John’s Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath is a treasured piece of Americana that captures the experience of depression-era Oklahoma dust-bowlers as they travel to California in search of a better life. The novel tells the story of the Joads, who are typical family-oriented heartland farmers who struggle to stay together and make a living when the failing economy undoes their way of life. Like many heartlanders, of that era and this one, the Joads are Christian folk but are by no means theologically savvy. Thus, they are apt to patronize religious pretenders. Not long into The Grapes of Wrath, readers are introduced to a friend of the Joads, a preacher named Jim Casy. Casy, a talented preacher, has fallen away from of religious pursuits. describes his situation to the novel’s protagonist:
“I was a preacher, Reverend Jim Casy—was a Burning Busher. Used to howl out the name of Jesus to glory. And used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin’ full of repented sinners half of ’em like to drowned. But not no more, Jus Jim Casy now. Ain’t got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible…”I ain’t preachin’ no more much. The sperit ain’t in the people much no more; and worse’n that, the sperit ain’t in me no more. ‘Course now an’ again the sperit gets movin’ an’ I rip out a meetin’, or when folks sets out food I give ’em a grace, but my heart ain’t in it. I on’y do it ’cause they expect it….I used ta get the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues and glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out. An’ some I’d baptize to bring ’em to. An’ then—you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out in the grass, an’ I’d lay with her. Done it ever’ time. Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray an’ pray, but it didn’t do no good. Come the next time, them an’ me was full of the sperit, I’d do it again. I figgered there just wasn’t no hope for me, an’ I was a damned ol’ hypocrite. But I didn’t mean to be. “I got to thinkin’ like this—’Here’s me preachin’ grace. An’ here’s them people gettin’ grace so hard they’re jumpin’ an’ shoutin’. Now they say layin’ up with a girl comes from the devil. But the more grace a girl got in her, the quicker she wants to go out in the grass.’ An’ I got to thinkin’ how in hell, s’cuse me, how can the devil get in when a girl is so full of the Holy Sperit that it’s spoutin’ out of her nose an’ ears. You’d think that’d be one time when the devil didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. But there it was. An’ there’s me. There’s me with all them people’s souls in my han’—responsible an’ feelin’ my responsibility—an’ ever time, I lay with one of them girls.”1
Another fictional character that fits the Jim Casy mold is Sonny Dewey, a preacher portrayed by Robert Duvall in his 1997 feature film, The Apostle. Sonny Dewey is a powerfully effective preacher as well as an admitted womanizer. After losing the church he founded and killing his wife’s lover in a drunken outburst, Sonny flees his home in Texas and enters into hiding in a small Louisiana town. There he presents himself to locals as “the Apostle E.F.” and founds a new church. He is just as effective a preaching in Louisiana as he was in Texas, and just as apt to womanize. Almost immediately, Sonny sets his affections on a local woman who is estranged from her husband and who, because of his bravado, is taken with Sonny.
The old saying rings true, “Art imitates life.” It’s hard to imagine that Steinbeck and Duvall just invented the idea of a revivalist preacher who would repeatedly get girls all worked up with preaching and proceed to have his way with them sexually. The carnal nature and shallow depth of revival meetings has been well-known since the days of the Cane Ridge Revival and the Second Great Awakening. A long-time critique of emotional revival meetings has been that they have produced more souls conceived than saved. The preaching at these meetings is often the excited proclamations of charismatic, yet uneducated, lay preachers. Learned ministers who put forth theological exposition do not generally find success in the revivalist culture.2 Rather performers who put forth a simple “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” shtick win the day.
This is the case with Clayton Jennings, an evangelist from Indiana. Clayton is without formal theological training but has managed to make a living preaching, selling Christian-themed apparel, and promoting his religious poetry on YouTube. He has also, like Jim Casy and Sonny Dewey, had his fair share of “rolls in the grass” with his young patrons. As has been reported by Polemics Report and Pulpit & Pen, Jennings has seduced several young women during the course of his ministry. These women recounted similar stories about the methods Jennings used to gain their trust and affection, which include their watching clips of Jennings preach while on dates with him. Furthermore, they’ve shared similar stories about Jennings’ supposed tragic back story. According to these women, Jennings claims that he was sexually abused by enemy combatants while serving in the United States military. His type of traumatic background story, while dubious, is not uncommon among traveling evangelists types. What preachers such as Jennings lack in theological depth, they make up for in drama. After Polemics Report broke the story of Jennings’ seductions, he removed himself from the preaching circuit.
