Sunday, June 26, 2011

Faith of our Fathers...

Lined Hymns. If you have never heard them, then I cannot describe them to you properly. The first time I heard such singing, it was at a funeral. I thought that was the saddest funeral music I had ever heard. My mother explained that wasn't funeral music..but how they always sang. I am not sure how lined hymns came about but I suspect it was because there were few hymnals to go around and even fewer mountain people who could read. So one member of the congregation would "line" the hymn (say/sing the line) and then the congregation would repeat it. No matter what the reason, the music is some of the most unique you will ever hear and it harkens those who hear it back to another day (although this Primitive , or Old Regular Baptist, way of singing is alive and well even today.)

The one thing that Appalachia people have plenty of...besides heart and churches. Some outsiders believe we are 'unchurched" and some come to save us. While we appreciate all that they do...we are anything but unchurched. In fact, you can usually count some twenty churches in a five mile stretch of road. That may be one of the problems. It seems to me that every time a family or group has a disagreement with another within the church, they break off and form their own congregation right down the road. After years of this, churches of every shape, size and denomination have sprang up all over the Appalachia hills of Eastern Kentucky, Western West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

My Grandparents were members of the Primitive Baptist or Old Regular Baptist faith as it is sometimes called. These are a sect of the Baptists that sought to hold onto the original teachings and ways of the church as they believe it to be in the fist century when the Christians first came into being. I don't pretend to be an expert on religion and so I beg you forgive me if I get any of this incorrect about the Old Regular or Primitive Baptist church. Not having grown up in that faith myself, I can only relate to you here what I observed from my grandparents.

Aside from the unique form of music (which I have linked above for your enjoyment and learning), I remember my Grandmother Lee (Solomon King Smith's daughter) traveling with her father every year to the communion and "foot washing". The ritual had nothing to do with hygeine but rather was a part of worship that echoed Jesus' humbleness in washing the disciples feet as recorded in the Bible. It was, my grandmother explained, a showing of humbleness and servitude of spirit between the brethren and sisters of the church.

Another unique quality of the Primitive Baptist church where my grandmother belonged was that they had a different way of preaching. The preacher would get up and begin to speak and pretty soon they were so into their preaching in such an intense manner that when they drew in their breath, they made a loud, "uhhh" sound. Also the words would begin to take on a "sing song" type rhythm usually including a loud exhautation made to the Lord. This unusual rhythm and "uhhh" sound was what caught the attention of the younger of us who heard it more than the message he was conveying.

Often the preacher would preach for a long time and then another preacher would get up and he would begin to preach. The services tended to last a LONG time. Sometimes the preacher would preach so long that a member of the congregation would stand up and start singing while he was still preaching. Soon others in the congregation would join in the singing. This was called "singing a preacher down". I have seen first hand, funeral services for a departed member go all night long while one preacher after another would get up and preach. Those in attendance would wander in and out of the services between the solemness of the services and the "reunion" atmosphere in the hall set up with food.

Of course different churches probably do vary a little even within the Primitive Baptist faith. But I have seen this myself when attending funeral services done in this manner.

The Primitive Baptist faith was only one of many different types of churches in the Appalachians. There are many buildings with the name Church of Christ dotting the landscape all along the southern part of the eastern section of Kentucky and into Tennessee. Methodists, Freewill Baptists and Catholic churches are also prevelant, as are many independent or non-denominational churches with various names. There are even some extreme groups of a certain faith church sect (the name I cannot remember) who practice what is known as snake handling, although the practice has been outlawed.

Whatever the name over the door, it is safe to say that Appalachian people have long been a people of deep faith. Even the names in my Grandfather's family denotes a faith in the Bible. Names like Solomon, Aaron, Moses and John. Names like David and Mary and Sarah. Names like Peter, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. All names repeated over and over in the Appalachias and names based on their ancestors who were named for people of the Bible.

And although their faith was often intertwined with mountain lore and supersticion, their faith saw the families of this area through many hard times and conditions that would have defeated weaker characters. Like the African Americans who labored hard in the fields all days under a master's watchful eye and who developed and sung rich songs of a better day a'coming, the Appalachians also used their faith in a better eternity to help them survive conditions that few would envy, and a unique and rich music culture grew up from those hard times as well.

Although my Appalachian ancestors often had very little by way of worldly goods to pass down to their children, they usually passed down their faith heritage along with their songs and rituals. I hope you enjoy learning more about one very old religious practice of the mountains..that of the Primitive, or Old Regular Baptist.
Petercreek Primitive Baptist Preaching, 1979. Listen if you wish to experience the sing-song sound of the Preacher as he speaks to his congregation: (I do not own nor claim to own the rights to this video, but I merely repost it here from the public world wide web for example)
(You may need to copy this link into a separate window browser to view the video)



  1. Good piece; I enjoyed. Here's a link to a You Tube video of Ralph Stanley lining out "Amazing Grace."

    Enjoy. Jim