God’s Country [November 1975]

Coming of age in Abilene, the buckle on the Bible belt.

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP there in the Thirties and Forties, Abilene was a one-industry town: God.

God met the biggest payroll and He was the local real estate magnate. Besides owning the fifty church buildings and employing the people in them, He held title to the three institutions of higher learning in town: Abilene Christian College, controlled by the Churches of Christ; Hardin-Simmons University, a Baptist school; and McMurry College, of Methodist extraction. In addition, He had a first lien on Hendrick Memorial Hospital, which started life as the West Texas Baptist Sanitorium, and formed a joint partnership with a couple of Roman orders that ran Saint Joseph Academy and Saint Ann Hospital. That was a pretty hefty inventory for a town of 25,000. Not even the FFA (First Families of Abilene)—the Wootens, Radfords, Guitars, and Fulwilers—could match it.

This meant that everybody in Abilene was supposed to please the Boss by going to church every Sunday, beginning with Sunday school, and a goodly number were expected to be back that evening. It also meant that nothing of a public or commercial nature could be announced for Wednesday nights, which were kept sacred for prayer meetings.

For the truly devout there would also be young people’s meetings, ladies’ prayer circles, and Bible study classes, men’s business meetings (Abilene’s churches were male dominated), choir practice, visits to the county jail, baskets for the Donkey Flat families at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and “personal work,” a broad designation which included such things as counseling with unrepentant—read, drinking—husbands of “saved” wives, admonishing teenaged girls “how far to go,” or knocking on doors in a zealous attempt to inflate the numbers of your congregation.

Naturally, this recital of devotion isn’t wholly on the mark. Not everybody in Abilene went to church in such a full-time way. A large percentage just attended the eleven o’clock Sunday morning service, put their pledge payment in the collection basket, and let it go at that. Among the hardshells, however, the eleven o’clock service was referred to scornfully as “High Mass”; the implication was that a Real Christian would be there for more than this single, obligatory appearance. But whatever their churchgoing habits, I’ll guarantee you one thing: damn few Abilenians wrote “none” when they were filling in the “Church preference” blank. You had better put down something, even if it was “Roman Catholic.” Not only God kept score; so did the banker, the credit manager, and the man who signed that temporal paycheck.

Abilene, like Caesar’s Gaul, was (and is) divided into three parts: Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ. Back in the Twenties and Thirties the Baptists were the major business leaders, but the Methodists had more of the professional men. The Church of Christ members stuck together, traded with each other, and had the reputation for being good neighbors—honest and dependable—but too

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