I've been in email correspondence several weeks with Tom Pruitt's great great nephew, Jason Hawkins in Maryland, son of Tom's great niece Debbie, daughter of Tom's nephew, Preacher Tom in Maryland, son of Tom's brother Archie, also a preacher, Regular Babpits, the foot-washing kind. Two of Tom's brothers were Regular Baptist preachers, Archie and Millard. Millard lived in Glade Valley in sight of his church, Laurel Glenn.
Jason wants to know all about Tom, of which I can supply only a little. Tom taught me an awful lot, perhaps mainly that a simple man, essentially a cowherd, someone who keeps cows, and a farmer, one who doesn't do very well on the checklist of what we expect of people in our society/civilization, is every bit as valid a human being as any celebrity or philosopher. He could barely read. He read only the red-letter text in his New Testament. He skipped the words he didn't know. It didn't matter. When it comes to somebody understanding what the NT is about, he'd fail a test, for certain, but Tom lived it like few people I've ever met. He might not have known all the words, but he understood the meanin.
In Tom's mind, his spiritual life was his life, period. I've seen Tom so aglow in the spirit, talking about his savior until his face glowed pink and his talking turned into a rhythm, into something on the order of a chant, like a preacher at the pulpit, getting what they call "het up," mountain for heated up. At the point in his progression where a preacher would lose control and the Holy Spirit come in and take over, Tom would stop and explain he'd not been called to preach. I had the impression he was open to it.
Tom took me to his brother Millard's church one Saturday night in late 1977 after I'd been here a year. I'd wanted to know more about Tom's preacher brother, Millard. Tom didn't go to church, but he wanted to go this particular night because a West Virginia preacher, Walter Green, was to preach. As it turned out, Walter didn't show up, and for a reason I never got, 4 or 5 Union Baptist preachers were there. I knew nothing about that then. It was just a bunch of preachers sitting along the wall in old wooden kitchen chairs. Millard was to get into hot water with other Regular Baptist preachers over having Union Baptists at his pulpit that night. He had his reasons.
Tom had told me when a preacher gets in the spirit, when the Holy Spirit enters him and takes over, you feel a tingle run up the spine from bottom to top. He said to look around and you'll see everybody else is feeling it too. Each of the Union Baptist preachers got up and each one hopped around, performed antics pretending to be losing control, possessed by the spirit, but I wasn't convinced. I never felt the tingle run up my spine, and felt like it was because none of them got into the spirit, not because Tom misled me. All the time these preachers were trying to get into the spirit, I looked around at the full house and a lot of the people were talking with each other, distracted by this, that and the other.
Millard, a tiny man of barely 100lbs with a presence that made him seem much larger, stepped up to the pulpit to say a few words and dismiss everybody. As soon as he started to speak, the spirit hit him, the tingle charged up my spine. I looked around and saw everyone was feeling what I was feeling, all eyes focused on Millard who was floating about behind the pulpit like he was a foot or so above the floor. Tears ran all over the house. I realized I was in the presence of something real. It was what Tom had told me about several times that I didn't understand, because I had no experience to go by. I did understand for a certainty that this kind of preaching, looked at with suspicion outside these mountains, is real. That it's incomprehensible is simply the nature of the spirit of God. The harder you try to figure it out, the farther it goes away from you. It can only be lived.
I noticed that Tom lip-synced the preaching. Every preacher that stood up to talk, Tom's lip movements followed what the preacher was saying, simultaneously. I later learned Tom was known for that. When I looked at him during the time I was feeling the charge up my back, his face was pink and lit up like a lamp, eyes full of joy. When the preaching and handshaking were over, people stood around and talked quite awhile.
I noticed Millard seemed to still be in the spirit. His movements had a flowing grace about them in a jaunty, petulant teenage Latin boy manner, and at the same time very much like his feet were floating a few inches above the floor. Mick Jagger's fluid grace came to mind, finding it interesting a country preacher in the mountains could bring Jagger to mind for his fluid movement. I gave myself a chuckle within thinking, "the low spark of high-heeled boys." this being the later years of glam rock and the first years of punk. I think I saw there that grace is grace, doesn't matter who, where or when.
The drive home with Tom, he was in the spirit all the way. I was in my thoughts about what I'd witnessed. Expecting a Holiness atmosphere, I was surprised to see that good sense went first. This wasn't about waving arms in the air. It was listening to a man speak about what's real in an unreal world. We were both in our own thoughts and rode back hardly talking. Tom carried away in the spirit and me carried away astounded by what I'd just seen. The singing was unlike any church singing I'd ever heard. Everybody just singing it out, no clang-bang piano. It's the voices the singing is about, the feeling.
I painted the picture above several years ago. It had a pwoerful feeling for me when it was finished. Every time I looked at it, it seemed like Tom was there. I've come to believe he is, in a way I don't understand, so I treat the picture itself with regard, like a Greek Orthodox monk would regard an icon of a saint. This icon is just a man.