(Reverend Black Douglas by Alex Haley was published in Country Ways: A Celebration of Rural Life by the Reader’s Digest Association in condensed format. It also appeared within Henning: Portrait of an American Town by Alex Haley.)
“When I was a boy in Henning, Tennessee, I went to a little church—New Hope C.M.E.—which at that time meant ‘Colored Methodist Episcopal.’ We were first ‘colored.’ And then we became ‘negro.’
At that time, if someone called you ‘black,’ you had to fight. Now people talk about this ‘African American,’ and it’s just semantics.” ~ Alex Haley. (Alex Haley: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989: Angels, Legends, and Grace.)
“In 1873, soon after Alex’ ancestors had arrived in Henning by wagon train from the plantation in North Carolina where they had lived as slaves, most of them had become founders of the New Hope Colored Methodist Episcopal Church—where the documentary’s final scene was shot that night at a special service held in honor of the town’s most celebrated citizen.
“It was recently rebuilt in the gleaming white architectural style of a suburban corporate headquarters, and, waiting for him inside the new church, dressed in its Sunday best, bathed in the brilliance of quartz movie lights, sat the entire congregation, filling every pew.
“Glad to be there, but feeling a little out of place—though perhaps less so than the jeaned and bearded film crew from L.A.—I slipped in and found a seat in the back. A moment later, the doors opened and Alex started walking down the aisle toward the pulpit, followed by his younger brothers George and Julius, who had been invited by the TV people to make it a ‘family reunion.’
“A black boy of about ten in the row ahead, staring at Alex with shining eyes, asked, ‘Is that him?’ He didn’t have to wait long for an answer; later, everyone in that church was giving him a standing ovation.
“The cameras, of course, were rolling. Looking a little sheepish, Alex sat down on a bench behind the pulpit beside his brothers, and Fred Montgomery, a deacon of the church, an alderman on the town council and a lifelong friend of Alex’, led the purple-gowned choir and the congregation in a rousing spiritual. Then a white aide to Henning’s mayor got up to say a few words about the pride everyone in the community took in its native son.
“Then, standing nervously with one arm on the piano for support, a teenage girl, obviously her high school’s valedictorian, recited tremulously a short speech she had not only memorized but undoubtedly written herself. By the time she got to the end, she was looking at the audience rather than the floor, and she said loudly and firmly, ‘What Mr. Haley has done for us—and for the world—will remain eternal.’ ” ~ Editor, Murray Fisher. (From his January 1977, A Candid Conversation With The Author of The American Saga Roots.)
Reverend Black Douglas
The congregation of Henning’s New Hope Colored Methodist Episcopal Church could not have been more surprised when the bishop of the West Tennessee District arrived in his car one Sunday morning in 1923. The bishop explained that he had come to fill in for New Hope’s longtime and well-liked pastor, whom he had asked to go and substitute for an ailing, aged pastor of a large and prestigious church in Memphis, fifty miles south.
The presence of a bishop in the small church was no everyday honor, and although the sermon he preached that Sunday morning was of only fairly ordinary caliber, still some of the older members took pains to be certain that he heard some good, old-fashioned, heavy foot-patting, along with a nice sprinkling of “Yaymans” to show he was both welcomed and appreciated.
Following the sermon and the morning collection, the bishop returned to the pulpit and dropped a real shock upon the congregation. In all probability, their regular pastor would be needed for quite an extended period in Memphis. In his stead, the New Hope Church would receive “a truly unusual young preacher.”
The bishop asked that a fair, unprejudiced hearing be given to this young man, who had recently reached the age of twenty-nine. His name was Douglas, the bishop said, and he had grown up as a farm boy near Millington, Tennessee. One day out plowing in a field of young cotton, he’d heard a heavenly voice commanding him to go forth and preach. His proud, hardworking farmer parents had helped him to enter the Fuller Theological School in Memphis. In his graduating year, he had easily won a competition of free-style ten-minute sermons, a competition whose judges had included the bishop. For nearly seven years since then, the young man had been a guest preacher at a variety of small country churches.
