Church Going in the 1870’s and 1880’s

Part 1 & Part 2

By A. B. Amis, Sr.


Part 1

Up to the time I was about eleven years old my father and mother lived in the northwestern part of Newton County, in a community of which Sulphur Springs Baptist Church was the religious and social center. They were both members of this church and my earliest recollections center around it. It was a one-story frame structure, about forty by sixty feet, unceiled, unheated, and unpainted. It was located in a grove, on a hill, in the midst of a virgin forest that extended in every direction for nearly a mile. Down the hill, in a deep cool dale, was a cold spring, bubbling up out of the earth, and a path led to it from the church. Near the spring stood a small dogwood tree, one limb of which, some four feet above the ground, had been cut off so as to form a peg, on which hung a long handled gourd that would hold a quart. At this spring and out of that gourd, all the people slaked their thirst. And down the valley a short distance away, during the later years, was a deep still pool, where repentant sinners were baptized after the manner of John in the Jordan, amid the singing, stanza by stanza, of that old baptismal hymn:

      On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,

      And cast a wistful eye

      To Caanan’s fair and happy land

      Where my possessions lie.

Before they dug the pool, however, they used to baptize new converts in some nearby swimming hole. But the unregenerate boys complained this forever and tee-totally ruined it for its original and legitimate purpose. Because after that, it was always so full of snakes and snags that it was dangerous to swim in it, or else it filled up with sand and leaves during the next freshet. I do not know what effect the baptizing had on the swimming hole, but I do know that is lost caste with the boys after being devoted to such sacred uses. I do not know that this notion of the boys had any influence on the church membership, but I do know that after they had used up about all the good swimming holes in the neighborhood, they dug the pool.


Part 2

At this church (Sulphur Springs Baptist [1]), religious services were had on the third Sunday each month, but because there was no way to heat the building, the congregations were small in winter. But when “preaching day” came in warm weather, the people came from every direction for miles around. The parents and small children came in farm wagons, drawn by horses and mules, while the young men and young ladies came on horse-back. There were no carriages, and even a buggy was a luxury, which no one except Col. Hi Eastland [2], of Forest, who sometimes came, was able to afford.

When the wagons drove up, father and the boys unhitched the animals and tied them to a tree in the edge of the woods, taking care to avoid yellow-jacket’s nests. But when a couple on horse-back rode up, the young man bounced down off his steed, looped the bridle over his arm, seized the reins of his fair companion’s nag, carefully led it up the horse-block and gallantly assisted her to the ground. Then, after she had dropped her riding skirt, he tied it in a knot around the horn of her saddle and went to hitch both steeds to a “swinging limb”, as high as he could reach. Meanwhile, his fair companion waited for him, smoothing out her dress, feeling her back hair, setting her bonnet bewitchingly on her head, and preening herself generally, as Mother Eve’s daughters have always done. When he came back, he opened his umbrella and holding it over her, gravely escorted her to the ladies entrance to the church, where they parted. Because in that church, every seat was reserved for a special purpose, one side for the men and the other for the women, and there was no mixed seating, no courting, no soft glances nor tender hand clasps there.

Sulphur Springs Baptist Church 2006
Sulphur Springs Baptist Church, 2006

Although the preaching service did not begin until eleven o’clock the young people always gathered about half past nine and for an hour or more, engaged in singing, the music and songs in the old “Sacred Harp”, which is still used in some parts of the country. And because of the entertainment they afforded, many older people and children came to hear them, and of the latter, I was one. It has been a long time ago and I may not remember about those singings just exactly right, but I think I do in the general outlines.

As I remember, there were three divisions of the singers: the treble, composed of the young ladies; the tenor, composed of young men of ordinary voices; and the bass, composed of young men, having large “Adam’s apples” and voices like a fog-horn. There were three or four young men who, in turn, usually took the part of leader and director; and as soon as the singers assembled they would each urge the other to lead. Finally, after much urging, one of them would rise, with book in had, and face the singers. After he got up, he would reach around in his back coat-tail pocket, fish out his handkerchief and mop his face, and when he put it back, he sometimes missed his pocket and dropped it on the floor. After considerable hesitation, he would pick out an easy tune and announce the number.

