My father was raised in a Lutheran church and later became an agnostic. Still, he enjoyed taking us to the yearly three day hard-shell meetings back in East Texas. We would leave after school on Friday and make the three to four hour trip. Generally we stayed at the home of one of the members.
I remember particularly one little lady my sister and I called “Aunt May.” Spending the night at Aunt May’s house meant sleeping in a feather bed on the screened-in porch. We loved it! In the morning (which came early) there would be home-made biscuits. Once there were ants in the sugar at Aunt May’s house. She told us just to “pick them out.” A few bugs didn’t bother a woman who dipped powdered snuff, and she sure couldn’t understand why they bothered us.
Somewhere around 1980 we were at one of these three-day meetings in Huntington. Off the side of the one-room building was an extended roof, under which were the dinner tables, coffee pots, and cookies. There I was catching ant lions and eating cookies, when I looked through the window and saw Daddy standing at the front of the church. People were lined up to hug him; there wasn’t a dry eye in the building.
The next day the entire church went to a nearby farm where Daddy was baptized in a stock-tank by Elder U.V. Wallace. He was soon ordained as a deacon and later became the pastor of County Line church, where my great-grandparents took mother and me years earlier.
This is not the specific church remembered below, but it is another that I went to with my parents and grand-parents as a very young boy.
Great-Grandmother and Grandpa took Mama and me to church. Mama and Grandmother sat with the ladies in front of the pulpit. Grandpa sat with the men to the side. Since there was no Sunday school and usually no other children, I would play in the kitchen or outside.The kitchen and restrooms were added sometime after the one-room frame church was originally built. A window looked from the kitchen directly into the pulpit. I could lie on the old pew inside the kitchen and look at the back of the man who was preaching. A rhythmic, sing-song voice characterized hard-shell preaching. Those that didn’t have it were pitied; having the proper rhythm was a sure sign that someone was called to preach and particularly filled with the Holy Spirit (so the thinking went).
The service would consist of over an hour’s worth of singing from Benjamin Lloyd’s hymnal
. There were no notes in the book, only words. You had the tunes memorized. And they were sung at a very, very
slow pace. Singing would be followed by the prayer and then preaching. A typical sermon lasted at least an hour.The church had a large old cemetery full of trees. It was the perfect place for a young boy to wander around and catch lizards. (One time I caught a snake, and another time I found a baby opossum). On spring days all of the windows in the church would be open. The sound of hymns being sung a cappella would carry to the back of the cemetery or a good way into the woods, where I might be tramping through the mud to find and eat huckleberries.
When the sounds of preaching and singing stopped, I knew it was time to head back to the building. We all gathered around a long, plywood table in the kitchen. If it was warm, we would be outside. One of the men would say a blessing that sometimes resembled a sermon; they seemed to last at least half an hour. Then we would eat a traditional East Texas pot-luck lunch: usually fried chicken, greens, dumplins, potatoes, and a few things unidentifiable. After we ate and cleaned up we would say goodbye to each other, usually with hugs, and then we would part. So much for a day at church.
Jonah S. Murphy (1867 – 1951) was the pastor of Leading Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Montrose, West Virginia until the day of his death. He was also my great, great grandfather.
I know little about him, but was told that he learned to read using the King James Bible, and he read it continuously throughout his life. He was a “man of one book,” and he knew his book well.His father, James Murphy (1834- 1903), and grandfather, David P. Murphy (1806 – 1885) were also pastors of the same church. Today the church is still there, and is pastored by a distant cousin of mine, V.B. Linn.
The building itself is a one-room white frame house warmed by a wood stove in the winter and cooled by opened windows in the summer. My mother says that electricity was added after she became an adult. The church does not have indoor plumbing.
My great grandfather’s funeral in 1997 was the only time that I know of that I visited Leading Creek Primitive Baptist Church. Elder Linn preached the sermon and lined the hymn, “Jesus, Thou Art the Sinner’s Friend.” That is, he read each verse prior to the congregation’s singing of it. Hymn Lining is a tradition that was born of necessity in a time when churches couldn’t afford hymnals, or the members couldn’t read. At any rate, if you’ve never heard it you are missing something.
After the service we carried my grandfather across the church yard to his grave on that beautiful West Virginia hillside. At the grave we sang an untitled hymn by Isaac Watts:
How did my heart rejoice to hear
My friends devoutly say,
‘In Zion let us all appear,
And Keep the solemn day.’
the rest of the hymn.Sometimes, though I’ve never lived there, I feel homesick for Randolph County, West Virginia. Maybe it’s a longing for heaven that I really feel — a place where worship will be pure and uncorrupted by the world, surrounded by God’s beauty and presence. And a place where we will be with those for whom, though they died generations before us, we feel a kindred spirit.
“There my best friends, my kindred dwell,
There God my Saviour reigns.”