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Revival(7)
Stephen King

Walking home from church en famille, our good Sunday shoes kicking up little puffs of dust, I found myself just behind my parents, so heard Mom expressing her approval. Also her relief. “I thought, him being so young and all, we’d get a lecture on civil rights, or banning the draft, or something like that,” she said. “Instead we got a very nice Bible-based lesson. I think people will come back, don’t you?”

“For awhile,” my father said.

She said, “Oh, the big oil baron. The big cynic.” And punched his arm playfully.

As it turned out, they were both sort of right. Attendance at our church never slumped back to Mr. Latoure levels—which meant as few as a dozen in winter, huddled together for warmth in the drafty, woodstove-heated church—but it dropped slowly to sixty, then fifty, and finally to forty or so, where it hovered like the barometer on a changeable summer day. No one ascribed the attrition to Mr. Jacobs’s preaching, which was always clear, pleasant, and Bible-based (never anything troubling about A-bombs or Freedom Marches); folks just kind of drifted away.

“God isn’t as important to people now,” my mother said one day after a particularly disappointing turnout. “A day will come when they’ll be sorry for that.”

• • •

During those three years, our Methodist Youth Fellowship also underwent a modest renaissance. In the Latoure Era, there were rarely more than a dozen of us on Thursday nights, and four were named Morton: Claire, Andy, Con, and Terry. In the Latoure Era I was considered too young to attend, and for this Andy sometimes used to give me head-noogies and call me a lucky duck. When I asked Terry once what it was like back then, he gave a bored shrug. “We sang songs and did Bible drills and promised we’d never drink intoxicating liquor or smoke cigarettes. Then he told us to love our mothers, and the Catlicks are going to hell because they worship idols, and Jewish people love money. He also said to imagine Jesus is listening if any of our friends tell dirty jokes.”

Under the new regime, however, attendance swelled to three dozen kids between six and seventeen, which necessitated buying more folding chairs for the church basement. It wasn’t Reverend Jacobs’s mechanical Jesus toddling across Peaceable Lake; the thrill of that wore off rapidly, even for me. I doubt if the pictures of the Holy Land he put up on the walls had much to do with it, either.

A lot of it was his youth and enthusiasm. There were games and activities as well as sermons, because, as he pointed out regularly, most of Jesus’s preaching happened outside, and that meant there was more to Christianity than church. The Bible drills remained, but we did them while playing musical chairs, and quite often someone fell on the floor while searching for Deuteronomy 14, verse 9, or Timothy 2:12. It was pretty comical. Then there was the ball diamond, which Con and Andy helped him create out back. On some Thursdays the boys played baseball and the girls cheered us on; on alternate Thursdays it was the girls playing softball and the boys (hoping some of the girls would forget it was their turn and come in skirts) cheering them on.

Reverend Jacobs’s interest in electricity often played a part in his Thursday-night “youth talks.” I remember one afternoon when he called our house and asked Andy to wear a sweater on Thursday night. When we were all assembled, he called my brother to the front of the room and said he wanted to demonstrate the burden of sin. “Although I’m sure you’re not much of a sinner, Andrew,” he added.

My brother smiled nervously and said nothing.

“This isn’t to frighten you kids,” he said. “There are ministers who believe in that kind of thing, but I’m not one of them. It’s just so you’ll know.” (This, I’ve learned, is the kind of thing people say just before they try to scare the living crap out of you.)

He blew up a number of balloons and told us to imagine that each one weighed twenty pounds. He held the first up and said, “This one is telling lies.” He rubbed it briskly on his shirt a few times, and then held it against Andy’s sweater, where it stuck as if it were glued there.

“This one is theft.” He stuck another balloon to Andy’s sweater.

“Here’s anger.”

I can’t remember for sure, but I think it likely he stuck seven balloons in all to Andy’s homemade reindeer sweater, one for each of the deadly sins.

“That adds up to over a hundred pounds of sin,” he said. “A lot to carry! But who takes away the sins of the world?”

“Jesus!” we dutifully chorused.

“Right. When you ask Him for forgiveness, here’s what happens.” He produced a pin and popped the balloons one after another, including one that had drifted free and needed to be stuck back on. I think we all felt that the balloon-popping part of the lesson was quite a bit more exciting than the sanctified static electricity part.

His most impressive demonstration of electricity in action involved one of his own inventions, which he called Jacob’s Ladder. It was a metal box about the size of the footlocker my toy army lived in. Two wires that looked like TV rabbit ears jutted up from it. When he plugged it in (this invention ran on wall current rather than batteries) and flipped the switch on the side, long sparks almost too bright to look at climbed the wires. At the top, they peaked and disappeared. When he sprinkled some powder above this device, the climbing sparks turned different colors. It made the girls ooh with delight.

This also had some sort of religious point—at least in the mind of Charles Jacobs, it did—but I’ll be damned if I remember what it was. Something about the Divine Trinity, maybe? Once the Jacob’s Ladder wasn’t right there in front of us, the colored sparks rising and the current fizzing like an angry tomcat, such exotic ideas had a tendency to fade away like a transient fever.

Yet I remember one of his mini-lectures very clearly. He was sitting on a chair that was turned around so he could face us over the back. His wife sat on the piano bench behind him, hands folded demurely in her lap, head slightly bowed. Maybe she was praying. Maybe she was just bored. I know that a lot of his audience was; by then most of the Harlow Methodist Youth had begun to tire of electricity and its attendant glories.

“Kids, science teaches us that electricity is the movement of charged atomic particles called electrons. When electrons flow, they create current, and the faster the electrons flow, the higher the voltage. That’s science, and science is fine, but it’s also finite. There always comes a point where knowledge runs out. What are electrons, exactly? Charged atoms, the scientists say. Okay, that’s fine as far as it goes, but what are atoms?”

He leaned forward over the back of his chair, his blue eyes (they themselves looked electric) fixed on us.

“No one really knows! And that’s where religion comes in. Electricity is one of God’s doorways to the infinite.”

“I wish he’d bring in a lectric chair and fry up some white mice,” Billy Paquette sniffed one evening after the benediction. “That would be in’dresting.”

In spite of the frequent (and increasingly boring) lectures on holy voltage, most of us looked forward to Thursday Night School. When he wasn’t on his hobbyhorse, Reverend Jacobs could give lively, sometimes funny talks with lessons drawn from Scripture. He talked about real-life problems we all faced, from bullying to the temptation to cheat answers from someone else’s paper during tests we hadn’t studied for. We enjoyed the games, we enjoyed most of the lessons, and we enjoyed the singing, too, because Mrs. Jacobs was a fine pianist who never dragged the hymns.

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