Fun Being Saved

its fun being saved bob harringtonDuring much of the 1970s, Evangelical crusades were all the rage. As  a young teenager, I attended crusades conducted by Billy GrahamBill GlassJack Van Impe (twice), and Bob Harrington. In the early 1970s, Jack Van Impe came to Findlay, Ohio, for a crusade held at Findlay High School. Thousands of people flocked to hear The Walking Bible preach on the soon-return of Jesus Christ. Van Impe even went so far as to predict that the Russian flag would be flying over the U.S. Capitol by 1976. He was right about the Russian flag flying over the White House. He just missed the date by forty years. Van Impe was/is what I call a newspaper preacher. He looked at the headlines and crafted his sermons to correspond with them. According to the Bible, false prophets are to be stoned to death. If that be the case, Van Impe would have died long before his wife Rexella had her first facial plastic surgery procedure. Van Impe has made countless predictions (prophecies) that have spectacularly failed to materialize. That said, as a recently saved, called-of-God preacher boy, I found Van Impe’s preaching thrilling and motivational, a call to win more souls for Christ before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords returned to earth.

When it came to pure entertainment, however, no evangelist could match the wit, humor, and oratory of the smooth-talking Chaplain of Bourbon, Bob Harrington. I was able to locate a quality recording of Harrington on YouTube. The following sermon was preached in 1966 at Landmark Baptist Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. At the time, Landmark, pastored by Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher John Rawlings, and was one of the largest churches in the country. Harrington, a Southern Baptist, frequently preached at large IFB churches, including Jerry Falwell’s church, Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Video Link

I owned many of Harrington’s recorded sermon albums. I played them over and over and over again. I loved how he effortlessly mixed humor into sermons. My favorite Harrington quote comes from a sermon of his on the second coming of Jesus. Harrington said, I’m not looking for the undertaker, I’m looking for the upper-taker. I remember telling my youth director, Bruce Turner, at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, about my fondness for Harrington. Bruce tried to steer me away from Harrington, warning that his kind of preaching wasn’t Biblical and that Harrington was a fad that would soon pass away. If you listened to the recording above, you know that Harrington played loose with the “facts” of his life. For Harrington, preaching was all about telling a good story, even if he exaggerated or fibbed a bit. During college, I remember Tom Malone, the chancellor of Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan, saying during a sermon, “I’m not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.” Malone was joking, but after preaching thousands of sermons and listening to hundreds more, I have concluded that Malone was right; that preaching is often an admixture of truth and exaggeration, especially when it comes to sermon illustrations. I remember reading that David Foster Wallace, when questioned about his penchant for exaggeration, said that as long as the basic facts were correct there was no harm in exaggerating a bit to tell a better story. Remember that the next time you hear a preacher use this or that sermon illustration, and if you’re thinking, this story seems to be exaggerated or too good to be true — it probably is. (Another big-name preacher who loved to tell fanciful, exaggerated illustrations was Jack Hyles.)

In the 1960s, Harrington moved to New Orleans to start a street ministry. Armed with a Bible and a microphone, Harrington preached at people as they passed by. According to the Baptist Standard, after several months of street preaching:

….deacons at First Baptist Church in New Orleans loaned him enough money for a few months’ rent to open a chapel on Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Harrington began witnessing and preaching in the bars and strip clubs of Bourbon Street.

In 1962, Mayor Victor Schiro proclaimed him “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street.”

Harrington’s street ministry message was bold and simple: “God loves you just as you are. He knows you are a sinner and wants to save you. Don’t figure it out. Faith it out!”

In 1968, he held a revival at Castle Hills First Baptist Church in San Antonio. During the revival, the owners of a burlesque club attended an evening service and became Christians. Guy and Evelyn Linton immediately closed the club and posted a sign: “Closed forever. See you in church.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Harrington was one of the most popular preachers in America. People thronged to his crusades. As a young teenager, I heard Harrington at a crusade in Pontiac, Michigan. I can still remember the excitement that filled the football stadium. Every seat was occupied, and come invitation time, scores of people came forward to be saved. It seemed to me, as a young teenager, that God was pouring out his spirit on Harrington and using him to saved thousands of people. In the late 70s, Harrington traveled the country with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, holding meetings that were purportedly a debate between an atheist and a Christian about the existence of God. What it turned into was a much-rehearsed circus sideshow that made a lot of money for both Harrington and O’Hair. Harrington said of the atheist, “Yes, many may say Madalyn knows the Scriptures better than I do, but I know the author.”

