No one had thicker skin than George Smock, Jr. (1943-2src22). Smock, a preacher who went by the name Brother Jed, was imperturbable. No one shrugged off heckling, slurs, mockery, and jeering the way he did. In fact, he welcomed it as a necessary part of his preaching process, which he called the Five Stages of the Crowd. Heckling, or what he termed the Battle, was stage four. It was preceded by the Hook (stage one); Cementing the Crowd (stage two); and Incorporating the Crowd (stage three). If all went well, which it did often enough, thanks to Brother Jed’s persistence, it was followed by stage five, the Golden Crowd: when you’re left with a group of people who initially resist your teachings, but ultimately come to see things your way. Brother Jed, a practitioner of what is known as confrontational evangelism, was probably the most well-travelled campus minister in America. In the past fifty years, he preached at colleges in all fifty states, deploying a style that is probably best summed up by one of the placards that he liked to hold while he addressed students, which read “YOU DESERVE HELL.”
“Brother Jed had a very dramatic testimony,” his wife, Sister Cindy, told me recently. He grew up in an academic household; his father was the head of the English department at Indiana State University. Smock seemed to be heading in the same direction, and his first serious job was teaching junior high in the San Francisco area. At that time, he was still quite a heathen. He had no particular religious interest, and in college he had been famous in his fraternity for having a lusty taste for beer. Then, at a concert in Haight-Ashbury, he smoked pot and became an instant fan. According to Sister Cindy, he soon left teaching and devoted himself to being a hippie. In the early nineteen-seventies, he moved to a commune in Morocco, where he smoked more pot and poked around in Eastern religions. He was on his way to India to study with a guru when he decided to take a look at the Bible. Engrossed, he postponed the India trip. The next summer, on a visit with his family in Indiana, he ran into an old friend, who took him to a Burger King and shared the Gospel with him. “There, in the Burger King, Brother Jed made the decision to follow Jesus,” Sister Cindy said. “He got baptized that night and immediately began witnessing there at Indiana State.”
Smock could have settled down with a congregation, but he had missionary zeal and thought he could preach to more nonbelievers—potential converts—on college campuses than he would if he just headed a church. And so he set his course as an itinerant preacher. Most colleges have a free-speech area, where he could set up shop without invitation; otherwise, he would find an open sidewalk on the edge of campus and give his testimony there. His usual schedule was Monday through Friday, noon to five, standing his ground and declaiming without a break. His usual attire was a three-piece wool suit, a bow tie, and, often, a nice hat (Stetson, bolo, or bowler, depending on his mood). His preaching coup de grâce was a section of his testimony he called Sex Ed with Brother Jed, which included calling out sexually active college women. He liked to say, “I don’t know how the whorehouses in this town stay open—all of you sorority girls are giving it away for free!” His usual style was dukes-up confrontational. For instance, he first met Sister Cindy when he was preaching at the University of Florida, where she was a student and, at the time, agnostic. Like most of the crowd, she was mocking him as he harangued the students for their debauchery and sinfulness. “He pointed at me in the crowd and yelled, ‘Repent of your sins, you wicked woman!’ ” she said. They married in 1983. Sister Cindy by then had abandoned her agnosticism, and, in time, she began testifying in public, too. (The family came to include five daughters, who were homeschooled so that they could travel the circuit with their parents.)
Whether it was hate-listening or curiosity or the fact that Brother Jed loved to deliver a zinger as much as a comedy-club regular, college students ended up flocking to hear him. He sometimes had audiences that numbered more than a thousand. Some came to protest, saying that he spread hateful messages of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Some came for the spectacle of screaming matches between a patrician-looking man in a three-piece suit, carrying a staff topped by a crucifix, and tattooed, T-shirted, possibly hungover students. Brother Jed rumbled “Rock and roll is wicked, depraved, and diabolical!” to a crowd clad, one might imagine, in Foo Fighters T-shirts, and “A masturbator today is a homosexual tomorrow!” to kids in rainbow Pride gear; students chanted, “Leave our campus! Leave our campus!” (“It didn’t hurt his feelings,” Sister Cindy said. “He did not consider it a personal battle. He knew it was a spiritual battle.”) According to Sister Cindy, he generally won over enough of his crowd to sustain him.
There was something very old-timey about Brother Jed and his sidewalk ministry, but he managed to stay current. His Web site includes a link to merch (shirts and beanies with “HO NO MO” logos; “I Was Slut-Shamed by Sister Cindy” coffee cups), and he and Sister Cindy were huge on TikTok. For nineteen dollars, you could get a personalized Brother Jed video on cameo.com. In 2src14, a pilot for a reality series about Jed and Cindy and their five daughters, made by the documentarian Roger Nygard, was posted on YouTube. But Brother Jed never incorporated any contemporary attitudes in his preaching; it remained full of ancient sin and shame and rebuke. Perhaps he would have shrugged it off as part of the Battle, but much of the posting on Twitter after he died was as hostile as his campus crowds had been. “rip brother jed,” one person wrote. “the devil finally got him.” ♦