Thursday, July 10, 2014
Big Brother is watching
In perusing the Session records of Edmondson Presbyterian Church, I found some fascinating history and commentary on how the church really got into people’s personal business way back then. This church was founded in Whitehaven, Tenn., in the 1800s.
If you think your church pays too much attention to your personal life now, you should have lived then. The Session was judge, jury and executioner.
There was this poor fellow, Felix Davis, whom the Session called before them for intemperance, use of profane language and keeping and retailing of intoxicating liquor! In those days, one got a letter from the Session Clerk to appear before the Session to explain the offending behavior, or sometimes a visit at home (shiver!) from one or more Session members for the same purpose.
Now, Felix finally admitted he’d had a little nip here and there and that he might have let slip a cussword or two, but he had a liquor license from the State of Tennessee and he might give up selling liquor when his license expired. Well, a trial by Session was held without him (by his wish, as he had said all he was going to) and, by gum, he was suspended from church membership until he “gives signs of repentance and reformation.” Phew!
Some months later, Felix obtained an audience with the Session, stated he’d given up liquor sales (expect his license had expired) and would try to live a Christian life. Session voted Felix back into the church. Time passed, and about nine years later, poor Felix was suspended from church membership again because he apparently had fallen into his old ways and had failed to answer two summons from the Session to appear before them and justify himself. Alas, poor Felix!
Part of the Session minutes contains this statement: “The sin of intemperance being a crying sin of the day, our ministry are requested to preach upon it at their discretion before the next meeting of Presbytery.” Well, the preachers had their orders.
Nippers and sippers were in the cross-hairs. Some guys got drunk “on the cars from Memphis” (railroad train cars). Couldn’t the guys just get blitzed at night in the privacy of their own barns instead of roaring around the countryside and getting ratted on? Not to speak of keeping their potty mouths shut. Some people just beg for punishment.
There were several other men who were hounded over a number of months for swearing and having a nip once in a while. Some satisfied the Session that they had repented of their sinful ways and were allowed to remain church members. (Lying gets the Session off your case).
However, Daniel Campbell, who had appeared before the Session several times, appeared a final time and pled guilty to intemperance and profanity and, at his own request, was excommunicated from the church. Guess Daniel was fed up with the harassment and ready to risk going you-know-where just to get shed of the Session watchdogs.
One quaint note was that a Session member was appointed to talk with a young man about his dancing and to a young lady about the same sin.
No record of how the young man reacted, but the young lady, having been cited for this sin and invited to appear before the Session, failed to appear and was cut off for contumacy (insolent defiance, insubordination). There were some free spirits among those delicate Victorian women!
Further into the records, she was listed as excommunicated! (Oh, she’d also been heard cussing. Sometimes, ladies were also potty-mouths.)
An incident was recorded in 1875 that would shock us even today. A man, in the presence of four Session members, said he hated God, considered himself totally unfit for church membership, and to relieve the church of the disgrace of his conduct, he wanted his name stricken from the roll. This was to be announced from the pulpit the next day! I was left breathless at the man’s blatant statement and this breach of privacy! However, it seems everyone’s personal business with the Session and its decisions were announced from the pulpit!
Hair-shirt perfectionism seemed to be a fad in the church of 1870s and 1880s. It appears from this record that it lost Edmonson Presbyterian Church a lot of members who left to join Memphis and out-of-county churches which weren’t so judgmental. However, this little church weathered the storm and became Whitehaven Presbyterian Church, where this writer spent some of the most joyful years of her life.
Expect this sort of thing was common among the various denominations during that time, and probably the free spirits jumped from one church to another trying to find one that would leave them alone. This Big Brother practice seems to have died out after several decades.
We certainly don’t want this kind of thing to rise up again, as it went way too far. However, maybe a touch of it here and there might improve this wicked old world.
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