Friday, May 21, 2021

A Few Old Churches Down South

St. Clement's, Vaiden, MS

 When I am on a road trip, I am always on the lookout for old churches.  Modern church architecture interests me not at all, other than to be appalled at what they spent good money to erect.  Most of these seem a testament to what Theodore Dalrymple refers to as “The Equality of Ugliness:  If we can’t live in a beautiful place, we must all live in an ugly place.”

Ch. of the Ascension, Water Valley

From my most recent trips, here are a few from the Pentarchy of Southern Protestant Religiosity--Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ--as well as one ringer.  To all my friends in these fellowships, please excuse the barbed commentary.  I did try to spread it around equally. 


An Episcopal Church in a small Southern town is a sure sign that there was once a degree of concentrated wealth in the locality, with probably some pretensions of culture.  I am sympathetic, though a bit ambivalent to Southern Anglicanism.  I find it hard to credit them, given the messiness of their founding, spawned as they were from the overheated loins of Henry VIII.  I have read too much Eamon Duffy to be a fan of the English Reformation in general, and Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer in particular.  It seems to me that the Elizabethan via media is just Latin for “neither fish nor fowl.”  But they did build beautiful churches, which is the purported purpose of this piece.    

Christ Episcopal, St. Joseph, LA

I found one in the little crossroads of Vaiden, Mississippi.  I had stopped to photograph the gravestones of two uncles who had died in camp there in 1862.  The town itself proved of interest.  Vaiden is the county seat, though too small to support a proper courthouse square.  They do, however, have the requisite statue to Confederate veterans.  Besides a few old homes, the only other notable architecture is this, St. Clements Episcopal Church from 1859.  The church is not currently in use, and  a couple of boarded-up windows on the north side are a bad omen.  Clearly, the structure is in need of a benefactor.

I found the pristine Church of the Ascension in the bustling downtown of Water Valley, Mississippi, quite a contrast to Vaiden.  It reminded me of two other Episcopal churches seen in recent ramblings: 

St. Nathaniel's Episcopal, Melville, LA

Christ Episcopal in St. Joseph, Louisiana, and the St. Nathaniel’s in the dying town of Melville, Louisiana.  Once this was a thriving port on the Atchafalaya River.  The railroad crossed the river at that point, but the highway did not.  Melville is no longer a port of call, and the freight trains crossing there have no need to slow down.  In short, Melville is now a backwater at the end of what amounts to a dead-end road.  The market there still operates and makes a pretty good muffalata.  Back in the day, distant cousins of mine were a big part of the Episcopal Church there and they lie buried under the concrete slabs adjoining, a necessity in this part of the state.  The church is now used by the local Woman’s club.


There are few rural Presbyterian churches in Texas, but once you cross the Mississippi they are more frequent, though still running far behind the old churches of other sects.  But invariably, when you do find them, they are usually quite beautiful.  I’m not entirely sure why this is so.  Presbyterians always placed a premium on education and perhaps this had something to do with it.  Or maybe it was to compensate for the Calvinism contained within.  No matter, I always stop to give them a look.  

Presbyterian Church, Rodney, MS

Historic Rodney Presbyterian is one of the lucky ones. Not in active use since the 1920s, this is about all that is left of Rodney. It is now deep into restoration, thanks to the efforts of an energetic and far-sighted historical foundation.

Lebanon Church, Toccopola, MS
While breezing through Toccopola, Mississippi, I almost missed the Lebanon Presbyterian Church. I glanced at a yard sign and turned around to have a closer look. A homemade sign had simply said: “Trump 2020  No Bullsh*t.”  After TFPDJT lost the election, this true believer, not wanting to waste a good plyboard, painted over the 20 and replaced it with 24.  The “No Bullsh*t” remained. The main attraction was, however, the adjoining giant brightly-colored metal Mexican rooster that one tends to see in the better neighborhoods.  Anyway, the turning around for this roadside attraction caused me to spy the lovely, and clearly antebellum Lebanon church.

Union Church, Perdue Hill, AL

Zipping down Highway 84 in southern Alabama, I found the pre-1880 Union Church (formerly Presbyterian) in Perdue Hill.

