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The Old Country Church in Rural Mississippi

Marcy writes about family, home life, parenting, money-saving tips, and many other topics, as well as essays and occasional humor pieces.

A white, clapboard chapel in Rural America

This old country church resembles the one I remember in Mississippi.

This old country church resembles the one I remember in Mississippi.

A small, white frame church in rural Mississippi holds many memories for me

It was a wooden frame building in an area of rural Mississippi, where, decades ago, I spent many summers with my grandparents - a place so unaltered by urban life that it was like stepping into the pages of Harper Lee. A building filled with generations of gospel singing, fervent prayers, marriages, baptisms and funerals. Although it was a different denomination than the one I attended in Ohio, where I grew up, and different still from the denomination I belong to now, every minute I spent in that old country chapel burned itself into each of my senses in a way that stirs my memory to this day.

Even years ago, the rural church building was quite unlike the carpeted, modern sanctuary we attended back home in Ohio, which stood proudly on the corner of a busy highway. The little chapel in Mississippi had chipped paint (what was left of it, anyway) on its exterior and was nestled among tall pines that lined a dusty, red dirt road. There was no air conditioning, so the front doors remained open when the Southern heat became unbearable each summer, which was somehow fitting in the local culture, where the line between nature and man was more ambiguously drawn than in a big city.

In the summer, the sun shifted in a way that sent shafts of dust-danced light streaming through the open casement windows onto the plain wooden planks of the flooring, warming them to a golden brown. The rows of pews were smooth-surfaced, in the manner of wood long ago worn through loving usage to reveal the oils and inner luster beneath the original finish. Rich, dark wood gleamed in the areas most frequently caressed. In other areas, the original yellow-brown color remained, as though awaiting the human touch, like a forgotten lover.

The plank floors creaked with age, and the path to the altar had been worn to a patina from the many worshippers who went forward during annual revival meetings. As with the floors, the wooden benches protested audibly when you sat on them. The benches were small and rather cozy. You couldn’t help bonding with the neighbors who shared your pew after nearly sitting in each other’s laps every week.

Country churches are dying out

Many beloved country chapels no longer exist, due to the changes in demographics and the lure of the city.

Many beloved country chapels no longer exist, due to the changes in demographics and the lure of the city.

the-old-country-church
the-old-country-church

Church pews In old churches: A clue to life in the community

As worshipers filed in each week, the rafters hummed with low conversations throughout the pews and the chattering of small children. But when the opening chords of the first hymn sounded, the hum subsided as people settled into their pews with reverence. When it was time to sing, voices blended with enthusiasm, if not vocal skill. Although everyone held open hymnals, it was more for show than out of necessity, since everyone knew all the verses of the regular hymns by heart, just as they could readily quote passages from the Bible.

The racks on the back of each pew held the necessities of worship as well as many small clues of the life and history of the chapel and the local community. Worn and frayed hymnals nestled against equally aged Bibles, the spines of each trained with years of service to fall open naturally to certain favorite songs or passages, while other pages still sat virginal and un-yellowed, protected from the world by default, through a lack of exposure and use.

Small cards tucked in wooden pew pockets were labeled “Visitor,” with an air of hope and guarded hospitality. The pew racks were always well-stocked with cardboard discs on wooden paddles, used to fan away the heat when the room got oppressively warm. Each bore a four-color rendition of Life Eternal and worship on one side, and the more practical legend, Bryant’s Funeral Parlor, on the other.

Worshipping with the windows open was a glorious experience

Rural churches usually had no air conditioning, so the casement windows were opened in warm weather.

Rural churches usually had no air conditioning, so the casement windows were opened in warm weather.

Country chapels were open to the outdoors

On pleasant days warm breezes drifted in, heavy with the scent of nearby pastures and fields lying beyond the windows. As the breezes floated past the thin tapestries covering the altar, they would stir to life and wave slightly, like threadbare banners of a parade that had long passed, faded to an anemic remnant of what they’d been during more vibrant days.

I remember once studying a lone fly as it buzzed in and out of the open windows, the whir of its wings faintly disturbing an otherwise peaceful worship service. Its disregard of the boundaries reflected a centuries-old territorial heritage; its genes told him the pastures outside and the pews inside had for many generations of his species been one with the other. Once in a while, a small butterfly or two would stray into the sanctuary, its delicate color and the tissue of its wings contrasting with the Sunday dress (often in shades of navy or black, if it was a 'widder woman') of the congregation.

When that blessing and evil called progress finally extended its reach to the dusty rural road, the red clay gave way to pavement, and the old church building was eventually torn down for some ‘improvement’ or newer building. The original church exists now only in memories, but it has left a legacy with those of us who knew it.

The church in Mississippi is as strong a part of my genealogy as the names and dates on the family cemetery, and its history is entwined in the branches of my pedigree. In my memory, I can conjure up the look and feel of the beloved chapel, and as I look around, I see the life-worn faces of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and all the generations who have gone before us.

