The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Baptism Of Uncle Rich Wells

By Tony Hayes © 1988

Issue: November, 1988

The Hard-Shelled Baptists considered it a grand coup. Being as devout in their beliefs as they were, the acquisition of a soul as destitute of religious faith as Uncle Rich Wells' was a pearl, not to be cast before swine, but to be pulled in against their collective breasts and savored. And this they did, with fervor and much noise from the amen corner. Hosannas were sung in a three county area when word circulated that Uncle Rich had seen the Light at the great brush arbor meeting down at the campground. Brother Dewey Beason had preached his immortal sermon, "Oh Ye of Little Faith," and twelve old maids fainted dead away when Uncle Rich walked down the makeshift aisle during the invitation.

I'll never forget the sights and sounds of the week before Uncle Rich took the cold Plunge in Blue Moon Creek to cleanse his soul of his many, and well-publicized, sins. Seems like every old man in the neighborhood had become an oracle in his own right, as each held court on his front porch and told the tales of Uncle Rich's transgressions in the face of God. The favorite legend and the one for which most of the public head-shaking (and private grinning) was produced, was the story of Uncle Rich's brief sojourn into the pulpit. Wandering by Henry Banks' house one day that week, I heard the tale in all its glory from Grinning Henry, as he was known. (This was to differentiate him from the numerous other Henry Banks'. The Bank family was prolific to the Nth degree and Henry was a favorite Christian name.)

"I mind the time," Grinning Henry would begin as his blue eyes twinkled, "that Uncle Rich went off on a powerful long trip." There were a dozen or so people gathered in front of Henry's porch and they huddled on the steps to listen to their favorite topic, though it's only fair to say that two or three of the crowd were heard to grumble about hearing it one more time. "Now, Uncle Rich used to spend a heap of time out on the road and like as not, he'd slink back home weak, wet, and empty-handed. Nobody rightly knew just where Rich went on these journeys, but they all allowed as to how he couldn't be up to no good. And generally, they was right."

"But this particular time, Rich's wandering eye and fractious feet carried him many miles away and pretty dang soon he was might near a hundert miles gone and flat busted. From what I been told, he found himself off down in the mountains setting on a stump on the side of a road, just across from a Methodist meeting house."

"Rich sat on that stump and commiserated with himself for his predicament. Being the conniver he was, he twisted his situation right and he twisted it left, but he didn't see no way to get a stake to get back home on. Well, while he was sitting there contemplating, he began to notice that there was a powerful lot of traffic on that road in front of him. The buggies was a clickety-clacking by and the folks was walking past in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. And, danged if Rich didn't realize it was the Lord's day after all."

"Well, now, he stood up and beat the dust off his pants. Uncle Rich was always a mighty fine dresser, even though he was broke most of the time. He headed across the road to that Methodist house, figuring on getting a handout from the parson, when all of a sudden he noticed that all them folks getting out of their buggies for the Sunday service was a staring at him and nodding to him like he was respectable or something. Rich wasn't quite used to this. Folks here at home always looked at him kind of suspiciously don't you know. But these folks were acting like he was somebody."

"Walking up to the front door, the crowd sort of parted for him while some youngster went tearing inside yelling for the parson." Henry stopped and ran a brown-spotted hand through his thin, white hair. "Weren't but a minute till a big old mountain of a man stepped out the front door and looked down at Rich. Rich, he didn't like the way this was shaping up. It'd been his experience that preachers that big don't look up too kindly on strangers asking for handouts at the Sunday meeting."

"'Would you be Reverend Carroll?' that preacher asked. Rich looked around for a minute and when he finally figured out that the parson was talking to him, he turned on a big smile. The day before, he had been a piece north and had heard about the good Reverend Carroll dying from the flux. It appeared that word hadn't got down that far south yet."

"'Brother, I have bad news for you. The Blessed Reverend Carroll has gone to meet the Master. He'll be unable to attend the meeting today,' announced Rich, in his most parsonly voice. Now, some of them ladies began an awful bellering at this news and a misty look came into the parson's eyes."

"'That is indeed bad news, Brother. Then, who are you, if I might ask?'"

"'I am Brother Carroll's associate, Brother Smith. He called me to him as he lay on his deathbed and pleaded with me to take his place with you good people. It was his dying wish that you not be disappointed in your hour of need and in your search for food from the spiritual horn of plenty which God has supplied.' Rich laid it on thick 'cause he saw a way out of difficulty. 'And when Reverend Carroll explained to me the void his absence would create, I left him, yea even as he was drawing his last breath in this mortal world, to rush to be with you as he desired,' finished Rich, taking a huge breath. That big old preacher smiled real warm at Rich and welcomed him into the meeting house."

