Country churches remain vital, historic part of American life

Calhoun County may 2015 010 a

There are few places today untouched by “progress.”

Historic buildings may be preserved, but the structures around them are often modernized if not replaced with new edifices. Battlefields are often encroached upon by development, and nature has a way of altering the landscape, as well. Even the rural countryside changes, albeit at a slower pace, as older abodes deteriorate without constant care, and sometimes, over many years, eventually disappear.

Country churches, though, can endure myriad decades and much longer if congregations continue to dedicate their time, talent and treasure toward their houses of prayer.

St. Matthews Lutheran Church, located in the rural Calhoun County community of Creston in central South Carolina, is among those that has seen many, many generations of parishioners come and go; yet it soldiers on.

The church was formed around 1776 and is among the oldest continuous Lutheran congregations in South Carolina. The church was formed following a large influx of German and Swiss immigrants to South Carolina earlier in the decade under the promise of available land.

The original structure, built in the 1760s, was replaced in 1826. The current church was built in 1900, and sits along a country road, with only its cemetery and parish house nearby.

Today, despite its distant location, St. Matthews Lutheran Church remains a small but vibrant house of God.

Country churches, and country ministers, possess the ability to connect with parishioners in a way that their counterparts in cities often cannot.

Ministers working in the country or small village have an advantage over those in the city because of the close contact with nature provided by the open country, Ernest R. Groves wrote nearly a century ago in Using the Resources of the County Church.

“In his nearness to his people the minister of the church of the small community … may enjoy an intimate knowledge of personality, just as he is given the conditions for a close contact with nature,” Groves wrote.

“It is difficult indeed to live in the country without discovering much about human motive, the weaknesses and the strength of character; in the city, on the other hand, it is not easy to uncover the deeper life of men and women, because they are hidden in the crowd. Life moves on rapidly and for the most part the relations between persons must be superficial,” he added.

(Top: St. Matthews Lutheran Church, located in Creston, South Carolina.)


19 thoughts on “Country churches remain vital, historic part of American life

  1. Going back that many years does take dedicated parishioners, keeping the structure and its heritage alive. I love this post and do enjoy stopping into small country churches when I travel, if they are open to look into!

  2. Hello, CBC. I saw you over on Helen’s post today and, because I enjoyed your comment, popped over here to “meet” you. I live in a very rural area of central Virginia about 45 minutes west of Richmond. The small churches you speak of are sprinkled throughout this area – some abandoned, some not. I’m making an effort to photograph as many of these as time allows and to perhaps dig out a plant or two if there is an old cemetery nearby. The occupants don’t seem to mind as I take only a bit. The plants to seem to enjoy being around the living again.

  3. That last line of that quotation really says a lot about today’s America, doesn’t it?

    My parents lived in Crisfield, Maryland for a few years. Not exactly a country place, but it was small enough in colonial days. Still in our times, that town had more churches per square block than you could shake a tithing stick at. The Presbyterian church my father was attending there–he claimed, the first one founded in the nation–had a slave balcony. I had never heard of that, and was sorry to hear of that.

    • Several older churches down here have slave balconies. They almost always have a back door, too, so the slaves could enter separately. It’s rather interesting to me that slave owners could think so little of fellow humans as to treat them as chattel but on the other hand felt them in at least some degree worthy of saving to bring them to church. Perhaps it was only to salve their own conscience.

      • I had never imagined the slaves were brought for the benefit of the slaves. I had assumed these were for the slaves who had driven the carriages and wagons that had led their masters and mistresses to church.

      • That may be part of the reason, but another was to reinforce to the slave that his station as slave to the white man was God’s will, and that God expected him to obey his master. Have you studied at all the Slave Narratives? So fascinating. Available through the Library of Congress. You may know of all this.

      • I have read the Slave Narratives for South Carolina. Fascinating, indeed. Really a mixed bag in terms of remembrances, too,

        Sadly, far too many slave masters used the bible as justification for slavery, which included treating slaves any way they saw fit. A real disconnect between theory and practice. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, 150 years removed from slavery, when we’re all in agreement that it was a pernicious institution.

      • We have to remember that the slaves interviewed for the Narratives were children when freed and now were living in abject Depression-era poverty. Many historians question how their perspective might have been a bit skewed by remembering the “good old days” when they were regularly fed (in some cases) and also by the fact they were interviewed by white people. They’ve noted that the recollections are decidedly less positive on the rare occasions that the interviewer was black. Sorry, this stuff fascinates me deeply.

      • No, you’re right on the money, and those were my thoughts exactly. Many people have pleasant memories of childhood, few former slaves interview in the mid- to late-1930s were old enough to have been more than children as slaves and therefore may not have borne the full brunt of slavery, and the Great Depression was a tough time when one might have looked back to childhood wistfully.

        No doubt, being interviewed by whites during the Jim Crow era didn’t help make for the most honest interviews, either, I would imagine.

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