Chester Martin Remembers Brother Roy Austin

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Evangelist Brother Roy was genuine. His time was long before there was such a thing as a "televangelist". He believed the Bible, and he could find any passage in seconds, while quoting it as he was finding it at lightning speed.

He had a largish Bible ­ not ostentatiously large, but certainly large enough that he could read it without squinting his eyes. That Bible was deeply indented and darkened by natural skin oil along the edge where he had leafed through it thousands of times. "Why it says right here in the Book of ________ that_____", and his mouth ran well ahead of the scripture he sought.

He knew the Bible backward and forward, and he slid easily from New Testament scriptures to Old Testament. The Bible was ONE book, and he preached it.

It was once again thanks to my friend, Ted Hoge, that I "discovered" such an illustrious person. I would be visiting at the Hoge Farm in the Sequatchie Valley, and Mrs. Hoge would drive Ted, Ann, and me over to Powell's Crossroads each evening to hear this well­-known evangelist. His medium­sized tent would already be set up, and replete with a podium, "sawdust trail", piano, etc. The emotion was gripping, and there would first be several minutes of hymn ­singing by the congregation, as there was no choir. Hymn singing, I suppose, warms up a congregation for the evangelist's message, which came later.

As I recall, Brother Roy's method was much as that of other preachers, then and now. He started in a low, almost conversational tone and gradually worked to a crescendo. The tent was always packed with people, who braved the hot summer nights to attend Brother Roy's preachings. There was no electric fan, and certainly no air conditioning. The good country people of Sequatchie Valley never expected any such. Brother Austin would eventually get into his stride and evoke all his expression and emotion so as to rivet the attention of his audience. He had some favorite expressions he used again and again; one I remember well being "they are Professors, and not Possessors" (of the spirit of the Gospel).

He would sprinkle his fiery sermons with references, now and then, to his own evil past, and could "show you the very window of a certain building on Market Street (in Chattanooga) where he had done illegal gambling, and perhaps other un­named sins and crimes. His Bible told him (and he would read to us in the congregation) where it said that such evil people would be "dammoned" without repentance. When he read the word "damned" ­ and he did this frequently ­ he always pronounced it so the "N" would be heard. Scared the socks off people like me, and doubtless many others. He poured out his soul, with never a smile, and sweat pouring down his face. His hands would be too busy searching through his Bible to allow for arm­ waving or pulpit pounding.He commanded everyone's attention, and when, at the end of the preaching he called for sinners to come forward, they walked the sawdust trail, sometimes alone, and sometimes accompanied by a loved one. The pianist would be playing well-­known old hymns suitable for this decisive hour in the sinner's life... One of them was I can hear my Saviour calling, I can hear my Saviour calling, I can hear my Saviour calling, He'll go with you all the way. There were many other ones, too, and they all had the same effect.

During the heat of his preaching,Brother Roy frequently was dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief to remove the sweat. When he finished he would put on an overcoat to protect his drenched body from the comparative cold of the atmospheric temperature ­ especially when he got outside the tent. Then, without fanfare or undue mingling with the congregation he would get in his car and drive home (across Suck Creek Mountain) to Chattanooga. (I believe he told me once that he was afraid of catching pneumonia). But I never knew another preacher in my life who used an overcoat in summer! As the newly ­won converts were being received and counseled by Brother Austin at his little chancel Ted and I would slip away to find Mrs. Hoge (and perhaps Ann, his sister) for the five-mile trip back to their home.

As a man, Brother Roy could easily have been a farmer or bus­ driver, or electrician. He looked like an average man in every way, and would never have stood out in a crowd. No "big hair" or $500.00 suits. Always neatly dressed but totally unembellished. Having grown up in a strongly religious family I was interested in him and curious about him. I can't remember how we (my family and me) found out, but his mother was at the time the oldest member of Brainerd Methodist Church, where my parents and I attended. In fact, Mrs. Austin lived on Belvoir Avenue about 2 1/2 blocks from our house, and we had been taking her to and from church every Sunday for quite a while. We learned that Brother Austin had some affiliation with the former "Highland Park Baptist Church", (parent of the present Tennessee Temple University) where the Rev. Mr. Lee Roberson was pastor. Lee Roberson was a young, dynamic Baptist evangelist at the time, somewhat akin to a local Billy Graham, and known for his good works, including raising large funds for some local churches, both black and white. To be associated with Lee Roberson was a good thing, and Brother Roy Austin had close ties there.

My esteem for him increased, and, when he got to knowing my family's connections with "Ma Austin" (as his mom was universally known), he would invite me to join him and his family to attend other services he or his colleagues conducted, and I enjoyed this. It was a regular thing for a time, but eventually I suppose my interest waned, and Brother Roy fell seriously ill with cancer. He was hospitalized and operated on. (this was before the days of chemo­therapy), and then, luckily, he survived and appeared to be coming back to normal. His mom told us that he had said that he had come through the "valley of the shadow of death", and he was giving thanks for the deliverance.

Sadly, he had a relapse and died, leaving a wife and daughter. This happened around 1950.There is really not much to this story. Only the fervency of Brother Roy's preaching, and his "genuine" quality which has been declining for decades now among the clergy. The tent ­toters of today (they are still around) are all a bunch of charlatans in my opinion, and not worthy of any of the respect paid Brother Roy Austin.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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