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A Church in the Wildwood

by James T. Baker

Dr. Baker is professor of history at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 21, 1982, p. 482. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There’s a church in the valley by the
    wildwood.
No lovelier spot in the dale . . .

 

It was a song to end the hot and snappy concert of a gospel quartet helping raise money for a new civic center in a sprawling midwestern city. It was a melody once found in all the softbound gospel hymnals with “shaped notes,” ordered by rural churches in boxes of 100 from Philadelphia or Dallas. To someone determined to be cynical, it would have sounded sentimental, antiquated, even hokey -- especially since it was sung by four young men in orange suits, faces trimmed with lush mustaches, each sporting his own unattached hand microphone. They were all too young to remember little churches in the wildwood.

Yet the rambunctious crowd, calmed by the simple tune, sobered by its unapologetically nostalgic message, seemed not to notice the mellow sacrilege amid blatant bathos.

How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning
To list’ to the clear ringing bell
Its tones so sweetly are calling,
Oh, come to the church in the vale.

 

It seemed to touch a tender spot, actually about 3,000 tender spots, long unnoticed or unacknowledged, this song about a distant rural past known to modern urbanites only through legend and television.

No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

 

That’s the only way I could explain all the tears being shed so openly.

It probably shouldn’t have struck me as odd that a people whose only contact with the America of little brown churches is some faintly remembered trip to a grandmother’s farm or an occasional dose of television’s “Little House on the Prairie” should mourn the passing of an age and lifestyle now deemed better than this one. The more I considered it, the more I knew that I was watching, there in that outsized basketball arena, an authentic reflection of the deeply felt needs of a rootless, churchless people to identify with some specific religious spot, even if it were so long ago and far away as to be irretrievable. For it is a fact of human nature and human history that religious experience and expression -- both of which modern, secular, urban Americans need as much as their forebears did -- must be identified with a particular place.

A sense of place, of holy ground, a spot to commune with the source of our being, is apparently missing from the lives of most Americans today. The easy chair in front of the televised pop-culture evangelist’s pulpit just doesn’t suffice. Something more concrete is needed; and a song about a little brown church awakens that need.

Anyone who has traveled through parts of the world longer settled than the U.S., with social and religious traditions older than ours, knows how habituated human beings are to the establishment and perpetual maintenance of places considered holy -- the place where a child saw a vision, or where a saint performed a miracle, or where a church or temple has stood since before humans kept records.

In Europe, venerated churches such as the Cathedral of Chartres and monasteries such as Monte Cassino are built atop the rubble of earlier Christian buildings, themselves built upon the ruins of pre-Christian shrines, testifying to the possibility that some places are warm with religious power. Coventry Cathedral in England, which for all we know may have been built on the site of some Druid grove, still lies in ruin wrought by Nazi bombs of World War II. It is a “place” made all the holier by its mute testimony to the folly of war, just as its replacement nearby, sparkling and ghastly, testifies to the folly of modern architecture.

Thomas More may have been right when he said, “All places on earth are equidistant from heaven.” Perhaps any place where humans choose to build a sacred shrine can become a holy place and satisfy their need to locate worship. But whether divinely appointed or humanly chosen, the places people regard as holy, from shrine to cathedral to modest parish church, are important to them. These are the places where faith becomes concrete. Without them, without at least one of them to claim as his or her own, the individual is a religious orphan, homeless, destitute.

For many theologically literate people, the “place” of religious experience is a local church, a particular building on a particular street in a particular town. It is the place where we caught our first glimpse of God’s love, and the building itself played a decisive part in that experience.

It is sad that relatively little thought is given to the design, construction and maintenance of churches being built now, the churches where our children will catch their glimpses. We tend to forget how important a church building’s physical structure is to the religious experience of the men and women who will call it their place, who will worship there, who will be molded by it.

A church building, like the people it serves, is a living thing. It is conceived, it is born, it flourishes and does its appointed work, and it dies. It does all these things well or poorly depending on its fitness to serve as a meeting place for people searching for God. It demonstrates God’s concern, and his compassion, for his people. It shares in a triune relationship with God and with his people.

A church is at its best when its form and style are determined by the people who worship in it. It most clearly transmits its truth when it gives material expression to their beliefs, when it effectively facilitates their worship. Frank Lloyd Wright was correct when he allowed that the best of buildings is the indigenous folk building. A church, then, should be a place whose shape and decor emerge from the collective religious experience of the people who, in the words of Epictetus, “enjoy the great festival of life” there together.

It’s a great pity when a congregation does not shape its own place of worship, for a building can lead people into moods and practices that might be wrong for them. “We shape our buildings,” Winston Churchill wrote; “thereafter they shape us.” But they shape us even when we don’t shape them. The less control people have over shaping their buildings, the more likely those buildings are to be misshapen and to misshape.

The degree to which a congregation is able to design and construct its own building depends, of course, upon the vision and skills of its members. Few congregations have the necessary conceptual, architectural and carpentry gifts to mold and make a building with their own minds and hands. But as Frank Lloyd Wright said, an architect should first be a poet, and the good poet observes closely and listens carefully. It shouldn’t be too much to ask an architect to observe the people who will worship in the building and listen to them before beginning the blueprints. The designer should make the structure express them in such a way that they will continue on their path of progress without losing their way. The building should be not the architect’s but the congregation’s.

The church of my youth, the place where I first learned the ways of God, was, I believe, a true representation of the human being at worship. It was designed and built, literally, by the people who worshiped there, my people. It was neither grand nor beautiful, but then neither were we. It expressed us, what we were, what we believed, and it perpetuated the best that was in us.