The bishop said that the time was ripe for the natural-born pulpit talents of the young Reverend Douglas to be displayed for just the right congregation, in just the right church—which the bishop felt sure was none other than New Hope CME Church in Henning. And, he affirmed, if the New Hope congregation didn’t like the young man, then of course he would immediately be replaced.
That Sunday saw the beginning of a week of heavy discussions within the homes of New Hope church members. The two principal issues were, first, the prospective preacher was unknown, unseen and unheard; second, and worse, his twenty-nine years of age made him no more than wet behind the ears by comparison with the average age of preachers who were regarded with pride and respect by their congregations.
The youth factor finally triggered the public tongues and tempers of the older Methodist sisters who belonged to the Golden Deeds Society. They began visiting key families, fuming that no bishop or anybody else should be allowed to foist off some unknown “boy preacher” upon the congregation. Friday afternoon the Golden Deeds Society sisters assembled themselves and went marching directly to Uncle Jim Green, who was chairman of the board of the church. In no uncertain terms, the sisters told Uncle Jim Green to telephone the bishop and tell him that a majority of the New Hope congregation wished to cancel, in advance, any hearing of a preacher who was obviously too immature for a serious church.
But Uncle Jim Green looked the Golden Deeds sisters square in the eyes as he told them that the New Hope Church had given its formal promise to the bishop, and therefore it was a matter of church honor that, on the Sunday approaching, the young reverend must be given a fair tryout. At the same time, Uncle Jim Green knew all too well the many pressures which irate Golden Deeds sisters could exert, so he quickly offered a compromise. Once the young man had preached one sermon, if the Golden Deeds sisters voted unanimously against him, the bishop would be telephoned.
On Sunday morning families who belonged to the New Hope Church set out as much as an hour earlier than usual, hoping to arrive in enough time to be certain of a pew seat for the eleven o’clock worship service. As the families arrived at the church ground, literally each and every young marriageable woman gave a gasp upon her first glimpse of Reverend Douglas—which their observing mothers and grandmothers understood. He was a good-looking, velvety-black six-feet-four of muscle, bone and sinew. Greeting easily the people who were approaching the church, he looked straight into the eyes of even the children and solemnly shook their hands. Against the smooth blackness of his face, his teeth seemed made of pearls, while his big, solid shoulders, arms, hands and feet spoke to all that he knew how to handle a mule, a plow, a sledgehammer or an ax. The church’s hardworking old and young men members found themselves privately approving him on sight.
Only the sisters of the Golden Deeds Society expressed indignation. “Look at them young gals grinnin’ at him like fools!” snapped Sister Hattie Locust. “That’s the pushy way they all actin’ nowdays!”
Sister Cornelius Johnson exclaimed, “Jes’ heared one them tellin’ her mama that’s the way a man s’posed to look!”
“Well, he sho’ don’t look it to me!” declared eighty-two-year-old Sister Dindy, reminding them of the Golden Deeds’ public pledge to vote him out. “Jes’ everybody keep in mind that lookin’ sho’ ain’t preachin’!”
An excited congregation found seats as the church pianist played “Rock of Ages.” Then the young Reverend Douglas walked forward and placed his Holy Bible atop the preaching stand. He didn’t make any of the expected “I-hope-you’ll-like-me” appeals of average preachers who were being tried out. He just opened the Bible to his marked place and, looking down at the congregation, led them in singing “Amazing Grace” in a fine, strong baritone.
The hymn ended, and, not preaching yet but just speaking in that rich voice, he let the people know that whatever else he had learned in theology school, he certainly had never forgotten how it was to have grown up helping his folks in scrabbling out a living on a farm.
“Brothers and sisters,” he began, “I don’t have to say to anybody here that we’re in a time of trouble. For seven or eight weeks now, there’s been nothin’ but little sprinklin’ rains, an’ out there in your fields, maybe the boll weevils thicker’n your cotton. An’ it look like, from all we can hear, that for whatever little cotton will finally get picked, The Man won’t be payin’ hardly nothin’.”
