The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Religion Comes To The Cumberland

By Lee G. Stallard © 1988

Issue: October, 1988

It had been hot; the kind of heat that seemed to settle into the hollows at mid day and deepen into the afternoon. The sycamore and poplar leaves appeared to have lost some of their crispness and the sour wood bushes had already started to add a splash of crimson to the appellations. A welcome shower had offered some respite from the August heat to man and beast of the Cumberlands.

A powerfully built man in a dark well-worn suit, strode easily along what resembled a narrow mountain road - a bible under his arm. Looking back he spoke to his wife in her sun bonnet and long full skirted dress. "Sarah, you and Martha keep the least-uns with you and I'll try to keep in sight of these two young Dan'll Boones up ahead." Then calling sharply to his sons he warned, "Now remember boys we have 20 miles to walk today, so don't wear yourselves out climbing trees."

His wife answered in her quiet composed voice, "The two little-uns are right here with us. But Joshua, you might have to help us carry little Sampy. He'll tire out soon."

Martha, a slender girl of 16, her brown hair blowing in the gentle breeze, held her little brother by the hand. She had her mother's delicate features and looking down with her large dark eyes she suggested, "Let's look for birds along the way. We might see some right pretty ones."

Each bend of the road revealed an ocean of hardwood timber. Waves of branches created by the light wind broke across the hill tops only to froth and expend themselves in the low growing laurel bushes along the ridges. The girl embraced each long weary mile with enthusiasm. She would see Billy Collins at the meetings. He had a special interest in her - she just knew. Hadn't he shared his blue back speller with her in the one room school house, and hadn't he carried her books and slate clear home for her just before moving with his family to the other side of the mountain?

Her mother's voice intruded on her reverie. "Martha, can you lift Sampy across that small stream up ahead yonder? I think Henry, now that he's five, can jump it."

Joshua Short, with his wife and five children were trekking through the hill country of Letcher County, Kentucky to what amounted to the only great public gathering people knew at that time: The Association Meetings of the Baptist Churches. The pious folks came on foot or horseback from both the Kentucky and Virginia side of the Cumberlands. Being held in August about every three years, it was a meeting place for young and old, friends, kin folks, saints and sinners alike.

Evening shadows were settling into the hollows when the church, a small white building, nestled in the grateful shade of huge maples came into view of the weary travelers. A joyous reunion with kind relatives and friends warmed the hearts of the pilgrims.

"We've got feather beds and pallets on the floor at our house just a waitin' for you all." Sarah's Aunt Samantha cried. "Now let me hold that little child. He's fast asleep haint he."

As Joshua was shaking hands with Sarah's Uncle Hiram and saying, "I'm much obliged for the hospitality," other new arrivals were being invited to the homes of local farmers, friends and relatives.

Martha's dark eyes surveying the scene looked a little disappointed, and sinking wearily onto a near by bench whispered to her cousin, a girl about her own age. "Mary Jane, have you seen the Collins family yit. Are they a comin'?"

A quick smile lighted Mary Jane's face as she answered. "Yes, I reckon they've gone home with the Mullinses." Then in a whisper, "Billy is with them. He's 18 and prettier than ever. You'll have to be on your toes 'cause a whole passel of other girls have set their caps for him."

Joshua's firm voice broke into the conversation, "We better git right on up to Uncle Hirams and not keep them a waitin on us. A good bed and good vittles will be right welcome to us tonight."

The next morning dawned bright and clear. The crowd had gathered at the church. The first preacher's voice rose with power and emotion as he tried to reach his audience which had overflowed the church and into the yard around it. Joshua and Sarah, along with other devout Christians, having taken seats in the shade and watching their already fidgeting children tried to concentrate on the forceful words of the minister.

Martha, seated next to Mary Jane, had worn her best pink dress with the white lace trim. This was set off by her little flat crowned hat tied with pink ribbons under her chin. Mary Jane also in her Sunday best suddenly whispered, "Martha, there's Billy, ain't he cute. But look at that feisty girl trying to sidle over next to him."

"Well, he's not payin' any attention to her," came Martha's quick reply. Then she thought to herself, "He's sure matured up in the last two years, and he's even prettier than I remembered."

The second preacher took the pulpit and with a voice even louder and more mournful than the first he pled with the people. "Whether you join God's band in heaven depends on your faith and how you live on this earth. Your destiny is in your own hands."

Uncle Hiram leaned over toward Joshua. "He's preachin' a heap softer doctrine than the one who spoke first." Joshua nodded his assent.

Martha, her mind a millennium away whispered to Mary Jane, "Why don't we slip over and git a drink of water?"

Her cousin answered, "Martha, I see what's on your mind. The water pail is right by Billy Collins, haint it."

