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Holy Hilarity

Spring 1983




hope God has a sense of humor.

There have been hundreds of theological giggles and ecclesiastical belly-laughs to color the years I pent have spent in the Christian ministry. Some of them came out of my own experiences; many more were told to me by other pastors. Some of the stories could have happened to any one in my calling, while others came out of the Appalachian folk stories of the hill country.

I have often thought of writing down these tales and incidents, but seemingly more important matters took my time. Now I am convinced that we are living in such times of tension that demand humor as a basic need. The untimely death of the Rev. Grady Neff, purveyor of the brand of humor I speak about, and popular with "Hillbilly" fans of "Hee Haw" on television, makes it more important that some of these stories be set down. I have heard him tell some tales which started about some of my own acquaintances in the hills of Virginia and West Virginia.

No doubt some of these stories were invented "out of whole cloth" by folk who just enjoyed "getting one" on the preacher. However, many more of them have a strictly factual basis.

There will be no strict order in the telling of these anecdotes. Perhaps a kind of historical order would be appropriate. The Gospel came to the mountain people by many and devious ways. Some of the earliest came by horseback, riding the steep mountain trails.

The Presbyterians sent out many missionaries to the backwoods, to isolated cabins up the `cricks and hollers' of my home state. It is told of one such, that he rode up to a trappers shack, and from the safety of the top of his horse, called out in the manner of the day: "Hello, the house." A slatternly woman came to the door and called "light, stranger, and come on in." Once inside, he introduced himself and said, "I'm a Presbyterian missionary."

"Never heered of one of them."

"Do you have a Bible?" he inquired.

"What's that?"

"Well, it's a book. I have some in my saddlebags. I'll give you one."

'Ain't no use. I can't read."

"Are there any Presbyterians about here?"

"Not as I know of. But my man's a trapper, an' if there's any hereabouts, he's probably caught one. You kin look out on the back of the cabin. He's got all kinds of hides out thar."

Desperately now, "Lady have you never heard of God?"

'Hope, can't say as I have. Now, wait a minute. I b'leeve I heard my husband mention him. Is his last name 'Damn'?"

That is the earliest story as far as history is concerned. My Father told it to me.

"Preacher Bob" was one of the earliest I remember. He had my mother's funeral, in 1921. He often told of the first time he saw his wife. She came riding up to his father's home, and called out "Hello." Bob was converted from a wayward life, and that afternoon, he was lying in the hayloft, well under the influence of alcohol. When his bride-to-be called out "Hello," he answered back "Hell high!"

I was not a converted Christian myself until I was past 23 years old. My first pastor was Harry Miller. He told me some of his earlier experiences as a circuit rider. He drove a two-horse rig, so he could give rides to people walking to his churches. As he drove up to one home, a small boy said, "Preacher, is both of them horses yours?" "Yes, sonny," he replied. "That's funny," said the boy. "My Pap said you was just a one-horse preacher."

One Sunday after morning services, he was asked to go home with a family for dinner. On the way, the man said: "We're having chicken for dinner." Brother Miller boasted several times about how he liked chicken. When they arrived at the house, the farmer went to put the horse and buggy away. The pastor took his small son by the hand and walked out to inspect the place. One of the chickens in the yard staggered and fell, and then another. Brother Miller said, "Your chickens are sick, aren't they, son?" "Yep. One died this morning. Ma cooked it for dinner. Pap said the preacher wouldn't know the difference."

At the table, the father passed the plate of chicken, saying, "Help yourself, preacher. We've had chicken so much we're tired of it, so eat all you want." To the man's amazement, the pastor said, "No, thank you. I don't care for chicken."

At another church across the mountain, he used the story as an illustration. He didn't know that the family who had the sick chickens also had an aunt who was in the audience, and knew about the pastors refusal. She told that family how he knew, and the father whipped the boy for telling. Bro. Miller said, "I had a notion to go over there and whip the father!"


Brother Miller was noted for his plain speech. When one of his members started keeping his store open on Sundays, the pastor visited him. "Well, Brother Miller, you know what the Bible says about the ox falling in the ditch." "Yes, but if I had an ox that fell in the ditch every Sunday, I'd either shoot the ox or fill up the ditch, one or the other!"