Bethsalem Presbyterian, Jefferson, GA

And finally, there is the first Presbyterian church in Georgia, Bethsalem in Jefferson. My 5th-great grandparents were communicants there in the 1780s, long before the present church was erected. Presbyterian churches were usually classy affairs up until 1960 or so, when they discovered modernism. The least said about those built subsequently, the better.


The much more numerous old Methodist churches of the South give the Episcopalians and Presbyterians a run for their money;  maintaining some of the same aesthetic sensibilities without all the theological rigor, such as it is.  The oldest I visited was the 1810 Wrightsboro Meeting House. Founded in the 1760s, this is one of the oldest settlements in Georgia, after Savannah and Augusta, and marked the furthest extension of Quakerism in the South.  The Quakers laid out an expansive townsite in the midst of their 40,000 acre grant. By the time William Bartram visited in 1773, he described the settlement in almost Edenic terms.

Wrightsboro Meeting House, GA

But other peoples started moving in as well, and the Quaker declension was in full throttle.  Some of my family moved here in the 1770s as good Quakers, only to reappear as something altogether different in the late 1790s in Kentucky. By the time this meeting house was erected in 1810, the Quakers were either gone or assimilated, leaving only silent field stones in their burial ground about a mile to the east. 

Methodist Church, McKinley, AL

An excellent example of antebellum architecture for prosperous Methodists is the 1847 church in Jefferson, Alabama. Nearby, but in a much more rural setting is the striking church in the


Methodist Church, Jefferson, AL

 town of McKinley, complete with a beautiful blue stained glass window.  Their earliest and longtime pastor, my 4th great-grandfather Daniel Monaghan, lies buried across the road.

Finally, there is the late 19th-century Methodist church in the port city of St. Joseph. The church is abandoned, as they have a newer ugly Methodist church on the main road. The sagging structure needs help soon.

Methodist Church, St. Joseph, LA


Baptist Church, Rodney, MS

The Baptists are the default church of the South; there's more of them than all other denominations combined.  This very ubiquitousness is, however, their weakness, in my opinion. The broadness of the Southern Baptistocracy sometimes makes them lazy, and leads to their not being taken seriously. And it is not as if they never built lovely churches in the old South, for there were quite a few. I think the sheer weight of the pervasive banal modern Baptist architecture may have colored my perception. The Baptist church in Jefferson, Alabama is as stately as any. The one fast sinking in Rodney, Mississippi is a gem, though one soon to be lost. The 1888 Barbara Lowery Baptist Church in Perdue Hill, Alabama makes an impression, as does one from a later era, Ramah Baptist in Palmetto, Georgia. But I am afraid these tend to be the exceptions.  

Baptist Church, Jefferson, AL

I do like the simplicity of the Friendship Baptist Church in Wilkes County, Georgia, where I stopped to place small monuments to my 6th-great grandparents either buried there or nearby. 

And one occasionally finds little churches like this--Mt. Nebo Baptist in remote Wilkinson County, Georgia.  It is as plain as can be, but they did at least have a cross on the roof.  I was checking out the old cemetery adjacent, where my 7th-great uncle Dr. John Taliaferro (1734-1821) is buried.  In this truly rustic locale, I was pleased to see a knock-off statue of the “Bird Girl” from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”  I appreciate it when someone stretches for beauty.

Ramah Baptist Church, Palmetto, GA

Friendship Church, Wilkes Co., GA

Baptist Church, Perdue Hill, AL

Mt. Nebo, Wilkinson County, GA

Churches of Christ:

Pineywoods Church of Christ, AL

Outside of northern Alabama, Tennessee and Texas, one doesn’t see that many Churches of Christ, particularly if you are grading on the Baptist scale.   And one almost never sees an historic old Church of Christ building (The isolated Midway congregation in Lampasas County, Texas, where my grandmother worshipped in the 1920s remains, but this is the exception.)  

There is a reason for this.  After the Civil War, the Christian Church, a unity movement that was never really that united, underwent a rolling 50-year split.  One faction, the Disciples, desired mightily to swim in the broad river of American mainline Protestantism.   In their headlong pursuit of the same, they ended up with the church buildings, the pianos, and German higher criticism, but in the end suffered the fate of the mainline denominations, perhaps more so than any.  The fundamentalist wing, who assumed the name “Churches of Christ” exclusively, was left high and dry, but defiant and clinging to an aggressive and very particular biblical hermeneutic.

