My memories of growing up in a small country church during my youth and early adulthood are wide ranging.
Most Protestant churches of that era operated on a somewhat similar basis. There would be variations in doctrine, but a great deal of similarity in the way people worshipped.
During the early part of the 1900s most country churches were one-room buildings. Some may have added Sunday school rooms, but most remained the main sanctuary only.
The typical country church of that era was large enough to seat a hundred or more people. Pews were often hand-built. The very old churches may have had pews hewn from large trees and made of wide boards. Pew cushions were unheard-of in those days.
The front of the auditorium (or sanctuary) usually had a raised platform with some chairs. The pulpit stand from which the minister preached sat in the center of the raised area. In some churches there was a place behind the pulpit for the choir — if the church had one.
In many churches there would be low benches on the main level in front of the platform. These were commonly called “mourner’s benches.” They were for people to come down and kneel and pray. The term probably came from the thought that people would come down and “mourn” over their sins, seeking forgiveness.
Heat was usually provided by a large stove, situated somewhere in the middle or front of the auditorium. It was either wood or coal fired. A long, circuitous pipe extended from the stove to a chimney, usually on the side of the auditorium. There was no cooling in the summers, so people used cardboard fans to cool themselves during the service.
Music, when used, was provided by a piano or old-fashioned pump organ. People sang with enthusiasm, usually the old hymns of ages past. Songbooks were pretty common in most churches of that era. Someone who could — or would — usually led the singing, many times rather off-key.
Some churches had what they called an “amen corner.” Here would sit several of the older men. When the preacher would make a good point, there would be a chorus of “amens” or “amen, brother” from those who felt it their place to sit in that revered corner.
Lighting the old churches was by lamps until electricity came along. Somewhere about the late 1930s something called the “Aladdin” lamp was invented and popularly used in churches. It swung from the ceiling and put out much better light than did the old lamps.
Now, let’s look at the preaching of those days. Preachers in most small churches were rather poorly trained and often sort of “took up” preaching after feeling a ”call” to do so. Some served more than one church, alternating Sundays between the congregations.
The Methodists had what was called a “circuit,” the pastor serving several congregations. The Baptist usually had a preacher they had “called” to be their shepherd. Other groups had various means of securing a pastor.
The sermons were often quite long, especially from the viewpoint of a child, who was expected to sit still and listen. The sermon could last an hour if the preacher was really into it. There was almost always an evangelistic appeal at the end of the sermon, urging people to come forward and repent of their sins.
Summers were revival time in most churches. Most of the revivals lasted a least two weeks, services nightly. People from all over the area would attend these services. They were highly evangelistic in most cases, the sermon being followed by a long altar service.
One of the features of the summer revival was the pastor and visiting evangelist were guests in one of the homes for a meal each day the revival continued. Preachers ate chicken regularly in those days. Many a poor rooster was sacrificed to “feed the preachers” during the summer revival.
Most country churches had a special program for Christmas. There would perhaps be a play re-enacting the birth of Christ. There might be performances by the children. And, after the worship part there would likely be a “Ho, Ho, Ho”! from the door, meaning Santa had arrived! Someone, usually of a portly nature, would be Santa. He would greet everyone and make over the children. The whole community turned out for this special Christmas program.
From time to time the church might sponsor a fundraising activity. If offerings did not come in sufficiently, money was needed from other sources. Ice cream suppers were common as were other forms of money-making activities. These provided a social outlet for the people as well as raising funds.
Many country churches had a cemetery on the church’s property. Church cemeteries dot the countryside throughout most of the South, even today.
Sunday school came along in the early part of the 1900s. It was a time when there were separate classes for the children, the youth, and the adults.
Some churches had lesson “quarterlies,” as they were called. Others chose to study directly from the Bible. The youth and children were separated from the adults into a corner of the one-room church or into a classroom if available.
In those days there was no such things as “children’s church.” It was believed children should sit with their parents during the church service. Many youngsters got in trouble after returning home for having “misbehaved” during church. “Sit there, be still, and quit your wiggling” was the rule for most youngsters of that time.
Church was also a sort of “dress-up” time for people. The casual attire of today would have been frowned upon in those days. People had what they called their “Sunday clothes” to wear to church. Easter was an especially important day for “dressing up.”
The church and the school were vital components of most rural communities. Not only did they serve the spiritual and educational needs of the people, they also served the social needs as well.
Various social activities were planned and carried out in one or the other of these buildings. Ball games were played in the school yard. Socials were held in the churches. Halloween (though frowned upon by some) offered an opportunity for fun.
The old country church and the old country school are largely no more today. Many small churches have closed, others struggling to exist. Most country schools have been consolidated. All in the name of “progress.” But, is it all progress? One wonders.