Country Churches Were the Center of It All

by Ovid Vickers
as printed in The Union Appeal - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Seldom will you find an atheist on a farm. God and nature are so intertwined it's hard to separate the two. Thomas Jefferson knew this, and so do most farmers who live with  nature 365 days a year. Though they might differ in their  religious beliefs, farmers who do not believe in a higher power are  difficult to find.

Mama and Papa were Baptists and attended  Parkerson Baptist Church. The Parkers family gave the land on  which the church was built way back in 1831. Church services  included preaching every second Sunday and a week-long revival when  the crops were laid by in July.

I cannot remember a family in the church who did  not live and work on a farm.  If weather was "right" and a good  crop of cotton was produced, everyone thanked the Good Lord.  If a drought set in, everyone prayed for rain, and sometimes a  special service was held at the church to ask the Lord to send rain.  If the drought continued, it was seen as God's will and everyone  knew there would be "belt tightening" until it was time to plant  another crop.

On a Saturday before the revival began, Parkerson  Church had a cemetery cleaning and a "fixing up" of the church.  The men of the congregation arrived with hoes and rakes, and the  women brought shuck mops, brooms and dust cloths. Everyone who  had family buried in the cemetery (and some families could count  tombstones for four or five generations) gathered to work, swap  news, and tell stories related to those family members whose graves  they cleaned around. In those days, every sprig of grass was  dug up, and the cemetery was raked as clean as the palm of one's  hand.

While the men worked in the cemetery and around  the church, the women moved all the benches outside and scrubbed the  church floor, washed the widows, and made sure that all the lamps  had new wicks and were filled with kerosene. A fresh crocheted  scarf was placed on the newly dusted piano and on the table in front  of the pulpit.

Attending Sunday service was not only an  opportunity to worship; it was a study in the habits,  folkways, relationships and customs of the community where I grew  up. In the past, women brought crackers or fruit to church to  feed young children. I remember sitting in church behind a  lady who had brought a sack of plums for her little girl. At  some point during the service, the child began eating the plums and  suddenly aspirated a seed.

While the child gasped for breath and those  around her were torn between listening to the preaching and offering  assistance to the choking child, the mother simply ran her finger  down the child's throat and removed the lodged seed. Needless  to say, the mother had exceedingly long fingers.

It was not uncommon sixty-five years ago for a  woman to bring a blanket to church, spread it in the aisle next to  the pew where she sat, and place a sleeping baby on the blanket for  a nap during service. If a baby were nursing, the mother would  simply place a diaper or small receiving blanket across her chest  while the baby was fed.

The thing that I remember most about revival  meeting was the pitcher of water that always sat on the table by the  pulpit. Sometimes the pitcher had a chunk of ice floating in  it. At some point during the preaching when the July heat  became oppressive, that pitcher of water was all I could think  about. The water was so cool and clear and inviting, and I was  as hot and thirsty as any seven year old could get.

When church was over, most everyone lingered  among the parked cars and wagons to visit. As could be  expected from a community of farmers, the weather and the condition  of crops were major topics. In the spring, the question might  be: Did you get a good stand of corn? In the summer, the  boll weevil would have been cursed had the conversation not been  taking place in the churchyard. In the fall "yield per acre"  was discussed, and in the winter cutting stalks, mending fences, and  throwing up terraces were the usual topics.

The women talked about swapping dress patterns,  sick children, the health of the older folks in the family, and whom  they had seen in town the previous Saturday. A little gossip  took place; and this was alright as long as the gossip was not  judgmental.

Children were forbidden to play in the churchyard  because they had on their "Sunday clothes." I remember wanting  to get home because I was hungry, and I could not keep my mind off  the peach pie Mama had made early that morning.

Country churches are disappearing from the  American landscape. Parkerson church closed in 2001 after  serving as the focal point of a community for 170 years.  Although the doors are closed, I continue to feel a strong  attachment to the church. After all, the church played a major  role in my life, and my mother and father rest today only a stone's  throw from the bench where they sat on Sunday and asked the Lord to  bless them with good health, good weather, and a good cotton crop.

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