Dolly’s Grandpa, Reverend Jake Owens, was worried about her and her faith when she was younger, mostly because of her bleached hair and tight clothes, thinking that she wasn’t walking with the Lord because of those things.
But at 12 years-old, Dolly was saved, and says she “was filled with a sense of awe and reverence,” adding that she wanted her mom to let her get baptized right away:
“I couldn’t wait to tell Mama that I knew I was saved. I begged her to let me be baptized right away. I broke through some sort of spirit wall and found God.
Away from the stares of the boys and the mothers and the preachers, I had met him not as a chastising, bombastic bully but as a friend I could talk to on a one-to-one basis.”
But, some of the women in her church had an issue with the fact that Dolly was saved in an old abandoned church that had become a meeting place for certain debauchery:
“They didn’t think a twelve-year-old girl who had found God somewhere other than at the front of the church service knew what she was about…
Most of its windows were broken, and its old floorboards were buckled and dusty, but to me it seemed like God still lived there. Ironically it had become a place for all types of sin and vice. Boys would meet there to shoot craps or drink beer and moonshine.
Couples would use it at night for sexual encounters. Boys and men fought there. There had been more than one stabbing. And yet, for me, God still lived there.”
Dolly explained that it was there, in a place seemingly so far from God, she felt that she had found real truth and acceptance:
“Here in this place of seemingly confusing images, I had found real truth. I had come to know that it was all right for me to be a sexual being. I knew that was one of the things God meant for me to be.
I also knew that my dreams of making music, of traveling outside the Smokies and pursuing a greater purpose, were not silly childhood ideas but grand real schemes ordained and cocreated by my newfound heavenly father.
I was validated. I was sanctified. I was truly reborn. I was happy.”
And when she did finally get baptized, she wore a white cotton dress down to the river, though she noted in her book that she was at the age where her now-famous body parts were “already well in evidence.”
She continued, saying that the local boys were more than thrilled to attend the ceremony, and even so moved there watching by the river bank “to shout ‘Hallelujah!’”:
“I knew the symbolism of being lowered into the water to signify the death of my old, sinful self, then raised up to be born into a new righteousness.
When I was twelve, those body parts that were destined to become my calling card in life and the reference point for many a joke by late-night talk-show hosts were already well in evidence.
My white cotton dress became somewhat transparent in the rushing water, and the boys on the bank were moved to shout ‘Hallelujah!’”
How dang funny is that? Only Dolly Parton…
But of course, some of those same older “church biddies” (if you know, you know), didn’t find it quite so amusing:
“This seemed inappropriate to some of the attending church biddies who had seen through this sudden groundswell of religion among the boys as surely as the boys had seen through my dress.
I thought it was altogether in keeping with what I had learned in the old chapel and my relationship with my friendly God.
He wouldn’t have given them to me if he hadn’t wanted people to notice them.”
It’s hard to argue with that…
That’s one of the things that I love most about Dolly, because no matter what anyone says or thinks about her, she has always had such a strong sense of who she is and what she believes in, which, funny enough, you can credit to this particular story and time in her life.
Dolly has always been very open about her faith, and often credits it for keeping her going and giving her such a positive outlook on life and the belief that she can do anything… and she’s done pretty much everything after so many decades in the music industry.
I’ll leave you with a little bit of her breathtaking cover of the gospel classic “How Great Thou Art,” from her 1971 sixth solo studio album The Golden Streets of Glory: