- Cherokee Ceremonial Life
The first Baptist missionaries began to work with the Cherokees in the early 1800s, when the Cherokee Nation was still in the East. By the early 1900s the Baptist Church was well established on the Qualla Boundary, and for the most part the Cherokee Baptist churches were run by Indians. There were other denominations on the reservation as well, among them Methodists and Quakers. And of course there were plenty of plain old fundamentalists who did not owe an allegiance to any denomination. Most of these churches had neither regular pastors nor regular services. We Indians just did not have the money back then to employ full-time preachers.
As for our family, we rarely went to church when we were living in Cherokee. We went to the Birdtown Church a few times, and every year we went to the Methodist Church for the Christmas party. I think that we only went to the Christmas party because they handed out free presents. Church was just not that important to my parents, even though they thought that they were religious. But I guess that my parents were not all that different from everyone else on the reservation, as most churches sat empty on most Sundays.
Also similar to my parents, it was part of the culture in the mountains to claim to be religious. In fact most men would acquire the title of Reverend at some point in life. This was not hard to do. It could be achieved by taking a short home-study course or by simply purchasing a certificate. This would hardly qualify them as Biblical scholars, but it would give them license to deliver some fiery sermons. By reading The One Feather [the Cherokee newspaper], I have learned that some of my boyhood friends, just like their fathers, became reverends in their later years. Both my grandpa Jack and my grandpa Smith were lay preachers. As for Dad, he became a preacher at the age of sixty-five.
Usually only adults had any interest in religion. Despite this, many teenagers also attended services, particularly the revivals that were held in the summer. At dusk, as I used to walk through the church parking [End Page 42] lot during these services, I would see many of these teenagers in their cars making out with their girlfriends. I guess that it would be quite a few years before they intended to assume the title of reverend.
Because our churches could not afford to pay full-time preachers, most had to hold other jobs. This made it hard for them to preach every Sunday, so most would focus their pastoral efforts on revivals, which I always found to be impressive events. One preacher would start out slowly, gradually building up the pace. Once he was soaked with perspiration, another preacher would get up, and the first preacher would sit down while wiping the sweat from his forehead. They would go on like this for hours, not missing a beat as they passed the pulpit between them. Their main message was not very deep or hard to understand. In a nutshell they were telling everyone to give all the money they could to the Lord. Now and then someone in the audience would rise to their feet and testify how the Lord had made them rich after they started giving ten percent of their income to the Lord. The preachers never failed to pass the collection plate at each revival meeting, but, unfortunately for the preachers, the congregations were always poor, and the collections were always meager.
One of the more interesting events that I saw at the revivals were ten young children, some as young as twelve, who would preach. These "child preachers" were always accompanied by an older preacher who was really in charge. Nevertheless, this child would be right up at the pulpit preaching hell-fire sermons, and the audience would marvel at how well he "knew" the Bible.
The revivals lasted a long time, sometimes as long as two months. Some revivals moved around the reservation, drawing in the same people at each meeting, year...