It was a one-room wooden building, painted white, sitting on the south side of an unpaved country road. A sign above the door identified the building as: MT. ZION BAPTIST CHURCH. In the 1800s the original structure was on the opposite side of the road. Now both the road and church had been relocated but the road was still unpaved. Sometime in the middle of the 1940s the church was blown off its foundation during a windstorm and a new building was constructed in the same location.
Several oak trees growing on the West and South sides of the church shaded it from the hottest weather. One of them had a colony of honey bees in a hole near the top. On the East side lay the cemetery. One of the older graves is just inside the gate by the church. The gravestone for Josie F. Hughs has the dates of Nov 19, 1855 – Jan 16, 1892. The inscription on the gravestone reads; Remember Friend, as you pass by, As I am now, so you may be. So prepare for death and follow me.”
There was no electricity in the church so illumination was provided by tall Aladdin coal-oil lamps hanging on opposite walls. In addition to the fires of hell, heat was provided by a cast-iron pot-bellied stove standing close to the east wall a little over half way down the room. A pile of coal out back was the source of fuel. An old piano was located on the opposite side of the room from the stove. A “two-holer” outhouse stood out back by the corner of the cemetery.
During hot weather the open windows provided the only ventilation, other than hand-held fans which stirred up the hot, humid air. During “revivals”, which were always held on hot, sweltering evenings in summer, one could hear large black beetles pinging off the window screens as they tried to fly into the light. Some of them would cling to the screen and crawl around as they tried to get in.
The congregation consisted anywhere from a handful to sometimes 40 people. Back in the forties some of the kids rode horses to Sunday school. One of my uncles drove his Ford tractor. We walked.
Most of the time there was no preacher so the service was only Sunday school. Sometimes the church shared a pastor with another church and he would preach every other Sunday. Someone in the congregation always took him and his wife home for dinner so he wouldn’t have to drive back to his home which was a considerable distance away and he would stay until time for the evening service. I know he and his wife ate a lot of fried chicken.
The service started with the congregation singing a few hymns such as, Bringing in the Sheaves, The Old Rugged Cross, and Just Over in the Glory Land as the piano player pounded out the notes, occasionally hitting the wrong one. There might be a prayer and then the superintendent would say, “Let the classes arrange and teachers take charge.” Everyone would move to the particular part of the room where their class met. Classes were divided into adults, young people, and juniors and were spaced around the room as far from each other as possible.
My first teacher was Mrs. Miller, a sweet old lady who lived about a half mile east of us. Years later, while waiting for everyone to gather for an evening service, she would die in just about the same spot where she taught classes.
One of the preachers, who showed up occasionally, was named McNutt. He was a short stocky fellow with large, blowsy white shirts whose sleeves were held up with garters above his elbows. He was the typical southern preacher; a fire breathing, pulpit pounding, bible-thumping, fundamentalist. I tried to sit as far back in the congregation as I could, usually on the back row. This kept my eyebrows from being singed.
At Christmastime there was always a Christmas tree; a cedar cut from a fence line on one of the local farms. Nailed to crossed boards and decorated for the season, it kept the piano company off to one side. The celebration was a mixture of the story of the birth of Christ and the tradition of Santa Claus.
Everyone drew names and a limit was placed on the amount of money to be spent on gifts. This was to prevent any bruised feelings in case someone bought an expensive gift and received a cheaper one in return.
We filled small paper sacks with candy, nuts, and fruit for the kids. There were always more sacks than kids because some children might show up who didn’t attend services regularly and it was better to have more sacks than not enough. In my younger years I helped fill the sacks with an assortment of English walnuts, ribbon candy, an orange or apple, hazel, pecan, and Brazil nuts.
Sometime in the middle of the program a couple of men would slip unobserved from the room. Then after a couple of Christmas songs and in the middle of Here Comes Santa Claus, the back door would fly open and there he was. He was dressed in a red cotton suit trimmed in white cotton around the edges. He was wearing black rubber boots from which all the barnyard manure had been cleaned. On his face he wore what was then called a “false face” which was a Santa-Claus mask made out of pressed paper with eye holes in it, much like Halloween masks at the time.
“Santa” ho-hoed his way down the isle until he got to the front of the room somewhere between the stove and piano. Then someone would hand him the gifts to be given out. He would read the name and take it to the person, sometimes accompanied by a tweak of the cheek if it was a lady. If a small kid was afraid of him, which some were, the Halloween-like mask being the cause, one of his helpers would hand out the gift.
After the gift giving, Santa would wish everyone a Merry Christmas and disappear out the door. I really believed in him at the time and wondered why I didn’t hear sleigh bells and reindeer. I wanted to go outside and peek but was caught up in the goings on and never did. My belief-in-Santa-Claus bubble was popped some time after that by one of my cousins. I couldn’t put it into words at the time but I think it marked the beginning of the end of my childhood innocence.
We usually had a short program with songs including, Silent Night, Holy Night, Away in a Manger, and the like. This was followed with the reading of the Christmas story: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…..”
One year, when I was a teenager, I was narrating this story while other kids were acting out the parts of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. When I got to the part about shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night and the angel of the Lord coming upon them and the glory of the Lord shining round about them, one of the “shepherds” got a little carried away as he looked up in pretend amazement and fear while shading his eyes from the imaginary glow. A couple of other “shepherds” joined in and I got the giggles. This interrupted the flow of the story for a few moments until I got myself together and was able to go on with the story.
For a couple of years I recited The Night Before Christmas, managing to get through all the names of the reindeer. That’s when I learned that one of them was named Donder, not Donner as most everyone nowadays seems to think.
When I was about fifteen I became the janitor. The pay was five dollars a month which was enough to keep me in .22 shells for squirrel hunting. The job involved dusting down all the seats, spreading something called “floorsweep” on the floor and sweeping it up. Floorsweep seemed to be sawdust impregnated with a little oil so the dust and dirt would stick to it. It was stored in a container hidden behind the piano. In the winter the job also meant starting a fire in the stove. First it had to be cleaned of ashes and “clinkers”. Clinkers were just impurities in the coal which wouldn’t burn. They looked like cinders or rocks. Then I would go out to the coal pile and break the large chunks into smaller ones with the head of a pick – the handle was missing - lug a full coal scuttle to the stove and start the fire. This had to be done in advance so the building would be warm by the time everyone got there. A little coal was left in the scuttle stored behind the stove to be added as necessary. It usually wasn’t necessary because that stove really put out the heat, so much in fact that no one sat on the two benches nearest it.
I attended, or was made to attend, Sunday school and church services from my earliest memories until I was seventeen, when I joined the navy. I remember much of that religious indoctrination and the lessons are still lodged in the bottom of my brain. I guess that’s to be expected since my head was mostly empty at the time.
The old wooden building has been replaced by a much larger brick building now.
Some of the oak trees were cut down to make room for the larger structure. The old pews and songbooks have also been replaced. There are rooms for different Sunday-school classes, a nursery, and there’s a lunchroom in the basement. The congregation is much larger and there is a full-time preacher. Striped overalls and white shirts are not worn much anymore and no one rides horses to the services. The church has electricity, air conditioning and central heating. I doubt that you can hear those big bugs throwing themselves against the window screens anymore as there is no need to open the windows.
There is a signboard by the walkway which reads, “MT. ZION BAPTIST” but it’s just not the same.