Things Remembered

They say that our sense of smell is most closely connected to our memory and I’m inclined to believe it when I find myself transported on the wings of some transient olfactory flight of fancy and I remember…

Hairspray, cold cereal, and the sweet disinfectant of thrift store suit jackets: getting ready for church before the sun comes up.

Ancient carpet, Pledge furniture, ink and paper of worn hymnal pages, and just a hit of the sour scent of guilt: any one of the church buildings from which I’ve come and long since gone.

Sawdust, pine boards, and summer evening sweat: the “Tabernacle” where camp meetings where held in in a wooded lot when I was a child.

The chemical tang of Elmer’s glue, laminated cardboard of stories and songs, and Kool-Aid served without irony: VBS.

The smell of weariness and expectation, the “foreign” and “exotic” smell of salsa in a casserole in the fellowship hall, the dust and oil of much-handled artifacts from the display tables: missions conference.

What of fundamentalism does your nose recall?

87 thoughts on “Things Remembered”

    1. PS: FIRST!

      For me that is a good memory. I went to a good IFB church after I was first “saved” in the 1970’s. Our church really did love each other, and any time we got together for fellowship, it was really nice. I loved bus breakfast.

      1. I guess the smell of stale, weak coffee (possibly mixed with chicory) would be the most evocative smell, bringing back the smell of the Dining Common at BJU.

        To be frank, Fundamentalism, at least the branch I knew, always struck me as odorless and sterile. I grew up in a family influenced by Italian culture: garlic, and basil and thyme and oregano were all common smells. I recall more than once, people at church saying they could smell the cooking on me when I was trying to duplicate my dad’s recipe for tomato sauce. One old lady was very offended at me, because even after I had brushed and brushed my teeth and chewed up parsley, she could still detect garlic on my breath.

        I also trained hard in Taekwon Do, and we sweat so profusely that our cotton uniforms would drip water onto the floor. Of course I showered frequently, certainly after every workout, but it was the very idea that I sweat so much that some of the fundy ladies found offensive. That smell of men’s aftershave, some stale and some fresh, and women’s hairspray and baby powder, all mingled together, can conjure up images of the training hall to me in an instant. But they were the strong smells that brought disapproval from Fundamentalism.

        When I worked at BJU Press, we had to eliminate all reference to tobacco smoke from even the most classic of children’s literature, including a passage from THE MOFFATS by Eleanor Estes that innocently referred to the whiff of cigar smoke out on the neighborhood street.

        As far as I recall, Fundamentalism lacked the smells of real life and being real people: sweat on women, spices in cooking, tobacco smoke out in the open air. It was a sterile, restrictive universe made of Amway products.

        1. such a great commentary, BASSENCO. totally nailed it. i often feel like i didn’t really have a sense of smell or taste until i left the IFB.

      1. Well, I’ll take second! Do I get half a butt cushion?

        Oh well… For me, I will always remember the horrid smell of vanilla carpet cleaner. That, and the smell of 50 years worth of overcooked food that emanated from the kitchen every time the stove was used. One summer I almost cleaned it; there was nearly 3 inches of charred, rancid food stuffs in the bottom of the oven.

  1. A slightly stale building, the smell of very bad coffee and sandwiches from cheap bread: There was always sandwiches and coffee/tea after every Sunday service – which were often held in old school buildings or such – congregation didn’t have a building of their own.

  2. The smell of chlorine wafting through the building like the smell of a pool at a cheap hotel meant it was Baptism Sunday.

  3. The smell of stale/mouldy carpeting in the “middle” building of the church’s complex (between the early 1900’s original & the mid 1960’s “new” building).

  4. Pine Sol is the most disgusting smell. It’s what we cleaned everything with at New Bethany. I won’t buy it or allow it in my home.

  5. The pig farm next to the tiny white framed church where my father preached for many years. In summers the non-air-conditioned church got so hot that we desperately wanted to open the windows, but, alas…

  6. The very musty smell of the Lion’s Club building we rented for Sunday School at Faith Independent Baptist Church in Old Bowie, MD. The liquor was locked up.


    Always hype and gimmicks. Always exhaustion. I’ll never forget the year my Easter dress was a chicken costume. And the year the ladies quartet was singing with the sun behind them, turning their matching white dresses completely transparent.

