Wendell Calder raised a Bible in the air and projected his voice to every corner of the vinyl tent.
“I’m as assured of heaven as if I’ve already been there,” he said.
The local crowd responded with a few shouts of “Amen” and “Preach it, brother.”
“I’ve been set free from the domination of sin,” he said.
The Christian Church of Charleston Four Corners held the first of four tent meetings Monday evening. This year marks the 200th anniversary of its founding, and to celebrate, church leader the Rev. Brett Popp said the congregation is stepping back to the 19th century, “back when tent meetings weren’t old-fashioned, when they were just tent meetings.”
A good tent meeting requires a few things: There has to be a tent, obviously, but also a few wheelbarrow loads of sawdust for the floor and a lot of folding chairs. Mainly, though, there has to be a tent revival-style preacher.
“When you’re at a tent meeting, it’s about how the preacher gets his words across to you,” said church member Walter Weaver.
Weaver attended quite a few tent meetings in his youth.
“Back in the ’70s, there were a series of tent meetings in Ames,” he said. “I was on vacation that week and went every night. That was a good preacher.”
Calder is a white-haired traveling preacher with decades of anecdotes gathered over six continents of mission work. He fit the bill nicely.
Roughly 60 faithful or curious locals gathered under the tent Monday night, including U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam. At first it seemed like a regular church service conducted outside, but as the sun dropped below the trees things warmed up.
Calder’s message, a sermon on what makes a Christian, led to some literal Bible thumping, amens all around and an impromptu version of “The Family of God” with local resident John Benelli strumming along on a partially strung acoustic guitar.
Such classic tent meetings are pretty rare these days.
“Right now it’s pretty much just the so-called faith healers doing tent meetings,” Calder said after the service, relaying the short version of tent revival history.
Tent meeting popularity goes in cycles. They were common for a while 200 year ago and made popular again by traveling religious leader Billy Sunday at the turn of the last century.
“Sunday once stayed in Scranton, Pa., for two full weeks,” Calder said. “So many people were saved they did a parade through town on the last day. Even the bars were shut down.”
Billy Graham brought the tent back in the 1950s and ’60s, but today they’re at the low end of that popularity cycle. Popp said the form still has a lot to offer, though.
“I’ve had people say, ‘If I step into church the roof is going to crash down on me,’ ” he said; “Like God is going to reach down and smack them in the head. Well, those folks aren’t afraid of tents.”
All tent meetings are temporary. Even Sunday’s famous two-week stint in Scranton ended, but the Christian Church of Charleston Four Corners will stick around long after Calder moves on. According to Popp, that’s sort of a big deal. When he took over nearly a dozen years ago the church had just 30 members, “which I grew immediately to 18,” he said with a laugh.
After nearly two centuries it was on the verge of becoming just another old church standing empty. Then things turned around.
“I try to keep it simple,” he said. “Good preaching, good music, like a tent meeting.”
Now there are roughly 80 regulars — quite a lot for a country church. Many are young people, which is even more of an accomplishment.
As the tent service rolled on, kids played on a nearby swingset. Young couples held hands. Grandparents clapped.
Tent meetings took place at 1380 E. Lykers Road on Monday and Tuesday and will continue starting at 6:30 p.m. today and Thursday.