Thursday, April 11, 2013
The Preacher’s Corner
A town that loves its history
By the time you are reading these words, the 75th Holly Springs Pilgrimage will be upon us! It is my favorite time of year — not only is all the beauty of spring a rich feast for the eyes, but there’s lots of good food, too — Charles Dean used to say that by the time Pilgrimage was over there was not a live chicken left in North Mississippi.
Pilgrimage is a time for dress-up and make-believe. Factual history definitely takes a back seat. It is entertainment and socializing, and conviviality for one and all. But in a town that loves its history there are several tales that are frequently told which would be much-improved if the real facts were used, and I would like to set these forth!
Let us start with the Presbyterian Church. It is often said that Colonel Walter, of Walter Place, was expelled from the church for dancing, and that the congregation, realizing what their preacher had done, fired the good minister for his trouble. The real story is far more interesting.
Holly Springs had a great revival of religion in 1842, and many young people were brought into the churches. Harvey Walter, aged 23, was one such convert. A young lawyer, well-read and smart, he surely was not ignorant of the strictures of religion against “worldly amusements.” So, two years after joining the church, along with scores of other young men across the United States, he took pen in hand to challenge the prevailing rules against dancing. He wrote the elders of the Presbyterian Church to confess that while he “cheerfully subscribed” the doctrines and “had no dislike of the members,” he did indeed differ “as to the propriety or impropriety of many of the common gayeties [sic] and amusements of life.”
He went on to say that “I have done one thing censurable by the Church which is a sufficient cause of expulsion, viz., dancing at a private party of ladies and gentlemen, and declaring the act censurable neither by religion or sound morals. Holding this opinion on this subject, I never will express any regret at the act, but under similar circumstances, would repeat it.” He went on to say that “as I am actuated by no other motive than the benefit and good of the Church, in preferring this request, let me hope that your personal friendship and Christian charity will induce you to read the above charge in the above words at my public expulsion…”
Since the rules of the Church as they stood left the officers no other choice — there was no provision then by which someone could resign from membership -- after some delay, they did as Walter requested. Walter’s wife Fredonia remained in the Presbyterian Church, and their children were reared within its bosom.
In 1869, Col. Walter was confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church — but in the earlier years, Episcopalians, too, disapproved ‘worldly pleasures.’ For his part, the Rev. Daniel Baker, the Presbyterian minister, served four more years in Holly Springs, before moving to Texas where he carried on an extensive and rewarding ministry. Southern Presbyterians finally ceased enforcement of their rules against dancing about 1930.
The story of Harvey Walter and the Presbyterian Church is valuable not because a rich man was expelled—after all he was just getting started in his career—but because he and other like-minded young people campaigned to change outdated doctrines of the Church—a strategy that has been used again and again in various forms through the years, and usually to religion’s eventual edification and growth.
If the tale of Colonel Walter and the Presbyterian Church is a tale that is often told, there is another tale that is seldom told, and that is the saga of the slaves. This is hard to interpret in a weekend that is given to pleasure and antiques, and few re-enactors would wish to dress up in these roles. But the surviving architecture and much of the furniture bear witness that slaves were present everywhere in the bygone days of yore. The wealth that made possible the richly decorated mansions came from their unremunerated toil. Some say they were well-treated, but none volunteered to take their place. The structures they built stand as testaments to their skill, and however much their labor was unrequited, the sturdiness of the architectural result bears witness to a dignity that arose through hardship. Could any of us have done so well?
I hope everyone will take part in the Behind the Big House tours that are part of this year’s pilgrimage.
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