That Changed My Life
Three Angels Visit Harrell Grove
By John of AllFaith © 1987
Welcome to MyStory!
Three Angels Visit Harrell Grove
You are visitor number...
- I was born and raised in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of North Georgia, which I left about the time I was old enough.
- Growing up in the Baptist Bible Belt you learn from a very early age that religion is both the best and the worst thing on the planet. One of its negative attributes, it seems to me, is its tendency to promote religious and social exclusivity. One of its positive aspects is that if we take it seriously, spirituality can make us stretch our minds in ways that we probably never would have. I've experienced religion from many sides.
- In the late Spring of my twelfth year I made my 'alter call' and became a Born-Again Christian. Shortly after that, I began a quest, which continues to this day. Allow me to tell you a true story:
- Back in 1969, on a sweltering Georgia night, I was attending a Wednesday night prayer meeting at Harrell Grove Missionary Baptist Church. The place was jumping! The old women were waving
their hands in the air testifying to anyone within earshot, the men were doing the Holy Ghost Two-Step and I, a newly "saved" twelve year old, sat taking it all in amazed.
- About the time the singing and testifying were winding down and Pastor Hoyt Thomas was approaching his pulpit, something quite out of the ordinary happened.
- The doors from the vestibule swung open, a bit loudly I noted, and standing there, at our mid-week service, were three of the strangest looking young men I'd ever seen in my short-lived life. They had long hair, scraggly beards, and were dressed in clothing such as I would have imagined gypsies in.
- They paused for a moment as silence descended over the ethnocentric congregation, and people stuffed startled tongues back into gapping mouths. After a moment, the three men, all in perhaps their mid-twenties, sat down in the last row of pews as unobtrusively as they could under the circumstances.
- Well, our good preacher, never one to be outdone by the devil, grasped the sides of the podium and began to shake, softly at first, but then powerfully. Everyone, except our peculiar visitors I imagine, knew what was happening. The Holy Ghost was falling on our pastor 'in a powerful way'.
- His knuckles turned white, his eyeballs bulged just a bit, his body began to quake as he exploded with one of the 'fiercest Holy Ghost coverings' I'd ever seen.
- "Thus says the Lord God Almighty Whom I serve!" he shouted. "Thus sayeth the Holy One..." I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, fear caused me to break out in a cold sweat. I'd heard about Ananias and Saphira in Sunday school: bout how God had struck 'em dead...
- "If I was one of 'yer Long Hairs, sayeth the Lord God, I wouldn't come to this House of Prayer! I'd be too afraid! Bless you Jesus!..."
- One of the men rose and silently left the church.
- "...of these Long Hairs you see in downtown Atlanta -- in Sodom! -- they're all a bunch of leftwing commie homosexshuls! Thus sayeth the Lord God..."
- The second visitor arose, not quite so quietly, though I don't recall his saying anything, and walked out of the church.
- "...Yes," the preacher continued, wiping the sweat of his anointing off with a white handkerchief and slamming his right fist on the hard surface of the podium. Then it happened, as I knew it would. He began shaking violently. Perspiration rolled from his furrowed brow in torrents, splattering the Amen Section. With his right hand, he picked up his water glass, which was secreted under his pulpit. Raising it up as if to drink, his body jerked, his arm spasmed and he threw the water in his face - a sure sign 'the Holy Ghost was on him' we all knew.
- He pointed his bony index finger accusingly at us all and cut loose with a torrent of thou-shalt-nots that would have reduced a saint to tearful repentance.
- The remaining visitor sat unmoved through it all. He seemed intent on every word Preacher Thomas uttered. Through the preaching, through the alter call, which filled the small wooden
alter to near record numbers, even through the tenth time as the choir crooned "Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy Blood, was shed for me..." He sat. Unmoved.
- Finally, as well-spent repentant Church folk shuffled out into the night air, I watched as the remaining visitor slowly rose and made his way forward. I followed him at a distance. I had to see how God would 'break this sinner's obstinate heart.'
- As he approached the alter, Preacher Thomas came to him cautiously. Clearly, he was amazed and not a little frightened of this odd young man with tattered clothes. Why hadn't he left, like the others?
- It was then I noticed the sense of peace on the young man's face. I had never before seen such a serene look (later, I heard some of the old timer's say they had noticed it too, drugs, they piously concurred).
- You know what Preach," the visitor began. "Some of what you said tonight was true..."
- Some! Was he questioning Preacher Thomas? Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost! I stepped back lest a stray lightening bolt should strike.
- "Me and my buddies do need something," he was saying. "We ain't happy, not really."
- Ah yes, I thought in my youthful naiveté', the Spirit's gentle conviction.
