I grew up in the '50s in a Baptist church where they believed that if they could keep you in church you wouldn't have time to sin. So, like most Baptists my age, I learned to sin in church—from experts."

So begins a monologue by a Southern Baptist minister named Grady Nutt who became a full-time humorist in 1969. His main subject is religion, essentially the life and times of Reverend Nutt himself. His rubber face and folksy yarns are now staples on the chitlins circuit of churches, colleges and conventions in the South. Nutt has also performed nationally on the Mike Douglas Show. His appearances plus recordings and inspirational books bring in an income of some $80,000 a year. Even before another Southern Baptist became President, Nutt was calling himself "The Prime Minister of Humor"—the title of his latest LP. He would like to be invited to the White House so he could zing the President over reversing himself on the $50 tax rebate: "Carter decided to give it to us, and then he decided to take it back. He got experience with that in a Baptist church. We make pledges all the time we never keep."

To 42-year-old Nutt, "Laughter is God's hand on the shoulder of a troubled world." The aphorism is even embossed on a plaque in his Louisville, Ky. home. Among the sources for his humor, he says, are Jesus and Will Rogers. "Jesus and his parables did exactly what Will did," says Nutt. "They kept people alert and alive."

In performance, Nutt's life story is laced with digressions. He grew up in Amarillo and Jacksonville, Texas, the son of a hatter. At age 4, Grady began gospel singing on the radio (he has since taught himself 12 instruments) and became a licensed preacher at 13. "I blessed going-steadys and hot-rods and everything," he'll occasionally embroider. While in church, Nutt and his buddy C. D. Walker, the class clowns, would write notes on offertory envelopes to girls asking them to a nearby fire tower "for devotionals and meditation." Later, at Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Texas, Nutt claims he was caught "wantin' to drink, dance and smoke. The headmaster called me into his office and set me down with a lump in his throat and a tear on his cheek and said, 'Grraady. You've been caught wantin' to.' I said, 'How can you tell?' He said, 'Sweatin' in February.' "

Nutt eventually received a B.A. from Baylor in 1957 and a divinity degree from Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1964. He served as pastor at churches in Kentucky and Texas, and as assistant to the president at Southern Baptist seminary. His experiences provided the jokes when he turned to comedy. Preachers used to pay calls on the Sabbath, Nutt explains, "but that was before pro football. Now, they have 'meditation' on Sunday afternoon." And someone is not merely "fat" in a Nutt story. He's like Bubs Mosley, "the only choir member I ever saw whose robe fit."

Nutt makes it clear that ministers are human. "I sliced my thumb cutting turkey at Thanksgiving," he says, "and I didn't go, 'Behold.' I went 'Hoo haw!' " The 6'4", 207 pound Nutt also confesses that when it comes to ice cream, his flesh is weak. When he is home with wife Eleanor, 40, he and sons Perry, 19 (nicknamed Goober, for P. Nutt), and Toby, 17, eat a couple of gallons a week.

Nutt hopes that vanity is not among his sins. Though he dreams of someday making it big on The Tonight Show, he claims he would never give up the smaller halls. "I figure if you run around with the jet set and only go to conventions in New York and Los Angeles," he declares, "you'll miss life."

"I've had more fun in church than anybody ought to have. The penalty for that," concludes Nutt, "was to become a minister."