Martha flushed as the two girls walked demurely in the direction of the water. Billy's feisty admirer was still right by his side but he smiled and said, "Why, hello girls. I haint seen you in two years. Martha, mightn't I talk to you later."

"That'll be right nice," came Martha's reply. She could hardly hide her elation but seeing her mother's watchful eye she hurried back to her seat.

Lunch was a memorable affair. It seemed each woman was trying to out do the others to bring on the best dishes and the most of them. This break in the preaching allowed time for visiting and meeting old friends or making new ones.

Martha's dark eyes looked troubled again as she thought. Is Billy ever going to come over and talk to me or is he going to let that feisty thing take up all his time?

Some one announced that a singing would be led by Johnny Caudill who would "give out" the songs from the one song book. As the air was filled with the strains of "How Firm A Foundation" she felt someone tap her shoulder and she heard Billy's voice ask, "Would you care to come a walkin' around the grounds with me, Martha?" Glancing at her mother and taking her silence as approval, she took Billy's proffered hand and they strolled toward the edge of the clearing.

Martha's heart raced as she felt the power of Billy's arm, and she thrilled at how much broader his shoulders were than when she last saw him. She thought; I wonder what he'll say to me? Not wanting to seem too forward she asked, "Are you makin' a crop with your pa this year?"

Billy, being a little more in control of the situation answered. "Yes, but we've taken over the old Hampton place next to ours. I mean to clear some land and make a crop of my own next year. Pa and I aim to pick another team of horses at the Jocky grounds during the meetin'. But Martha, you must tell me what you've been doin' these last two years." Then hesitating slightly, "That's a right pretty dress you're wearing."

"Why thank you Billy. I'm glad you like it." She thought how much sweeter that sounded to her than the lonesome meetin' house songs they were singing back at the church, and she smiled her approval.

"Where bouts are they havin the horse tradin." she asked. "I hear some of them horse jockeys are bad-uns."

Billy pointed ahead. "It's bout a mile out this direction. I was there yesturday. I reckon there must be a hundred head of horses for sale or trade this year." Then adding, "Yes, there are always a few bad actors in the crowd. There is the usual amount of corn whiskey being passed around and some fighting from time to time. By the time Pa and I had done our business we had seen one fight and the start of another one. But like Pa says, if a person goes there on business he's not likely to have any trouble."

Martha, having reached the edge of the clearing saw her mother pull back the side of her sun bonnet and cast a watchful eye in their direction.

Then of all things, her 14 year old brother James (pronounced Jeems by the mountain people) came running over and joined them. After he exchanged greetings with Billy he hung with them like a leach.

She tried a broad hint. "Jeems, I allow Mother might need you to help her with something over yonder."

Jeems answered gaily. "No, she's all through with the meal and is a settin there with Pa. I git awful tired of this singin and preachin. I'll be right glad to just walk with you and Billy."

Martha's head spun with annoyance as she thought to herself. Land sakes, first it's that feisty girl then it's Jeems coming between me and the best looking boy in the country. Well, at least I am with him. I hope he don't mind having my whole family along in the mean time.

Looking back toward the church she saw that her mother's parental solicitude had relaxed some since Jeems had arrived - at least that was an improvement.

She stole a glance at Billy's blond hair and blue eyes which spoke of his Scotch-Irish ancestry so typical of the people of the Cumberlands. His strong fingers twined around her small hand as they walked a little further from the church grounds. A red bird landed delicately among the green leaves of a service berry bush, singing a song of joy - just for her she was sure. The mountain laurel and dogwoods never looked prettier; the whole world seemed beautiful and about to burst into song.

Again the sound of preaching assailed their ears bringing her out of her reverie. "The church is not out this way." Martha cried in surprise. "That sounds just like the first preacher we heard this morning."

Billy laughed and swinging her hand back and forth as they walked he explained, "They're mockin the preachers. Mightn't we walk up a little closer?"

On a stump in a little clearing stood a young man from the Virginia side of the mountain; his arms held high, his voice carried out over the small crowd seated or standing near by. "The Lord in his great omnipotence knows the hearts, future actions and the fate of every man at the instant of his birth," Emitting a long ah-h at the end of each sentence he continued his mournful exhortation. "Every man or woman is predestined for that joyous heavenly realm on high or that place of eternal torment below."

Martha, forgetting herself exclaimed, "Don't that beat all! I would have thought the preacher himself was right here speaking."

"Yes, old Jim can mock most anybody. I think preachers are his specialty. He means no harm or disrespect." Billy chimed in. "I've heard him before; I think he improves all the time."

"I do allow," said Billy thoughtfully, "I'd better be gittin you back to your mother before she gits worried about you."

Upon returning Martha to the church and shaking hands with her father, he told her quietly, "I enjoyed walking with you a right smart. I'll have to help Pa with the horses tomorrow, but I hope to see you sometime later in the day. I'll be here even if it's late." Then he was gone among the crowd.

