Religion ghost? RIP Andy Griffith

More than a decade ago, while serving as religion editor for The Oklahoman, I visited Andy Griffith's television hometown and wrote a column about it:

MAYBERRY, U.S.A. — I'd traveled here before, but never on business.

In the past, when Sheriff Andy Taylor lured me to his hometown, I'd chuckle at Barney Fife's nervous trigger finger and savor Aunt Bee's apple pie — but definitely not her pickles.

I'd stop by Floyd's for a haircut, let Gomer fix my transmission, go fishing with Opie and trade smooches with Thelma Lou. Occasionally — and I'm ashamed to admit this — I'd see town drunk Otis in jail and cackle at his pitiful existence.

This time, though, I came to this fictional North Carolina town as your representative — to report on Oklahoma churches that have ventured here.

At the Broken Arrow Assembly on Sunday mornings, for example, congregants with deputy badges sip coffee at the Mayberry Cafe and browse announcements in the Mayberry Gazette. Sometimes, real-live Darling boys, barefoot with overalls on, show up and make music with jugs and washboards.

"If it's hokey and campy, we do it," associate pastor Thomas Harrison said.

Think of it as the "Gospel According to Andy." The nationwide Mayberry movement started three years ago with a summer quarter class at the Twickenham Church of Christ in Huntsville, Ala.

As my 2001 column noted, the churches enlisted the homespun lessons of "The Andy Griffith Show" — attributes such as honesty, integrity, character, forgiveness and responsibility — as modern-day parables.

The real-life Andy's death Tuesday at age 86 made me curious about Griffith's own faith background — and whether obituaries would make note of it.

ABC News noted that Griffith was laid to rest quickly, buried by family less than five hours after he died. The story cited family wishes as the reason for the quick burial. That story made no mention of religion. Likewise, the Los Angeles Times' obituary failed to include terms such as "religion," "church" and "faith."

The Associated Press provided this nugget:

Griffith was born June 1, 1926, and as a child sang and played slide trombone in the band at Grace Moravian Church. He studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and for a time contemplated a career in the ministry. But he eventually got a job teaching high school music in Goldsboro.

The New York Times shared this insight from Griffith's early career:

In spare moments Mr. Griffith and his wife put together an act in which he posed as a country preacher and told jokes (one was about putting frogs in the baptismal water) while she danced. They played local civic clubs.

In 1953, performing for an insurance convention, Mr. Griffith, in his bumpkin preacher persona, told a comic first-person tale about attending a college football game and trying to figure out what was going on. Some 500 discs of the monologue were pressed under the title “What It Was, Was Football,” and it became a hit on local radio. Mr. Linke, then with Capitol Records, scurried to North Carolina to acquire the rights and sign Mr. Griffith.

So, based on the major obits that I read, it was impossible to know whether religion or faith played any role in Griffith's life. But a story from Christian Broadcasting Network included this enlightening information quoting the actor's third wife:

"Andy was a person of incredibly strong Christian faith and was prepared for the day he would be called Home to his Lord," Mrs. Griffith said in a statement.

"He is the love of my life, my constant companion, my partner, and my best friend. I cannot imagine life without Andy, but I take comfort and strength in God's grace and in the knowledge that Andy is at peace and with God," she added.

A North Carolina native, Andy Griffith grew up in church and first aspired to be an opera singer.

He served as choir director at First Baptist Church of Goldsboro and pursued pre-ministerial studies at UNC Chapel Hill, but later changed his major and decided to go into acting.

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