I grew up in an fundamentalist Baptist church in the 1980s and 90s, that espoused—among other wacky things—that drums were evil. Yes, straight up devil-worshipping, possessed by demons evil. As goofy as that sounds, it was genuinely believed and strictly enforced—though maybe not widely known. I’m also convinced, decades later, that it was blatantly racist.
It was stupid too, but I’ll get to that.
First the Disclaimers
Before I get into ridiculing the beliefs of former friends from a past life, I should offer a few disclaimers.
First and foremost, growing up in this church was perhaps the most formative experience of my life. While I think I came away with some damaged theology on a number of fronts, I also had deep and caring friendships with wonderful people. Many of them taught me important lessons about grace and love that stick with me today. The fact that I also picked up a few backward, goofball ideas shouldn’t be enough to condemn them (I’ve come to recognize many of those ideas as backward thanks to the people who didn’t condemn me). If anything, it’s just proof of how complicated people are.
So while it’s tempting to write about these past experiences just to point and laugh, that’s not at all my intention.
I also think it’s worth pointing out that this ‘drums are evil’ belief was pretty limited to a few key leaders in the church. It was definitely not a doctrine with widespread acceptance, evidenced by the fact that even a few years after I went to college and left the church, the youth group had a drum kit.
But that’s also perhaps just as concerning, because for a few years that belief was strongly held and deeply enforced. Why did that continue if most of the congregation didn’t care? If this were a harmless belief, sure, let it continue. But I think the belief is deeply racist to the core, not some harmless oddity we can shrug off.
I should also offer the standard memoir disclaimer that I’m sharing this to the best of my recollection. It’s entirely possible I’m butchering the details.
Evil Bongos Explained
I’m not going to offer a great justification for this idea, mainly because it’s stupid. I’m going to share the rationalization I remember from the time, which I’m sure is incomplete and flawed. If you want to see how people justified this stuff, we have Google.
The basic idea is that drums came from Africa (spoiler alert: racist!) and were used to summon evil spirits. Therefore any other use of drums draws on those origins and is compromised.
The power of emotional manipulation through music is OK for plinky-plinky piano during an altar call, but not OK for driving drums during a song’s crescendo.
This logic ignored actual history of both the origin and use of drums, as well as the fact that history is complicated and tools can have multiple uses. This kind of ‘one bad thing taints the entire batch’ thinking is pretty common in fundamentalist circles.
This belief took an especially twisted turn to make daily life in a world with drums a little easier. The devil-worshipping drums were only bad when used in the context of worship and among Christians. The tortured logic decided that worldly heathens didn’t know about devil-worshipping drums, so they could use them all they wanted. Thus drums in mainstream radio or TV were just fine.
This is perhaps why school band was OK. While youth group band kids may have been proud of their silent protest against Jesus Christ Superstar, no one quit the band because of drums (or rather, parents never insisted they quit—none of the kids actually believed this crap).
This also led to the conclusion that drums in secular music were fine (silly heathens, they don’t know any better), but Christians shouldn’t use drums. Thus the rejection of Christian rock music.
Another tine of this twisted logic fork held that while drums may not be a problem for you and me, they could cause our Christian brothers and sisters more accustomed to devil worship to backslide. Paul’s admonition not to let your brother stumble (Romans 14:21) had seemingly infinite applications. Sidebar: One of those applications my church espoused: the mere act of going into a bar could cause your alcoholic brother to stumble or ruin your witness to anyone who saw you enter said bar. Note that we’re not even talking about drinking alcohol, just entering a bar. The summer after my sophomore year in college I remember accompanying my non-Christian roommate to the bar at TGI Fridays with this questionable biblical interpretation echoing in my head while I ate my pizzadilla and cherry Coke.
The Christian siblings we were so concerned about seemed to be former [white] missionaries to Africa who witnessed the principalities and powers summoned with the disturbing rhythm of drums. Or possibly reformed rock ‘n rollers who could be tempted with a beat you can dance to, which of course leads to sex (the root of all fundamentalist problems).
It’s not just that white people don’t have rhythm, it’s that we think rhythm itself is evil.
What did all of this this actually mean? Church services couldn’t have drums. Songs played in church, whether for offertory performances or even in a puppet show, couldn’t have drums.
Thus we come to Mr. Quimper’s performance of “He’s Alive” by Don Francisco.
The Lip Sync Puppet
I had been serving in my church’s puppet ministry (yes, that was a thing) for a few years, around middle school and early high school. We had done the usual puppet shows with Mr. Quimper and his soda fountain, a low budget Sesame Street offering lessons about Jesus. To this day I remember one of the ‘Quimper’s Corner’ skits included a pitch for a new product at Mr. Quimper’s soda fountain, the “super duper frosty freezy sarsaparilla rainbow sherbet phosphate.” No idea what kind of drug-addled concoction that puppet was peddling, but I loved saying it. (FYI: It’s deeply disturbing, and a little on the nose, to learn that Mister Quimper is a serial killer in DC Comics who runs a strip club and finds power in repressed memories. Yikes.)
But now we were ready for a new creative challenge.
You manipulated the hands of most puppets using black sticks attached to the puppets’ wrists (known as rod puppets). It allowed a single puppeteer to work the puppet, one hand moving the mouth and the other hand moving both arms with a complicated chopstick maneuver. But some puppets, like Mr. Quimper, were human hand puppets and required two people. One person worked the mouth like a normal puppet, but the hands were the actual arms of a second person. You’ve seen this with popular Muppets characters Rolf and Cookie Monster. It allows the puppet to do more complicated movements, like eating lots of cookies or playing the piano.