Mrs. Short spoke to her daughter. "Martha, was Jeems with you and Billy all the time you were gone?"

"Yes Ma, he stuck with us like the bark on a hickory tree. He just had to hear every word that was said."

"Well," came her mother's serious reply. "We can't have no daughter of ours traipsen off through the woods alone with some boy, even if it is a nice young man like Billy Collins."

Mary Jane coming up just then tugged Martha to one side saying, "You sure outdone that fast girl who was a runnin' after Billy. You must tell me all about it tonight."

Another evening of visiting, dinning and hymn singing at Uncle Hiram's prepared the Short family for the last day of the meetings.

Each preacher took his final turn in the pulpit and assaulted the Devil with all the fervor he could muster. The devout Christians seemed to be divided into two camps. The believers in predestination sometimes called "Hard Shells" or the followers of hard doctrine, and the others who believed that salvation was to be had through faith and good works here on earth. These were termed as "Soft Shells" and were said to be preaching soft doctrine.

Martha endured through the day feeling that her Billy, she hoped he was hers, would come walking up to her, handsome as ever, and take her strolling on those beautiful pathways again. Maybe he would take her by the hand and, should she dare think, tell her that he loved her?

Dark clouds appeared by mid-afternoon and thunder threatened in the distance. People were preparing to leave for shelter. Fortunately Uncle Hiram had brought his wagon and a team of mules. He had already taken two or three of the older couple's home. Aunt Samantha called to Joshua and Sarah, "He's comin' back now. We'd better hurry and git right in the wagon or we'll all be wet to the hide."

As the wagon lurched out of the church yard, the storm broke with all its fury and torrents of rain lashed the meeting place. Martha remembered the minister's words as he preached from Genesis: "All the fountains of the great deep were opened up, and the windows of heaven were opened." People were scampering every direction. Men, holding onto their hats, were assisting ladies into the church. Mary Jane who was wedged into the wagon beside Martha pointed a finger. "Haint that Billy Collins helping that feisty girl into the church; Martha's heart sank as she saw and knew the truth. Billy had arrived and was leading another girl by the hand.

The mules bent their heads to the storm and Uncle Hiram's "Ark" splashed and floundered its way along the muddy road as the rain soaked its occupants. Mary Jane tried to comfort Martha. "Maybe he just arrived and had to help some folks. He might not have been walkin' with her at all."

Jeems spoke up in brotherly fashion, "But maybe he was walking with her. Maybe he takes em all for a walk. That's the way these pretty boys do."

"Hush your mouth Jeems." Came his mother's quick reprimand. "Now you just keep out of your sister's affairs."

A broken hearted girl rode the wagon to Uncle Hiram's that evening. That night as she and Mary Jane lay on their pallets, she moaned to her friend. "I'll go away and be a nun like them Catholics I hear about. Nobody will ever hear from me again. But then maybe I'll just die and people will feel right bad, especially Billy Collins. Would you all please bury me in this pink dress? It's the best-un I've ever had." She then turned her face to the wall and with Mary Jane's comforting hand on her shoulder, she slept at last.

The first rays of sun painted a fringe of gold and orange on the ridge tops, heralding a cool fresh day after the storm. The time for sad adieus was at hand. Martha hugged Aunt Samantha and told Mary Jane a sober goodbye.

"I'm glad to get a good early start on that 20 miles home." Joshua mused as the damp road lay before them. Martha carried little Sampy. His cheerful and happy baby ways and soft little body seemed to comfort her. Looking back, she saw Uncle Hiram's place disappear behind them and all of her hopes of a wonderful love with it. Every mile seemed a dull and colorless existence

Joshua broke the silence. "This was one of the best meetin's we've had in years, don't you reckon Sarah?"

"It's sure the best debate I've heard on the controversial issues, I'm certain." She answered. "Of course, being with our friends and relatives one more time is worth the whole trip." She glanced at Martha with a sympathetic eye as they stoically put the first miles behind them.

Suddenly the sound of horse's hoof beats shattered the silence from the direction they had come. Uncle Hiram rode up with Mary Jane sitting sideways behind the saddle, her auburn hair flying in the wind.

They both dismounted as the old gentleman handed a note to Martha saying, "Billy Collins rode up to our house about an hour after you were gone and left this for you. He said he had been all night getting his father's horses gathered up after the storm; they had gone clear across the mountain. He was mighty sorry he missed you."

Martha shyly read the note. "I was asked to help all the people at the church. I'll be in your area next month. Might I come a courtin? Please say yes. Billy."

A red bird landed among the green leaves of a service berry bush. The laurel and dogwood never looked prettier, the whole world was beautiful and about to burst into song - once more.