Real Old Time Religion

3 January, 2009

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a born-again Christian who was lamenting the disappearance of old-time religion.  She thought that the old-time Bible-based church, the kind of church in which people sang old-time gospel songs, listened to proper sermons about the Bible and understood how to live as proper Christians.  The kind of church that was around back in the ‘old days.’

I told her that the kind of church she was describing would have been illegal in early colonial Virginia.  It would have been illegal in the Massachusetts colony.  It would have barred you from public office in many colonies and even some states from two centuries ago.  The church she tried to describe was (partially) a product of a reaction to the percieved excesses of the American Revolution — all those deists like Jefferson, y’know.  It bounced off her skull.

On the drive home, I got to thinking about ‘old time religion.’  Of course, most of us are familiar with the old gospel song, “Old Tyme Religion”:

Give me that old time religion
Tis the old time religion,
Tis the old time religion,
And it’s good enough for me.

It was good for our mothers.
It was good for our mothers.
It was good for our mothers.
And it’s good enough for me.

Makes me love everybody.
. . . And it’s good enough for me.

It has saved our fathers.
. . . .
And it’s good enough for me.

It will do when I am dying.
. . . .
And it’s good enough for me.

et cetera ad nauseum


Of course, in my family (and thanks to such good influences as Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie), we realize that the ‘old time religion’ of this song really is a very recent invention.  The real old time religions?

Oh, we’ll pray with those Egyptions
Build pyramids to put our crypts in
Cover subways with inscriptions
And that’s good enough for me.

Oh, we’ll pray with those old Druids
As they drink fermented fluids
Waltzing naked through the woods
And that’s good enough for me.

Oh, we’ll pray with Aphrodite
Yes we’ll pray with Aphrodite
‘Cause she wears that see through nightie
And that’s good enough for me.

Oh, we’ll pray with Zarathustra
We’ll pray just like we use ta
I’m a Zarathustra booster
And that’s good enough for me.

Somehow, I expect that those are really not the old time religions of which she was speaking.



  1. I think I mentioned it before, but when I was a kid and we were in Ethiopia the parents thought it “good” that we young’uns have a Sunday School in our compound, and the first version of that ditty was sort of required every Sunday. One of the people we shared the building with was an overt atheist, and people would definitly refer to him with a lip curl and a certain tone of voice. He had said that he didn’t think they’d like “that old time religion”.

    The adults got to go to some kind of Coptic service and they came back giving indications that they found it severely wanting.

    This atheistic gentleman said that he had warned them, that was as close to the religion that was “good for Paul and Silas” as you could get, a lot closer than what they were used to.

    This was not well recieved. Comments were made. Things I’ve come to associate with devout christians displaying their love and emulation of their ‘savior’s’ example.

  2. Sarge, I suspect that modern evangelicals, hung up out the whazoo with old time religion, would be horrified by Coptic or Orthodox Christianity. To say nothing on Gnostics, Adoptionists, or any of the other early ‘heresies.’

    You hadn’t mentioned being in Ethiopia (or, at least, you haven’t since I have ‘known’ you). Must have been fascinating. Were you able to see any of the churches carved out of the basalt? The ones where the top of the church is even with ground level?

  3. The deacon and I went to a Russian Orthodox service in Winnipeg years ago. We had a friend in the congregation who attended that church because she felt like it connected her to hundreds of years of religious tradition that her family had observed. It was a small church with simple decorations; the candles and incense were nice. There were only two or three dozen people in the congregation, mostly older folks. I only recall one family with youngsters. Everybody stood throughout the entire 90 minute service, which was chanted in Russian. No hymns, no impromptu prayers, just the traditional liturgy. That’s probably a better example of old-time religion than the stuff that nostalgic fundogelicals are peddling.

  4. My father at that time was an assistant military attache’ (even carried a case by that name on occasion) and we did see the buried ones and two on cliff tops. There are places where there are ruins back in what we would call “coves” which we were told had legends about them, but no one had ever even looked at them, knew anything about them.

    I had a girlfriend my first tour in Germany who was Russian (didn’t my higher-ups just love THAT!) refugee, and I often went with her. (Side story: flunked out of HS girl friend who I eventually married made me finish in summer school or she wouldn’t see me any more. I went in the army, she went to college, we broke up for some years, got back together eventually) and I just loved the music.

    We have Syrian and Greek Orthodox here in town, and in Johnstown there’s Russian and Ukrainian.

  5. Zarathustra was the prophet. Ahura Mazda was the god, so I think you’d be a Mazda booster. Zoom zoom.

  6. Chappie: I find the liturgical chants (Gregorian or otherwise) very soothing. Drives (((Wife))) up the wall, though.

    Sarge: Ethiopia is on my bucket list. Of course, it will require some political stability before I would be willing to go there.

    Philly: Don’t blame me. That’s the way Seeger and Guthrie sang it. Besides, I thought Ahura was the token black/token female on Star Trek. (She did have (in one of the movies (forget which one) one of the great lines: kid at a transporter wishes he could have an exciting assignment — she says, “Be careful what you wish for,” pulls out a phaser, transports herself, Spock, Kirk to the Enterprise to highjack it (okay, it was better in the movie)). You do have a good point though.

  7. one of the reasons there aren’t many old-time religion’s left is because people found them boring.

  8. Oz: Oh, I don’t know. Some Bacchanalia might be fun (not that I’m really a partier, but . . . .). Worship of Aphrodite?

    I think (though I’m not sure) that one of the reasons ‘pagans’ converted to Christianity was the realatively novel idea of a god with a personal interest in each person’s eternal life. Many (not all) of the pagan gods could be bribed to intervene in personal affairs. The Christian god, however, assuming you bribed him with prayers (which is a lot cheaper than sacrificing a goat or a bull or a bottle of vino), would not only intervene on a personal level but would also give you eternal life, something that the old gods weren’t real big on (unless you were Egyption (and a pharoah) or a warrior (however, an eternity of fighting daily only to be put back together again sounds a little too close to todays army)).

    I just have to laugh at what people consider an old time religion. Even a Catholic Latin Mass would be considered heretical to, say, a fifth century Roman church. Right wing religions have no sense of history. Or at least no realistic sense of history.

  9. I once knew a Dyak woman who told me that most of her people went to Christianity because it really was simpler than what they had. Anything you did under the old regime’ had multiple entities to propitiate, avoid the wrath of one because you did something pleasing to another, spirits all over the place. With christianity it was, in modern terms, one-stop shopping, user friendly.

    I asked why any at all?

    She looked at me like I was crazy.

  10. Sarge: Christianity = Super WalMart or Christianity = Shopping Mall. Either way, bleah.

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