December 18, 2000
Kim Hachiya wrote:
Several times recently, folks in my office talk about having a come to Jesus meeting. Typically, the individual in question is going to get into some degree of trouble and be asked to shape up or ship out. What's the heritage of this colorful saying?
There are a couple of weird things about this expression, the first being that I'd never heard it. As the (ironically) Episcopalian daughter and granddaughter of pentecostal preachers, you'd think I would have, because it was a pretty sure bet that it derived from the 1920s heyday of the Holiness movement.
When Wesleyan Methodist theology came to America, thousands of people responded to the essentially anti-liturgical message; the idea of a God made personal rather than remote appealed to many. Numerous charismatic preachers traveled the country, "saving" people as they went--one of the most famous was Aimee Semple McPherson. (The familiar Billy Graham crusades are an outgrowth of this, as well as several denominations, pentecostal or otherwise, that make up much of today's evangelical Christian community.) These evangelists exhorted people at camp meetings to "come to Jesus" in language that was charged with emotion, vividly evoking the damnation that would come if a sinner did not repent. Coming to the altar--coming to Jesus-- involved walking through the crowd to the front, thus admitting your unworthiness and need for salvation publicly. The first come-to-Jesus meetings were camp meetings where you met your Redeemer face to face--with no priest to cushion the blow of the realization that your sins were making Him go on suffering, no saints to intercede on your behalf.
The other weird thing is that I simply cannot locate when the expression stopped being a literal but informal way of referring to such meetings, and was extended to any meeting in which you hear the truth about yourself that you may not want to face. There's nothing, but nothing in our files; the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has come-to-Jesus coat (a long coat that looks like a minister's; 1930) and come-to-Jesus collar (the stiff removable collar that used to be on men's shirts, and looks like a preacher's collar; 1919). These show how familiar come-to-Jesus had to be as an adjective, but I can't find anything about a come-to-Jesus meeting much before 1998, and then the citations explode in the year 2000. There are come-to-Jesus meetings about following corporate policy; making decisions about stock if it goes too low; programmers not writing clean code.
So, if anyone is so inclined, I'd welcome any more information on this expression. Did some late-night comedian resurrect it? A politician use it? Meantime, here are some recent citations, to prove that Kim and I are not imagining this. There seem to be two meanings: 'a meeting in which one faces an unpleasant truth'; and one using "moment" rather than "meeting": 'an epiphany in which one realizes the truth of a matter'.
"The come-to-Jesus moment for me in my understanding of all this came back in 1990," says John Perry Barlow, the retired Wyoming cattle rancher and digital guru who is co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Washington Post, November 2000)
The come-to-Jesus meeting took place on May 25 at a skybox at Nashville's football stadium, where Gore had gone for a publicity event. He told Coelho that he needed to "work on your relationships." (Newsweek, November 2000)
He'll be meeting with his advisers there, but already they have said this is not a "come to Jesus" meeting, Tony. No plan for any woodshed scoldings. (Carl Cameron, reporting on G.W. Bush's primary loss in New Hampshire, February 2000 on Fox news)
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