For generations, the plain folks of South Georgia lived in two intertwined social systems: extended family and community. Within the family, they found physical nurture — food, clothing, shelter, security — emotional support, help in times of trouble and identity.
“You are Johnny and Lizzie Smith’s girl, aren’t you?”
Community suggests physical location, but really means a network of dynamic relationships among families and neighbors, which deals with how best to live together in a given place and time.
The linchpin holding community together was church. Many communities got their names and distinctive identities from churches. Even those that sound like they got their names from geographical features became communities only after churches were established at the site. There are thousands of groves of pine and oak trees, but pine grove and oak grove communities exist only because churches chose such features for their names. Interestingly, Cool Springs Baptist Church in Candler County is located some distance from the cool springs beside which the church was begun.
The church usually was centrally located in the community. When members got to church on foot, by horse and buggy (or mule and wagon), their travels defined the outer boundaries of the community. Frequently, the one- or two-room country school was located nearby and perhaps the GMD polling place as well. A few communities were blessed with more than one church. If so, amiable and cooperative relations usually prevailed. The long-term welfare of the people required harmony and unity.
Church was the place for people for important issues of living. There were celebrations of holidays, especially Christmas, when the birth of Jesus was dramatized by some adults and many children struggling with Biblical language; when no child left without a present and some treats. When death struck a family, word sped through the community grapevine and a stream of comfort, consolation and practical help flowed from all directions. Marriages and births were everybody’s business, sometimes tying families together in new ways.
Worship services in country churches could be challenging experiences. They were cold in winter and very hot in summer. Heat came from a wood-burning stove, which had to be fired early and often in winter. Before the arrival of electric power — which came late in some places — lighting came from Aladdin lamps hung from the ceiling. This device gave more light than typical kerosene-burning lamps with central wicks. It also had a wick and used kerosene, but light from its wick illuminated a pear-shaped mantel of ash-like fiber and created a much brighter light. However, if it was not properly adjusted, soot formed on the mantle and soon destroyed it. When a soft “guttering” sound began, everyone sitting on the pew beneath that lamp vacated and one of the men hopped onto the pew and readjusted the lamp. Then the preacher had to readjust his sermon.
Even after the coming of the REA, it was decades before most country churches could afford air conditioning. Summer religion was uncomfortable. The only source of relief was to open the windows and, sadly, some churches did not even have screens in the windows. Whether screened or not, the air that flowed through the windows at midday in midsummer gave little relief. It helped to move that air better, faster. To that end, hand-held and powered fans were employed.
A few ladies had sturdy but fancy personal fans. However, funeral home owners provided most of the fans used in country churches. This was both a service for clients and tasteful advertising. Typically, they were made of stiff paper with a wooden handle. One side featured a Biblical scene, perhaps depicting the Resurrection, and a familiar Scriptural verse. The other identified the funeral home from whence came this gift. Those who used the fans were well served and grateful.
Heat was not the only summer pestilence. There were insects. South Georgia grey gnats can make their way through screens and dart through doors even if opened only for a moment. Craving moisture, they invade eyes, ears, noses and mouths. A truly pestilential pest. The best available defense was the funeral home fan, called “gnat batters” by some.
Central to the life of the country church was the annual revival meeting, often held in August. The season for cultivation and the tobacco harvest were over. School had not begun (at least back then). It was not yet cotton picking time. It was “slack time” or something like that.
August is as hot as it gets in South Georgia. Windows were opened, fans distributed. Someone humorously said that preachers had no difficulty convincing people of the terrors of hellfire in the heat of August.
There were many positives to these revivals. After being immersed in crop work during the summer, people had time for neighbors, caught up on local happenings, relaxed together. Community was reborn. The gospel was reaffirmed.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.