Memories of a mountain preacher

Harold McKinnish was one of the great mountain preachers of his generation, a legacy stretching back to the Separate Baptist preacher Shubal Stearns who came to North Carolina in 1755.

By Bill Leonard

When he preached his last sermon on July 7, 2013, 80-year-old Rev. Harold McKinnish urged the congregation to “get saved,” or reclaim their Christian faith, then “pass it on.”

Steadying himself on the pulpit of the Holly Springs Baptist Church in Rutherfordton, N.C., and knowing that he’d soon “go on to Glory,” McKinnish reminisced about a lineage of departed mountain preachers who, in churches and revival meetings across six decades of Appalachian ministry, had brought him to that very moment.

He recalled men and women who carried him from his conversion in 1944 to his call to preach in 1949, with special appreciation for his great mentor Joe Parsons, described by daughter Linda McKinnish Bridges as the man who nurtured her dad “out of legalism into grace.”

And once grace found him, he just kept passing it on. “Brother Harold” died on Aug. 21 having served nine churches in the Carolinas, preached over 17,000 sermons and conducted 2,200 funerals. He recorded every sermon text and title, with comments on whether the congregation was “warm,” “cold” or “on fire for God.”

At 16 he was called as pastor of Liberty Baptist near Bat Cave. The Tuxedo Baptist Church elected him as their pastor three different times. One friend labeled him “the most-loved man in Henderson County,” a claim confirmed by the 1,200 folks who waited in line for hours to mourn with the McKinnish family the evening before his funeral.

Appalachian folklorist Loyal Jones’ description of Stearns fits Brother Harold like a glove:

“Shubal Stearns was a major purveyor of a populist religion aimed at the religion-starved frontier people. It was a religion available to all, the learned or the illiterate, the well-to-do or the lean poor, man or woman, and children, too, at an earlier age than the old Calvinists would have thought proper. The gospel was preached with a desperate zeal to get the attention of sinners before they stumbled into an everlasting hell. That zeal also touched the equally desperate longings of some of the old Calvinists ... causing them to follow the bright eyed-preacher into a faith that was more optimistic than that offered by their predestinarian churches. Spiritually needy people in the mountains and elsewhere have continued to follow Stearns’s successors down through the years, not only in Separate, Freewill, Southern, and largely unaffiliated Missionary Baptist churches but also in the many other churches that have adopted Stearns’s New Light doctrine and his energetic and zealous way of proclaiming it.”

In his own “desperate zeal’ to get sinners’ attention, McKinnish could sing the gospel as well as preach it, writing songs and playing the mandolin in church and mountain bluegrass jam sessions. “I was cut out to be a musician,” he confessed, “but sewed up to be a preacher.”

An unashamed conservative, Brother Harold’s theology was probably a little to the right of Jesus and at least half of the apostles. Sooner or later every conversation turned to theology, at least with me. Like the time he said I was too soft on serpent-handlers and too hard on fundamentalists.

For several years we did tag-team theologizing with students in the Appalachian religion course Wake Forest offers in the mountains each January. In our final conversation, he was weak as a kitten but he re-preached his last sermon to me on the phone and made me cry.

The Spirit pushed Harold’s theology, too. One Sunday, when 12-year-old daughter Linda blurted out: “Daddy, why can’t women preach?” he responded: “Because God didn’t ordain it.” Yet when he kept preaching, “Do whatever God calls you to do,” Linda finally took him at his word.

She went to Southern Baptist Seminary, then to Taiwan as a missionary, returning to the seminary for a New Testament Ph.D. Brother Harold ultimately celebrated her call to preach and pastor. At her Ph.D. graduation he wept uncontrollably.

Invited to teach Greek at the seminary amid the infamous Southern Baptist “controversy,” McKinnish Bridges was eventually told her contract would not be renewed due to conservative opposition to women in such a role.

When Brother Harold brought his truck to help her empty her office, he compelled her to kneel with him in front of Norton Hall, the school’s administration building, and shake the dust of the place off their feet. By chance I happened on them at that moment and thought: “My Lord, Harold’s put a curse on Southern!”

He didn’t. Rather Linda calls it a “sacrament of failure,” that took her beyond anger and bitterness. Her dad’s enacted biblicism had set her free. Her call to preach had freed him too, a long way from that Sunday when she was 12.

Morgan Edwards, the 18th century Baptist historian, called Shubal Stearns “indisputably good, both as a man, a Christian and a preacher.” Robert Ballard of Zirconia said of Harold McKinnish: “He was everybody’s pastor, even if you didn’t go to his church.”

Two mountain preachers, in two different centuries, “energetic and zealous” about grace to the bitter end. Hallelujah!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.