Thursday, November 13, 2008
The Preacher’s Corner
Getting church addresses not easy
Last week Greg Goodwiller, our presbytery executive, gave me the task of compiling a list of the physical addresses of all our North Mississippi churches. You would think somebody had done this long ago, but many of the churches get their mail at a post office box, and for a long time many country churches were on rural roads that did not have names. The purpose of this project was to post the addresses on our website, so that visitors can find their way.
I thought it would be an easy task, taking an afternoon’s labor at most. How hard could it be to get addresses for the 20 or so of our 65 churches that did not have a street address on file? After all, I have been to every one of these churches. If I could find it, why would it be difficult to say where it was? However, by the end of a week’s labor, with much consultation of Mapquest and White Pages online, as well as numerous telephone calls and conversations, the list is only semi-complete, and I have done all I can do!
Of course, getting a physical address was easy for all the town churches, but the country churches were a different matter. I thought that by now all the north Mississippi counties had assigned addresses to every barn and chicken coop through the 911/EMS program. But I found that some of our small churches either had not been assigned addresses, or had not posted the number, or did not know whether they had or not. (And they say Presbyterians are a highly-organized denomination!) I even had to track down phone numbers of many of the church clerks so that I could ask.
The situation is easily understood if one thinks historically. Most of these rural churches were founded in the very long ago, before roads were paved or areas mapped. Some trace their history to a very venerable age and if you find them you are in for a real architectural treat. When the pioneers established a church, it was often built on land donated by a leading member, often at the boundary between farms of two church families. In many cases a deed was never filed, so you can’t even obtain the information I was seeking from the courthouse.
Changes came as the years passed. Railroads and straighter highways were built, and often the old church was bypassed. But by now the church was surrounded by a cemetery, and it would have been a real crisis of sentiment to abandon the location, though sometimes the difficult decision was made.
One of our churches, Old Monroe, at Algoma, south of Pontotoc—for instance—has two locations. There is the country location and the “city” location—an arrangement worked out a century ago when all the members moved into the village of Algoma, but a decision was made to preserve the old church with its evocative cemetery across the road.
In many cases, the congregations just stayed put, resigning themselves to existence as “wee kirks,” but content with their lot and proud in their service. There are few institutions more resiliant than a country church, and most of them have carried on valiantly, with just enough new members appearing through the years to sustain the organization and keep up the cemetery. This, then, is why lovely old churches with names like Bethany, Sand Spring, Mt. Zion, New Hope, Friendship, and Unity, keep their watch at North Mississippi locations virtually impossible for the uninitiated visitor to find!
Many years ago, Dr. Ernest Trice Thompson, one of our church’s historians reflected on the movement of members to town and cities. He said that “in general, churches in the city do not sustain themselves but feed on recruits that come to them constantly from the country.”
Fifty years later, I believe his statement is still true. This gift to city churches is made at great cost to rural and small town churches which send their young people away for education and to seek their fortunes. C.W. Grafton — for fifty years minister at rural Union Church, in south Mississippi, wrote in his old age that “what our country churches lose, the big towns and cities gain; and today, the churches of Meridian, Laurel, Hattiesburg, Gulfport, have received the heart and soul of the piney woods.”
So, when I asked one lady out from Charleston, for the address of her church, I was not the least surprised when she said, “Well, it depends on the direction you are coming from.”
Or the gentleman down south of Eupora who told me, “I have been going to my church all my life, but I’ll be hanged if I could tell you how to find it from Holly Springs!” I’ve been to the “little brown church in the vale,” but you’d better have good directions if you set out to find it.
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