Fire in My Bones
Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel
Publication Year: 2000
Glenn Hinson focuses on a single gospel program and offers a major contribution to our understanding not just of gospel but of the nature of religious experience.
A key feature of African American performance is the layering of performative voices and the constant shifting of performative focus. To capture this layering, Hinson demonstrates how all the parts of the gospel program work together to shape a single whole, joining speech and song, performer and audience, testimony, prayer, preaching, and singing into a seamless and multifaceted service of worship. Personal stories ground the discussion at every turn, while experiential testimony fuels the unfolding arguments. Fire in My Bones is an original exploration of experience and belief in a community of African American Christians, but it is also an exploration of African American aesthetics, the study of belief, and the ethnographic enterprise.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Series: Contemporary Ethnography
List of Illustrations
1. Seeking Understanding: "You Got to Be in It to Feel It"
"I wish I could just expose this so greatly to you that your heart and mind would set on fire. But if you know not this .. :' Elder W. Lawrence Richardson pauses, momentarily grasping for words. How does one convey the ecstasy of rapture to one whose soul is yet unsaved? How does one describe an experience whose depths render all descriptions inadequate? The elder tries again, this time addressing process rather than feeling. "It comes quick and it goes quick." Another pause...
2. Belief, Knowledge, and Experience: "The Lord Can Be Mysterious"
The setting is antebellum Alabama; the occasion, a conversation between an African American saint and a white man whose soul's status remains uncertain. The saint, named only Jack, had been born in Africa, carried in chains across the waters, and converted to Christianity on the plantation that claimed him as property...
3. Experiencing the Holy: "Just Like Fire Shut Up in My Bones"
"The first time I baptized here was a little before Christmas, in the creek which ran through my lot;' writes Elder David George, an African American Baptist preacher, in the early 1790s. "I preached to a great number of people on the occasion, who behaved very well. I now formed the church with us six, and administered the Lord's supper in the Meeting-house before it was finished. They went on with the building, and we appointed a time every other week to hear experiences...
4. A Conversation: "You've Got to Open the Door"
Before turning to the gospel program, we must quickly reground our discussion in the broader poetics of faith. Earlier I suggested that the language of experience serves as the primary medium for articulating belief. Every time saints say that they "wouldn't have a religion that they couldn't feel sometimes;' they reaffirm this primacy. But this voiced emphasis on experience in no way suggests that faith hinges on feeling. As saints are quick to point out...
5. Beginnings: "Happy to Be in the House of Worship"
The Long Branch Disciple Church buzzes with anticipation as the saints prepare for the second part of the Branchettes' twentieth singing anniversary. The night before, more than two hundred had jammed the pews in this small country church to pay tribute to the honorees. The sanctuary had rung with voices of praise, despite predictions that the evening promised the worst blizzard in years. Local radio announcers had anxiously reported more than a foot of snow...
6. Scripture: "It's About Being Sincere in Your Heart"
After drawing the saints together on the chorus, Mother Nixon swings into the hymn's second verse. Within a few words, the saints are singing along, pushing the melody with nuanced improvisations and offbeat clapping. The second round of the chorus is even louder and more passionate than the first, leading Mother Nixon to repeat it a second time. Midway through the lyric, a sister sitting near...
7. Prayer: "The Vibrations of the Holy Spirit Go Out There"
The young guitarist picks out a spare melody while Mother Lofton moves away from the microphone and toward her seat in the amen corner. Asshe lowers herself to the pew, Sister Elliott, sitting nearby, pushes herself to a standing position. "We'll have prayer by our deacon:' she says quietly, nodding toward the far side of the church. "Deacon Eldridge." Then, as quickly as she rose, Sister Elliott sits down...
8. A Conversation: "It's the Words of Him That's Speaking Through Me"
Almost a year after the Branchettes' twentieth anniversary, Deacon Willie Eldridge and I met at Long Branch Disciple Church to talk about prayer. We arranged the meeting over the phone and both pulled into the church's sandy lot at about the same time. After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Deacon Eldridge unlocked the church doors and moved toward the amen corner, where he lit a small wall heater...
