January, 1926 Southern Mountain Life and
Work Page 7
around. Often two or three funerals are preached at one meeting, and this adds to the importance of the occasion.
Communities in the mountains are almost invariably designated by creeks, and the dwellers on a nearby creek had long been Godfearing, in constrast to our own community before the big hailstorm. My oldest sister had married into that neighborhood and as a boy of eight years I was allowed to spend part of the summer in her home. She took me to the first church service I ever attended, an experience I still remember vividly. I shall describe it briefly, because it was typical of the day, and is still so to a large extent in the more isolated mountain communities.
Physically, the preacher (for a minister is always a preacher there) was a good representative of our race-tall, lean, and deliberate of movement. Some would call it slow, but it's more than that. He had a sad countenance and there was a sob in his voice, suggestive of the sorrow, one would surmise, he felt because mankind was so sinful. I could not understand what he said. I was too young for that, but I was moved by the way he said it. Others must have been even more stirred, for after he had been preaching for an hour or so three or four women were in an emotional frenzy which my sister told me was called shouting. It seemed strange conduct. I wondered how they could get worked up to such a point. Come to think of it, my memory is hazy as to whether the shouting took place during the sermon or the final exhortation that accompanied the invitation hymn, but recalling similar services which I later attended, I remember that the preaching was generally over when the shouting began. As I look back I am also reminded that the service was very much of an endurance contest between the preacher and his congregation. It was a long sermon-it seemed hours to me on that hard straight backed seat too high for my feet to touch the floor-and the crowd retaliated by running in and out as much as it pleased. Later on, for several years of my life, I considered this lacking in respect to the preacher, but now I'm inclined to defend the audience. There's an end to human endurance even when at church.
Only, it should be remembered that all this darting in and out was not from restlessness or exhaustion. Some of the girls had on bright calico dresses, and femininity is vain in the Cumberlands as it is on F St., in Washington, D. C. A few of the young men were also wearing their first "brought on" clothes (not "fotched on," by the way) and they too wanted to be seen.
But finally the sermon was over and prayer was announced. All the members knelt with the preacher, their knees on the hard rough oak, their positions as abject as possible. (Which is not unusual except for the length of time required to maintain that position.) Following the example of my elders, I prostrated myself, though on raising my eyes to look about the room I saw some of the more sophisticated youngsters laughing at me. With some heat, I later mentioned the conduct of these irreverent children to my brother-in-law, a fellow suppliant with me on this occasion, who informed me that on account of my youth it would not be necessary for me to do any praying for several years yet; that I would not be punished for my sins until I was twelve years old, at which time he hoped I would join the church and live a Christian life. He admonished me to be good meanwhile, warning me against the more common sins, and explaining that if I did not commit them now it would be easier for me to live right after I had reached the age when all of my sins would be set down against me by the recording angel. I was grateful for this information, but I could see that I was going to have a hard time, sooner or later, to escape from the awful hell that everybody was talking about. And, of course, if one escaped hell, even by a hair's breadth, he went to heaven. There was no middle ground.
But back to the meeting. I shall not detain you as we were detained that Sabbath. In spite of the style of presentation which I have chosen for this article, let me assure you that my references to the prayer are made with reverence. It began in well chosen, quietly spoken phrases that boldly contrasted the nothingness and misery of us mortals "down here in this low ground of sorrow" with the Deity and the far away heaven where he lived and ruled the