One saintly man of God of our Conference was Dr. J. M. Knight. He was from Tennessee, and while in college, had a student appointment to preach in a tiny mountain church in east Tennessee. He reached his appointment by riding the train to Elizabethton. On his first trip there, a number of students from another college rode with him. One girl especially interested Dr. Knight, and he conversed with her until they reached the depot in Elizabethton. When he descended the steps, he met an overgrown teen-ager in a straw hat, too-short overalls and a blue denim shirt. The boy was barefoot. He said, "Be you the preacher?"

Dr. Knight hustled him around the corner before the students on the coach got sight of him. The boy led him to a little burro with a saddle, and said, "You ride. I'll lead."

Knowing what a yell would go up from his new friends on the train if he rode from behind the station on the burro, he kept delaying, hoping the train would pull out. Finally, the boy said, "We better go, Preacher. We'll be late for church."

Reluctantly he climbed aboard the burro, asked the boy to hand up his suitcase, which he placed on the horn of the saddle in front of him. He then opened his umbrella and pulled it down over his ears, hoping he could hide from the group on the train. The boy led the procession out into the street. The engine was taking on water, and remained stationary. When the college crowd saw the odd parade, a loud yell and cheer went up from the coach!

He was led down the long street toward the river. It was Sunday afternoon, and families were sitting on their front porches, some laughing openly at the sight. When they finally reached the river, the boy said, "I be lost! I didn't come in this way." and turning back, they went back up the long street to more laughs from the folk on their porch swings and rockers.

Dr. Knight knew what humiliation meant.

In those early days, the churches held revivals in the summer time, since the roads were too muddy in the winter. Dr. Knight started a series of meetings at his little country church, so small it didn't have side aisles, but pushed the homemade benches against the wall, leaving a small center aisle. The offering was received in a velvet bag, on a small hoop on the end of a long pole.

One evening, just in time for the service, a very tall, skinny mountaineer and his companion came in. The church was almost full, so they were seated on the front pew. The almost seven-foot man had a large chew of tobacco in his jaw. When offering time came, the usher started at the back of the room. The young preacher waited in dread anticipation. When the little velvet bag was thrust under the man's nose, he said, very loudly: "N--no, thanks, b'leeve I kin holder till I git outside."

Later in the services, the lanky man came forward and knelt at the old-fashioned mourner's bench. In the congregation was a blind man who had great power in prayer. He was led up to kneel beside the barefoot fellow to pray for him. He placed his hand on the seeker's head while he prayed. The amt tired, and he lowered it, encountering the two bare heels of the seeker. He prayed that the Lord would bless the two "little fellers" who had come along to the altar with the mountaineer.


One of the older ministers of the Conference was noted as a glutton. He would eat three times as much as an ordinary man. At an "All-day meetin' and dinner-on-the-ground," he ate too much and became deathly ill. He went inside the church building and laid down on one of the pews. As the men gathered around him, he said, "Brethren, I think I'm going to die."
"Brother S--, you wouldn't be afraid to die, would you?"

"He replied, 'No, but I would be awfully ashamed to!"


I was pastor of one little chapel at the foot of a mountain. One man, who lived on the top of the mountain, was an unbeliever. He couldn't talk plainly. He and his wife, Dora, whom he called "Dodie," never missed a service of a revival. The people at the tiny church had a childlike faith. I called on one of the brethren to pray, and he prayed, "O Lord take the Devil out of our community. Take him clean up to the top of Laurel Mountain." The other man was listening carefully, and he cried out, "Oh, my Dod, don't do dat! Dat's where me and Dodie wives!"


The Rev. Millard Floyd tells of a man from the French Creek area of West Virginia, who was noted for telling funny stories. His name was Dan Jones, a teacher and principal of high schools. One day he was telling a good one, and his wife said "What do you suppose the Lord will say to you in heaven with you telling all these stories?"

Dan replied, "Well, I hope he says, "Dan, have you heard any good ones lately?"


Dr. F. H. Capehart was my first Conference Superintendent. He had served on poor country circuits, where the people would supplement the meager salaries by having "pound parties" for the pastor's family. My First charge was one of five churches, 58 miles around the circuit. The salary was $340.00 per year, in the hardest years of the depression.

