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.