    I’m just now beginning to *sort of* like Easter again. ๐Ÿ˜

  8. A nasty rotten smell flowing from the women’s restroom as the “little trash can” would never get changed and sometimes adult diapers deposited in there rotting away.

    1. At a church my spouse attended, the toilet for the children’s classes was a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat placed in a back basement hallway.

      Yeah, you read that right.

  9. The liquid salt of tears, hot vinyl and simmering rage … the Sunday morning drive to church.

    Coffee, donuts and oil, not necessarily in that order … bus route.

    Teenage boys (anyone who’s got one knows exactly what I mean), mildewed carpet and too-strong perfume … teen class.

    1. Yikes! The imagery of the drive to church was so vivid, I was transported to the backseat of our old Chevy. ๐Ÿ˜ฏ

  10. The smell of Doritos will always remind me of riding the FBC bus packed with inner-city Chicago kids.

  11. sauve/nelnet hairspray and the scent of pinesol reminds me of campmeeting mornings in dormitory bathrooms…getting ready with 28 other girls with big 80s hair. ๐Ÿ˜†

  12. Sterile: no distinguishable smell but it’s just THERE. The-church-I-do-not-name.

  13. I recently visited a local historic church still holding regular Sunday services and it felt like coming home. The reason? The pews, made out of old Douglas Fir exuded the same musty odor as the splintery, Douglas Fir benches of my Sunday School days which, by the way, were death on the seamed nylon hose we wore in those days!

  14. the smell of donuts and coffee in the lobby between Sunday school and church. The stinky perfume of the old lady who invariably sits in front of you at every service. The sweat of faithful church men breaking their backs to do maintenance, outreach projects, van repair, etc. The freshly copied bulletins and the musty church library. The soapy/poopy/powderly smell wafting from the church nursery.
    Ahh . . . memories!

  15. Church was in the country, about 30 minutes from home in the suburbs.


    Now, it’s incense. ๐Ÿ˜›

  16. The talcum powder heavily dusted on the little old ladies sitting behind us (the smell of which invariably sent my grandpa into a coughing fit).

    The damp mustiness of the dark corner under the stairs in the basement where the church workers put the beanbags when we got rowdy with them. (Incidentally, several of us saw a man back there at different times, but whenever an adult investigated, there was no one there. Once the beanbags went in that corner, they basically ceased to exist!)

    The sharp, plastic scent of Velveeta on potluck Sundays, along with the freezer-burned homemade, hand-molded mints that were apparently so time-consuming, the church lady made them well in advance.

    1. Talcum powder on elderly ladies? Me too. That and strong perfume that would have attracted sharks if there had been any so far inland.

  17. The smell of my brother’s farts in the back of the station wagon on the never ending drives between churches on deputation all throughout the southeast.

    The musty, mildewy smell of the carpet we slept on in sleeping bags at the women’s shelter run by the deacons of one of our supporting churches because they were too cheap to put us up in a hotel…

    The smell of “old people” we had to hug and kiss at every church (once again on deputation).

    The smell of used old clothes we were given from the “missionary barrel/closet”

    The smell of freedom after I left that world….

    1. Wait…you *had to* hug & kiss random old people at supporting churches?

      That is so disgustingly creepy…and boundary-less. I’m sorry for what you went through.

      As far as accommodations, we made reservation for some missionaries at a local hotel at the recommendation of one of our deacons. The missionaries ended up leaving & going to another hotel because the air conditioner in the room was filled with mildew. We (of course) reimbursed them and apologized profusely. I can’t imagine purposefully making missionaries suffer.

      1. I think one of the rules of Fundy world is that missionaries must be the poorest of the poor. I still remember getting yelled at about “giving the right impression” when we were “courting” a new church for support. We couldn’t give the impression of being well off because then the church would not take us on….ugh, I start twitching every time I remember crap like that.

  18. more!

    The smell of “Bafix”, the disinfectant spray used to clean the nasty dorm rooms at BJU during my summer job on Custodial Services….for under minimum wage of course.

  19. The smell of Sunday school/children’s church curriculum- Regular Baptist Press…recently had to open up new tutoring curriculum and that smell hit me and sent me back to the YEARS I was stuck teaching children’s church… and I felt the frustration, exhaustion and feeling of being used and abused all over again.

    1. Me three. I obviously suffer from extreme Bullshit Intolerance. It affects my mood and often makes me grumpy and impatient, and terminally sarcastic. I got a lot of it growing up

  20. Our old church was in the woods near a river. Whenever I smell woods in the summer time I think of my childhood and going to church. Whenever I hear a window AC unit humming it reminds me of back then too.
    I remember the smell of the church foyer. It is hard to describe but it was very distinct.