The director of the puppet ministry decided we should employ this complex puppetry to make a puppet play guitar and sing a song. We would do a dramatic musical performance of the 1977 Don Francisco song “He’s Alive” for special music in a church service leading up to Easter. The song tells the story, in almost-narrator-like fashion, of Peter’s experience of the resurrection of Christ, from guilt and doubt to soaring hope and transcendence.
The song involved a complicated setup where one performer sat down, using their actual body and hands to hold and pretend to play the guitar while another person performed the puppet’s head. To make the magic happen, a curtain hid the head and upper body of the seated person, replaced with their head and body with the puppet who poked through the current. It’s hard to get a good mental picture, but it basically meant the person performing the puppet head (me) had to practically crouch in the other performer’s lap.
If this doesn’t sound completely ridiculous, we also performed this in the baptistry, sitting on a custom platform created specifically for this performance (and used many times since, I’m sure).
We spent weeks figuring out the mechanics and rehearsing the song. More than the two performers, we had people doing extra duty holding up the arms of the performers (there’s a sermon metaphor in there somewhere) and helping with stage setup. We had to work on the choreography, making sure Mr. Quimper adjusted his grip for chord changes and I had to know the lyrics to make my lip syncing perfect.
After all that work, the whole thing almost fell apart thanks to Satan’s drums.
The song won a Dove Award in 1980, the Christian version of the Grammys firmly marking it as contemporary Christian music. As the song slowly built, the acoustic guitar was joined by strings and a crescendo of light, drum track drums—and you know where this is going.
The song had to be approved by the Worship Committee and they had concerns. We had spent weeks preparing, so we couldn’t just switch to another song. It also fit thematically with Easter (though I can’t remember if we actually performed it on Easter, or just around Easter). Everything was put on hold while we awaited a decision, the young teens grumbling about the issue and very nearly debating the logic—I do remember that we couldn’t actually debate the assertion that drums were evil, that was somehow a given, but we could debate the practical details of whether those thumps and clicks were actually going to inspire good Christians to relapse into drum-driven devil worship.
Was the edification and evangelical potential of our puppet performance worth the risk?
Ultimately, a compromise was reached. We could perform the song at the Sunday evening service—which apparently had fewer former Satan worshippers in attendance—and at the key moment when the song reached its climax and the quasi-drums kicked in, the sound guy would turn the volume down.
Satan averted, simply by cranking it down to seven.
Looking back, the dumbest part of this whole thing isn’t that it was nearly derailed because of satanic drum beats, but that a bald puppet lip synching, “He’s alive and I’m forgiven,” would be a transcendent moment of evangelism leading to conversion by the dozens.
In the end, Mr. Quimper’s performance of “He’s Alive” was a genuine hit. We were asked to perform it multiple times, even taking the show on the road and putting it on at the local homeless shelter. I don’t remember any conversions attributed to puppet lip synchronization, but I also never heard about any retired missionaries who served in the heart of darkness backsliding over the song. So I guess it’s a wash.
Subtle Racism in Church
I never had high regard for this evil percussion argument. It never made much sense to me. At one point, after I had traded puppet ministry for yo-yo ministry (yeah, long story), we were struggling to find music we could use in a church service. The Christian music we usually choreographed our yo-yo performances to was out, but movie soundtracks were OK. Apparently the orchestral strains of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves—a movie that literally featured a witch using demonic powers—was OK, but Five Iron Frenzy’s “A Flowery Song”—literally the doxology set to ska—was not.
(Suddenly the logical leaps that allowed for evangelical support of Donald Trump make a lot more sense.)
But what occurs to me now about this ‘drums are evil’ argument is how rooted in racist tropes it is. That would have gone over my head in 1992—as would a lot of things—but looking back the entire argument seems to be based on a fear of Africa and a ready acceptance of any and all stereotypes about Africa. It’s centered in a glorification of the white missionary and ignores any actual knowledge or research from African people themselves. Quite a bit of colonialism in there too.
The segregated church only perpetuated the problem. I remember only a handful of Black people ever attending my church—which could be chalked up to the segregated nature of life in suburban Detroit in the 1980s and 90s (my elementary school likewise only had a handful of Black students at best). But imagine how quickly this whole line of thinking could have been put to rest if we had contact and regular relationship with Black Christians?
Instead, we perpetuated this idea that equated drums and evil and Blackness.
Never was my church outright racist. How dare anyone suggest it! We certainly weren’t Mississippi Burning racist. But there was a lot of polite company racism. Many in the congregation had a connection to Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist school that didn’t rescind their ban on interracial dating until 2000 and the spotlight of a presidential race. In a million little ways we showered the world with slights and microaggressions and a white savior complex that haunts us today. Maybe we were racist adjacent.
It’s little wonder the church is so ill-prepared to lead on issues of racial reconciliation.
I can never remember a time when our church did something that could be considered anti-racist. Not even low-hanging fruit like quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the day before MLK Day (but that might have had more to do with the intensely biblical focus of the sermons; at least as I remember it, sermons quoted the scripture and little else; no Billy Graham approach of peppering a sermon with headlines from the newspaper). While we did occasionally volunteer at the Pontiac Rescue Mission, at least our actual mission trips never went full white savior with trips to the inner city (instead we went the opposite direction—Canada and North Dakota).
Our understanding of racism was about as developed as our understanding of the drums. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we built towers of logic on top of that hollow foundation.
Just don’t tap on that foundation—aside from it collapsing, it’s also hollow and you’ll make a percussive noise not unlike drums. You might inadvertently summon a demon.