Raise the Dead, Richard Hall by Patsy Sims

Raise the Dead, Richard Hall by Patsy Sims

From the Study Guide for "Raise the Dead", written by Patsy Sims, an award winning journalist who wrote Can Somebody Shout Amen! Inside the Tents and Tabernacles of American Revivalists (Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1996)

On the platform, H. Richard Hall freely weaves anecdotes from his past into a rambling monologue, relaxed—as most evangelists are—before an audience. But one-on-one, he becomes visibly uncomfortable. Persistently, though ever so politely, he will evade requests to talk about himself. “You don’t want my background,” he will protest, “I really like to give this.” And then he will expound on the history of pentecostalism or on the late 1940s and early 1950s, those many miracled, pre-television days of mammoth tents and magnetic men when revivals attracted tens of thousands and evangelistic publications abounded with testimonies boldly headlined WOMAN RAISED FROM THE DEAD, ONCE TOTALLY BLIND SEES AGAIN, GIRL WITH SEVERED VOCAL CORD SINGS OVER RADIO. But gradually his face will warm, and his account is no longer that of an outsider. He has been there. He has known the thrill of a packed tent and of watching the lame walk and the blind see at the laying on of a hand—his hand.

The first time I heard his account was April 1981 as I was embarking on a book about tent revivals. I remember being en-thralled with his telling of the story, as I am now almost twenty years later. It was partly because of the way that he told it, partly because of his candor and enthusiasm. I had not expected to really like him. From the photograph in his bi-monthly tabloid, he had struck me as a mean-spirited, fire-and-brimstone preacher, and in person he at first looked no less forbidding. He is a tall, gaunt man with long, dark hair that he combs straight back to his collar and is given to wearing somber three-piece suits. His face is as creviced as the North Carolina hills of his birth and when in repose can be dark and menacing, but as I soon discovered it is like a rubber mask that changes with his mood: brooding, smiling, glaring, winking, condemning, brightening, bantering.

The morning of our first interview, it took on a special radiance and his kind, easy-going manner came through as he recalled how, during the developing days of Pentecostalism, his own mother was among the first in the western hills of North Carolina to receive the baptism of the Spirit and to speak in tongues For a time that occurrence caused her father, a Baptist minister, to bar the widow and her five-year-old son from the family home. The stern rebuke did not stop the mother from embarking on her own ministry and from surrounding young Homer Richard with the fervent new converts. From then on, he was captivated by voices and visions. He will tell you about waking to an unnatural light swinging over his bedstead and about God coming to deliver him from tuberculosis, adding good-humored dis- claimers that it could have been a figment of his imagination, that he knows the first sign of insanity is hearing voices. “I mean to be as honest with you as I can,” he will tell you.

He received the baptism of the Spirit at age thirteen and a year later began preaching on street corners and in prayer meetings and churches whenever the elders would let him. One Sunday he preached barefoot to six or seven hundred people at what looms in his memories as a large Church of God. “There was eleven people converted that night, grown people. Maybe because I was a child,” he says, adding one of those typical disclaimers. “People kinda go along with a child.”

After high school, he attended the Church of God of Prophecy Bible Training School and at age twenty-four was ordained. Over the years he also studied at the Atlanta Institute of Speech and Expression and a Knights of Columbus school in New York and picked up an honorary degree from the William Carter Bible College in Goldsboro, North Carolina. All along, however, he harbored a private ambition to become a lawyer and for a time studied under a private attorney with the hope of passing the Georgia bar exam. That dream ended when he developed tuberculosis and was told by doctors he would never again be able to speak publicly. Three months later God appeared at the foot of his bed and healed him, and Hall took that as a sign he was meant to stick with preaching.

In the 1940s he worked as state overseer for the Church of God of prophecy in Colorado, Utah, and western Texas, leaving the denomination in 1952 to begin his own sign-gift ministry during the glory days of tent revivals. From the beginning he patterned his ministry after those of revival giants like A. A. Allen, William Branham, and Jack Coe, though on a smaller scale with healing and the Word of Knowledge a vital part of his services.

The strongest influence on his life was Branham, a simple Baptist preacher who gained national prominence in the mid 1940s because of his ability to detect and diagnose diseases through supernatural vibrations in his left hand and to “discern the secrets of people’s hearts” through a gift known as the Word of Knowledge. Those who encountered the late evangelist have remarked on the striking similarities between Hall’s style both on and off the platform and that of Branham. The two men indeed had much in common: Both were raised in Appalachian poverty—Branham in Kentucky; Hall, in North Carolina; and both seemed to put little stock in worldly possessions. At the height of his popularity, Branham frequently arrived at gatherings in a battered old truck, wearing a mismatched jacket and trousers. While Hall dresses in tasteful three-piece suits, a member of his evangelistic team once likened him to Mahatma Gandhi, insisting, “He doesn’t have nothing! We buy him his suits, and his home is all broke down. Sometimes I think, Why doesn’t he fix it up for his wife, but he doesn’t have the time or the desire.” Another worker confided that Hall usually cut his own hair or had a member of his staff do it.

Like Branham, Hall has seldom stressed money during his revivals, often collecting the offering at the end of the service after many people have left. Even then, he will tell those who make financial pledges to his ministry, “If you can’t pay, don’t worry about it. You’ve got enough to worry about without worry about some preacher.” Over the years Hall has earned a reputation as a successful small evangelist with a far-flung congregation of followers who sometimes drive hundreds of miles to attend his meetings. His appeal has been to the unsophisticated, often the social outcast, and he takes a special pride in the inmates his ministerial association has licensed within prisons.

During the youth rebellion of the 1960s he detected a hungering he felt he could satisfy and did, surrounding himself with bright, young college dropouts who willingly cut their hair, swapped faded dungarees for three-piece suits, and joined him on the sawdust trail and at his Cleveland, Tennessee, headquarters. Today, some of those same men remain committed to Hall and to evangelism. The heart of his ministry has always been the arduous four and five-hour revival services that keep him on the road all but one day a week—a day he, like the rest of his staff, spends cranking out newsletters, tinkering with automobiles, or working on construction projects. Since suffering a heart ailment in 1980 he no longer erects his own tent, but instead preaches the last few services at the longer tent revivals staged by his young proteges and in between conducts services in churches. Although he has sometimes ventured into Pennsylvania and Illinois and Iowa, even to larger cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., he travels primarily in the South, logging a hundred thousand miles a year, most of them by car.

In the early days his wife, Amelia, led the song services, but eventually she developed her own circuit in the Caribbean with the two crossing paths only every few months. The couple has no children, and while Hall himself is reticent about admitting it, many of his young workers have become like sons, especially organist Don Warren who joined the Halls as a teenager.

At his services, it is apparent that Hall is having a good time, even fun. Near the end of one service I attended, he asked the crowd, “Who says you have to come here and be sad? Tell ever’one you came and had a good time.” That night as I watched him singing, clapping, clowning, dancing in the aisle, it occurred to me that after his staid Pentecostal upbringing and decades of conducting revivals six nights a week, he had turned the services into a night’s entertainment for himself as much as for his audience. In many ways his platform style is unconventional, different even from most other tent evangelists I encountered. The late A. A. Allen, for example, was heralded with a flourish not unlike the nightly introductions of Jay Leno and David Letterman. After the audience’s emotional batteries had been charged, his platform man would boom, “And now, HERE— HE—IS—God’s man of faith and prayer, BROTHER—A—A—ALLEN!” Hall, however, chooses to move unobtrusively onto the platform and without fanfare takes the microphone from his song director in the midst of the congregational singing, his smooth, mellow baritone soaring above the rest until the crowd stops to listen.

He is indeed a showman but of a different variety than his more gregarious counterparts. He mimics and clowns, sometimes flinging his long hair over his face and parting it to play Indian or some other role, then removing a large comb from his hip pocket to slick it back into place, yet his humor is low-key, his delivery a leisurely, strolling-along pace. Even his shouting has a soft edge. His sermons begin as rambling epics laced with homespun philosophy, personal anecdotes, and folksy stock phrases like “Preach on, Brother Hall” or “Boy, that didn’t set so well.” In the end, however, his goal is that of all revivalists: to evoke response, to whip his audience to an emotional frenzy. He is like a conductor orchestrating the people’s emotions, drawing them into a dialogue, encouraging them to complete his scriptural quotations and to punctuate his pronouncements with an exclamation, a gentle nod. As the altar call nears, his pace will quicken and his delivery becomes rhythmic, repetitive, like the chanted sermons of older black ministers, unleashing swarms of amens.

His views too are equally unconventional. In spite of the role of divine healing in his services and in his own life, he also believes in medical sciences and has been hospitalized at least once. He openly expresses doubts that manifestations of the Spirit, including speaking in tongues, are always genuine, and is skeptical of “way-out religious fanatics,” conceding, “When I hear people start talking all the time about God told me, about every sentence or ever’ three or four minutes saying God told me, I get a little leery. I get a little worried, a little afraid.” In a sermon on creation he once insisted, “I’m not worried about by what means. If it was a process, all right, or if it was a big BANG! that’s all right. It don’t bother me at all. God did it.”

During the time I followed Hall, he spent little time around the tent, usually arriving just before each service and disappearing immediately after the benediction. Between his arrival and the start of a service, he would remain in his copper- color Cadillac, alone, in view of the people but seldom mingling among them. Even when the members of his evangelistic team went out for late-night suppers, he never joined them. “I have four or five hours that I’m totally involved with people,” he once told me. “The rest of my time I like to be mine with a Bible or book or just relaxation or thinking or whatever.”

During the day his time was often spent driving to nearby communities to visit a sick follower or to conduct a funeral. “If people are with you when they’re well and don’t need you, then where are you when they need you?” he said with a shrug. “I mean that’s my idea of a minister.”

A rod of clothes always hung across the backseat of the Cadillac, and I came to realize the big, expensive car was not a luxury: It was his transportation, his office, his home, his place to sleep and find solitude. Hall was quick to stress that he did not sleep in the car out of necessity.

“People are good to me. There’s been a lot of money gone through my hands—I kid you not,” he said, not boastfully, but to explain the guiding philosophy of his organization. “My idea of the disciples and Jesus was altogether different from a lot of people’s, and if that’s the type of ministry I want, then I should make my life-style like that.”