It was a wooden building, painted white outside and stained brown inside. Sunday school rooms all around spilled into a sanctuary where pews were arranged on either side of a central aisle that led to a pulpit and an altar -- for to us education led to worship, and worship to public confession and commitment. I remember, from earliest days, thinking of this organic wood structure as a tree: a tree of life to shelter the young and weak; a tree of knowledge, both of good and of evil, for those ready to plunge headlong into life; a tree of cool shade for people to pass their later years in peace.

In my maturing years, as I went out to search for my own knowledge of good and evil, I visited some of the historic churches of the world; but in the end my visits were really nothing more than visits. A church made into a museum is merely a museum. It can inspire, it can awe, it can testify to the faith of previous generations; but it can never be a visitor’s “place” as long as he is only a visitor. None of the great churches I have visited, not St. Paul’s in London or St. Peter’s in Rome, as inspiring as they are, can ever mean as much to me as my hometown church did.

I must admit that I have felt the presence of God in many places. I have prayed and felt my prayers heard in locations as remote from the place of my birth and from each other as a Buddhist monastery in Burma and a railway station in Greece. But none has the significance for my life, none has given me as much direction in my religious quest as my boyhood church.

It was a human place; a place where people spent a lot of time with their mouths open in song and their eyes closed in prayer; a place to see human nature stripped down to essentials as young romances began with smiles and ended with tearful public confessions; a place for a boy’s spirit to be roused and forever stranded between the love and the fear of God as he watched an occasional man or woman “get happy” in the Lord; a place to learn.

I still speak -- in prayer exclusively -- a rich Elizabethan English, for it was the standard medium of my church. I never had a moment’s trouble with Shakespeare in school, or with the Bach I learned at seminary, or with the Barth I discovered while scouring graduate libraries; for my church had taught me to understand their rhythms. For me, God is still a Thou, never a You, and is best honored and celebrated in classical language, melodies and theology.

My mind is deeply ingrained with memories of childhood days in church. I made my public confession of faith there. I was “born again” when I was eight years old. According to our custom, I repented of my rebellion against the will of God and was baptized standing on the bottom step of the newfangled indoor baptistry pool. (I was too short to stand on the floor and keep my head above water until the proper time to go all the way under.) I would wander pretty far astray several times in later life, and do more hardcore sinning that I ever dreamed of before my “conversion,” but that initial commitment would never let me go. I suppose it just goes to prove (and expand upon) the proverb: Raise a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will return to it  -- again and again.

It was in my childhood church, one summer during our usual long, hot, two-week August revival meeting, that 12 grown men “found God” and hit the sawdust trail. It was some sight. Twelve rough, tough farmers, faces brick-red, dressed in denim and khaki, none under six feet and 200 pounds, casting their lots with Jesus and his people. A new folk hero was born the afternoon our diminutive pastor baptized all 12 without losing one.

A wave of enthusiasm swept over us as one after another of the 12 men took the dare and came forward to start new lives at midlife. We had always been blessed with an abundance of dedicated women, and now we would have a few men to share the burden of leadership. Now there would be, as I would come to understand and verbalize in later years, a reflection of both sides of God’s sexuality. The fact that the men never quite equaled the women either in spirit or in effective churchly skills didn’t diminish the importance or significance of their presence.

I also remember my father’s funeral, which was held in my church, my mother’s church, because his denomination had no church in town. He died on a Friday evening, after completing the week’s work, and lay in state in our living room Saturday, with the men from the Masonic Lodge keeping the wake. By Sunday afternoon, as we arrived at church; the crowd spilled out of the sanctuary and covered the yard. He was widely loved.

I could see his face from where I sat in the front pew. The minister tried to make us feel better, but my greatest comfort came from watching my father’s face. His expression in death was as whimsical as it had been in life. One more sermon, he seemed to be thinking, and I can rest in peace. I would be a decade older, a seminarian in a school that fancied itself sophisticated, before I would learn that people who leave coffin lids open at funerals and try to imagine what the dead would think of all the fuss are barbarians.

After I went away to college, I virtually lost contact with the church. I got occasional reports from my mother: that there were too many new babies for the old place to handle; that there were ominous signs of structural decay; that a new day called for bold new plans. But still I assumed that the old place was as eternal as the faith I had found there. Then one day I went home for a visit, and it was gone, wiped away as if by a thoughtless giant hand.

I walked over and wandered through the trees that once sheltered the church and kicked at the clumps of weeds that grew so lushly on its rich holy ground. I felt angry. What right did they have to do this, to take away my place? And when I saw the new building down the street, I felt despair. How could the people I thought I knew so well have built such a monstrosity?

Eventually I went inside the new place, as an obedient son would, to attend services with my mother. They were, the same people, except for the old ones who had died and the babies who had been born since my day, and they sang the same songs and recited the same litany of prayers. I would never sing or pray here, but I had no right to judge them.

Neither had I any right to question their future or the building in which they would meet it. It had Sunday school rooms, an aisle, a pulpit, an altar, all the necessities of our theology. The kids sitting around me would remember this place, I hoped, as I remembered the old one. I saw in all this, as people abandoned a dying building for a new and living one, as they established a new place for themselves and their children, a symbol of resurrection.

My church had given me a living example of the gospel. There I had seen birth and death. There I had seen men and women called to discipleship. There, in its death, in its reappearance in another place, I had seen resurrection. This is why I understood the longing, inarticulate but powerful, of those rootless, churchless urban Americans who shed tears over a mythical little church in the vale. They needed a church -- to have, to lose, to rediscover. They had a long way to go.


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