Comments

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 28, 2013:

Awww! Thanks, drmiddlebrook! The church I wrote about was on the outskirts of Purvis, which is a small town south of Hattiesburg. Such precious memories there . . .

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD from Texas, USA on September 25, 2013:

Awesome Hub! When I saw the photograph of the church, it looked so much like the one I attended as a child growing up in rural Mississippi, I had to look twice. And, of course, I had to read the article after that! What an amazing trip down memory you've provided here for us. Thank you so much. Voted up, beautiful, and awesome!

Clcase on August 15, 2013:

Thank you so much! I think there is still a church there by that name, although it may not be the same actual building. I'm sure I can find one similar. Thank you!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on August 15, 2013:

What a sweet idea! I am afraid that church may not be there any longer, but it's certainly worth taking a nice ride down that way to check it out. As I recall, there are (or were) a number of charming little churches like that dotted throughout the very rural areas near Purvis, Lumberton, Poplarville, etc. I hope you find one that is the perfect setting for your upcoming wedding, and my very best wishes to you for a lifetime and eternity of love and happiness.

clcase on August 15, 2013:

Thank you very much for letting me know! I live about an hour north of Hattiesburg so I'm not that far. I'm looking for a little white church just like that for my wedding so when I read your article, it sounded perfect and I just had to know where it was! Thank you!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on August 15, 2013:

Thanks for your kind words, clcase! The church I'm recalling here was in the country outside of Purvis, Mississippi. Purvis is about 15 miles south of Hattiesburg. I believe the area was known as Pine Grove, and the church was Pine Grove Baptist Church back then. I do not know if it is still standing, but those worn pews and the sounds of nature drifting through the open casement windows are vivid and precious memories for me.

Glad you enjoyed the article.

clcase on August 14, 2013:

Does anyone happen to know where this church she is describing is located or the name of it? Thanks! (Lovely article, by the way!)

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on October 30, 2012:

Hi, PDX - thanks so much for the warm comments! I often wish I could go back in time and enjoy the look and feel of these old memories. Sweet times, indeed. Thank you for sharing!

Justin W Price from Juneau, Alaska on October 29, 2012:

Very nice, Marcy... and beautifully written. I attend this church: http://www.oldscotchchurch.org/ and it reminds me a lot of the church you described. Quaint and peaceful. Nice work. Up and shared.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on August 09, 2012:

Thank you, Sligobay - my memories of this church are precious to me; so glad you enjoyed the hub!

sligobay from east of the equator on August 09, 2012:

This is a beautiful Hub worthy of a return visit. Great piece.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on August 09, 2012:

Hi, Habee - thanks so much for your sweet comments! I should come to Georgia and visit that church; the one from my childhood is mostly a memory now. Those houses of worship were tender and special places.

Holle Abee from Georgia on August 09, 2012:

This is an absolutely beautiful hub! I love those old country churches. We have lots of them here in GA. In fact, yours reminds me a lot of one in the North GA mountains, just north of Helen.

Voted up and shared!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on July 26, 2012:

Wow - what a story! And what a history those places have. You are very blessed to have those experiences.

Aflin on July 26, 2012:

Thank you for your reply, of course in the UK we have so many beautiful Churches and I always feel honoured to preach in pulpits where generations of preachers have stood before. In the town where I worship, Wesley himself preached on one occasion and in his journal he says that he found the people to be so miserable that he preached hell in the morning and damnation in the evening! Thankfully, since the 1700's the population appear to have become more cheerful.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on July 26, 2012:

Hi, Aflin - How I'd love to see the place you visited! Rural churches (of any denomination) are truly special places. There's a history and legacy you don't find in urban settings that have more dynamic population changes. Thanks so much for your comments, and please drop by after you're called to let us know about your new congregation!

Aflin on July 26, 2012:

I loved the way you describe this church. I am in the second year of my training to be ordained as a Methodist minister in the UK and have just finished my placement in a large city church. During one Sunday I went to visit Buckfast Abbey in Devon and despite this being a Roman Catholic monastery in the middle of the grounds is a tiny Victorian Methodist chapel dated 1881. There was a communion service starting and so I decided to stay. There were only eight of us including the Methodist minister for communion but having been worshipping in an inner city church with a large congregation, I really felt at home and at peace in this little chapel. I now know for sure that it is rural ministry I am being called to.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on May 02, 2012:

Oh, Peg - thank you for your sweet words! I miss that little church so much; it sounds like you were in the same church (so to speak) as a child! Just to clarify - I grew up in Ohio, but half my family (my mother's side) was in Mississippi, so we had strong ties there and spent a lot of time there. I think maybe I noticed those details even more due to not seeing them all the time in Ohio.

Thanks for reading, and thanks again, for your dear words!