- "But I tell you what," he continued, "if you're any sign of what God's like, then I think I'd rather go to Hell!"
- My mouth hit the floor! So did Preacher Thomas'.
- With an odd sense of grace, the visitor then turned and walked calmly up the center aisle and out the door.
- Preacher Thomas stared after him for a couple moments. His face had gone from the red of 'Holy Ghost empowerment' to the deathly pale of disbelief. He soon regained his composure however, and as the young man cleared the doorway the good Reverend shouted behind him, "Satan's got a hold of your brain young feller! You best repent! You hear me!"
- But he didn't.
- I turned back to Preacher Thomas, the man whom, you must understand, was God's earthly representative to me, and said, "Preacher Thomas, I agree with him."
- With that I rushed up the central aisle and out into parking lot, where huddled Baptists watched a Volkswagen microbus filled with three 'angels in disguise' drive away into the night.
- I never saw those men again. Whether they were really 'angels' or not I can't say. But if by angels, you mean messengers or spokespersons for God and Truth, then yes, as far as I'm concerned, they were angels.
- After that 1969 service I never returned to Harrell Grove. Instead, I began my own search, my quest for the Truth.
- The prejudices and fiery sermons of people like Preacher Thomas do reflect one aspect of Christianity. Please understand however, that Christianity is an incredibly diverse and complex religion. I'd also like to add that the experiences described above occurred in the Deep South in late sixties that, in many ways, was a different world and time; much has changed. The purpose of this piece is not to denigrate Preacher Thomas or the good people of Harrell Grove Baptist Church but to share a profound experience from my youth (see below for an e-mail I received from Harrell Grove about this piece).
- I've received a letter from Preacher Thomas' daughter Retha taking odds with this piece. Following is her letter in its entirety followed by my response:
- You may be surprised to find that your article has reached back to that small town and church in North Georgia and not with enthusiasm. If you are going to do an article and claim that it is true, when it isn't, you should at least use fictitious names. I will take into consideration that you were only 12 yrs old at the time and 12 year olds have been known to exaggerate. I was at that meeting and I was not 12 but 28 at the time. Hoyt Thomas is my dad! He is alive and well and your story (and that's what it is) is a preposterous exaggeration of the truth!!. You claim my dad used words that are not and were not in his vocabulary. You may not have returned to Harrell Grove, but your angels (HA!!) did, asking for a hand out which my dad gave, as he was always doing when people came asking and they did a lot of that.
I am furious about your article! My dad has won more souls to Christ than you will probably ever be able to. He is 87 years young now and Pastor Emeritus at Harrell Grove, where the church has continued to grow over the years. You owe him an apology!! I am surprised you didn't claim they were handling snakes!! If you are a christian and make it to Heaven, I hope you will come by and visit the Mansion of Rev. Hoyt Thomas, because it will, I am sure make yours look small.
And my reply:
- Hi Retha,
- I was surprised by the woman who came across the article originally, but I've been expecting a reply from someone at the church via her reading it. I'm only surprised it took this long.
- I will say first that, as I told her, the piece was never intended as a hit piece on your dad or on the church but as a sharing of an important event in my life that helped to shape me and my ministry.
- That you recall the evening the men came there so clearly after all these years says a couple of things to me. One, that it did in fact happen and was not the product of a youthful imagination and two, that it was a truly unique event. These two being the case, your accusing me of making it up makes no sense. The event took place. You wrote "... If you are going to do an article and claim that it is true, when it isn't, you should at least use fictitious names..." and yet here you acknowledge that it is true, at least that the event took place.
- Granted I was twelve at the time and did not have a tape recorder, so the words I have used as quotes may not be exactly accurate, but the event, as I depict it in the piece, is what I clearly remember and is not opposed to the general way things at the church went in the late sixties and I don't see how you can say otherwise.
- There is a general trend today to white-wash the sixties and pretend that everyone in authority was in favor of the civil rights movement etc., but that simply wasn't the case. At that time your dad was firmly convinced that the world was going to hell and he publicly and loudly condemned much of what was taking place from his pulpit. For this I do not judge him, it was a very different world. Facts are facts however.
- I am surprized to learn that the men came back to the church. That I had never heard. How did it go?
- I am truly glad to hear that Preacher Thomas is doing better now. The woman who wrote me before painted a rather grim picture of his health. We've been praying for him here.
- I will place a disclaimer on the piece acknowledging receipt of your disapproval with it. I certainly do apologize that feelings have been hurt. That was never the intention of the piece. My years at Harrell Grove had profound and eternal benefits to me and I thank God for them and for your dad.
Who cares, I'm glad YOU'RE here!