While reading a book last week, my wife came across the term “brush arbor meeting” and didn’t know to what it was referring. (She’s not from around here.) Needless to say, her hillbilly husband was happy to provide her with more information than she probably wanted.
I explained that long before small country churches had air conditioning, it was common for the men of the church to erect an arbor nearby and cover it with limbs and leaves from trees to provide a temporary sanctuary for summertime revivals and other church events, enabling the attendees to escape the stifling heat that existed inside the church building. Brush arbor meetings were opportunities to invite traveling “high-powered” preachers to what would usually be the highlight of the summer, in many rural communities.
Sometimes the men would carry out the wooden pews from the church and other times they would simply haul in a hundred-or-so bales of hay for the congregation to sit on; regardless of the seating arrangement, there would always be hand fans at each seat, provided by the local funeral home — or in election years, by the local candidates for county office. Older people will remember the kind: cardboard with wooden handles that were shaped to fit your fingers.
I can remember attending one particular brush arbor meeting when I was a kid, during one of the hottest and driest years anyone could recall. The preacher was a handsome man, from somewhere down south, with a heavy accent, baritone voice and a suit of clothes befitting that of a successful salesman. He was also of the “hellfire and brimstone” persuasion.
The service started a little before sundown and the temperature had to be over 100 degrees. Gospel music filled the humid air, and every man, woman and child was fanning themselves to the rhythm of the music. The preacher started his sermon about 9 p.m., and by 9:30, he had already shed his coat, loosened his tie, and soaked his white shirt to the point of dripping. The huge crowd was responding with amens and hallelujahs at every opportunity. By 10 p.m., the orator was just getting warmed up, and every description of hell made me think it couldn’t be much hotter than where we were, and the hand fans were now moving at 100 strokes per minute.
By 10:30 p.m., women were handing the preacher cloths and rags to wipe away his sweat, and I was pretty sure I could smell sulfur in the air. Still going strong at 11 p.m., both men and women were repenting and confessing to sins they hadn’t even committed yet. The hand fan speed had reached a level that I couldn’t even estimate, and there was thunder in the distance.
The preacher finished somewhere around midnight, with dozens of souls saved and a collective agreement that this guy had the “gift” and was the best we’d had at a brush arbor meeting in years.
A good, drought-busting rain fell later in the night, and everyone in attendance agreed that a miracle had been performed by the traveling preacher. I wasn’t going to argue the fact, but I always guessed the rain came because of an updraft, created by the force of a couple hundred hand fans, operating at 60 strokes per second.
Crownover writes from Missouri.