In the old time churches when I grew up sixty to seventy years ago [early 1900’s], the older people—the pillars of the church—sat up in the corner next to the preacher.
The country church in my community had two front doors. The men went in at one door and the women at the other, the women sitting on one side, the men on the other. This old church was well filled with uncomfortable home-made benches all fronting toward the preacher and the pulpit for about three-quarters of the way down. On each side of the pulpit were other benches placed at right angles to those in the main body of the church, the men on the preacher’s right and the women on his left.
The corner where the deacons and older men sat on the preacher’s right was known as the Amen Corner. Whether true or not, I always thought, as a boy, that this arrangement was planned so that these older men and women could keep one eye on the young people further back in the church. Another thing I used to wonder about was how a church member got promoted to the Amen Corner. While no one ever told me, the idea lodged in my mind somehow that when they reached a certain age and gained prestige and respect in the church they just walked over and started sitting in the Amen Corner.
The boys who went to that church were not supposed to sit in the back of the church. I knew better than to stop too far back so I always went up within two or three benches of the front.
We had services once a month. The preacher would come on Saturday, arriving about noon. The older people would attend what they called church conference, which was the business meeting, that afternoon. Then we would have the regular monthly preaching service at 11:00 A. M. on Sunday.
All in all, we had good preachers. Two that I remember well made good talks within the understanding of everyone. Another we had was just noisy—I never did understand what he was driving at. He did not stay long as pastor of that church. Another we had was so long winded that he would tire everybody out, preaching sometimes for two to two and a half hours. Neither did he stay long.
Occasionally we had special services when some new preacher or a missionary came along. I remember a missionary from Persia who came to our house and spent the night. He showed us children how they wrote in that country, which was exactly backwards from our way of writing. Another time a preacher they were considering as a pastor came to visit our community. He made a good impression on everyone while visiting around among the people. As we had no pastor then, he preached at the regular monthly Sunday morning service. He had not been going long when he said he simply could not preach with his coat on. He shucked off his coat and laid it across the pulpit. A little later he said he could not get warmed up to preach a real sermon without rolling up his sleeves, which he proceeded to do. A few minutes later he said that he had never been able to do his best with a necktie on, so off came the tie.
As we started back home after the service was over, an uncle with us asked my father, “What did you think of him?” My father replied, “Well, he never did get off enough clothes.” That preacher was not called in that church.
Another preacher we had made a good impression and for about thirty minutes made a good talk, but he did not seem to know how to stop. He wore everybody out and did not last long. The benches in that old church were uncomfortable to begin with, but after about an hour they were almost unbearable. I well remember to this day, after about sixty-five years, how I used to twist and squirm and move about trying to get into a more comfortable spot. I was afraid to move about too much as I was always under the watchful eye of my mother who sat in the women’s section of the Amen Corner. If I had to pick the most miserable moments of my life, they would be while sitting there on an uncomfortable bench during the second hour of a long-winded preacher’s sermon on a blazing hot summer day with sweat pouring down my back in that oven-like temperature.
The big event of the year in that community was the Big Meeting. The time was set well in advance. A “powerful” evangelist was secured, and the church and the grounds were put in “apple pie” order. The women all did their best in preparing for the “dinner-on-the grounds.” They loaded the tables with all kinds of good food. Never since have I seen so much good food at one time. I would like to go back to an old time Big Meeting like we used to have, only I am afraid I would add too much to my already overweight.
One summer an old disreputable sot who lived near our community came to church regularly. He was under conviction from the start. In a day or so he joined the church. This sinner had been snatched from the jaws of hell to the joy of the faithful. He began immediately to take a big interest in getting others to join the church. He became one of the best workers in that revival. Finally the preacher decided that he was worthy to be asked to lead in prayer. He called on him. The old man prayed from his heart with an eloquence rarely heard, reaching the hearts of everyone who heard him. Whether it actually happened or not—I did not hear it myself—people for years afterwards told of the trouble this man had when he came to the end of his prayer. He had never prayed before and had no occasion to use the word before and he could not for the life of him think of the word Amen. He kept going, repeating himself, desperately trying to think of the word till the people were all so tired from being so long on their knees. Finally he gave up hope and ended the prayer with the only ending he could think of, “Sincerely Yours.” In my opinion it was not such a bad way to end a prayer.
Church back then was a place where people met and visited. In fact church was the only place in our community where people gathered. The young people were good attendants, especially the marriageable young women and eligible young men. Many a romance bloomed and reached its climax at the old time country church.
My mother had a way of asking us what the preacher preached about and was displeased if one could not tell. My parents, like most in that area, took their religion most seriously and expected their children to do so. Church was a sacred thing to them.
Thigpen, S. G. Pearl River: Highway to Glory Land.. Kingsport, T N: Kingsport Press, Inc., 1965.