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 damn strait-laced and self-righteous, even for Abilene. The big money was pretty well divided between the Baptists and the Methodists; at this period, the Church of Christ was a low-income flock. After World War II that changed, and today some of the wealthiest Abilenians are members of The Church, as it is referred to by those who go.

Not everybody belonged to the Big Three. Abilene had its enclaves of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples, Lutherans, Roman Catholics (as noted), and many smaller sects, including some who shout, roll, and speak in tongues. By 1940, there were enough Jews in Abilene for a minyan, and a synagogue opened out on Chestnut Street. The Presbyterians are the oldest denomination in town; the First Presbyterian Church (according to a plaque embedded in a downtown sidewalk) was founded more than two weeks before the Abilene town lot sale on March 15, 1881. The Episcopalians in Abilene (as in most places) have always formed a social elite, and it has been more prose than poetry that certain ambitious individuals, as they gained fiscal status, worked their up way up the churchly ladder from Baptist to Presbyterian to, finally, Episcopalians.

I was always going to write a novel about Abilene. At first it was going to be about a boy listening to the midnight whistle of the T&P train going east—going anywhere—telling himself that one day he would go—anywhere—and would become a success, and then he would return to Abilene in triumph, possibly as a poet. My hero and I were convinced Abilene needed poets and recognized its need. The next novel I was going to write about Abilene was not going to be about returning, it was about getting the hell out. The boy, now a man, would break free of the narrow conventions this hypocritical village imposed on its bright souls, and would thumb his nose at Abilene. But neither my novelistic heroes nor I could ever decide how to be successful in that hedonistic spirit which says living well is the best revenge. No, we were ol’ Abilene boys, even the rebels of my imaginary novels. Immortality was embarrassing, vulgarity awkward, and no matter how free we thought we were, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to humiliate our folks or our fellow tribesmen. Every time we inspected our standards, they turned out to be stamped “Made in Abilene.”

Thirty years later, I still haven’t figured out how you score a win on a town that belongs to God.

We never thought of Abilene being a hick town or a religious ghetto when I was growing up there. We took it like it was, the way kids take pretty nearly everything, even now. We just supposed you went to church all the time, no matter where you lived, just like we took it for granted it was windy everywhere and that on lots of spring days the schools closed because the sandstorms were so black you couldn’t see and so thick you couldn’t breathe. And all the religious separatism within the community had an unexpected result; it gave a tribalism to life which was comforting. You were forced into an identity: “Aren’t your folks Methodists?” or, “They’re

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