  21. Hot wood and still air in the little uninsulated chapel, then a gust of seabreeze/lake smell/scent of trodden earth as the door was finally opened: the smell of Baptist summer camp the year that hairy guy came to preach and went wild-eyed and gibbering over a fellow camper’s sprained ankle. I suppose he was a Pentacostal speaking in tongues, but we were terrified.

  22. Avon’s Hawaiian White Ginger perfume. Ugh!!! My SS teacher was an Avon rep and some girl always had to pick one of those Chapstick type sticks in that scent as a prize. Yuck!!!

  23. Smells – no, but sounds – yes. The sound that takes me back is the sound of jingling keys. Whenever Dr. Malone preached, he kept his hand in his jacket pocket and played with his keys. And then I remember singing in Mrs. Malone’s choir…and that’s another story altogether.

  24. The church’s semi-basement rec room always smelled like sugar cookies and red punch. Always. Even when there were none to be seen!

  25. It was a strange smell I can’t really describe. I associate it with SC, Greenville; BJU to be exact. It was an outdoor smell . . . some kind of plant it seemed. I don’t think the red clay smelled that way. In spring it was punctuated with the smell of fresh mowed chives (onions) or some kind of grass in the campus lawn. Could it have been the smell of palmetto? I really don’t know; but whatever that smell was–I associate it with BJU and have never smelled it since.

    At every meal that smell was further punctuated by the smells that came from the dining common. But, again-only at BJU.

    I remember the old musty smell of the practice shacks, especially the one that had the old pipe organ in it.

    Then the smell of the dorms—the absolute strange atmosphere of BO, Right Guard, soap, dirty underwear and smelly socks, and the toilet water after shave and colognes clashing with the more expensive ones. Brylcream and far more than a little dab . . . Vitalis and Brut. The smell in the bathrooms of farts and urine and urinal cakes all mixed together as you stood there reading the sign above the urinals that said, “We aim to please, will you AIM too, please?” or the other one, “Please pull the reins of the Porcelain Pony when dismounting . . . ?” All after realizing you had been standing in the urine on the floor from all the poor aims.

    The smell of BO in the suit jacket not dry cleaned all year and wondering if your date would notice it. How about all the gravy stains on all the ties? Some dorm guys wore their meals well.

    And why did anyone have to bring this up? ๐Ÿ™„

    1. Those practice shacks WERE musty! And strange because they were so small! I never went in the one with the organ though.

    2. There’s a practice room at Cedarville University that often smells a little like a horse barn. Not like manure, just the hay and horses in general.

    3. “I really donโ€™t know; but whatever that smell wasโ€“I associate it with BJU and have never smelled it since.”

      The whiff of despair combined with the stench of self-righteousness, perhaps?

  26. Animal crackers and Pledge furniture polish… and whatever weird flowery air freshener that every fundy women’s room uses.

  27. hmmm… I remember most the smells at PCC. There was the mix of various kinds of hairspray as 8 girls got ready in the morning. Singed hair for a roomie that straightened her hair with an iron. The nauseating mix of 8 kinds of perfume. The funky scent of mold growing under the carpet because of the high humidity. You had to keep the a/c on snowflake to keep the mold from growing.

    There was also the odd scent of the dining hall like that of a thousand dinners past and stuff you wouldn’t want to eat. The smell of decay in the old Mackenzine building. The rich scent of paper in the library. The evil smell of the black sharpie we used to censor magazine pictures (don’t want to get high). The smell of old decaying paper in the rare book room.

    The smell of the paper plant when the wind shifted. The smell of rain in summer (smelled just like Peru in the rain forest)

    The smell of white glove — it could make you pass out and go to the hospital when someone mixed bleach with ammonia. Happened every year. The electric smell when you vacuumed the floor.

    The smell of new carpet in the Dale Dome and the smell of ostentatious displays of wealth.

    I think that covers it fairly well.

  28. Sheetrock dust and fresh paint from when the Texas Baptist Men came to help us build our new church building.

    Pink erasers, from erasing old ACE Paces for new kids to use.

    Musty old hymnals, until we went All Praise Music All the Time.

