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Fire in My Bones

Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel

Glenn Hinson
Photographs by Roland L. Freeman
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    Fire in My Bones
    Book Description:

    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 Bonesis 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0301-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Chapter 1 Seeking Understanding: “You Got to Be in It to Feel It”
    (pp. 1-8)

    “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.

    Our conversation is stretching into its second hour, as Elder Richardson patiently shares understandings granted him by...

  5. Chapter 2 Belief, Knowledge, and Experience: “The Lord Can Be Mysterious”
    (pp. 9-13)

    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. The narrator is the plantation mistress:

    “Once, just after [Jack] had been publicly shouting and proclaiming how precious he had found Jesus to his soul, a young man looking on said to him: ‘Jack, don’t be so certain about having Jesus with you. You onlyhopeyou have him,...

  6. Chapter 3 Experiencing the Holy: “Just Like Fire Shut Up in My Bones”
    (pp. 14-24)

    “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…. I preached at Birch Town from the fall till about the middle of December, and was...

  7. Chapter 4 A Conversation: “You’ve Got to Open the Door”
    (pp. 25-29)

    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 thisvoicedemphasis on experience in no way suggests that faith hinges on feeling. As saints are quick to point out, feeling is not always there. Transcendence touches according to the will of the Spirit rather than the choice of believers. When the touch isn’t felt,...

  8. Chapter 5 Beginnings: “Happy to Be in the House of Worship”
    (pp. 30-42)

    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 blanketing nearby North Carolina counties and had solemnly cautioned travelers to stay off the roads. The stilled darkness of the nearby town of Meadow gave...

  9. Chapter 6 Scripture: “It’s About Being Sincere in Your Heart”
    (pp. 43-52)

    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 the cross-aisle starts shaking a tambourine, adding a sibilant sizzle to the singing. A few seconds later, a second tambourine—this one shaken by a girl of about five—joins the music. Her playing,...

  10. Chapter 7 Prayer: “The Vibrations of the Holy Spirit Go Out There”
    (pp. 53-73)

    The young guitarist picks out a spare melody while Mother Lofton moves away from the microphone and toward her seat in the amen corner. As she 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.

    At that same moment, a short, sturdy man stands in the deacon’s corner. His smooth, unwrinkled face contrasts sharply with his closely cropped white hair, suggesting a youthfulness unsullied by...

  11. Chapter 8 A Conversation: “It’s the Words of Him That’s Speaking Through Me”
    (pp. 74-83)

    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. As the wintry night had left a deep chill in the sanctuary, the two of us huddled around the warmth. With coats still on, we stretched our hands before the welcome flames....

  12. Chapter 9 Song: “Sing Till the Power of the Lord Comes Down”
    (pp. 84-109)

    “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, her tone once again warm and conversational.

    “This next song,” she says slowly, glancing toward the musicians, “is dedicated to the Branchettes.” The guitarist and bass player are still playing the melody they had settled into during the prayer. At Mother...

  13. Chapter 10 Praise: “Up Above My Head, I Hear Singing in the Air”
    (pp. 110-124)

    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.

    Within this frame, song ranks as much more than “just another” realm of expression. Song stands apart, vaulted to the very pinnacle of heavenly favor. In the eyes of the saints, song reigns as the chosen channel of celestial expression. Sounding from the mouths of countless angels, it fills heaven...

  14. Chapter 11 Welcome: “Not for the Appointment, but for the Anointment”
    (pp. 125-148)

    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, neatly connecting her words to the praises that preceded them by beginning with “Praise our God!” Without waiting for a response, she moves right into a statement of thanks.

    “We want to thank...

  15. Chapter 12 Response: “God Ain’t Coming into No Dead Heart”
    (pp. 149-162)

    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, and a toddler begins to cry. The guitarist plays quietly in the background.

    Less than three seconds pass before a voice behind me cries, “Praise the Lord!” I turn in time to see a thin, middle-aged woman wearing a bright...

  16. Chapter 13 The Emcee: “If You Have a Dry Emcee, You Have a Dry Anniversary”
    (pp. 163-188)

    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, “we’re going to introduce our emcee for the afternoon.”

    As she speaks, one of the singers who set up the microphones slides toward the front, picks up the mike resting on the choir loft rail, and whispers...

  17. Chapter 14 Format: “Let’s Give the Lord a Praise”
    (pp. 189-202)

    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.

    “We give honor to God for our first being here,” she begins, her voice strong and steady. The saints respond with calls of “Amen!” and “Praise God!” “And are praising God,” she continues, “because God truly has been good...

  18. Chapter 15 Purpose: “The Anointing of God Breaks the Yokes”
    (pp. 203-229)

    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,” the Bracey Singers had launched into a driving rendition of “Everything Is Moving by the Power of God.” The entire congregation had joined in the exuberant “shout-time” singing. Then the musicians had pushed...

  19. Chapter 16 False Purpose: “We Didn’t Come for No Form or Fashion”
    (pp. 230-263)

    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.

    The front two men quickly move toward the deacons’ corner, where they retrieve a guitar and bass from their black plastic cases. As they each move toward amplifiers on opposite sides of the center aisle, the...

  20. Chapter 17 Elevation: “Go Slow, Rise High, Catch on Fire, and Sit Down”
    (pp. 264-307)

    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. While the Tones walk to the church-front, resplendent in their powder-blue jackets and charcoal-gray pants, I see saints around me edging ever so slightly forward on the pews, as if expecting...

  21. Chapter 18 Invitation: “The Souls of Many Are Yet Lost”
    (pp. 308-313)

    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,” he says humbly, “but I want to sing a few verses of it, the way the Lord laid it on my heart.” Then, with his voice...

  22. Chapter 19 Benediction: “May the Grace of God Rest, Rule, and Abide”
    (pp. 314-326)

    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 “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” And now, easing out of the final verse with a sweetly harmonized moan, their unaccompanied voices glide to a whispered finale.

    Before they’ve even finished, a sister in the amen corner cries, “Lord Jesus!” Other voices quickly follow, tumbling one after another in a joyful torrent of praise and appreciation. The saints know that the end is at hand, and they seem intent on filling...

  23. Appendix: Stepping Around Experience and the Supernatural
    (pp. 327-334)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 335-376)
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 377-390)
  26. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 391-396)
  27. Index
    (pp. 397-408)