While the singers were finding it, he would open his mouth, stretch his neck out of his collar, like a young rooster about to crow, and sound the musical scale, something like this: “Do, mi, sol, do”. And after several repetitions back and forth, each time at a different pitch, he would sound the first note of the selection two or three times in succession, and when he raised his hand, they knew he had pitched it and would all join him. Then like a drill master, he would give the order, “sing”, and here they went one and all, treble, tenor, and bass, singing something, which to my untutored mind and untrained ear, sounded like this:

        Soul dough, ray me! Soul, ah, see dough!
        Ray me! Ray me! Ray dough!
        Me soul! Me soul! Ah soul, me ray!
        Sull soul! Me mery, dough ray!
        Soul dough, ray me! Soul ah see dough!
        Ray me! Ray me! Ray dough!

Which sounded mighty fine, but didn’t seem to have much sense to it. I liked it much better when they sang “the words” or “po’try” as it was called, which they presently did.

Occasionally when “histing” the tune, the leader would make a mistake and pitch it so high that the treble sounded like a screech, or else so low that the bass sounded like a bull-frog with a bad cold. When that happened the singers of the “Dough Ray Mees” broke down in the middle and the leader, amid much embarrassment and perspiration, had to do his “Do, mi sol, so” stunt all over again. Meanwhile, the treble would titter, the tenor would grin and the bass would work its Adam’s apple up and down to see whether it wasn’t out of fix. But when the embarrassment wore away and they swung into “Over There” or “Sweet By and By” or some other familiar song, they filled that old church with melodies that none who heard them will ever forget.

The singing always stopped short a while before preaching begun, and just as soon as it was over, all the treble singers had to go to the spring. And as each one stepped out of the church, there stood her beau, with stretched umbrella, ready to accompany her. So, two by two, along that path down the hill to the spring, they went; the ladies fair, with skirts lifting ever so slightly, tripping along the middle, while their gallant swains held an umbrella over them and stumbled along in their high-heeled boots over the roots and stumps along its edge. When they reached the spring, the rule was, ladies first. And so some one would fill the gourd and hand it to the nearest one of them, and she would pass it to the next one and so it went around the ring until it reached the last one, before any of them would drink. Finally, after many “after you’s” one of them would take a dainty sip and pass the gourd back to the next, and

so on until all had taken a sip, all out of the same gourd full. And then the young men would make a pretense of drinking, and back up the hill, two by two, they went to the church. Not long ago I asked a sweet old lady, who was one of those singers, and who is past her three score and ten, if those ladies really wanted water, and her answer was, “No, we didn’t, we wanted a beau.” And so there you have the secret.

Location of Spring
And Is this the Location of the Spring?


[1] Sulphur Springs Baptist Church was formed during the early 1840s in the edge of Scott County along an early stage route that led from Jackson, Mississippi, to Union, Mississippi, and other parts east and which was referred to as the Jackson Stage Road. Gen. Sherman came down this road on his return trip from the burning of Meridian in 1864. Prominent families in the history of this church have included those of Amis, Anderson, Andrews, Anthony, Breland, Bright, Brown, Cater, Cloud, Easom, Edwards, Gill, Graham, Hamilton, Leach, Loper, McDill, Osborn, Pettey, Rodgers, Turner, Vance, and Willis.

[2] Ancestor of the late James O.  Eastland, U. S. Senator from Mississippi.


Extract from A. B. Amis, Recollections of Social Customs in Newton and Scott Counties, Mississippi, Fifty Years Ago, 1934; republished by Milton McMullan, December, 1990.

Excerpt from Recollections of Social Customs in Newton and Scott Counties, Mississippi, Fifty Years Ago, 1934, Republished by Milton McMullan, December 1990. Part I of this article appeared in Remembering 6.1.


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