Volume III, No. 1, Fall 1975
Surrounding any place of worship is a sweet calming spirit that touches all that comes in contact with it. To all who come to hear God's word, this peace is held in reverence. Still, there is yet another unique atmosphere you may find in churches. But to find this you must travel several miles away from town to visit one of the country churches that dot this Ozark countryside. Because they are away from the hustle bustle of the city, they can't help but hold a wonderful peacefulness--a peacefulness reflected by the members as well as the churches. Even though we were strangers, we were warmly welcomed when we visited these churches and interviewed members. Everyone made a point of saying, "Come back soon."
Doors of the churches are always opened for any passer-by. Usually the only reason the door is locked is the church has stopped holding services. Members die or move membership to bigger churches in towns or ministers are hard to find because the churches are too small to support them. It is a sad thing to see a sturdy old church still standing but without a pastor and congregation to make it complete, but this is just another one of the stepping stones of life that have had to change completely.
The beginning of a church is the first step in its life. When a group of a certain faith lived in the community, those few families would begin to have services. Some held services in one of the homes. Some churches were started by brush arbor meetings. Some started in a log school house or the upstairs of an old store building. Eventually, most had enough membership to build a church.
When the people built the church houses, they built them to last. The people themselves got the materials that were native to the Ozarks and did all the construction. Because rocks were so plentiful, a lot of churches used them for foundations. These churches are still standing today which shows how strong and sturdy they are.
Most churches were just one room with a small vestibule or entry way. If the church grew and could afford it, other rooms were added later. If possible, many of the churches had a bell tower on top of the vestibule. The bell called the members to worship and at times announced community news such as weddings and funerals. When a member of Morgan Lutheran Church died, during the funeral the bell was tolled one time for each year the person lived.
Seats in the church were sawed out of native oak lumber and the heat was a stove in the middle of the aisle. Lighting was provided by reflector lights hung on the side walls. These lamps had a sheet of metal behind the flame that reflected the light into the center of the church. The pulpit, usually handmade by one of the church members, was small with a rostum.
Members often donated their time, efforts and materials when building a new church. At Cross Roads Church there was a chart made telling exactly what each person did, how much they paid and where they bought the materials. It is still hanging in the church.
After the church was built, members who lived close by would donate their time as caretakers. They would sweep and clean the church, light the stove during winter, and see that the lamps were filled. Frequently, they wouldn't want members staying long after church so they could blow the lights out to save kerosene.
Many churches, Halfway Baptist, Friendship, Eureka, Blackfoot, were named after the community they were in. Others were named after geographical features of the area such as Fairview, White Oak Pond, Sunny View, and Little Vine. Biblical names, Mt. Zion, Mt. Pisgah, Antioch, Emmanuel Chapel, were given to others. Some were named after the people who donated the land the churches were built on like Shaddy Chapel and Bramhall. Many times, a cemetery existed before the church, so the church was named after the cemetery as McBride and Hough Chapel were. Occasionally the church was named after an unusual happening. The men of one community were building a school and were wondering what they could call it. One man said, "You know, wasn't it over in that thicket where Uncle Pete killed that bear?" So they named the school, the church, and the cemetery Bear Thicket. Another church, Happy Hill, got its name when one elderly lady of the church who had been faithful for years was asked to name the new church set on top a hill with a view of all the countryside. She said, "Praise the Lord, we'll call it Happy Hill."
Larger communities, if they were at all able would have a full time minister that resided in or near enough to the town that he was able to preach every Sunday. The smaller communities were satisifed if a traveling preacher could work it into his schedule to visit them once a month. This man of God might start walking from his home early Friday to get to the church by Saturday.
Services would usually start at eleven o'clock that morning and last for an hour and a half. Three other services, Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night, were held following this. Four meetings each month is all that a church could expect from a preacher that might have to walk twenty-five miles to reach a church through the smothering days of summer, ice and snow in winter and pouring rain in spring and fall. But get there he would.
Each weekend the traveling preacher would be in a different community. He was always traveling, never really having a true home, making the rounds to all that wanted to hear the gospel word. These men were well liked and known by all. Often they would get free rides if they met someone else traveling their way. Nobody tried to rob them during their travels for they knew the preachers would have no money.
Preachers weren't given a guaranteed amount of money at a specific time. They expected what was given and praised the Lord for it. Having another job was unavoidable, especially during hard times. Churches were small and too unstable financially to support a full time preacher so the members gave what they could. Each month's salary would vary. December would usually be the lowest month because of bad weather and holidays while during the summer months people gave more because they had more to give when farms were producing. Gifts such as a hog or other food were always welcomed to a preacher, especially one with a family to support.
One year Curtis Wilson preached at a small church with one hundred members for just $9.00. Part of the $9.00 was a $5.00 pig a man gave him. Another year he was paid $2.00 in August, $1.00 in September, 40¢ in October, 10¢ in December, 62¢ in January, 2¢ in February, 85¢ in May, and $2.00 in July. At the end of the year it was $8.98.
There is a story of one church that needed a new minister around 1895. When a man came to try for the job, he told the congregation that first Sunday' morning, "I think we should have a fair understanding before I start. I'll pastor the church for a dollar a month, twelve dollars for the year." One of the elders stood up and said, "Before I help pay that, I'll do the preaching myself." The young preacher got on his horse and rode away. And that was that.
Today most preachers have a full education of the Bible at a seminary. But before congregations
wanted seminary students, men who were called into God'd ministry trained themselves by reading
the Bible. Making the decision to enter the ministry was hard. It meant having two jobs and still
not much money, and, for traveling preachers, being away from home and family a great deal of
the time or not even having a true home. For this reason, they might fight the call to become a
preacher for a long time, then they would pray for guidance. One man who heard the call was
troubled about what he should do. He started walking and praying for guidance. He noticed that
the road he was on forked off two ways. He prayed that if he walked down the right side he
would be a preacher and if he walked down the left, he wouldn't. He started walking to the right
side. He's preached ever since that time.