He leaned his head a little bit backward as he continued: “Ahhhh, yessss! Lots of people, the white as well as the black, startin’ to say it seem like might not be too much longer before time will be no more!”
Before long, young sisters who never had exclaimed out loud in church were shouting “Hallelujah!” and “Yes, preach! Preach!” The old Golden Deeds sisters glared at them as the sermon went on.
“But I’m privileged to be standing up here to tell all of you on this good-news morning, brothers and sisters: there’s a just God sitting up there in heaven! There’s a God up there who cares about us this Sunday morning! There’s a God who knows where you and I are chosen to be this Sunday morning . . . here, in His church!”
Amidst a chorusing of shouts from the young church sisters—along with no few older members’ “Yaymans!”—Reverend Douglas held his thick, black Holy Bible up high. “Ohhhhh, yessss, my brothers and sisters! The greatest book ever in the living world! And it says, in First Kings, seventeenth chapter, the sixth verse—”
“Preach it, preach it, brother!”
“It says that God made a hoecake out of the atmosphere! And God sent it down by the raven, to feed that poor Elijah!”
“Oh, yes, He did.”
“Because Elijah had faith!”
“Oh, yes, Lord, faith!”
“Sisters and brothers, there’s no such thing as a little faith! There’s no such thing as a lot of faith! You’ve just got to have faith! So my text this good-news Sunday morning is faith! Without faith, you’ve got nothing! But with faith, then you’ve got upon you the grace and the glory of God!”
His text finally stated, the young Reverend Douglas mopped at his face with a big white handkerchief. He preached so strong that, later on, even old Sister Pinder—who was a Holy Roller—sitting clear across the road on her front porch, declared that she never missed a word. He gave a fascinating description of Moses fending for the Hebrew children against all of Pharaoh’s cruelties and evils. With most of the young women jumping up, flinging their arms, shouting, and many older members also exclaiming, the preacher practically made the congregation hear, see and feel the fierce storm winds parting the Red Sea for Moses to lead those Hebrew children across the riverbed, not even getting their feet-soles wet.
As the sermon ended, the choir began singing softly, and the church’s treasurer stood up and announced the offering.
Afterward the young Reverend Douglas led the singing of “I come to the garden alone/While the dew is still on the roses. . . .”
When the hymn concluded, he described how the imps of hell were steadily shoveling more fatty-pine knots into the fiery furnace, and he urged every sinner present to think hard on his or her need to be saved before it was too late. But he wasn’t going to make any formal call for sinners to come and fall upon bended knees before the mourners’ bench, as he felt that only a church’s regular minister should make that call. He said the bishop had made him fully aware that he was visiting Henning entirely on a tryout basis before the New Hope congregation, whom he thanked for having heard him.
There was no further talk about the bishop being telephoned. Before long, Henning’s black Methodists were not only praising but even outright bragging about their young preacher. And after only a little while, an odd thing happened.
Up in Haywood County was another preacher, a much older, “duststomper” type, whose last name also was Douglas. Henning’s Methodists had nothing against him, but they reacted strongly when people confused their new young Douglas with the Haywood County Douglas.
Finally someone, taking into consideration that the Haywood County preacher was quite light-complexioned, came up with a descriptive nickname which Henning’s New Hope Methodists all but seized upon. “Oh, no!” they’d exclaim. “Ours is the black Douglas!”
As the Sundays came and went, a steadily increasing number of people attended the New Hope services to hear and see the exciting young “Black Douglas” in action, until every morning of worship saw even the aisles filled with visitors seated in folding chairs borrowed from the schoolhouse. By the end of the third month, the church board advised the bishop that Reverend Black Douglas was desired on a permanent basis.
What put Reverend Black Douglas on the road to becoming really famous, even far beyond Henning, was New Hope Church’s annual fall revival eight years later, in 1931. There he accomplished two incredible feats, involving the main measures of any revival’s success: first, how big a total collection was raised; and second, how many sinners were drawn to the mourners’ bench for their souls to be saved.