"Once they got everybody settled, that parson began a fire and brimstone message about it being better to give than to receive and then two old men passed the plate and deposited the offering in the back room to be counted later. About then, the preacher got up in the pulpit and smiled a big smile at Rich and turned to his congregation. 'Brothers and Sisters,' he began, 'we have with us today the Reverend Smith, a fellow laborer in the vineyards of the Lord. As you know, Brother Carroll was to be with us today, but he has shaken off this mortal coil and sits on the right hand of God even as we speak. Brother Smith, would you honor us with your message?' Rich swallowed real hard and got up to the pulpit. This was the sticky point in his plan. He had no idea what he would preach about. Now there happened to be a bible laying open on the stand and Rich looked hard at the page of scripture, but nothing struck him as familiar. He turned page after page until, finally, he saw something that caught his eye. It was the story of David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Now this was something that Rich could sure sink his teeth into."

"And he preached. He preached on Adultery, and he preached on lust, and he preached on murder. The 'amens' rang loud and clear as Rich hammered his message home. The lessons of David and Bathsheba was never presented any clearer. Cause Rich spoke from experience. And the folks all said they had never had a parson move them any more than the Reverend Smith did that day."

"At the end of the sermon, he invited the parson to begin the singing. Rich squirmed around on his church pew till the end of the hymn and then he got up and whispered to the parson and disappeared out the back door. Now, the preacher turned to the congregation and smiled, 'It seems the Brother Smith has a touch of the flux, let us pray it isn't too serious.' And they prayed. They prayed long and hard for this powerful preacher who brought them such a stirring message."

"After the service," continued Henry, "when they went to see if the flux had claimed another messenger of the Lord, they discovered that Reverend Smith, the parson's horse, and the offering had disappeared. And that folks, is how Uncle Rich got home." Of course, everyone sniffed and shook their heads at Rich's audacity. Grinning Henry settled back in his rocker and waited for the next group intent on hearing about the sins of Uncle Rich Wells.

Finally, Sunday rolled around and it was time for Uncle Rich to confess his sins and be baptized. Brother Beason had sent the call out far and wide, and hundreds of hard-shelled brethren had gathered on the banks of Blue Moon Creek to witness the great event. Uncle Rich was approaching eighty years by that time and he was getting mighty feeble. They sent a hand-drawn buggy up to his cabin to fetch him and the whole congregation followed the procession down to the creek. It was a mighty sight to see; all those right thinking Baptists crowded in around that buggy like they were paying homage to royalty.

Once they got down to the creek, Uncle Rich lifted his body out and grinned a white-toothed grin at the assemblage. Sort of stooped over and shaking a little with palsy, he made his way unassisted to the edge of the water. Brother Beason spoke long and hard about all the sin Uncle Rich was giving up in order to embrace his Savior. He spoke so strongly that I almost felt sorry for Rich. Seemed like he was giving up a whole lot. I heard a man next to me mutter that the preacher ought to shut up before he talked Rich out of it. But then he came to the point. Rich was giving up so much wasn't it right that they should all give something up. And then they passed the collection plate right there beside the creek.

It was time for the main event. Brother Beason led the old man down into the creek and held one hand in the small of his back and covered his nose with the other. In a loud, strong voice, he called, "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holly Ghost . . ." and with a gurgle and a splash, Uncle Rich Wells sank beneath the water. Seconds later, he arose spluttering and praising the Lord. The "Amens!" shook the hills and the "Hallelujahs!" came in a close second.

Well, there was a lot of clapping and shoulder-slapping and thanksgiving. Uncle Rich, wrapped in a blanket to shield his frail body from a chill, disappeared in the buggy to get out of his wet clothes. The celebration continued in his absence however and the preaching went on for two more hours. And it took about that long for Brother Beason to realize that the collection plate and all the money was missing. Nobody said anything, but you could tell what they were all thinking. Uncle Rich had done it again.

For my part, I don't know what happened to the money. I do know that late that night I passed by Uncle Rich's cabin and heard a fiddle squeaking out a tune and laughter emanating from every crack in the log walls. Uncle Rich himself sat rocking quietly on his ancient front porch. "Boy," he called to me in the night, "Better come up here and get some shine. I hear all the wildcatters in the country are sold out and there's a party in here that can't be beat." The gleam in his eye reached out to me on the road and I grinned in spite of myself. "No thanks, Uncle Rich. Got to get up early tomorrow."

It took a lot of money to buy that much shine, I thought, as I smiled at him and wandered off down the road secure in the thought that Grinning Henry's story telling days weren't over yet.