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This Month in BGAV History: Old Times in the Country

Surely a Baptist must have written the entry on Charlotte County in the old WPA travel guide on Virginia published in 1940. Yet 70 years later it may need revisions.

“Church customs of the 18th century still prevail in Charlotte,” states the guidebook. “Women are found sitting together on one side of the middle aisle, and men on the other. It is a happy day indeed when a little boy graduates to the pews that no skirt ever touches.

“A timid bridegroom sometimes sheepishly sits beside his bride for a Sunday or two, but it is a sign that the honeymoon is over when he returns to his brethren. During Sunday school and the first hymn and the long prayer, the men remain outside the church. Someone gives the signal for entrance as the preaching begins.”

“In some of our churches the sexes still seem to voluntarily segregate themselves. However, in most congregations the married couples sit together with their brood of small children.

As the children reach their teens, watch out! If the church has a balcony, that’s where they’ll roost like a fearsome flock of birds for the preacher to watch seriously during his message. I recall one city preacher who had to reprimand his own teenage son and call him down from the balcony to a safer seat on the front pew!”

If they’re not segregating the sexes in Charlotte today, I am hopeful that the rest of the description is still appropriate. It is a description of the bountiful dinners-on-the-grounds, long characteristic of the country churches.

“There is a rivalry among housewives as the board is loaded with fried chicken piled high on plates, home-cured hams, legs of lamb, roast beef, and sometimes whole shoats. Chess pies-made by mysterious processes – and meringues and potato custards and cakes, variously colored and curiously ornamented, and all the preserves and jellies by which her housewifery can be judged.”

There again the description may have changed. In the city churches, the members may have the dinner catered with a set menu or they stop by a fast-food place on their way to church and buckets of some colonel’s chicken sit on the tables.

Today housewives are so stressed and busy in their two-income families and hectic lifestyles that the obligation to prepare groaning boards at church affairs is almost passé’. Guest speakers who come when there’s no dinner-on-the-grounds do well to be taken to a fast-food place rather than some member’s Sunday dinner table.

And there’s one more part of that description of church life a half-century ago. “In the summer the ‘protracted meeting’ dots the monotony of the year like a fiery exclamation point. When crops are laid by,’ a preacher arrives for one or two weeks to minister to the souls of saints and to call sinner to repentance.”

“Young and old flock to the all-day meetings, while perspiration melts “biled”
collars and mingles with the permanent mustiness of the church. At the end of the protracted meeting there is time for the people to recover before they need to ‘get by’ the crops.”

Today the protracted meetings have given way to annual, sometimes only occasional, revivals streamlined to three or five days.

The old-time religious meetings-protracted meetings and camp meetings –provided as much fellowship and entertainment as they did spirituality. The scattered flock assembled from what were considerable distances by horse and buggy or even by early autos, and they enjoyed each other for the brief intermission in their otherwise routine lives.

Today the fast autos and superhighways make for easy travel bypassing the church house. The television provides entertainment in the living room. The telephone keeps everyone supplied with company.

But surely one part of that description remains forever true. The writer referred to the need for ministering “to the souls of saints and to call sinners to repentance.” Forever true!