Preaching his hardest and his finest twice daily for three days running, he had achieved an unbelievable total of over $500 in collections, right in the heart of the Depression, and the revival had actually netted seven pewsful of sinners! It was the greatest harvest of souls—Methodist or Baptist, black or white—ever heard of in the county.
Afterward Reverend Douglas always insisted that it could never have been done without Brother Rich Harrell, the church’s chief usher and champion shouter. Finishing the revival’s final sermon, which had practically set the packed congregation afire, the preacher gestured to the choir to sing. His call for sinners was due now. Instinctively, he glanced to confirm that Brother Harrell was sitting in his usual left-side pew. Then the minister walked down from the pulpit area to the church floor.
Halting before the empty three pews that he’d kept reserved for what he hoped would be that many sinners, Reverend Black Douglas raised his hands. With a voice ragged from the consecutive days of hard preaching, he began the appeal: “Whosoever will embrace the Holy Ghost, won’t you just please come forward to the mourners’ bench? . . . Won’t you accept Him today, in your heart?”
As always happened at big revivals, several folk instantly sprang up and went rushing forward, most of them weeping, their bodies shaking. But most of the older heads among the congregation quite loudly groaned their skepticism of these “rushers,” suspecting them of deliberately staged performances.
When the rushing seemed done, Brother Rich Harrell rose slowly from his pew. He scanned the thickly packed crowd, then began picking his way through the people seated in the aisles.
The choir was singing softly, and all could hear Reverend Douglas intoning, “Oh, sinners, the church pleads to you, like a weeping angel, won’t you come, won’t you please come? Home to Jesus!”
And wherever the roving Brother Harrell spotted anyone whom he knew—or even guessed—harbored an unsaved soul, right there was where he stopped stock-still. “Mercy!” he’d exclaim and plead tearfully, “please have mercy upon him [or her]! Oh Lord, mercy!”
Brother Harrell could make anyone who was unsaved feel sinful, guilty and downright dirty. No one knew how many new church members he had simply shamed up to the mourners’ bench.
That day in 1931 the front three pews filled up so quickly—with steadily more sinners coming forward—that the frantic ushers had to beg members to give up their seats to accommodate them.
It just about amounted to handwriting on the wall when one after another of western Tennessee’s black Methodist churches, particularly in the larger cities, began inviting Reverend Black Douglas to be their guest preacher. So it didn’t come as really any great surprise when finally, during 1932, New Hope lost Reverend Black Douglas.
Again the bishop came, and this time he asked the congregation to understand that only once in a while did God prepare such a special servant as the one with whom New Hope had been blessed through his seasoning years. It was only fair that he be reassigned to be shared among the maximum of west Tennessee’s black Methodists.
Most of the New Hope congregation had wet eyes; so did Reverend Black Douglas when, after the next Sunday’s sermon, the time came for him to bid New Hope farewell. But he added, “The bishop has granted my request to return here to my New Hope family every other first Sunday of the month.”
The congregation cheered right out, even if they were in a church.
For many years afterward, as he had promised, Reverend Douglas did return to New Hope Church. The country farming families who were church members would start out from their homes immediately after breakfast. With any luck, they’d find seats before every pew got packed and every folding chair taken. After that the standing room would begin to fill up.
The passing years seemed to mature and season the minister in many ways. More stomach became apparent under his suitcoats—a natural result of invitations to special homecooked dinners. And now, when the choir’s singing began the services, he would sit in the big pulpit chair with his head tilted back, his hands in a prayerful position under his chin, his eyes closed in deep, silent meditation.
The singing ended, he would move to the pulpit and open the huge Bible. Everyone could tell that he no longer even needed to glance down at the page to read his text, that whatever chapter and verse he wanted, he’d just quote from his memory.
The sermon preached by Reverend Black Douglas that the members of New Hope Methodist Church remembered best of all was given on a warm, bright summer Sunday in 1938, when he was forty-four.
