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Old Time Religion in Hopkins Gap

May 23, 2014

Second of two parts on Dr. Peggy Shifflett’s book, The Red Flannel Rag. First part here.

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Mennonites of Hopkins Gap get a mixed review in Dr. Peggy Shifflett’s book, The Red Flannel Rag. That is not too surprising, and it extends here generally to Appalachian practice of religion. But then, looking back, many of us grew up among religious beliefs that were well-intentioned but misguided at best, painful or abusive at worst.

Early on Shifflett signals a theme of her mountain culture clashing with mainstream American culture in a number of instances including “in church, when the Mennonites, at times not so subtly, let us know we were not ‘born Mennonites’ and would have to work especially hard to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (p. 12) She includes a reference to one uncle who laughingly said he made moonshine in one Old Order Mennonite home because they “liked to have it around for medicinal purposes.” (p. 107).

Mission work in the Hopkins Gap area started in 1886 but official “organized religion” she documents as arriving around 1907, when two Mennonites by the last names of Suter and Heatwole held Sunday school at the community school building, White Hall School. Two men donated one acre for a church and cemetery located right where you enter Hopkins Gap crossing Little North Mountain, which became known as Gospel Hill Mennonite Church. I was acquainted with it as an Eastern Mennonite College student only because it was near the turn off for “Long Run Road” which was a drive/excursion we loved to take. (For some photos, check here.)

Eventually J. Early Suter became the regular minister there and “the people in Hopkins Gap were very devoted to the church and admired Reverend Suter and his family; however they also viewed religion and the Bible in a very practical everyday manner. A person was judged by whether he read his Bible every night” (p. 251). A local man used an open bed truck with side rails to haul a boatload of children to Sunday school, according to Shifflett, including one picture of 34 kids in the back (p. 252). Great church and community picnics were a part of the social life of the Gap, and elsewhere in our Shenandoah Valley (as shown in some of my husband’s family pictures).

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(My in-laws arriving at a family picnic in a nearby area to Hopkins Gap, Hershal, Richard and Estella Davis, 1949)

But Shifflett does not flinch when she writes about the efforts of young Mennonite men and women doing “their missionary work for two years in Hopkins Gap” making it sound like they were Mormon missionaries. “Some young people went to Africa, some went to Asia, and some went to Hopkins Gap” (p. 255). There were “messages, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant that the ‘Hopkins Gappers’ were heathen and needed to be changed before they could be saved.’” The “Gappers” felt that times of illness and death were particularly used as crisis events to could convert them—when a funeral service focused more on conversion of the living than memorializing the one who died. I have heard the same kind of sermons, and felt the same messages during my time of service in the hills near Hazard, Kentucky.

One of the things that the young Peggy Shifflett pondered as a child were why the men and women at Gospel Hill sat on different sides of the church, and her mother would only tell her “that’s just the way things are done.” Childishly she wondered whether it was because the men had a better view of the pulpit. Her mother told her she asked too many questions. (p. 257).

As she grew older Shifflett noticed that a preacher’s attention was indeed mostly directed to the male side of the audience. Once when she was nine years old and tried to raise her hand in order to be given the floor to recite a Bible verse from memory like men on the other side were being called upon to do, the visiting evangelist in charge that day noticeably refused to recognize her hand until at the very end she just shouted out her favorite Bible verse, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Her mother was appalled, jerked her hand down, and told her to “shut up.” Shifflett’s verse was probably the most appropriate of the day.

This brought the evangelist to visit their home, who asked the younger Shifflett point blank if she was a sinner. Well, with her mother sitting right here, she knew she couldn’t lie, of course she was a sinner. But that wasn’t good enough for this “Reverend.”

“What kinds of sins do you commit?” he queried. He should have been silenced right there—and he was—but not by a good answer.  “It turned out that this was another occasion when I was glad to be a female and just started crying and the reverend moved on to another topic.” (p. 259).

But then came what Shifflett calls in her book “confirmation time” or technically in Mennonite circles, more often known as the age of accountability, when young people are growing in their ability to be accountable for choices and direction in life and deciding whether to be baptized and become followers of Jesus themselves (not just because of their parent’s influence).

Shifflett writes, “The Mennonites expected young people to join the church at twelve years of age. I was told again and again that up until the time that we joined the church, any sins we committed were the sins of our parents. I thought that was a pretty good deal. I could sin all day long and mom and dad would have to pay for it.” (p. 259). Peggy had observed friends crying as they went forward under the influence of the moving hymn, “Just as I Am” and thought they were crying because they would have to give up all their “fun,” and had vowed she would never go forward and cry “in front of the ‘born’ Mennonites.”

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One of the most vivid and sad descriptions in the book came at the end of summer when she was 12 and she still had not “gone forward.” She thought about it, every Sunday, but she kept remembering her questions that had remained unanswered over the years: about difficult Bible stories, about why she had to keep quiet in church, about people who confessed their sins, took communion, and then went right back to doing what they’d be doing before. Her Dad, who she describes earlier as completely changed in an unhealthy way after he came back from World War II, drew back his fist as if to hit her one Sunday morning as he waited in the car just because she’d slipped and fell into the back seat of the car and the noise scared him as he was listening to a sermon on the radio. He called her a “speckle-faced son-of-a-bitch.” She was terribly wounded by that burst of anger. “I thought that was a pretty awful thing to say to your own child on the way to church. If that wasn’t a sin, I didn’t know what else would be. I never forgot that day.”

