They came by car and church vans, by themselves and in groups, and they were headed to a place where all the world’s problems could be solved in just 25 minutes.
One gentleman drove the 700 miles or so from Pascagoula, Miss., alone. A mother and daughter, both recently widowed, were there.
Another woman was just a month removed from the passing of her husband. In the past, an attendee has celebrated the end of her chemo treatments by heading to the conference.
All these years later, a fictional North Carolina town and its beloved inhabitants still have that kind of allure.
Photo by Rick Houston
Many participants to the recent Life Lessons from Mayberry posed for pictures next to this patrol car.
More than 500 people from 18 different states attended the sold-out Sept. 24-26 Life Lessons from Mayberry: It’s All There in Black & White conference. The event showcases Bible studies that are structured around episodes of the classic 1960s sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.” Attendance has doubled in the three years it has been held at Ridgecrest.
“God has provided this means for us because the show has such practical lessons,” said Debbie Whisenant, the event’s creator and producer. “It’s not a lot of deep theology, but it’s how to treat your fellow man. It’s how to treat people right. I think what most people need is just inspiration to live a better life based on biblical principles.”
This year’s edition of Life Lessons From Mayberry featured Karen Knotts, the daughter of the legendary Don Knotts; LeRoy McNees, who appeared on two first-season episodes; and tribute artist Allen Newsome. Breakout sessions covered some of the most popular episodes in the show’s entire eight-year run, including “Man in a Hurry,” “A Feud is a Feud,” “Rafe Hollister Sings,” “Barney Fife, Realtor,” “The Haunted House,” “Bailey’s Bad Boy,” “Opie’s Newspaper,” “Aunt Bee’s Medicine Man” and “A Date for Gomer.”
None of the episodes have an overtly Christian message, but each has themes that are directly connected to Scripture – restlessness, pride, gossip, strife, deception, arrogance and inner beauty.
“I do know that Andy Griffith was quoted as saying that he insisted on there being a moral in every episode, something that we could learn from it,” Whisenant explained. “I just really feel like God must have had his hands on some of those writers and their scripts, even though some or maybe all of them weren’t Christians. God just developed those scripts that we could use for such a time as this.”
The show-flavored Bible studies certainly didn’t start with Life Lessons From Mayberry. Joey Fann, author of The Way Back to Mayberry: Lessons From a Simpler Time (B&H Books 2001), is widely credited with starting the trend in Huntsville, Ala. in the late 1990s. Since then, churches more than likely numbering well into the hundreds have dug into the Bible with Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest of the Mayberry gang as their guides.
That’s actually how Life Lessons From Mayberry got its start. Whisenant has taught semester-long studies at her church for more than a decade. A resident of Nashville and an advertising writer and project manager at LifeWay, Whisenant was heading into another one of those jam-packed sessions when she mentioned it to a manager.
One thing led to another, and Life Lessons From Mayberry was born. In the fall of 2011, 240 people attended. Last year, 260 showed up. This time around, the conference exploded in popularity through a few ads here and there, word of mouth and Whisenant’s efforts on social media. “I don’t attribute it to anything other than God just saying, ‘Go for it,’” Whisenant said.
The show has definitely become a part of Whisenant’s life. She has a picture of herself taken at around age 13 with George Lindsey, the actor who portrayed the lovable Goober Pyle on both “The Andy Griffith Show” and its spinoff “Mayberry RFD.” A Mayberry trivia contest was a part of her bridal shower. She and husband John also have an adult son named Andy.
The Whisenants also have a son named Ben, though it is unclear if that’s in honor of Mayberry’s grouchy department store owner Ben Weaver.
Filmed and originally aired during the turbulence of the 1960s, the wholesome simplicity of the show resonates with viewers in reruns and on DVD more than fifty years after its debut.
“It just takes you away from the culture that we live in now for a few minutes,” Whisenant concluded. “The characters are so lovable. They have their own foibles. They’re not perfect. Barney and Gomer are so childlike. It’s like the comfort food of television for me. It’s just such a comforting place to go.”
Dates for next year’s event have already been set for Sept. 21-24: register: lifeway.com/mayberry.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rick Houston is a writer who lives in Yadkinville.)