Dr. Capehart was holding our Quarterly Meeting, and knew of our desperate need of food. He said "You people get busy and have some pound parties for the preacher." Then, remembering some of his earlier experiences, he said, "And don't bring him any old mouldy apple butter, either!"

Some of the spiritual food Dr. Capehart dished out didn't agree with his congregation, and he knew it. He illustrated it with a note about one of their own babies, whose formula made the child ill. Dr. C. said, "I carried that baby for nine months, night and day." After the service, his wife said "I'll have you know that I had something to do with carrying that baby for nine months!"


The Rev. R. L Clark was our neighboring pastor on the old Harrisville Charge. He was called upon to preach the funeral sermon for a man who came to one of his churches. The man was a very evil person, who had no relatives and few friends. Brother Clark chose as his text Ecclesiastes 8:10: "And I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity."


Another excellent story-teller was the Rev. O. H. Carder. He told of one mother who had read one morning about a child who had stuffed a bean up its nose and had to have a doctor extract it. A little later, she told her children, Now, kids, I have to go to the store for a few minutes. You kids be good and don't stuff any beans up your noses." I hardly need tell you what happened in her short absence!


A mentally retarded boy in Carder’s church was often hired to do work about the church and parsonage. The boy was learning to smoke cigarettes, and they were discouraging it. A movie show was almost 'tabu' for ministers in those days, but Carder had heard of a good one, and attended it.

One morning the boy came over and asked if there was any work he could do. The preacher said "If we pay you, you'll just go buy cigarettes." The boy replied "I'll smoke cigarettes just as long as the preacher goes to movie shows." (Not so retarded after all.)


My good friend the Rev. R. L Brill, of the Virginia Conference, told me several anecdotes of that area. One had to do with a Brethren preacher from West Virginia who came from that area to attend a yearly meeting at Elkton, Va. The Brethren practice "Trine Immersion," baptizing by thrusting the candidate into the water three times. While the yearly meeting proceeded a heavy rain caused the South River to rise. When the preacher and his wife tried to ford the stream in their buggy, the current swept them down river, lodging them against the N. & W. Railroad bridge abutment. A man rode his horse into the river to rescue them. When he came near, the preacher cried out, "Take me first! Take me first! I'm afraid of water!"

His wife said disgustedly, "Josiah, you, a Brethren preacher, afraid of water!"


The Virginia Conference, United Brethren, had one minister who was a tiny man with a high, squeaky voice. He was sent to Highland County to serve the few rural churches there. One church had a very high and wide pulpit. The first morning for the new preacher, he came very early, and sat down behind the big pulpit. Nobody knew he was there. When time came for the service, he stood on tiptoe behind that big desk and spoke the words of his biblical text dramatically: 'It is I, be not afraid."


Bishop W. M. Weekley, a native West Virginian, wrote a small book entitled Twenty Years on Horseback, or Itinerating in West Virginia. In it he tells many amusing stories. Here is one he didn't include:

One of the Bishop's early appointments was the old Union Circuit, in Mason County. Bro. Daniel Hart, a member of Union Church, the oldest church in the Conference, told his pastor he felt called to preach. Bro. Weekley said "Very well. I am to preach at Vernon next Sunday night. I may not make it there, or will be very late, so you preach for me."

Sunday night, Brother Hart led the service, and then came to the sermon. His text was Matt. 19:25: "Who then can be saved?" Just as he was ready to read it, his pastor came in the door at the rear, and stood near the wall. Brother Hart read his text, "Who then can be saved?" Waiting a little, he read it again, and the third time, "Who then can be saved?" He stood there, unable to think of a word to say. Finally he said, Brother Weekley, come up here and tell them about this text. You know more about it than I do!"

Years later, Bishop Weekley was to preach at Union Camp ground, and drove by Dan Hart's home. Uncle Dan, almost blind, sat in a chair on his lawn. The Bishop called out from his automobile, "Who then can be saved?"

The aged Daniel Hart answered, "Hello there, Brother Weekley."


