My memories of Christian Fundamentalism began in the 1960s as a member of First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio. Established in 1954, First Baptist was originally affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but later become an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation. The pastor I remember most is Jack Bennett. Bennett was married to the sister (Creta) of two of my uncles (Ed and Paul Daughtery who married two of my dad’s sisters, Helen and Mary Gerencser). Bennett would pastor First Baptist for thirty-one years. After retiring in 1999, Bennett handed the reigns to John MacFarlane, who currently pastors the church. Bennett died in 2002. His wife died in 2017.
To say that I had a complicated relationship with Pastor Bennett would be a gross understatement. Bennett, who had difficulties walking as a result of polio, always made a point to talk to me at church, but his conversations seemed perfunctory and distant. This could have been a result of his personality, but as a boy who grew up under his ministry, I never felt we were close. What few serious interactions we had were, from my perspective, were quite negative.
Bennett drove a white Cadillac. Every two or years he would by a new car, always a white Cadillac. It became clear to me that Bennett didn’t want to call attention to his new car purchases, so he always bought automobiles that looked the same as his previous car. There were on and off rumbles in the church over how much money Bennett was making, so I am sure he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
Bennett was a topical/textual preacher. I can’t remember a time when he preached an expositional sermon. On this point, Bennett was typical of his generation. I didn’t hear an expositional sermon for the first time until the early 1980s. IFB pastors are known for topical/textual preaching. This, unfortunately, leads to theological ignorance. When the Bible is never systematically taught and preached from the pulpit, how can it be otherwise?
As I mentioned in Part One of this series, I moved in and out of First Baptist Church several times. When I returned to Bryan from Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio in May, 1974, I had been saved and called preach 18 months previously. I thought, after my return to First Baptist, that Pastor Bennett would be proud to have another preacher boy in the church. Unfortunately, Bennett went out of his way to discourage me from acting on my calling. Why?
I have often pondered the Why? question. Why did Bennett nurture other young preacher boys in the church, but not me?
Two reasons stand out to me.
First, Bennett didn’t like my mom’s way of life. Mom and Dad had divorced in the spring of 1972. We were living in Findlay at the time. Mom later moved back to Bryan, renting an apartment on Center Street, two blocks from First Baptist. I lived with mom from the age of 17 until I left for Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in 1976, at the age of 19.
After Mom and Dad divorced, both of them stopped attending church. While they claimed to be Christians, church was never a part of their day-to-day lives. Mom lived what we called in IFB circles a promiscuous life. A steady parade of men came through Mom’s life. I suspect this fact upset Pastor Bennett, so much so that one Sunday after church, he sent his wife to Mom’s apartment to set her straight.
I typically walked to and from church. That Sunday, I noticed Bennett’s white Cadillac sitting in front of our apartment. Jack was sitting in the car while his wife, Creta, went upstairs to preach at my mother. Before I could even make it to door, out came Creta angry and flustered. She said to me, “Your mom needs to get right with God!” And with that she stormed off. By the time I got upstairs, my mom was in a fit of rage. I mean rage — and rightly so. Here’s a pastor and his wife who hadn’t had any interaction with my mom, yet they took it upon themselves to attack her for her way of life. I have often wondered what Mom said to Creta while she was pontificating about morality. I wonder if she mentioned the fact that Creta’s fine Christian brother had raped her five years before?
Second, Pastor Bennett thought of me as wild. “Wild” was a label given to IFB teens who were perceived to be worldly or loved to have fun; those who didn’t play by the rules. In Bennett’s eyes, I was wild because I didn’t participate in the church’s Word of Life youth program, ran around with fellow wildlings Dave Echler and Randy Rupp, drove my cars way too fast, and I loved the girls. In other words, I was a typical boy in the 1970s. Never mind the fact I attended church every time the doors were open, daily read my Bible and prayed, and regularly witnessed to non-Christians.
On several occasions, Pastor Bennett called me into his office and lectured me about my alleged bad behavior. One time, I reminded him that I planned on going to Bible college the following year. I asked him for advice concerning which college to attend. To this day, I remember what he said to me, “Bruce, I have no advice to give you.” And that was that, end of discussion.
A year later,I left Bryan and enrolled in classes at Midwestern. Pastor Bennett had no parting words, no words of encouragement for me. At the time, his indifference and coldness towards me really hurt. Fortunately, a deacon in the church, Bob Boothman, threw a going-away party for me and had me preach to my friends. This would be the only time I would ever preach at an event associated with First Baptist.
The next two summers I returned to Bryan, worked summer jobs, and regularly attended First Baptist. Unlike other young preachers who were afforded opportunities to preach, Pastor Bennett never asked me to do so. Why?
In 1983, I started an IFB church in Somerset, Ohio. Wanting to foster a better relationship with Pastor Bennett, I asked him to come preach for me for a few days. (Yes, I am sure Freud would have fun with the WHY behind me asking Bennett to preach for me.) The few days we spent together were uneventful. Again, Bennett cool and distant. We shared no meals together, and Bennett cloistered himself his motel room each day until it was time to come to the church. Needless to say, I was disappointed that we couldn’t find a way, as fellow pastors, to forge a meaningful relationship.
During my time at Somerset Baptist Church, First Baptist celebrated one of its anniversaries. The church threw a big party at the local school. One of the church families I was close to, Marv and Louise Hartman, called and invited me to the party. We gladly made the four-hour trip from southeast Ohio to attend the gala.
During the program, the church recognized all the preachers in attendance, fawning over those who had been called to preach while attending First Baptist. Guess whose name wasn’t mentioned? That’s right, mine. It was only later, after Louise Hartman said something about my omission that I was recognized. Quite frankly, that embarrassed me more than not being mentioned in the first place. I was an afterthought, an inconvenience that wouldn’t go away.
And why didn’t I go away? I think, deep down, I wanted to accepted and respected by the church and Pastor Bennett. I so wanted to be one of them. Alas, that was never going to happen.
This series will continue to focus on my experiences with First Baptist Church and its pastor Jack Bennett. I’m sure daring to tell these stories out loud will upset some current/former members and pastors of the church. How dare I speak ill of the dead — or the living, for that matter? These stories need to be told, and now is the time.
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.
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