From my diner booth on a Saturday morning, it’s easy to tell that the table beside mine is full of people from somewhere else. There are lots of signs —
From my diner booth on a Saturday morning, it’s easy to tell that the table beside mine is full of people from somewhere else. There are lots of signs — the Nebraska sweatshirts and the word “eggs” sounding like aiggs when they order — but the clearest sign comes when one of the men asks for hot sauce and brown sugar for his grits. In this mortal coil, I hold fast to a belief that we can, all of us, find something in common with everyone we meet, no matter our origins or experiences, if we offer only a little time and openness. But I admit to some wavering in this philosophy over breakfast.
Then, once everyone has tucked into the food, I overhear brown-sugar-grits man telling his companions about his love for old churches. “We stop at every one we see,” he says, and in that instant, my worldview is righted. I may have said a little prayer for his tainted breakfast only moments before, but now we are brothers.
It’s hard to say just what it is about a little country church set off the road, the flaking white boards and simple steeple offering nothing remarkable except, perhaps, a sure-footedness, a steadfastness that will outlive all of us. In my case, it may be a healthy helping of old-time nostalgia. I’m fond of any windows into the past that I come across, and an abandoned church on a riverbank throws open the shutters.
In one of my favorite passages from James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he and the photographer Walker Evans come upon a “good enough church” on a Southern back road. It causes them to slow. As they do, something about the way the light hits the structure overtakes the men: “The light so held it that it shocked us with its goodness straight through the body, so that at the same instant we said Jesus.”
In his attempt to capture just what struck them and then pulled them from the car as if entranced, Agee writes of the “strangling strong asymmetries” of the church. This, he decides, is it, or at least part of it: The beauty of the church is an attempt toward symmetry — and the ultimate failure to reach it. In every distinctly hit nailhead and slightly mislaid board waits evidence of the human lives who’ve tried their best to make it right. And this trying is more beautiful than perfection.
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Of course, a rural church a century or more ago wasn’t just a church. It might have also been a school. A town hall. A place to share a meal or cut corn or court a young lady. Many old mountain churches were once trains — or, at least, the bells hanging in their towers once belonged to trains.
Today, some of these mountain churches have changed forms again. The original John Creek Methodist Church (1915) in Caney Fork is now someone’s home. Salem Methodist Church (1875) in the Macon County community of Cullasaja belongs to a community club. When Fontana Dam was completed in 1944, churches in communities like Proctor and Judson were lost or abandoned.
Others appear as if caught in amber. A hike through parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park might lead you to hundred-year-old churches, long since abandoned. You’ll find them in Cades Cove and Cataloochee, preserved and beautiful in their modesty. Along the Oconaluftee River, the tower of Smokemont Baptist Church (1912) rises to the treetops of the park near Cherokee. Stepping through the woods and into any of these places is stepping straight into the dusty past.
Then there are the churches that have carried on, even as the world around them changed. Brush Creek Baptist, which first organized in 1832 with 17 members and required crossing a swinging bridge to attend, saw the community of Needmore vanish around it when the Little Tennessee River was dammed. Yet it remains active. A striking pair of late-19th-century churches perched above the Tuckasegee River — Webster Baptist, built in the Vernacular Victorian style, and Webster Methodist, a Vernacular Gothic — hummed along even as the town of Webster itself slid away and the county seat moved to Sylva. Big Ridge Baptist in Glenville was twice rebuilt in its original form after fires — its bell once stolen after being retrieved from the ashes — and now meets in that same revived building as Mountain Bible Church.
Distilled or altered or stubborn, these old places wait around the bends of many streams in the Smokies, and whether they’re empty or full of song on a Sunday morning — and whether you take your grits with hot sauce or don’t take them at all — there’s something about these churches that’ll make you crane your neck. Maybe have you turning around to look a little closer at what once was and still is.
• • •
It’s a well-worn cliché that a church is not the building but the people inside. And yet, as Agee found on that steamy day in 1936, an old building is something of the people. My grandmother loved to tell of how she’d hammered nails into Fruitland Methodist Church when she was a girl, saying that she still remembered which ones were hers. Her grandfather started the church after he purchased the land — and the lumber — to raise it up in 1909, so it’s impossible not to imagine my people somewhere within the walls when I pass by, their sweat or blood soaked into the floors.
Way out in Jackson County, a tiny church on chestnut logs bears the hand-painted name of Danny Hooper’s great-grandmother Catherine. “She looked around and said, The children out here need a school,” Danny says. It was around 1906 that Catherine Hooper finally raised the money, and then her husband, Western Hutson “Hutt” Hooper, built the tiny, one-room building to serve as a school and church for the Brasstown community of Caney Fork. Today, the red exterior walls have faded and the pews are empty, but the Hooper family still tends to the building that their ancestors raised up.
In every off-center doorframe or rock jutting from the foundation of an old church waits someone’s great-grandfather or great-great-grandmother, some life that strained to set the eaves just so. In these handmade places, we see not only individual lives but also communities of people who swung hammers after plowing fields and breaking beans. The men and women who found themselves making a life together along the same stream in a mountain valley had little choice but to come together. So they built brush arbors or piled into houses until, one day, they decided to pool their money, ride to the sawmill, and see about raising up a church.
On a country road, we might see, if only for a glimpse, that an old church wasn’t a place built for people but by people. A place where the framing was itself a kind of worship. Even if the congregation has moved on or the roof is sagging, what’s left behind is a testimony, asymmetrical and true, that we’ll slow down to hear.