Here’s a low-quality video of Harrington’s and O’Hair’s appearance on the Phil Donahue Show:

Video Link

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Much as my youth pastor predicted, Harrington proved to be a fad. In the late 1970s Harrington spectacularly crashed and burned, admitting he had committed adultery. He later said, “the devil threw me a pass, and I caught it and ran for defeat.”  Harrington would divorce his first and second wives, marrying three times. In a 2000 SBC Life article, Harrington describes his moral failures this way:

Three things got me: fame, finance, and frolic. I was going strong with my little radio program there. Then after the mayor named me Chaplain of Bourbon Street the Governor of Louisiana named me Ambassador of Goodwill to America.

Early on I had trouble paying $500 a week rent for the office on Bourbon Street. But the next thing you know, $500 a week income was changing into $5,000 a week. The “kingdom of thing-dom” started getting more of my attention than the Kingdom of God. I was on nationwide television in four hundred and seventy cities. Everything was going good. Then, Phil Donahue had me on his pilot show. The other guest that day was Madeline O’Hare. That show took Donahue into nationwide syndication. He had us back eighteen times after that. She became a springboard toward my own national recognition, but also a witnessing tool for the Lord. Once people saw the condition of an atheist they wanted to become believers.

I challenged her to meet me in different cities. There were thirty-eight different cities where we would meet in the civic auditorium or the municipal auditorium, and have confrontations on the stage. It became quite popular. We were on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and The Merv Griffin Show.

I had fame, but when you get famous you start thinking, “Look at what I’m doing.” After I got saved, I grew too fast — I didn’t have a good, stable foundation. It’s nobody’s fault but mine, but when you get invitations to come give your testimony, you start adding more dates to it. I had to drop out of seminary because I was preaching two revivals a month. I was so caught up in being an evangelist. Money gets to flowing and you find yourself riding in a big customized bus, you find yourself flying in a Lear jet, and you find your staff members picking up your briefcases. Unless you’ve got a solid base, you can really fall into this. I started believing all my cockiness and all my press releases — and that precedes the fall.

Fame did that. And finance — you get money in your hand, and you’re the president and the treasurer. Signatures are pretty easy to come by. The folks were just giving and giving.

Frolic — after a while you got those Bathsheba’s, [sic] Delilah’s, [sic] and Jezebel’s [sic] out there in the church world – not the Bourbon Street world — that kind of temptation didn’t bother me because I knew they were notoriously wicked. But these were sweet, little ol’ church members. They start telling you how nice and neat you are, and how big and strong you are. Your wife isn’t telling you that any more because she knows what you’re turning into.

All those things — fame, finance, and frolic — led me to catch a pass that Satan threw at the peak of my success. And that pass — I caught that sucker, and ran for defeat. When you break that pass down, P. A. S. S., it’s pride, arrogance, self-centeredness, and stubbornness. That stole my first love away from me, and that’s when I fell.

After his “fall,” Harrington was out of the ministry for seventeen years. He credits Cathedral of Tomorrow pastor Rex Humbard for encouraging him to re-enter the ministry. During his time away from the Lord, Harrington was a salesman and a motivational speaker. Harrington was a once-saved, always-saved Baptist. This meant, regardless of what Harrington did during his time away from Jesus, he was still a born-again Christian.

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Harrington describes his return to the ministry this way:

After having served God for many years as Chaplain of Bourbon Street, I began to leave my “First Love” for the Lord. Fame, fortune and frolic got me off the track. I had been on all the major talk shows such as Donahue and Oprah, as well as having my own syndicated TV show across the country. Money got to be no object as the dollars flowed in, and the making of money began to be my focus. I began listening to the young women who bragged on how good I was and looked, and became addicted to their ego boosts. I finally left preaching altogether and went strictly into very successful years as a motivational speaker–finally leaving God completely out of my life. I was miserable; living (existing) on fun and thrills. Little happiness, no joy.

One night while in Los Angeles, CA, I was considering jumping out of a window, when the phone rang and my friend Rex Humbard asked me, “Bro. Bob, aren’t you ready to come back?” I cried, “Yes, I’m so ready!” He then lead [sic] me in reading the 51st Psalm and praying David’s prayer of restoration. Suddenly the burden of guilt was lifted and I knew that God had other plans for my life. These years since then have been a growing and rebuilding time for me, and I’m thrilled to say: “I’m back and It’s Still Fun Being Saved!”

December of 1998 was a particularly wonderful time in my life when God gave to my life a wonderful lady named Becky.  We had been acquaintances for nearly 30 years, but when we found each other in August of 1997 after many years, we were both excited as God seemed to draw us together.  We were married on December 5, 1998 at the Grand Palace in Branson, MO.  Now we headquarter on her miniature horse ranch just south of Ft. Worth, TX, from which we continue to travel across the country doing what God called me to do in 1958…preach the Word.

Harrington died on July 4, 2017. He was eighty-nine years old. He, indeed, had fun being saved.

Did you ever attend a crusade back in the day? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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