The first service was held on Saturday when the preacher arrived. The order of the service was left up to the preacher. Free Will Baptists would read the minutes from the last service held, then they would pray. A song followed and everyone extended the right hand of fellowship. Singing was a great part of the services because it got the people in the mood to worship. The services might be started with three or four songs. If the church didn't have books, only songs everyone knew were sung. Since most churches were small, there were no special choirs. Everyone sung. Pump organs were first used, then pianos. Sometimes the song leader would use a handmade doughstick--similar to a baton with little whittled out slots. Some song leaders were asked by other churches to come and lead the singing. "Uncle" Elmer Hilton, one of the finest bass singers in the county, was asked many times to sing as a special at other churches. Uncle Elmer's hands would get so shaky his book would shake so he couldn't read his music. Since he didn't know the music from memory, he would get lost pretty quickly, so he would hand the book and doughstick over to another person to take over as he joined the congregation singing.
O praise the Lord,
Sing to the Lord a new song.
Sing his praise in the assembly
of the faithful.
After the singing, the preachers gave their message. They made walls shake getting the word across to the congregation. Children knew to be at their quietest. Adults listened well so they were able to follow what they heard being preached. Only the stentorian voice of the minister rang over the hillside.
One seat was reserved for the deacons of the church, called the Amen Corner. Deacons were the most trusted men of the church. They handled things when the pastor was absent. They had to be chosen by the congregation just as the preacher did. The first question that would be asked was, "Do you have two living women?" If they did, that was as far as they got. When made a deacon, they were a deacon for life, or as long as they maintained sound doctrine. Usually there were four in the church.
During communion, the deacons would pass the one communal cup. Only if the church was financially well off could there be a cup for each member.
The offering plate was passed every meeting. One church was lucky to have a offering bag with a long handle so the men could stand in the aisle and pass it side to side. That way, no one had to get up to pass the plate. The bag was beautiful, lined with velvet and hung with tassels. The church was very proud of this unique invention.
At least once every month many churches would hold a basket dinner outside under the large shade trees that surround country churches. After lunch there might be a singing sesson. Then children would play games of horse shoes and tag while their parents cleaned up the grounds to get ready for the evening services.
SWEET SWEET SPIRIT
There's a sweet, sweet spirit
in this place,
And I know that it's the Spirit
of the Lord;
There are sweet expressions on
And I know they feel the
presence of the Lord.
Sweet Holy Spirit,
Sweet heavenly dove,
Stay right here with us
Filling us with your love.
And for these blessings
We lift our hearts in praise:
Without a doubt we'll know
that we have been revived
When we shall leave
Christmas was a special time and each church had a special program to present. Morgan Lutheran Church had a community program, not just for its members alone. They decorated a large tree with lighted candles. Two men would stand beside the tree holding a fishing pole with a wet rag tied on the end, so if one of the candles made the least drip, they could put it out before the tree caught on fire. One Christmas there was a big ice storm that made it impossible for many to come to the program. One man cared so much about having the program a success he ice shod two teams of mules. He loaded the wagon with everybody that wanted to go to the Christmas program. Sawdust was spread on the ground so people wouldn't slip. That Christmas is one cherished by all who were able to attend.
Every church would need to be revived. And oh what a time this was! Most revivals were in the fall, usually in late August when the crops were laid by and farm families were not as busy. The revivals would last about two weeks. There were two services, one in the day which the elders said warmed the church up for the second service that night. So many people would come that sometimes they would have to look in the windows. The very small children would lay on a bench or on a pallet on the floor between benches.
After the revival was completed, there would be a great number of anxious converts ready to be baptized in the river. Even if it was winter and the creeks frozen, it didn't matter. Just break the ice and go right in. There might be up to fifty people ready to be baptized. Curtis Wilson once baptized a six year old boy. He was holding a baptismal service in the river and the boy was in the crowd of watchers. All of a sudden the boy dashed into the water. The little boy's parents were against baptizing him and so were a few members of the church because they thought he was too young. However, his grandfather said to baptize him, so Curtis did. He talked to the boy, now a man, not long ago. He still sings and goes to church and has never doubted his faith or ever been dissatisfied with it. The oldest person Curtis ever baptized was eighty-seven years old.
Sometimes people would do things the church didn't approve. A church trial would be held in which the person was asked if he was sorry for his misdeed. If not, he would be denied fellowship and excluded from church membership. In one church trial, one was denied fellowship for going to a dance. Another was excluded because he traded dogs on Sunday. One man traded horses on Sunday. The church asked him if he was sorry. Not until he found out he made a bad trade, he said. He was excluded.
Since the doors of the church were hardly ever locked, children often would wander inside to play church. One would stand behind the pulpit and mock the preacher. Others would act like the little old ladies of the church. Boys would go to the Amen Corner to play deacon. One time a few children wanted to imitate communion service. Since kerosene was all they found to put in the cup, they soon found out right from wrong!
The churches in this beautiful hill country hold many wonderful memories for all who have been to them, even though members move or churches close. One woman who has moved from the Ozarks comes back every summer on her vacation to visit the country church she grew up in. She visits the preacher, then goes to the church to play the piano and relive young memories.
Voices filled with the excitement of a remembered revival service, or eyes filled with tears of sweet memories reach out from these hill churches and touch those who hear about the past. A feeling of awe that can't be explained surrounds each individual, past and present, who come in contact with the power these churches possess. Everyone from the preacher to the smallest child, from the member of a church no longer existing to young people hearing about it fall under the spell that exists only in a country churchouse in these Ozark hills where---
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.