“We didn’t have a whole lot of things, but we had a whole lot of God.”
Those words still ring in the memory of Maryville man Macel Ely II. It was a favorite quote, used often by his great-uncle Brother Claude Ely when describing the faith that sustained him as a young man growing up in the Appalachian Mountains.
Brother Claude is legendary in Pentecostal circles as a traveling preacher, singer and songwriter. For nearly thirty years, Brother Claude ministered in the Appalachian heartland of eastern Kentucky, east Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Eventually he pastored Charity Tabernacle Pentecostal church in suburban Cincinnati.
Brother Claude’s music is said to have been a primary influence on early rock and roll. Elvis Presley was raised in the Pentecostal church and even adapted and recorded some of Brother Claude’s songs for his own albums. Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and many other early Rock and Roll acts also heard and were influenced by Brother Claude’s music.
But the root of Brother Claude’s music was his ministry — a ministry that was birthed in the mountains of Appalachia and raised up in a Pentecostal faith that withstood the harsh realities of life in the mountains.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of things, but we had a whole lot of God.”
“These mountain people really did have tough lives,” Ely says. “But what they had was more important than anything else they could have achieved or ascertained in life, and that was God. … Their faith was very well thought out and the decisions that they made in pursuing their faith weren’t taken lightly. … Yet they still believed so strongly in their faith that it sustained them and it became a testimony to other people that were not of faith that converted.”
Over the course of nine years and thousands of personal interviews, Macel Ely came to know the lives and stories of these mountain people. He found that the story of the mountains and the mountain people was one of faith — faith that wasn’t just strong enough to move mountains, but strong enough to live there.
“There’s a stereotype now that religion is superficial, and it’s very plush,” Ely says. “We’re kind of missing the element that I think these mountain people had. And it’s just the raw reality of their faith. There was nothing superficial about it. They didn’t play that once you became a Christian that life was going to be easy. But they explained that, with Christ, you could finish your race here on this earth and that we aren’t living for this life, we’re living life on this earth for eternity.”
This mountain faith is a personal heritage for Ely. He’s an ordained Pentecostal minister, in a family of Pentecostal preachers. At a recent family reunion, his family tallied up something like 50 active ministers in the family today.
“I’m a fifth generation Pentecostal,” Ely says. “I like to say, ‘Not by name, but by experience.’ The Pentecostal faith that I’m referring to, it doesn’t necessarily belong to a particular denomination; it’s just spiritual experience. … I would classify myself as a Pentecostal minister but not of any particular denomination.”
As a member of Brother Claude Ely’s family, he was familiar with tales of his great-uncle’s Pentecostal ministry. He was so used to the stories that he’d come to imagine most of them as family folklore — tales of a bygone era with little impact on the concerns of today.
All at changed in 2001, in a shop in London, England. Ely heard his great-uncle’s music being played over the store’s sound system. When the shopkeeper learned Ely was a relative of Brother Claude, he peppered him with questions. As it turned out, Brother Claude’s music was a big seller, and music fans of all ages and creeds were scrambling to buy recordings of this Pentecostal music.
Seeing firsthand the interest of people in his great-uncle’s music, Ely sat out to uncover the story of Brother Claude. The result is “Ain’t No Grave: the Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely.” The book and CD set was released in 2010 under the Atlanta-based imprint Dust-to-Digital.
Ely writes, “I decided that day in London, England, to investigate the real legacy this mountain preacher that I simply grown up knowing as “Uncle Claude” and to try to discover why so many people are still drawn to his music and singing more than 50 years later.”
What he discovered, as he researched Brother Claude’s life, was that he was uncovering not only his great-uncle’s story, but the story of the mountain people and a mountain religion. He was unearthing a heritage.
Ely had set out to chronicle his great-uncle’s life. And while Brother Claude Ely is certainly the central figure of the book, what Ely found as we researched and wrote was that the story had evolved. “In interviewing all these individuals,” Ely says, “they were telling me their life struggle, not just my uncle’s. They were telling me the path that their life took, and how God sustained them.”
Ely recorded each of his interviews. And the importance of the oral history he was able to capture can’t be overstated.
“There have been over 300 individuals who’ve passed away since I’ve interviewed them,” Ely says. Relatives of those who passed are now calling him to ask for the recordings because they’ve not gotten these oral histories. What Ely is able to offer them in these recordings is priceless. But, he says, what he garnered from the interviews is a great treasure as well. “These people took the time to sit down with me as a young man and tell the stories of how their faith sustained them when they had nothing else,” he says.
“I think he would even be embarrassed today to think that people were talking about him going up on a mountain to pray for somebody.”
The stories themselves are breathtaking. One story many people tell is Brother Claude Ely going up to Big Black Mountain to fast and pray. Big Black Mountain is the highest point in Kentucky, at an elevation of 4,145 feet. Brother Claude would often have a parishioner drop him off and would tell them to come back for him “when the Lord tells you.”
In one particular instance, a woman in Brother Claude’s church was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Brother Claude went up the mountain to fast and pray. He didn’t want anyone to interrupt his time with God, so he asked the man who dropped him off not to tell anyone where he was.
Ely records accounts of Brother Claude’s return in his book: “Everyone was crying, and so was he. But I remember him saying, ‘Children, it’s okay. I did what the Lord wanted me to do. I’m alright.’”
Two weeks later the woman returned to the doctor and discovered there was no tumor.
It’s the kind of story that gives goosebumps. But it was all part of a life of faith for Brother Claude Ely.
“[He] had no intention of it being a big todo,” Ely says. “I think he would even be embarrassed today to think that people were talking about him going up on a mountain to pray for somebody. He always went up on the mountain and wanted to be alone when he prayed and fasted. He didn’t want any credit or glory for that, because he knew if the individual was going to be healed it wasn’t going to be in his own flesh. It would have to be the spirit of God. He knew it would have to be something supernatural and not something he could do in the natural.”
As Ely worked on his book, he became acutely aware of the influence of faith on his own heritage. He also felt himself being challenged, as a man of faith, to a deeper understanding of what his faith meant to him.
“I think that was a big challenge to me in this research,” he says. “Not only that the book was going to be about these [mountain] people. I realized that in a few years, these elderly people — they’re all going to be gone from these mountains. And who does that leave? And I came to the conclusion that it’s my generation. We’ll be the next old people. Will our faith sustain the generations that come up behind us? Will people still be telling stories about how God used us to perform great and mighty things? And I hope the answer is yes. My heart’s desire is when I do take my last breath people will say that.”
In writing about his great-uncle, Macel Ely II has told the story of a community bound together by faith. That faith continues to inspire much as it did sixty years ago. Brother Claude Ely’s music reaches a new generation as his popularity grows. And his witness continues to inspire. Actor Stephen Baldwin took time during a recent CNN interview to point out Ely’s book as something that is inspiring him in his own faith.
Ely’s book and CD are also receiving recognition as an historical document. The work has been selected as a finalist for the 2011 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards for Excellence in Historical Research in Recorded Sound. ARSC specializes in preserving music and music history, and the award recognizes outstanding published research in recorded sound.
For Ely, though, that recognition is secondary to what he’s learned about his own inheritance of faith, and the responsibility he feels for keeping that heritage of faith alive in his own daily life.
“I have to make a daily decision to remember that and keep that as a central focus. And I believe Brother Claude Ely did that too. He was very focussed on realizing that his time was short here on earth. And he wanted to maximize his time here on earth, living a life that would be pleasing to the Lord.”