I spent 25 adult years in this church--the 7th generation on my grandmother’s side--and I have studied its history in depth.  I am familiar with the extreme iconoclasm of their worship and worship spaces where even crosses are verboten.  Even so, I was still startled by the starkness of this church, the Pineywoods Church of Christ in rural Randolph County, Alabama.

I found myself at the end of a dirt road, searching a family cemetery, which is literally in the church’s front yard.  All of those buried there were my distant relations, one way or the other. Any before I left, I met two more (above ground) who came down on a golf cart to see what I was up to. I was interested to see that they still maintained the rural custom of mounding-up graves.  I used to do the same with my favorite uncle at the family graveyard in the Texas Hill Country.  

After my genealogical snooping, I walked up to the church to have a look in the blindless windows.  Inside and out, this was as plain a church building as I have ever seen.  Homemade pews, a lectern, and behind that, a huge classroom size dry-erase board.  That was it--nothing else, not a thing on the walls.  This was a building designed for instruction; a true “meeting house,” rather than a church.  I was reminded of something I heard recently on a podcast of Jonathan Pageau interviewing Paul Kingsnorth:

The Reformation changes the role of the church from being a center for ritual into being a sort of center for moral teaching...what you are getting is a lecture...a lecturer who tells you what Jesus wants you to do.

This is where that road ends.  But Kingsnorth's warning applies not only to this humble Church of Christ, but really to all the churches I have noted here and their successors; for this congregation is just an extreme manifestation of the movement that characterizes them all. Time eventually takes care of all our human efforts. But the tragedy here is not the March of Time, but rather the disinterest of those who once believed. To continue with Kingsnorth, just a bit:

As soon as you experience a ritual you think, Oh Goodness me, this is what it is supposed to be about.  God’s in the room.  A culture can’t survive without rituals and they were all designed to take people to the Divine in some way.


Universalist Church, Camp Hill, AL

And now, for the outlier: I would just about expect to see a Sikh temple as I would an old Universalist Church in the South.  But that was before I visited Camp Hill, Alabama, a rural hamlet famous for the Lyman Ward Preparatory School, stretched out along a hilltop south of town, and infamous for the 1931 lynching carried out against the Alabama Sharecroppers Union. The First Universalist Church of Camp Hill was established in 1846, with this imposing church built in 1909.  It claimed to be the largest of their churches in the Southeast for much of the 20th Century.  One is tempted to substitute “only” for “largest.”  Remarkably, the congregation continues on in rural, Trumpy Alabama. On their Facebook page, they have posted a meme with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: 

Make your own Bible.  Select & collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.

Thomas Jefferson would have approved, I think.

1 comment:

Dana Ames said...

Hi Terry/John, nice to see you writing again. You're always a good read.

Two of my children have been living in the South, one in NC to get his Master's and then stayed at the U. to work as an Adjunct for a few years before going off to IL to study for his DMA (collaborative piano), where he is now. We haven't visited him in IL yet, but are looking forward to it. The other child is in the Army and is based at Ft Gordon, GA and lives just over the state line in SC. Visiting her, we've had the opportunity to drive down into and across Georgia a couple of times. Two things struck me church-wise: 1) how many of those tiny congregations have a churchyard; and 2) how "you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a Baptist Church" in NC (how my husband put it) - and how they're 99% brick buildings with a white steeple.

I'm happy to have been to Flannery O'Connor's birthplace in Savannah. My husband is happy to have been able to go to Andersonville, where one of his Iowa ancestors was imprisoned and lived to write the tale, which is now in the Iowa state archives, we are told. This western girl (Montana/California) always feels like she's in a sort of a different country when in the South.

We only go places to visit our children :) On a previous trip to SC, when Army daughter graduated from basic training and we took a few days beforehand to go to Charleston, you recommended Meeting Street Inn to me. We did stay there and liked it very much, especially being able to walk anywhere in the historic district. It was a lovely trip.