    There was an old trailer (small mobile home) someone donated to the church, and it was used for various overflow activities. No matter how well it was cleaned, it smelled like…I’m not sure what, like cat pee maybe. Gross.

    1. Must old hymnals is a good smell to me. I collect books and sometimes when I walk into our library (looks more like storage) I have a flashback of flipping through the pages just for the smell, knowing my wife was slightly embarrassed.

  29. To be completely honest with you, there’s only one memory of fundamentalism that carries a memory of smell with it.

    I was about four years old, and I used to go out on a bus to a tiny little hall out in the middle of the bush called Tegege for Sunday School. Afterwards I would have to go to a Brethren service in town and my grandparents would pay us with a McDonalds happy meal for our good behaviour.

    But. Tegege Sunday School. Memory verse memorisation, bible stories, and ‘Stop and let me tell you’.

    And: the dunny. Tegege hall had only an outdoors dunny. And, as a 4 year old, the place fascinated me. It fascinated me so much that I developed a need to go. Every. Single. Time.

    So, that is my only smell-oriented memory of fundamentalism. Seems quite appropriate, really.

    1. Curious: What’s a dunny? ๐Ÿ˜•
      I’ll probably look it up in the Wikipedia, but your mention and interest in the “dunny” sounds intriguing.

  30. For me, it’s the smell of older carpet mixed with coffee reminds me of my old Sunday School building.

    Also, the lingering smell of skunk along with old musty wood reminds me of church camp when I was 12.

  31. I can relate to the memories of many of the smells mentioned in this thread, but the most pleasant “church smell” for me goes back to my Catholic youth.

    As an altar boy, I remember the smells of beeswax and the vestiges of incense which clung to the walls of the sacristy (think “backstage of the altar”).

    If smells can engender emotions, these were peace and contemplation.

    On the other hand, one certain nun (my third grade teacher) emitted the essence of Cometยฎ cleanser, which I smelled up close as I lay across her lap for the administration of spankings. (Class clown repercussions)

  32. The church in which I grew up was built in 1960. I return there occasionally to worship. It has exactly the same smell now that it had fifty-plus years ago, even though there have been some alterations to the building — a fairly pleasant wood scent, probably from the pine arches that hold up the roof. I walk into the place and I’m immediately transported back to junior high.

    There was another scent that I remember — the ladies, for church suppers, used to butter bread and then put it in the oven for three or four minutes before setting it on serving plates. That smell of warm buttered bread was heavenly. Tasted pretty darn good, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

  33. The smell of raw fish breath following a bus ride over packed with loud kids for yet another Kid’s Crusade.

    (Thankfully I was never the chosen one to eat the live goldfish though) ๐Ÿ˜‰

  34. I distinctly remember the ammonia smell of the freshly-mimeographed handouts in Sunday School. That, and the pervasive odor of $0.50 5&10 clearance aisle cologne that some of the older ushers wore. It is not a stretch to say that I could smell them before I saw them. Methinks many of them used that as a substitute for bathing. Ah, the memories…

    1. Ah, those old mimeograph sheets, with their purple ink and bad illustrations, and I can smell the paste and big crayons. More an elementary school memory for me. ๐Ÿ™
      Wonder if they still even make those?

  35. This has certainly been a most interesting read. So many olfactory perspectives! Try as I might, the only place with which I can associate olfactory memories of Fundamentalism is BJU. That seems strange in and of itself.

  36. The peculiar smell of that deep-orange tinted, well-varnished wooden panelling that went halfway up the walls.
    The kitchen of my old ACE school – this strange smell of some sort of cleaner, mixed with a cool dampness, mixed with plastic and styrofoam from all of our styrofoam drinking cups.
    Eraser bits. Always, always, eraser bits. No matter how well you cleaned your desk, no matter how many crannies you plumbed the depths of, you could never lose the smell of ancient eraser bits.
    So, so strongly: mint breath-spray. I had one teacher who I could not stand. He was the son of the pastor and Mrs. Pastor who ran the school, so he was employed there. He was NOT very good at it, and he was quite strict and just . . . he drove me nuts. But I was the only kid in school who would be super polite and nice to him (I was good at facades), so he was always at my desk. He’d sit right beside you, crouched down by your chair, and talk for AGES (he’d even come over during Math period and show me his vacation photos!). Because the desk was enclosed on either side by those big white dividers, you were trapped with his breath – he constantly sprayed his mouth with this horribly strong mint spray. It’s the smell of claustrophobia and frustration.
    Olive oil. We never used it for cooking, no. In fact until I was in my 20s I never actually saw olive oil used in a food-related context! Y’see, we went to Pentecostal churches, and for a few years there everybody was very big on anointing with oil. So every prayer meeting at somebody’s house, they’d open the cupboard and bring down the olive oil and put it on their fingertips before they laid hands on someone and prayed for them. For praying at church, some people had little bottles of oil they brought with them in their purses.
    Hah, you grew-up-Baptists, your weird things witnessed in childhood have got nothin’ on us grew-up-Pentecostals. ๐Ÿ˜›

