The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Big Meeting In August

By Grace Cash © 1987

Issue: August, 1987

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

August Revival was the highlight of summer in the country, round about the Blue Ridge Mountains. We called it "big meetin'" which meant a series of meeting days at the church – morning and night – for a whole week. The following Sunday they had the baptizing in a swimming hole, or at the creek. There was usually a guest preacher who helped the preacher conduct the revival meeting, and they promised a second week of meetings "if the Spirit moved among the people."

In 1920 I went to a big meetin' in a buggy with Papa, Mama sitting beside him on the riding seat. She was holding Ruth, her baby daughter born the past April. She looked pretty, and smiling, in a black taffeta dress (which I inherited at the age of ten, cut down to fit me). She had on a broad–brimmed straw hat, trimmed with full–blown pink artificial roses. Lillian and I sat on the foot board, facing Mama and Papa, who drove over the narrow dirt road at a slow, lazy pace. We were dressed just alike, in turned–up brown–and–white hats and voile dresses, black–ribbed stockings and black leather button–hook shoes. The three eldest children were elsewhere, probably in a wagon with our grandparents and aunts, going the same way we were headed.

Mama had cooked dinner before we left. Vegetables from the garden, a fried chicken caught up from the red–clay barnyard, brown milk gravy and a platter of big fluffy biscuits. All this was topped off with a pan of baked limbertwig apples. She tucked in her black handbag some fresh baked tea cakes for any whining youngster who might get hungry, and either has to eat, or to be taken out of the church.

When we got into the churchyard, Papa drove to the hitching yard. He hitched his mule to a tree. The iron clamps were fastened securely to tree trunk; strong enough to restrain the mules till their master came to release them. The mules pawed the ground, restless, wanting to be on their way, but they stayed there, heads down, sometimes neighing right in the middle of the preacher's prayer.

We went into the small white frame church house, and Papa sat down on a wooden bench in the men's section, on the left, looking toward the hitching lot. The men folks sat in segregated areas – both single and married, as well as boys too big to sit with their mothers. A father frequently tended to a child, who usually slept on the bench. Whenever he tended a girl–child, the mother had taken care beforehand to dress her in cuffed, knee–length bloomers that matched her cotton dress, this done for modesty, in case the child slept on her father's bench in the men's section.

The women sat on benches across from the men's section. Courting couples sat in the women's section, and after marriage, these would also sit in segregated areas. There was a men's "Amen Corner" near the pulpit, and a woman's section directly across from it, the alter dividing these two parallel seating areas. The men sat here, and the deacons, who said "Amen!" at a high sin–scorching moment in the sermon.

The congregation sang such songs as "On Jordan's Stormy Banks," "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder," and "How Firm A Foundation." The song leader was a local countryman, who sang loud, and waved his striped shirt–sleeved arm, marking "time" to the shaped notes in the worn–backed, dog eared song books. A woman of the community played the organ, and she sang spiritedly as she played, relaxed and smiling, and "at home" with any song the leader selected. On one occasion the preacher objected to a song that he believed might be influencing the un–churched against coming down to the alter, and he asked that they refrain from singing "I Shall Not Be Moved" till after the big meetin' came to an end.

There was a lengthy reading from the Scriptures, and several prayers by the preachers, and the deacons, that came as a break between the hymns. At the end of the sermon, the preacher opened the doors of the church, a symbolic invitation to all who felt the call to profess their faith publicly, to come down the aisle, where the preacher stood, ready to shake hands with them, and seat them on a nearby bench. The mourner's benches, near the alter, were filled with the unsaved, and those who went there to pray for themselves and others. The church doors were always open to those who wanted to transfer their membership to Chestnut Mountain Baptist Church.

We went to big meetin' every August, and the third week of August, we loaded up the wagon and drove to Union Baptist Church, where Mama still had her church letter. The same customs prevailed at this church. Grandma Dalton dressed in her ankle–length black dress and black lace–edged silk bonnet, came to this church.

In 1924 we still lived in the Macedonia area, and attended the Methodist church there, or went to Chestnut Mountain. Mama's youngest daughter, Frances, was to be born at the end of August, and only the children attended big meetin' that summer. Frank was thirteen, and acquainted with mules, buggies, wagons, and everything else that went with making a farmer's living. He drove the buggy one day, and Lillian and I went with him. Lillian was seven and I was nine. We were dressed exactly alike, looking not much different than we had when we went in a buggy with Papa and Mama in 1920, when Ruth was a baby. The fifth daughter, Mary Louise, had been born dead in 1923. There was a four–year gap between Ruth and the expected August–baby, and a perpetual throb in our throats when we remembered "Mama's little baby."

When Frank galloped into the churchyard and stopped, we climbed down from the buggy seat, and he was free from the girls. He lost himself from us, hitching the mule to a tree, and doing exactly the things his elders were doing, sitting in the men's section, glancing subtly across the aisle at the women and girls, but well–satisfied with the segregated arrangement. Lillian and I sat across from the men's "Amen" corner, and nobody knew who we came with.

On our way back home on the three–mile route, Frank slowed his mule down and in the red cloud of dust his mule's metal–shod feet had stirred up, he passed Grandpa's and Grandma's buggy. Hunching forward in his seat, hands loosening up on the leather harness, he shouted, "Grandma, how did you like the preaching?" She reached a hand up to steady the small black straw hat on her head, and with the other hand she clutched the chain on her beaded handbag a little tighter, and she said, smiling, "The best I ever heard."

That was the purpose of big meetin' in August – to raise us all up to perfection – and we were expected to make it last from one August to the next August. We grew up, thinking that each big meetin' was better than the year before.