My dad’s birthday is this week, and his wish was for the family to attend his childhood church. This past Sunday, we fulfilled that wish and went to services at Saulsbury Baptist Church.
I have heard my dad tell stories about growing up in that congregation. He has talked about playing checkers with the pastor, Brother Albert Jewel. He has talked about joining the church when he was a small child and how his mom was worried that he was too young to make that decision. He has talked about the sanctuary being filled and people sitting in the alcoves on the side.
Thinking back on those stories, I realize that Saulsbury Baptist Church was more than a church. It was an important part of an isolated rural community. Every Sunday, people took winding roads from the surrounding hills and hollows to see each other and worship. Brother Jewel was more than a preacher. He was a central pillar of the community.
That community was Saulsbury, a place that cannot be found on a map. Sometimes, I think it was more of a state of mind. Watertown is the nearest town and has never been populated by more than a few hundred people. Some of the folks in Saulsbury had electricity. None of them had indoor plumbing. If there was a telephone, then it was on a party line. There were a few stores, but, mostly, there was the church.
I have my own memories of Saulsbury Baptist Church. When I was a kid, my parents would visit and drag my brother and I along. When I say drag, I mean it. Going to Saulsbury was not my favorite thing. Looking back, I should not have had that attitude.
We went on special occasions which usually meant going to a “dinner on the ground.” The members brought food for a huge picnic after the service. The women tried to outshine each other with their dishes. Desserts were the big competition, but it also happened with other foods. I have always loved deviled eggs, and there would always be several platters full. However, there is a thing about deviled eggs. They are either good or bad. There is not much in between. I learned at Saulsbury Baptist Church to scout out deviled eggs carefully.
I also have memories of the services. Like good Baptists, we sat in the back pews. People whose names I could never remember came by to talk to us. My grandmother sang in the choir. Somebody played the piano. Somebody played the organ. Brother Jewel always preached. He was there for fifty years.
I remember thinking that everyone was old. I am sure that they were not as old as I thought, but I always felt uncomfortable around old people. That is why going to Saulsbury was not my favorite thing.
On Sunday, the experience was different. We sat in our usual pews, but the other ones were empty. Only twenty people were in attendance, and we made up almost half of that number. The alcoves were closed. There were seats for a choir but no choir. There was a piano but no one to play it. There was an organ but no one to play it. There was a baptismal pool but no one to be baptized. There was a preacher, but it was not Brother Jewel. It was a man who does it part-time.
Saulsbury Baptist Church, which was an important part of an isolated rural community, is dying. It is sad, but it is true. Over the past few days, I have been thinking about the reasons.
My dad would never want to read this, but I think it started with his generation. Many of them left the hills and hollows to do something other than work on the farm. As his generation and the following generations moved on, Saulsbury Baptist Church never had a chance. The older generations were still there, but they would not be there forever.
Those were the generations that were making the desserts and deviled eggs of my memories. I thought everyone was old because they were the age of my grandparents and older. There were not that many people younger people around. There were few people the age of my parents and fewer people the age of me.
On top of that, the federal government built an interstate through the middle of Saulsbury. This meant that the community was splintered and no longer isolated. A splintered community with citizens who can get somewhere else quickly does not need a church at its center.
As we left Saulsbury Baptist Church, we passed a lot of houses. There may be more people living in that area now than there were when my dad was growing up. However, these people live in a different world. They are not isolated. They can get on the interstate and be at their jobs in a matter of minutes. They do not have to work on a farm in a hallow. They can breathe the country air and have access to anything they want.
They want to go to a church with activities for their kids. They want to go to a church with people who are an extended family. They want to go to a church that is a central part of the larger community.
Saulsbury Baptist Church used to be all of those things to the people who lived in the surrounding hills and hollows. Now, it is that little church around the bend that people pass on their way to somewhere else.