    1. ACE smells! I agree with the eraser bits in your office. Especially since playing your eraser was just about the only think you could do in that environment that didn’t illicit immediate demerits by the monitors. Also, pencil shavings was a smell I associate with ACE, and the little blister on the inside of your third finger from writing with pencils all day.

  37. guess I’ll try my hand at BJU scent memories:
    the restrooms in the womens’ dorms always had this weird . . odor. Not body odor, not excrement but not unlike either. My roommate described it as “that woman smell: which I think is pretty accurate.
    My practice shack always smelled like cinnamon candles because that’s what my teacher burned in there.
    does anyone remember the underbed storage in the BJU dorm rooms? that always smelled like moldy rubber to me.
    I think someone earlier mentioned the fake coffee-smell of the Dining Common coffee. I want to give a shoutout to the smell of chicken cooking at Sunday lunch. You could detect it as you walked out of the FMA after morning mass, and it always meant one thing: you were going to be hungry and waiting in line for your lunch for at least 45 minutes. You see, “chicken Sunday,” as we called it when I was at BJU, meant that everyone in the Greenville area churches came to the Dining Common at BJU to buy lunch, just like eating at a restaurant. Why, I have no idea. The chicken wasn’t even that good–large, breaded nugget-like entities like the kind served by fast food restaurants.
    And finally, that funky chemical smell in the science bulding. What were we breathing in, anyway? ๐Ÿ˜ฏ

  38. Fundy-lite and northern so smell memory is probably pretty close to that of most Lutherans, especially if they went to a church-related college: that church basement smell mixed with the offering of potluck dinners (lasagne/tater tot casserole/chicken). Exact scent dependent on the leading potluck economic indicators. High unemployment = macaroni and cheese and jello. Good employment rates = meatballs and green salads. Lots of working mothers = chicken from the Colonel and salad from the deli.

  39. I recall a lot of fundy men and women who liked to bath in their cologne/perfume. Subtly was lost on them. The overpowering smell didn’t help my asthma. Not that IFB churches are the only place that I’ve run into it of course, but I’ve never yet run into a higher concentration then in IFB churches.

    My hypothesis is that, because the women are required to drape themselves from head to toe in the most unappealing clothes available lest they cause men to lust, and boys/men of all ages are required to dress like middle-aged men from the 50’s, perfume and cologne is seen as the only acceptable way to stand out and as a result they end up over-doing it.

  40. Polyester suit material with just a hint of sweat, onion-skin-thin Oxford Bible pages or maybe it was the leather binding, and wooden pews. I was just thinking of this the other day. Great post.

  41. In the militant, fundamental church I was saved in, and attended for a couple of years, the smell of Binaca wafted through the sanctuary. It was used by all the soul winners because one of the mortal sins of the soul winning industry was having bad breath as you “dealt” with someone at the altar. The soul winning industrialists tapped their tongues with their little Binaca bottles every few seconds. And yes, I was a “Binaca Baptist” too. That odor brings back mems of bus meetings, visitation, and various “opportunities to serve” SM,SN,WN, soul winning, visitation, prayer meetings, work days, etc. The smell brings back mems of exhaustion, fatigue, guilt, and the sense of never measuring up, as we slaved on the Baptist slave-block attempting to get on God’s good side by our efforts. Don’t care for Binaca now as a result of all this.

  42. In my Baptist Church, I remember the elderly lady who taught me as a toddler, and who was there when I quit attending as a 17 year old. A nice lady, but she always exuded that old, stale urine smell that one often detects in nursing homes. I know that I am not the only one who noticed it, as my Grandfather once wondered aloud to me why she didn’t take care of that smell.
    Her adult daughter who lived with her, was very nice as well, but in retrospect, she was very butch.
    Looking back, it was kind of a weird place.

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