Gin martinis kept me in the church

The fall 2006 issue of Geez Magazine deals with the culture of (upper-case) Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, and that has definitely set me to thinking. After all, it is a world in which I was raised, but I feel remarkably baggage-free in terms of that heritage. Time to propose a toast to those who helped to shape and form me…

M

y older sister once offered the theory that the reason we had been able to find a place of balance and life within the Christian tradition was thatmartini.jpg our grandparents drank.

More specifically, my grandfather – who was both chair of the board and baritone soloist at a noted and influential fundamentalist church – enjoyed daily gin martinis (stirred, not shaken), while my grandmother sipped her scotch and water, all the while puffing happily on a cigarette.

It was a daily ritual in their home; at 5:00 o’clock they sat down in their sun-room for the pre-dinner drink, served from their amply stocked bar. As kids we were invited to share in the social occasion, with my grandfather serving soft drinks in high-ball glasses with cracked ice. My drinks were always garnished with a maraschino cherry, while my younger brother opted for the more sophisticated pimento-stuffed olives.

No one ever drank too much, but of course it wasn’t really about the drinking so much as it was about the event of the shared drink. It was the most civilized and genteel of introductions to alcohol, yet because it took place in the home of these people so committed to a faith tradition that had typically demonized alcohol (and tobacco and dancing… but more on that shortly), it sent a very powerful, if indirect, message to the grandchildren. After all, if the family patriarch and matriarch could so comfortably and unselfconsciously reject the fundamentalist movement’s usual prohibition against alcohol, there was clearly a good deal of flex in this business of the church.

What is more interesting is that my grandparents were not the first ones in the family to salt their fundamentalism with a bit of dissent. My great-grandfather, Sidney Smith, had an even more pronounced disregard for the social norms and moralistic expectations of the movement, yet he was a most significant figure in the introduction of classic fundamentalist theology into Canada. A noted lay preacher and co-founder of Winnipeg’s Elim Chapel, he was also involved in the establishment of both the Winnipeg Bible College (now Providence College and Seminary) and the Canadian Sunday School Mission.

Smith was a committed student of the pre-millennial dispensationalist “end times” view, and his bible was worn thin at the apocalyptic chapters of the Book of Daniel. He nurtured strong connections with many of the giants of that school of thought, and counted A.C. Gaebelein, Lewis Chafer and Harry Ironside amongst his circle of friends.

My great-grandfather cared passionately about theology and the future of the church, but cared nothing for the puritanical rigidity that so often characterized the subculture that was the prohibition-era fundamentalist church. In fact, I remember my grandfather telling a story set in a Manhattan “speak-easy” which he and his father frequented during their business trips to that city. Interestingly, the underground drinking establishment was not even the point of the story, but rather just its setting.

Needless to say, my great-grandfather managed to raise an eyebrow or two in the circles in which he preached and traveled. In a conference paper entitled “The Winnipeg Fundamentalist Network, 1910-1940,” church historian Bruce Hindmarsh observed that “Smith was not a typical or uncontroversial fundamentalist, since drinking, smoking, and dancing were reputedly familiar practices in his home.” I once asked my mother about this line from Hindmarsh’s text, and she just smiled and said, “well, they were.”

For many years the Smith family spent several months at their summer home in Minnesota, and part of the daily pattern was for my great-grandfather to mix up a batch of classic alcohol-laced long drinks to be served after lunch on the front porch. Hospitality was a key feature of life at the summer place, and among the regular visitors were various preachers, evangelists and seminary professors. No attempt was ever made to hide the alcohol, and the drinks were always offered to all who wished to partake. One of the annual guests – a noted professor from a “dry” college – would always accept his drink with a wry smile and a wink, commenting each time, “Sidney, you make the best lemonade.”

Whenever I read about a 12-step group for “recovering fundamentalists” or talk to someone who has angrily rejected the religion of their upbringing as being morally rigid or shame-inducing, I think of that professor with his lemonade. I think about my great-grandfather, who managed to find a passion for his particular theological world-view without encumbering it with the baggage of that tradition’s subculture. But most of all, I picture my grandfather mixing up a pitcher of martinis in the sun room, contentedly disregarding any hint of shame or of pressure to confirm to the often fierce social norms of fundamentalist Christian culture. To this day, the smell of gin and vermouth takes me straight back to a childhood wherein I learned something about flex in the life of faith. While I have never acquired a taste for gin martinis (inheriting from my mother a palate that finds them somewhat akin to bad cough medicine), I’ll happily raise a glass of pinot noir or a well-poured pint of dark ale and drink to his good memory.

Writer: Jamie Howison

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