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on May 02, 2012:

Marcy, How lovely that you were raised as a Southern girl in a rural church like the beautiful example you described here. Every word was nostalgic for me, having grown up in the Southernmost City in the USA, our little family church was so much like this one: the open windows; the hand fans; the "well worn patina" on the walk down the aisle to go forward. I loved your phrase, "shafts of dust-danced light streaming" which was truly poetic. Voted up all the way on this piece.

Peg

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on March 01, 2012:

Oh, Jaye - the church you described is exactly like the one I knew in Mississippi (hey - are we related?). I hated to see 'progress' hit that sweet community. My grandparents lived about seven miles outside of 'town,' and the town had few people in it than my Yankee high school had. Thanks for your comments, and for sharing your sweet memories.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on March 01, 2012:

I grew up in Mississippi and have come back to it more than once. Since I'm getting older, I'm probably here to stay.

Some of my earliest memories center around a country church I attended with my grandparents and mother while my father was overseas in WWII. If I got sleepy during the long sermon, I lay on the wooden pew with my head in my grandmother's lap and took a nap. If the weather was hot, she made good use of one of those cardboard fans. In winter, she spread my coat over me like a blanket.

Periodically, this church held an event called "dinner on the ground", a potluck meal with food spread out on numerous long folding tables beneath the shade of hardwood trees in the churchyard. This usually took place when there were afternoon services planned so no one would leave.

Every woman in the church membership vied with all the others to provide her most acclaimed cooking specialty (chicken pie with two crusts was my grandmother's claim to fame), and one entire table was devoted to deserts. It was so tempting to try as many dishes as possible, most people ate too much and felt miserably stuffed. A lot of adults probably felt they needed a nap when the church service resumed!

During those days the church was a small size frame building painted white. About four decades later I took my mom back there for a highly-publicized "homecoming" to find the old building completely transformed. The wood frame was covered in brick and several large wings were added, greatly increasing the sice of the structure. The sanctuary included plushly padded pews, chandeliers, a state-of-the-art sound system, a baby grand piano and an organ. Quite a change from that little church of my childhood, but my mom enjoyed seeing old friends from the past, many of whom lived their entire lives in that rural neighborhood.

Thanks for triggering my nostalgic memories of a happy time in my early life.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 24, 2012:

Thank you for you sweet words, JamaGenee! I feel lucky to have learned what I did about rural life. I still have relatives there, but a lot has changed. I appreciate your comments.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on February 24, 2012:

What wonderful word pictures you've painted here! Harper Lee? Definitely! That said, I'm envious such a church was part of your childhood. My family were "townies", so the church we attended was like the one you mentioned back in Ohio. Same for when we visited out-of-town relatives. No charm, no sense of history.

Voted up, awesome and beautiful! ;D

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 23, 2012:

Thank you, James - I truly admire your writing and value your opinion. Thanks for your kind words!

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 23, 2012:

Thank you for publishing this lovely Hub. No doubt, you are a wonderfully gifted writer.

When I think back to my childhood church, I too can "see the life-worn faces of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and all the generations who have gone before us."

And ain't it the truth that "everyone knew all the verses of the regular hymns by heart, just as they could readily quote passages from the Bible."

I love your descriptive writing that paints a picture in the mind's eye. I could give many examples from this one article but one will suffice:

"Rich, dark wood gleamed in the areas most frequently caressed. In other areas, the original yellow-brown color remained, as though awaiting the human touch, like a forgotten lover."

Well put.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 17, 2012:

Thanks, Audrey - I so cherish church organists. - they so often carry the spirit of the service by lifting everyone up through their musical talents. I appreciate your comments! Bless your husband for his gifts.

Audrey Howitt from California on February 17, 2012:

What a wonderful share. My husband is an organist--so we are always going in and out of churches--I must say that a love the small simple ones

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 16, 2012:

Thank you, Vicki! That old church is so dear to my heart!

Sojourner McConnell from Winchester Kentucky on February 16, 2012:

I loved the pictures your words brought to my mind. I too have seen the "widder woman" dressed in black the rest of her lift. I too visited the small white frame church of my grandparents. A lovely lovely article.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 16, 2012:

Thank you, Judi! Maybe sometime you can find a small, old rural church on one of your visits - they're very charming. I appreciate your comments!

Judi Brown from UK on February 16, 2012:

Despite being British and living in the UK, my father lives part of the year in Mississippi (it's a very long story!). Can't say I have visited a local church, but I do enjoy my visits and this was a beautifully written piece of nostalgia.

Voted up and shared.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 14, 2012:

Thank you, pmmcray - what kind words! I appreciate your time in reading and commmenting!

pmccray from Utah on February 14, 2012:

Beautifully written hub. Voted up, marked beautiful and interesting.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 12, 2012:

Thank you, sligobay! I'm so glad it touched your heart!

sligobay from east of the equator on February 12, 2012:

Lovely article. It is peppered nicely with nostalgia.