By Jamil Zainaldin
Passing through rural towns and countryside, drivers come across unmistakable beacons of another time. They represent glad tidings, plain beauty, and sacred space. They are the ground of memory, where words once uttered inside their walls hang like invisible curtains. They are spiritual mountains, despite their modest presentation — aging, mostly one-room structures graced by the simple lines of clapboard siding, shingles, pitched tin roofs, colored glass, and modest bell towers. The eye naturally comes to rest on the steps leading to a front-door entry, like a standing invitation.
I am speaking of Georgia’s rural churches. They are the living landmarks of Georgia’s pioneers, signposts of a westward movement that blazed farther and farther into lands once occupied by the Cherokee and Creek nations. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Quakers, Catholics, Lutherans, and others arrived in Georgia fleeing persecution or poverty, bringing with them a worldview that placed God at the center. While their theology did not reveal in practice an equal inclusivity of all people (especially Indians and African Americans), most nineteenth-century Georgians believed that God was a living presence, a guiding force.
Churches served practical purposes, too: rural life could be transient, dangerously unpredictable, hard, and lonely. Beyond the courthouse and jail, the hand of government was light, if felt at all. Here, the whitewashed church stood as a visible reminder of a higher moral life. It was in such churches that neighbors learned to lean on one another, the place where baptisms and funerals occurred. It was the welcoming door for new arrivals, of all ages. The church marked the seasons of planting and harvesting, as well as the cycles of life and death (and the possibilities of rebirth). They became shelters from all manner of storms. With the passage of time, and the advancement of democracy, the purpose of these churches — to elevate the human spirit — also fed noble impulses for improvements in education and civil rights. Indeed, these churches often doubled as a community’s school and meeting house.
Of extraordinary and special note is the praise house, where slaves might gather on a Sunday to worship. According to New Georgia Encyclopedia contributor Art Rosenbaum, such services often included the ring shout, in which rhythmic hand clapping and counterclockwise dancing were performed to spirituals. For its practitioners, the shout affirmed oneness with the Spirit and ancestors as well as community cohesiveness. Today, the ring-shout tradition is being preserved by the McIntosh County Shouters, tradition-bearers of Gullah-Geechee heritage.
After their emancipation, Georgia’s freedmen founded and nurtured rural churches that functioned precisely as did their antebellum precursors. Added to the challenges of life for these newly freed people was the very real struggle for survival in a hard and hostile world.
What will become of Georgia’s historic rural churches? While some remain in use, many of these structures, if they still stand, are exposed to the elements of weather and neglect, orphans of bygone communities. To me, the country church is like a sentinel, a symbol of community faith expressed in fellowship, friendship, and the sharing of burdens. It was where country folk learned news of their neighbors and, such as could be imagined at the time, of the world.
On your next car trip, explore an alternate route to your destination. Traffic is light on Georgia’s back roads, where the countryside can span the horizon. Dotted here and there are historic towns with their courthouses, main squares, freight depots (probably restored) and impressive, solid churches of brick, stone and stained glass. A few miles or more beyond the town, keep an eye out for country churches. On a Sunday, you may even spot worshipers, their pickups and cars announcing their presence. But more often the country church stands starkly vacant, hauntingly so with its gravestones set against backdrops of sky, field, and forest. Who owns this property? Is it used at all? Is there anybody caring for this place?
In a sense, country churches are not gone. It is we who are gone, as Sonny Seals knows only too well. While researching an abandoned historic church in Powelton, in Hancock County, he accidentally (and completely unexpectedly) happened upon a Confederate gravestone that, to his amazement, bore his great-grandfather’s name. That remarkable story, told in a recent issue of Georgia Backroads, was an experience that led Seals and others to create a new organization, Historic Rural Churches of Georgia. Its aim is to help promote their preservation.
The Georgia African American Historical Preservation Network, whose coordinator is Jeanne Cyriaque, also identifies and documents historic church structures, as well as schools, slave cabins, and praise houses that have served both enslaved and free African American communities around the state.
This is important work. It honors our kinship with others, free and unfree, who walked and worked and prayed on the land we inhabit, eventually ushering in a new society. We can never completely recover their stories, and certainly not their life experiences. But there is something ineffable about their churches, places where the human and the holy could come together. This was their glue.
Perhaps one reason for our fascination with rural churches is that they are relics of another time, rough-hewn and crafted by human hands, mysteriously full of meaning and purpose and intent. Looking back at us, they seem to ask, what do you believe? What do you worship? What do you care about? What faith holds your world together? What is your vision of tomorrow?
Our answers, if only we can find them, may be the truest measure of our worth.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.