Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”


By Clifford Eberhardt


Chapter 3

Now it was time for the Rev. Jones to preach his sermon, and still Bessie didn’t look up from the ‘Mourners’ Bench.’  His sermon came from the Gospel according to John.  Most Colored preachers preached their sermons from John, with particular importance placed on John 3:16. The Rev. Jones started out preaching:

“Some of y’all want to know how to get to heaven… uh huh! You can only get to heaven by the word of God!”

“In John Chapter 3, Jesus was talking to a man named Nicodemus… uh huh! Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews… Nicodemus asked Jesus…. uh huh! Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God… uh huh!  For no man can do these miracles that thou doeth except God be with him… uh huh! Nicodemus then asked Jesus… uh huh!  How can a man enter into the Kingdom of God… uh huh!  And Jesus said to Nicodemus… uh huh! Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again… uh huh… he cannot see the Kingdom of God!”

Now the Rev. Jones started to sweat while he preached word for word from the Bible in a rhythmical fashion with emphasis on the “uh huh!”

“Nicodemus then asked Jesus… uh huh! How can a man be born again when he is old… uh huh! Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb… and be born… uh huh! And Jesus said to Nicodemus… verily, verily I say unto to thee… uh huh…  except a man be born of the water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God… uh huh!

That which is born of the flesh is flesh… uh huh! And that which is born of the spirit is spirit!” Now, the Rev. Jones was dancing on the podium and jumping up and down.  He was slinging his arms in the air while the long sleeves of his black robe waved through the air like wings. 

He had worked the faithful into a frenzy of “A-men!” “Lord have mercy on my soul!“ “Jesus have mercy on my soul!” and “Praise God!” until the congregation was out of control with people running between the pews and shouting: “Hallelujah, Jesus!” while crying and praying.

The greatest commotion came from the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ where the big black woman sitting next to the three children was screaming, jumping and shouting so, that she had to be held down by two deacons who sat behind her.  They were restraining her to prevent her from hurting herself or someone else.

Now the Rev. Jones was standing at the podium wiping the sweat from his face with his white handkerchief.  He walked to the end of the podium, wiped his handkerchief across his forehead, and said in a tired voice, “Lord Jesus, have mercy… You have taken me a mighty long ways.”

Bessie, with her head still bowed, could hear Andrew crying.  All the sinners on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ were emotionally moved by the Rev. Jones sermon.  They were either shouting, crying, moaning, groaning, or praying.  Then both choirs stood and began to sing  “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Just before he ended his sermon, the Rev. Jones announced in a clear voice, “now the doors of the church are open… come… the doors to the church are open.”  This was an invitation from the Rev. Jones to those on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ to come join the church and be baptized.

“You gotta be baptized… before you can see the Kingdom of God… uh huh… if you don’t get baptized… uh huh… you will surely go to hell when you die… uh huh!”  People were still shouting, crying, moaning, groaning, and praying.  “Come! Come!! COME!!! COME!!!! Or you will surely go to Hell!” he continued.

Now, the man named Peewee jumped up and started shouting, “I don’t wanna go to hell… I don’t wanna go to hell!”  He shouted, swinging his arms backward and accidentally slapped Andrew in the face.

Stunned from the slap to his face, Andrew jumped up and said, “I don’t wanna go to hell!  I don’t wanna go to hell!”  Suddenly, Andrew and Peewee ran toward the Rev. Jones and fell on their knees.

All this shocked Bessie and she jumped up from the pew.  Out of fear of what would happen next, she ran down the length of the front pew, up the right aisle and out the church into the street.  Bessie ran and ran until she reached Ninth Street.  She took refuge in the first juke joint she came to, and somehow she felt more relaxed in the juke joint than she felt in the Baptist Church.

Ever since that Sunday two years ago, neither Bessie nor Andrew sat on the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ again.  Andrew joined the Baptist church, was baptized and became a member of the junior usher board.  And from that Sunday on, Bessie always sat on the back pew like this Sunday, and she always left church early.




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