Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Club restores “little” building, lifts spirits

“Please write something about the little church on the north side of the city hall that the Town & Country Garden Club is restoring,” asked Jean Ann Jones after Sunday school last week.

Well, the history I know about that little building — that looks very little like a church — is the time when it was a church — when from 1837 to 1848 it housed the Holly Springs Presbyterian Church. That was a long time ago, and the little building — said to be one of the oldest examples of “shotgun” architecture outside New Orleans — is one of the two or three oldest structures in Holly Springs.

Not all the stories are happy. Let me ease into the topic by sharing some lighthearted corres-pondence between the Rev. Bruce McMillan and myself, in which we converse in the language of the long ago, when such matters were definitely not joked about!

Informing Bruce that the elders of our church had invited him to deliver the sermon at our church next Sunday for our annual joint festival service with bagpipers and “the Kirkin’ o’ the tartans” with Christ Church, I e-mailed (tongue-in-cheek) that, “the kirk-session met yesterday and invited you to deliver the sermon next Sunday. But first — they must require ye to appear before them so they may scrutinize yr doctrine. Having heard the common fame that ye believe in reprobation, they also suspect that ye have practiced it.”  

As I knew would happen, a reply came within moments — the wires to my computer sizzling with Episcopal indignation: “Please advise the Session that I shall be most pleased to appear before them at six o’clock the morning of the twenty-seventh next, which should give them ample time to examine my theological peculiarities prior to the service at eleven o’clock.”

You must know that members of the clergy labor with shoulders bent under the heavy burden of people’s supposition (and expectation) that we are always solemn, sad, and soberly pious — rejoicing in the splendid isolation of our godly occupation.

But in another era — as in the era when the little building the garden club is restoring as a meeting place was a church — there was, perhaps, some truth to that ecclesiastical stereotype.

I do know, for example, that when the first Episcopal minister visited Memphis about 1830, he took a room above a saloon and preached a sermon against “worldly amusements.” I possess a sermon by his colleague, the bishop of Virginia, which opposed chewing tobacco and especially the corollary habit of spitting during divine service!

It was in that little building that the first disciplinary matter recorded in the records of the Holly Springs Presbyterian Church was prosecuted. The elders (not regarding themselves as above the law) assembled to investigate a rumor about one of the session’s own members — the session-clerk himself! The records read: “May 11, 1841: Session convened this day and was constituted with prayer…J. P. M. and C. A. S. were appointed a committee to investigate the report in relation to R. H. P. and report to the Session on next Friday.” Happily it was reported that there was no substance to the rumor and this finding was ordered “read from the desk” the following Sabbath.

All churches encouraged members to sanctify the Lord’s Day and Presbyterians were especially strict in this regard. In 1839, the Presbytery of Tombeckbee (the regional governing body that covered Northeast Mississippi including Holly Springs), put the Rev. Thomas Davis on trial at Starkville for “going after ponies and searching for land lines on the Sabbath Day.” For these and other offences Mr. Davis was deposed from the ministry.

Not surprisingly, then, in Holly Springs, the elders resolved, November 16, 1847, that: “Whereas Mr. T. and Mr. H., members of our Church, have for a long Time, neglected to attend the stated means of grace and the ordinances of this Church to such an extent, that it becomes the duty of the Session to take notice of the matter — therefore Resolved: That a committee of two be appointed to see them upon the subject, ascertain their views in reference to their conduct and Report the same to a future meeting of the Session.”

One of the gentlemen furnished a letter as an indication of his repentance. It asked the elders to remove his name from the communion list for the time being, but went on to say that: “I beg leave to assure you that it is the earnest desire of my heart to become a genuine Christian and I hope and trust, that the day will come, when I may be found among the worthy of the Church, discharging all the duties that may devolve on me, in a manner becoming a zealous and upright Christian.”

And so the church was a disciplined body — but from this remove I note that most sins condemned — Sabbath-breaking, card-playing, drunkenness, swearing — even a lady brought before the Holly Springs elders for “night-strolling” — were what we would term “sins of the flesh.” These peccadilloes concerned what might be called “public decorum.” Such scruples appear to have been enforced selectively and ignored greater moral issues, chief among them slavery. White church people, of course, claimed that they treated their servants kindly, but one must notice that none ever volunteered to exchange places with them.

There is no evidence in the records of the old Holly Springs churches that any of them were ever overly censorious in their administration of church discipline. The system was a vestige of the Protestant Reformation and Puritanism, and probably accounted for the fact that in those days far more women than men were members of the church. The elders were, in fact, practically the only men willing to undertake membership with all its strictures against the excesses of frontier life.

The system of ecclesiastical trials was on its way to disuse in the South by the 1880s. Sometimes an over-zealous minister unwittingly hastened the process. The pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta cited so many for offenses that the congregation became irritated by his conduct. Accordingly, more than half of the membership wrote letters confessing various infractions and demanded that they too be placed on trial!

Facing such a docket the frustrated preacher resigned, and the congregation engaged a more tolerant minister and has since practiced a less stringent if not more sanguine form of spirituality.

Today pastoral counseling has replaced ecclesiastical courts such as met in the little church on Memphis Street as a means of restoring sinners to fellowship. I would never go back to the olden days, but it is worth remembering that faith has always called for some discipline in our personal lives.

Perhaps through what they do, the Town & Country Garden Club can lift our spirits in a more positive way. They need donations to finish the restoration of their building. I am sure any member would gladly receive your contribution.

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