The Vagabond: An early incident with Alabama City Holy Rollers

November 17, 2017 chris
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By Danny Crownover

Author’s note: This article is of preserving history as it was written in the 1920s and not meant to offend anyone.

“Back in 1910, the Holiness people, or Holy Rollers as they are sometimes termed were operating a most remarkable series of meetings on Kyle Avenue, which was the main road into Alabama City. They had drawn many guests from Attalla and Gadsden to their peculiar and excitable method of worship.

“The meeting had been in progress for seven weeks, days and nights, with no sign of let up. The curious crowd would nightly flock to the little tent.

“J.T. Buckalew, the former chief of police of Alabama City, was the religious leader. Despite threats, he defied the law and every other form of threatened interference. He continued holding one Holy Roller meeting after another and worked his followers up to a high pitch of excitement.

The preacher said he would continue to hold his meetings wherever and whenever he pleased, and that if he was sent to jail he would make the prisoners roll with the Holy Ghost until the law itself would he shamed.

“For some time, the young people of the three area cities were attracted to the tent because the peculiar and excitable form of worship was much like a circus to them. They manage to stay through the harangue from the pulpit, feeling that they are amply repaid when the faithful go down into the trough and begin to roll.

“Those who had been watching the performance of this sect said that the men and women fall into trances, roll on the ground and mumble what they claim to be a communication with the Holy Ghost.

“This non-intelligent language is the most curious feature to the people of the mill village. The town contains persons of Greeks, Italians, Poles, Austrians, Frenchmen and Germans who speak none but their native language, but this Holiness jargon has somewhat mystified these as well as the mill people as a whole.

“The meetings up to this time had progressed so far without any trouble. However, that was about to change. Complaints became common. One prominent citizen of the west end area of Gadsden complained to the police one day that the quietude of that peaceful community was rudely shattered as a result of the meetings.

“Sometimes after the man and his family had returned from church and retired for the night, a wagon came rattling across Black Creek bridge on Tuscaloosa Avenue and woke them up. It was loaded with men and women who were shouting and shrieking as if the world was coming to an end. The man ascertained the nature of the racket were from ‘a bunch of Holy Rollers who became over enthused at a Holy Roller stance in Alabama City and they all had to be hauled home.’

“Nearly all of these meetings were lasting beyond midnight. Threats were made to break up the services, as there is no doubt that they are wearing on the nerves of those who work during the day and require rest at night.

“These threats had evidently been communicated to the leader. The next night, he made the statement that up to that time he had been holding forth for fifty-one days and nights and that he would continue until Christmas if he wanted to. He said that some of the ‘pusillanimous and bullet headed’ people of the mill village wanted to stop the meeting, but, said he, ‘they can’t scare me with their pistols, shotguns and bulldogs.’

“There was no doubt that the Holy Rollers wrought up a considerable proportion of the people of Alabama City. They in fact had reached a fanatical stage.

“It finally came to a point that the mayor and aldermen of Alabama City had to get together to do something. They met on Sept. 22, 1910. After fussing, cussing and discussing about the Holy Rollers, they instructed Chief of Police Jarrard to notify the rollers that they must close their meetings at 9 o’clock every night or they will be prohibited entirely.

“When former Chief of Police Buckalew originally asked for permission to start his Holiness meeting, it was granted on his promise that he would close at 9 o’clock every night. It appeared that he has kept his promise in a way by formally dismissing his congregation at 9 o’clock, but the formality was all there was to it. The real Holy rolling did not begin until after that hour.

“The performance was what drew the crowds, and it continued until long after midnight. It kept the mill hands up late and unfits for work on the next day.

“At any rate, the authorities were heartily tired of the rollers, and Chief Jarrard notified Preacher Buckalew that he must have his entire performance over and his congregation dispersed by 9 o’clock or it would be prohibited altogether.

“The authorities were somewhat at loss as to the method of procedure should they be defied, but they have determined to resort to the ordinance against nuisances if necessary.

“Chief Jarrard said that the Holy Rollers had reached the stage where he would be obliged to interfere unless the fiery Buckalew ‘take backwater and shelves his Winchester, he is certain to have a clash with the police authorities.’

“It should be understood that the authorities of Alabama City were not imbued with a spirit of religious intolerance. They are far from that, but ‘the Holy Rolling business was disturbing the peace and is going beyond the realms of religion, so they claim, and they are obliged to interfere.’

“Evidently, the next night on Friday Sept. 23 at 11 p.m., Chief Jarrard took action. The meeting of the Holy Rollers in Alabama City was raided and broken up. John Buckalew, the preacher and several others were placed in jail on the charge of loitering after warning. A Swiss repeating rifle and a pistol were found along with other weapons behind the pulpit.

“Three hours later, the tent in which the meetings were held was discovered to be on fire. Officers and citizens carried a fire truck out and attempted to save it. It completely burned down together, along with many of the seats. It was believed that some person whose rest had been disturbed nightly by the noisy meetings set fire to the tent. That completely ended the late meetings for good, and Alabama City folks finally got rest again.

“On a side note, a couple of years later, 56 holy rollers stormed the Gadsden’s county jail. The officers would normally have been alarmed but for the number of women in the crowd. A request was made to the sheriff to allow them to hold a meeting with the prisoners. He had no objection.

“Once in the jail, they proceeded to pray and sing. The preacher made a short talk exhorting the prisoners to lead an exemplary life and to seek religion. After the service, the 56 holy rollers quietly withdrew and board an electric street car back to Alabama City to their homes in the mill village.

“The quiet little town finally saw some real peace.”