She recalled another time on the way to church they saw a woman lying in the ditch, but her parents lost any concern when they saw it was a local woman known as a lesbian. Later they learned that the woman had been raped and beaten and left in the ditch. Another time on the way to church four local men, some of them married, were having sex with a woman on the trunk of a car, drunk. Her mother also called her a dirty bitch. They drove on to church.

Shifflett also did not want to have to change the way she dressed to the long dresses and capes worn at the time, or the woman’s prayer covering worn by the “born Mennonites” at Gospel Hill.

All of these things rolled through Shifflett’s mind again and again and kept her from walking the aisle to the front of the church, a step necessary to be confirmed. On the last Sunday when she was expected to go forward (likely in order to join a new believer’s group), as “Just as I Am” started, her mother gave her a meaningful push to get up and walk to the front of the church. “I refused. I sat down and wrapped my feet around the pew in front of me. She pulled and pushed. I would not budge. Finally, after what seemed like a month, the song was over. I figured I would be in deep trouble when we got home.”

At home her mother asked why she refused to go forward. “I told her I did not want to wear that little bonnet on my head; why should I accept Jesus as my savior and be only a ‘converted’ Mennonite, and besides I was not allowed to talk in church because I was a female. She listened carefully and didn’t say much. Three months later, she stopped going to church and to this day has never gone back to that church or any other.”

Remarkably, later in life Shifflett came around to joining a Methodist church herself and eventually her mother’s body was buried in the Gospel Hill Mennonite cemetery, and I’m sure God’s grace is big enough to cover someone who stopped going to church because of her daughter’s grievances, but whose faith remained steadfast on a God greater than petty rules. Shifflett, her sisters, and sister-in-law managed—for five long years—to honor their mother’s desire that she be taken care of at home until she died. And she was—which says something about the true nature of family, faith and community—sacrificing one’s life and career for a period of time to take care of family members.

I was also moved by Shifflett’s compassion for the plight of the “field rabbit” children I referred to in my previous post (essentially homeless) where “broods” were fathered by a single men who “sowed their wild oats among the females of the community.” She says she would “often cry myself to sleep at nights worrying whether they were cold or hungry” and she wondered why their father or mother paid them such scant attention. Eventually as time went forward, social workers intervened in that predicament.

Isaac Risser, a later pastor gets high marks for changing the structures of the church to include local leadership of those who were not necessarily born Mennonite. This trend in Mennonite mission work the world over seems to be the key to transition to local, authentic church and mission. Today the congregation has a husband and wife team serving as ministers, J. Mark and Emma Frederick. I know one man who tells the story of visiting this congregation where he was just royally welcomed and embraced, even though all he had to wear that day in the way of dress clothes were his military dress blues. After he learned more about Mennonites and the typical stance of pacifism and not joining the military, he was doubly amazed by the welcome he was given. Times change.

My own journey bridging the Mennonite and wider church, the culture of north and south, of mountain and non-mountain through years spent in Kentucky, North Florida and now Virginia for 42 years has been a life exercise in finding harmony and seeking to understand others. My Virginia relatives (by marriage) have become my loving extended family who I know much better than my own who live at a distance. I don’t think you can’t usually have too many relatives and I sense that Shifflett immensely treasures  her ongoing ties to her family in the Gap.

P1050680Family picnic from another era, 1973, at the “homeplace” near Bergton, Va.

***

Were you ever confused or frustrated when told “That’s just the way things are done”?

What are your good memories of “old time religion”? What are some of the bad? Most of us have a mixed bag.

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My book about living in the hills of Kentucky for one year can be found as a used book on Amazon, On Troublesome Creek, Herald Press, 1983.

You can read more of Dr. Shifflett’s work with links to two other books she’s written here.

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7 Comments
  1. Yes, I too have a mixed bag of the good / bad when it comes to old time religion as you know from my blog. Your paragraph about the lack of good Samaritans in the story of the abused women is appalling. I much prefer to hear about acts of grace cited later. Unfortunately and fortunately, family histories are speckled with both.

    I did perk up when you referred to J. Mark and Emma Frederick, whom I met during Homecoming at EMU last October. Emma was a Longenecker from my neck of the woods. I could tell they both are happy and fulfilled serving the Lord. I always enjoy your posts which often include old-timey photos. Narrative, anecdotal history is so engaging. Thank you, Melodie.

    • I thought I had posted a response yesterday but it didn’t appear, maybe a fluke. Anyway, so interesting to know that Emma was a Longenecker from your area, and I’m glad to know it seems like a good fit for them at Gospel Hill. There was more appalling in the book of course, and yes, our family and church histories are full of both grace and horrifying. Thanks for what you brought to this post!

  2. Athanasia permalink

    Oh that sounds like so many sad situations. We, I believe, had a good stable religious upbringing. I have no bad memories. My husband, though, was raised in the Amish, and there was enough that happened amongst their circle that his parents up and moved the family of eight children a thousand miles away. They bought a general store sight unseen and moved to this area, joining the Mennonites instead. My husband, the oldest was seventeen, and he and his father learned to drive at the same time.

  3. I feel that way about my upbringing too–so positive and many good memories. What a move your husband’s parents made: I love the idea of father and son learning to drive at the same time. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in here.

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