The Rev. H. L Koontz was my predecessor as pastor in Elkins, W. Va. One of his favorite stories was about a farmer who had been convinced that a prophecy about the Lord's return was true. When the day came for our Lord's return, the farmer wrapped a white sheet about him for a robe, climbed the highest hill on his farm to await the Lord's coming at midnight. To be a bit closer to heaven, the true believer climbed atop a strawstack on the hill. After an all night vigil, he was very sleepy. Some mischievous boys had followed the man to the hilltop. When the sun arose, and shone warmly on the watcher, he fell asleep. The boys set fire to the strawstack.

Upon awakening the farmer cried, "Judgment Da-a-a-y! And me in Hell, just as I expected!"


The parsonage at Elkins was near the court house, so ministers living there were often called upon for weddings. One older man, who had lived with a woman for years and had several children, stopped to ask if the Rev. Koontz would marry him to the woman, which he did a few days later.

One day about a year later, Koontz saw the man on the street and asked about the marriage, which had been forced by their asking for Social Security benefits. The man said, "I divorced her."

When the minister expressed surprise, the old man said, "She was a damn good woman till I married her."


Bro. Koontz was often called upon to conduct funerals for unsavory characters. One such was for a man who had married, had two children, and then left them for a woman the Rev. Koontz called a "floozy." The "floozy" infected him with syphilis, and the man died of it. At the rural chapel, both his wife and the "girl friend" were present. After the sermon, the wife insisted that the casket be opened, lifted the body in her arms, and wailed long and loud. The "Floozy" came up and said, "You've had him long enough! Let me have him a while!"


My good friend, the Rev. James Reed, tells of a man who was noted for his stubbornness and bad temper. He would not go to church, but would take his wife in the buggy and return for her. One morning he had difficulty hitching the horse to the buggy, grabbed an axe, and proceeded to cut the spokes out of the buggy wheels. When he was through, his wife took the axe and did the same thing to his farm wagon. He said, "Why did you do that?"

She answered, "Same reason you cut down the buggy wheels." It almost cured him. He kept his temper for almost six months.

He had planted a small patch of oats, and when he cut the oats, it rained an them every time they were ready to take in. Finally, when they were dry enough, and had blackened with mildew, he and the boys got them on the wagon, and were ready to start to the shed. The old man heard it thunder and said, "Huh! Brewin' for another oats patch, are ye? I'll just fix ye." He struck a match and set fire to the oats, burning up wagon and all.

The boys unhitched the mules from the wagon in time to prevented complete disaster.

He was looking for his hatchet, which the boys had loaned to a neighbor. The more he looked, the more angry he became. When he was boiling mad, the neighbor boy brought back the hatchet. He had a 35-foot well, and threw the hatchet down the well, saying, "Now, damn ya, next time I want ya I'll know where to find ya."

One winter morning he got out of bed barefoot, and was stirring the ashes out of the old Burnside stove. A red-hot coal rolled out of the stove and lodged between his big toe and the second one. He just set his foot up on the hearth rim of the stove and said, "Fry, dadbum ye, fry!"


One story I forgot to include came from the Rev. O. H. Carder. He told me of one would-be preacher whose ideas about moving were quite up-to-date. When he was assigned to the Ben's Run Circuit, second poorest in the state, from the very poorest one, Carder was curious about his mode of transportation. He could have gone in those days by wagon, railroad or steamboat. To Bro. Carder's question about how he had moved the man said: 'I didn't have any movin' plunder. Just tied the hounds on behind the buggy and drove through."


When Carder was moved from a country circuit to a small station charge, he said "They thought they were promoting me, but I preached to about four times as many people on the circuit!"

The folks on the circuit had a farewell party for him. As they were passing in line to shake his hand and tell him goodbye, one dear sister very tearfully said "Brother Carder, we hate to see you go. You can't preach a lick, but me love you just the same!"


While in seminary, we had rooms at a home in which the wife was a member of a sect which taught that a person could be saved, sanctified, and after that experience, could not possibly sin. But when she became angry at a neighbor, she told her, "I can just lay my religion down, give you a good going over, and then pick my religion up and put it back on again!

I was working nights as a watchman at an iron foundry. An old black gentleman worked there as a janitor. When I told him about what the woman said, he replied, "You know what kind of religion I call that. That is "spiggot" religion. You can turn it on and off whenever you want to."


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