He began speaking quietly: “Last Sunday I was driving toward my boyhood home in Millington, and I was passing all your fine crops so rich and green out there on either side of Highway 51. And, you know, I got to talking to myself. . . .
“Said to myself, I said, ‘Douglas, all these years you been going around calling yourself preaching God’s word to people. What are you trying to put across? What’s the Bible really trying to say to mankind? Fact of the matter, what’s everything religious trying to say?’
“And all the week since, I’ve been studying on this thing, brothers and sisters. And I believe I’ve finally got it down to just two words: God’s love! That’s what it is. God’s love!
“We’re always talking about love, we’re always talking about having religion. But for over nineteen hundred years, God’s love has been right here on this earth with us, right here amidst us—and there never has been as much hate and evil in the world as there is today!”
His voice sounded pleading. “If we would only love each other, as all of religion teaches us to do, we wouldn’t need no laws, no guns, no fences, no locks, no nothing but each other.”
Reverend Douglas seemed close to tears as he raised his big, black, gold-edged Bible up high, then set it back down. “My brothers and sisters, Paul, that greatest of the Apostles, said that you can understand all the mysteries, you can have all the knowledge, you can move mountains—but if you do not have love, you are nothing!
“Paul, yes, told us about love—but in all of time, the greatest act of love was that of our Heavenly Father, God Almighty!”
Suddenly flinging his arms wide, he shouted, “God so loved the world that to redeem sinful man. He sent Christ Jesus, His only begotten son, to be crucified! Up on the Golgotha Hill that morning, Jesus hung on that thick wooden cross, dying! Thorns on His head! Iron spikes through His hands! The sun hid its face! Lightning flashed! The very earth was trembling. All of nature was in agony! Because sinful, evil man was killing God’s child!”
Most of the congregation were weeping and crying out: “Mercy, Holy Father!” . . . “Forgive us!”
The preacher sobbed. “Our Saviour, Jesus Christ, had died so that every man, forevermore, can find in his own soul—the way . . . to the Truth . . . and to the Light!”
Reverend Douglas walked down from the pulpit to the shiny-brown oak railing, before which people would kneel to take communion.
“Brothers and sisters, what was it Jesus said to His disciples at the Last Supper, when He knew His hour had come?
“Our Saviour said, ‘This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.’ What does this say to us this morning?”
“He walked back to the pulpit and stood looking gravely down at the congregation. “It says we must do more than respect each other. It says we must do more than just abide with each other.
“My brothers and sisters”—Reverend Black Douglas was almost whispering—”we have got to learn to love each other.
“Let us pray. . . .
“Our Father, this morning may the seed of Thy love have fallen upon fertile ground in our hearts. Father, may Thy love seed in us be warmed by the sunshine of Thy grace—to grow, in faith, toward a rich harvest.
“ ’I am the vine, ye are the branches.’ Thus spake our Lord and Saviour, the Risen Christ. Amen.”
Reverend Douglas sat down in the preacher’s chair. His shoulders were shaking, and he dug at his eyes with his big white handkerchief. For the only time that anyone was later able to recall, during an entire sermon nobody had shouted or even exclaimed one single “Yayman!”
The collection was taken up; the choir sang the closing hymn: “I love to tell the story . . . To tell the old, old story/Of Jesus and His love. . . .”
Then the congregation quietly filed outside. Reverend Black Douglas shook the hands of the people, and patted the heads of their babies, also asking how were the sick and aged not present.
Finally the crowd began drifting apart.
“That Douglas preached this morning!” someone exclaimed.
“He did!” agreed others.
And soon all of the congregation were traveling along their various roads and paths, crossing God’s brown, dusty earth, wending their way between His growing green grass, heading toward their homes. ~ Alex Haley.
(Reverend Black Douglas is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was published in Country Ways: A Celebration of Rural Life. © 1988 by The Reader’s Digest Association. © 1990 by Alelx Haley. All Rights Reserved.)