Little Country Church

by Jeff Tryon

When I was growing up in Brown County, my family attended a little country church by the side of the road surrounded by farm fields, pasture, and woods.

It was a little white wooden church, built in 1845, with a barn-style gambrel roof and a steeple with a bell that rang every Sunday morning. It had stained glass windows with little brass plates honoring the donors.

The floors were wooden and creaky, polished like the pews by years of worship and careful cleaning. The entire sanctuary was burnished by the prayers of the saints; by many decades of worship; singing, preaching and prayer; shared triumphs and tragedies—a community repository of memories and traditions.

When it was founded in the late 19th century, people arrived by horse and buggy or on foot, and baptisms regularly took place down at the local creek bank. It had twin pot-bellied stoves for heat in winter and little hand-held cardboard fans to cool in summer.

It was nurtured and grew through all the vagaries and triumphs of the 20th century—when our parents endured the difficulty of “hard times” and foreign wars, and enjoyed the post-war boom of prosperity.

In my time, they dealt with the difficulties of yet another foreign war, of the growing gulf between generations and rapid changes in social outlook.

These churches now struggle into a 21st century fraught with abrupt change and irrevocable and unexpected developments. Stolid institutions like a little country church find change difficult to navigate.

These little country churches used to be the centers of community activity, where people played as children, met and married their sweethearts, worshipped side by side, week in and week out, season by season, and where they were eventually funeralized and interred.

But more than just a geographic gathering of folks, the church represented what theologians call “the beloved community,” that invisible church comprised of all those Christians who really are trying to live by the teachings of Jesus, trying to live according to what the Apostle Paul called “The Law of Love,” speaking and acting in love, treating other people as you would want to be treated, clinging to a foundational faith in God through all the struggles and accomplishments of everyday life.

There in these small simple buildings, a great social experiment was and is underway—to see whether people can put aside their petty differences and annoying issues, put others’ interests above their own, and live in harmony and unity of spiritual practice.

By the way “Harmony” and “Unity” are the names of two of these pioneer Brown County churches— one in the northern part of the county between Bean Blossom and Spearsville, the other in the southern part, down near Bellsville. When I was younger, they were sister churches, both belonging to the same association, the Mount Zion Association of the same denomination, American Baptist Churches.

Just those names give you a glimpse into the thinking of the folks who founded them, over 150 years ago. They valued harmony. They valued unity.

One of the great things about little country churches is the congregational singing. Although the hymnal typically contains over 400 songs, most congregations have a scant few, 20 or 30, that they love and sing over and over again.

Singing is good for you. Just standing up with 30 or 40 other people and lifting your voice in song, whether or not you are technically a good singer, is not only good for us physically, as can be proved scientifically—it is good for the soul.

People grew up in the same church together, sharing all the high and low points of everyday life—weddings, funerals, the birth of a child, the death of a parent. Aside from their personal relationships elsewhere, they had a formal, Sunday morning relationship with their fellow congregants, and in many cases had family and social connections reaching back through several generations.
In my father’s day, when one of the saints passed on to their eternal reward, the funeral was held at the church. Funerals usually happen in some commercial establishment in town today.

Out behind a little country church, there’s usually a cemetery, rows of headstones of varying sizes and shapes, and a lot of the history of that little church and the community around it is in that graveyard—if you know how to read it.

Sometimes, a whole family tree is laid out neatly side by side. In my own case, my family antecedents lay spread out in a number of different small cemeteries in and around Spearsville, ranging on up into southern Johnson County.

In an era of “mega-churches” and supreme mobility, it is surprising how often people from urban or suburban communities seek out the Sunday morning experience of a traditional little country church.