According to his “spiritual mentor,” another traveling evangelist named Tony Nolan, Jennings has agreed to enter into an ill-defined process of “restoration”. This “restoration” is apparently being supervised by Nolan, who had been scheduled to preach with Jennings at multiple events. Like other revivalist preachers, Tony Nolan uses an emotional back story to pluck the heartstrings of his audience.
According to Nolan, he was born to a mentally ill prostitute. He was turned over to foster care shortly after his birth. After undergoing sexual abuse, he was purchased for $200 by his adoptive parents. He claims that his adoptive father was an impoverished, abusive alcoholic. Like Jennings, Nolan claims to have been suicidal at one point. Despite his rough childhood, abuse, and his own alcoholism and drug-addiction, Tony Nolan found Jesus and became a preacher.
In addition to being a traveling revivalist, Nolan is the teaching pastor at Freedom Church in Acworth, Georgia. It seems strange that a man who has himself suffered sexual abuse would seek to “restore” to the ministry a man like Clayton Jennings, who is arguably a manipulative sexual predator. Nolan, as a pastor, is tasked with protecting the young Christian women of his church. How is it that Nolan, a man who speaks at youth revivials, would seek to put Clayton Jennings back on the preaching circuit? Furthermore, Jennings is a member of a Harbour Shores Church in Indiana. Why would Jennings be put under the supervision of a pastor (Nolan) who is a member of a church hundreds of miles from his home in Indiana? Shouldn’t Jennings be under the discipline of the elders of his own church, which include in their number his own father, Don Jennings?
The revival circuit seems to be a very seedy place full of very dodgy characters. It is on this circuit that characters such as Jim Casy and Sonny Dewey come to life. Like with Casy and Dewey, their indiscretions are repeated over and over again; it’s a cycle that doesn’t seem to stop. Those who patronize Clayton Jennings, Tony Nolan, and Freedom Church should start to ask themselves if they have entertainers or pastors as spiritual leaders. Those who have experienced their powerful preaching may be hesitant to believe that men such as Jennings and Nolan are merely actors putting on a show. Such persons should be quick to remember that performance is what actors are good at. Robert Duvall (a real life Chrisitan Scientist) played Sonny Dewey well. He wrote, directed, and starred in The Apostle. Clayton Jennings, it should be remembered, actually wrote, directed, and starred in his own movie, Strayland, which he offers for sale on his website. He is literally an actor. Time will tell if the same is true for Nolan.
What is known is that men like Jennings and Nolan go to a great deal of trouble to market themselves. Revivalist speakers of their ilk have websites full of professionally designed logos and artsy pictures. Their images are groomed right down to the way they dress. Why is all this showiness necessary if the word of God is living and active and able to cut to the very heart?
Since when is the simple story of Jesus not enough? The revivalism culture is one that should be put to rest once and for all. A true Great Awakening is more likely to come through faithfully teaching and proclaiming God’s word at the local church level. Flashy celebrity preachers with flashy, entertainment-driven churches and stirring sob-stories reap a lot of money and fame, but they can hardly be expected to harvest souls.
“Well, they’ll choose a man for you to meet tonight
You’ll play the fool and learn how to walk through doors
How to enter into the gates of paradise
No, how to carry a burden too heavy to be yours
Yeah, from the stage they’ll be tryin’ to get water outa rocks
A whore will pass the hat, collect a hundred grand and say thanks
They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in
Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ all the way to the Swiss banks” Foot of Pride, Bob Dylan
[Contributed by: Seth Dunn]
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.
**If anyone can validate or refute the back stories of Jennings and Nolan please contact Pulpit & Pen or Polemics Report. Those who served in the military or on the congressional staff of Vice President-elect Mike Pence with Clayton Jennings are especially encouraged to reach out.
1 See page 11 of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
2 See page 297 of The Enduring Vision, A History of the American People by Boyer, Clark, and Halttunen
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