Old Time Religion: Church Foot Washings

Appalachian Mountain Church

By James Britton Cranfill, 1916

My father and mother were members of the Hardshell Baptist Church. It was made up of most excellent people. The Hardshell Baptists are very like the Missionary Baptists in their creed but differ somewhat in the interpretation of their creed.

On a certain Sunday, I went with my father and mother to the old time rawhide lumber church down on the south side of the Prairie. You may not know what rawhide lumber was, it was lumber sawed from oak trees. It was called rawhide lumber because it wouldn’t stay put. It worked beautifully when green, but when the lumber dried under the heat of the summer sun it warped in every direction. This rawhide lumber warped in every conceivable fashion. For that reason, it had to be nailed very securely. If it were not thus nailed when green it never could be nailed because a nail can’t be driven through a rawhide lumber plank after it seasons.

This church had a pine lumber floor and pine lumber seats many of which did not have any backs to them. On this particular Sunday Brother Abe Baker preached and then my father preached and Brother John Baker closed with an exhortation. These dear people would begin their services at about eleven o’clock in the morning and close them sometime in the afternoon, the time for the benediction varying with the number of preachers present and with the time it took for the Lord’s Supper and the Foot Washing. After all three sermons had been duly preached and a closing hymn had been sung, Brother Baker came down out of the pulpit, opened his Bible and read the following verses from the 13th chapter of John: Now before the feast of the

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded… Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Preparation had been made by the deacons in anticipation of this exercise. The bread and wine had been procured as well as the basins and towels and water for the foot washers.

I reluctantly reveal a secret here. These dear good people when a foot washing time was approaching always very carefully washed their feet before they went to the foot washing. Not only that, but they put on the cleanest kind of clean hosiery. After Brother Baker had read the Scripture, I have quoted he laid aside his coat, girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin and approaching Deacon Jack Bellamy, he knelt in front of him and said, “Brother Bellamy, may I wash your feet?”

Brother Bellamy assented and the dear man of God thus kneeling in front of Deacon Bellamy began to wash his feet.

Deacon Bellamy in the meantime had removed his shoes and stockings.

While this was going on the women of the church at the other end of the building were carrying on the same exercises. The men washed each other’s feet and the women did likewise.

The greatest of decorum was preserved and the occasion was always a most solemn one. The foot washing began after the Lord’s Supper was concluded. They first took the bread and wine just like other Christians do. This was done in great solemnity and then the foot washing followed.

After Brother Baker had washed Brother Bellamy’s feet, Brother Bellamy, in turn, washed Brother Baker’s feet. At the same time, my father was busy washing the feet of old Brother Asa Bellamy and he, in turn, washed my father’s feet.

It was thus that going from one to the other and reciprocating this evidence of humility and love these dear people proceeded with their foot washing.

Many were the strangers who came down Hallmark’s Prairie way to witness the foot washing exercises. But in every case as far as I can recall, those who came to scoff remained to pray.

There was nothing laughable in this solemn religious observance. Whatever else may be thought of it or said of it, it was true and will remain ever true that these simple folk believed profoundly that they were doing the will of God.

I must testify to be sincere that on every occasion when I was present at a foot washing, there was what the dear old folks would call “a splendid meeting.”

They would when the exercises were concluded grasp each other’s hand, shed tears of Christian joy, give voice to expressions of tenderest Christian love, and oft times these dear old soldiers of the Cross would be clasped in each other’s arms.

Many were the misunderstandings and embryo feuds that would be settled on these foot washing occasions. No man could ever allow an enemy to kneel and wash his feet and no man could ever remain an enemy of the man whose feet he had washed. It was thus that whatever the meaning of the teaching of the Scriptures the ceremonial had its part in cementing the hearts of these dear people in the tenderest bonds of Christian and neighborly affection.

Now and then as the exercises would close some of the sisters would shout aloud for joy.

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  1. I attended church with my grandparents when I was a little girl. They were Primitive Baptists and their church was in a one room school house at Woodman, Ky. Church was held there every third Sunday. Foot washing was a part of the service and it was as described in this article down to my grandfather washing his feet beforehand and wearing his best socks. We rode the train to Devon, WV on that Sunday and walked the rest of the way to Woodman, Ky. It was a mile or more away and the first part of the walk involved walking across a railroad bridge and through Woodman Railroad. I have been afraid of railroad bridges ever since. I was a tiny girl and I was afraid I would fall through the spaces between the ties into Tug River.

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