9. Song: "Sing Till the Power of the Lord Comes Down"
"Glory to God! Glory to God!" Joining in the hosannas that close Deacon Eldridge's prayer, Mother Eunice Nixon stands in the amen corner and moves toward the cross-aisle. Her outstretched arm receives the microphone from the deacon while murmured "Amens" still whisper through the sanctuary and the guitar still quietly weeps. Without a moment's hesitation, she addresses the church...
10. Praise: "Up Above My Head, I Hear Singing in the Air"
When saints sing about the celestial chorus, they aren't simply painting a metaphorical picture. Instead, they are voicing a deeply held conviction that heaven rings with the songs of Zion. Inspiring and delighting in this singing is the Lord Himself, who reigns over all as the ultimate master of music...
11. Welcome: "Not for the Appointment, but for the Anointment"
As Mother Nixon steps back to the amen corner and the guitarist fingers a wandering melody, Sister Lena Mae Perry stands from her place behind the registration table. A short woman with a sturdy build and radiant face, Sister Perry turns to the congregation and begins what the printed program simply calls a "Welcome." Sounding a bit winded from the singing, she opens in a conversational tone...
12. Response: "God Ain't Coming into No Dead Heart"
As Sister Perry sits down, Sister Ethel Elliott rises from behind the registration table. Resting her fingers on the tabletop, she purses her lips and slowly scans the congregation. "Ummm," she begins, sounding somewhat pensive, "is there someone here like to respond?" Still surveying the pews, Sister Elliott smiles and adds, "before I appoint somebody?" Chuckles ripple through the church...
13. The Emcee: "If You Have a Dry Emcee, You Have a Dry Anniversary"
Sister Lena Mae Perry's pause marks an important moment of transition. After whispering calming phrases as the wave of anointment ebbed, she shifts her eyes from heaven to the pews. Still standing behind the registration table, Sister Perry once again addresses the congregation, now speaking as one of the afternoon's honorees. "At this time;' she begins in a voice full of friendly warmth...
14. Format: "Let's Give the Lord a Praise"
The five members of the St. James Gospel Choir stand side by side, their matched robes mutely testifying to their unity of purpose. As the singer nearest the Branchettes lifts the microphone, the others smile and exchange glances, showing no sign of uneasiness at being the first group to sing. Their apparent confidence is echoed in Sister Phyllis Love's introductory words...
15. Purpose: "The Anointing of God Breaks the Yokes"
Sister Mary Bracey once again stands in the cross-aisle, addressing the congregation. When she and her husband, Brother Samuel Bracey, were called to follow the St. James Gospel Choir, they rose from the pews singing. Sister Bracey's powerful voice swallowed the closing words of Evangelist Lofton's introduction, and the passion has yet to subside. After marching forward to the rousing choruses of "If the Lord Needs Somebody:'...
16. False Purpose: "We Didn't Come for No Form or Fashion"
At Evangelist Lofton's call and the congregation's warm applause, the four Jerusalem Travelers stride down the center aisle. Dressed for the occasion in sharply tailored purple suits, the Travelers hail from the Greater Six Run Missionary Baptist Church in the nearby town of Turkey. They've been singing together for twenty-six years and are long-time friends of the Branchettes. Three of the four are brothers...
17. Elevation: "Go Slow, Rise High, Catch on Fire, and Sit Down"
As the anniversary service rolls into its third hour, Evangelist Lofton calls the Gospel Tones to the cross-aisle. Singing in the evening's seventh slot, this Raleigh quartet stands before a congregation that is both "live" and "on fire."The Spirit has already swept through the pews many times, and the saints are clearly ready for His blessings once again. An air of joyous anticipation seems to pervade the sanctuary...
18. Invitation: "The Souls of Many Are Yet Lost"
When the Gospel Tones close "Get Right with God;' Brother Johnnie Faison turns to address the congregation.1 Speaking over the quiet phrasings of the guitar, he recalls how he had recently found himself in a prayer line at the nearby Benson Chapel church. While he stood in that line, praying that his faith might be strengthened, the church choir sang a song that deeply touched him. "I can't sing it like they sang it;'...
19. Benediction: "May the Grace of God Rest, Rule, and Abide"
The three young men in Solid Foundation chose to close the anniversary's singing much as it had begun, with one of those old, "getting-close-to-you-gospel'' songs. So they sang
Appendix: Stepping Around Experience and the Supernatural