Appalachia’s “Old Regular Baptist” Churches

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Photo courtesy of Ammodramus
Photo courtesy of Ammodramus

From the days of old, when our forefathers first topped the Blue Ridge Mountains and decided to keep going until they reached the unforgiving mountains of Central Appalachia, the unofficial but undisputed religion of our region has been Christianity; however, what the definition of “true Christianity” actually is differs wildly from house to house and “holler” to “holler”.

Appalachian-Americans are known around the globe for being fiercely independent and unwilling to compromise — two trademarks that have allowed incredible and unique societies to flourish and this is evidenced in no greater of a manner than when Appalachia goes to church.

A simple drive along some winding county road in the heart of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, Southwest Virginia or East Tennessee will showcase some fascinating and unusual denominational church names.  Yet, if there ever was a faith that personified what Appalachian religion truly is, it would be that of the Old Regular Baptist Church of Jesus Christ.

Back in the early days of Appalachian settlement, many sects of Christianity were characterized by extreme views in predestination — going so far as to believe that God was the author of every action of man, including sin.

In his legendary book, “The Man who Moved a Mountain”, Richard C. Davids writes about one Appalachian man’s first memory of a funeral he ever attended – that of a young man who had come home drunk and attempted to kill his stepmother, but shot himself instead.

“I remember yet what one preacher chanted out: Little Georgie-a, is a-walkin’ the streets of glory-a,
He done exactly what the Lord wanted him to do-a,
When the Lord pulled the foundations of the world-a,
He planned for little Georgie to be born-a,
And to get drunk-a, and to try to shoot his stepmother-a,
And to have the pistol go off and shoot himself-a,
And he fulfilled God’s purpose-a,
And he’s gone the way that God wanted him to go-a,
A man cain’t die before his time comes-a, nohow
Nor in anyway nor at any time except as God planned-a,
If he could-a, what would he do when his time comes-a,
Would he die again?”

Though the people who would become members of this most Appalachian of denominations were heavy believers in many forms of predestination, this level of extremism was uncomfortable to them and by 1892, they had separated themselves under their present banner, “Old Regular Baptists”.

As their name suggests, the modern-day “Old Regular Baptist Church of Jesus Christ” aren’t given to much change.

As one writer stated, “The Old Regulars believe in keeping with the ‘old ways.'”  These old ways include, denying women a formal voice in church government, encouraging men to cut their hair, while discouraging women from doing the same.  “Women must not dress in men’s clothing, i.e. slacks, jeans, pantsuits… The Old Regulars pride themselves on the belief that their church is most closely representative of the early Christian Church of the New Testament.”

“We Old Regular Baptists are a peculiar people. We sing differently. Some say our worship has a sad and mournful sound. But I’ve never heard a more beautiful melody, and the sound of the worship causes my heart to feel complete,” stated Elder Elwood Cornett, Moderator of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists.

Cornett states that Old Regular Baptist church building are “adorned in simplicity”.

Describing their worship, he writes, “A custom that marks Old Regular Baptists is the once a month meetings. Some churches meet on the first weekend, some on the second, some on the third, and some on the fourth weekend of every month. This enables members from each church to visit other churches. If my home church meets only on the first weekend, then I can visit one of several nearby churches that meets on the second weekend, another on the third, and so on. A unique set of relationships has evolved. It is a special blessing to have members of other churches visit our church.

“At about 9:30 most of the congregation is in place. A brother selects an appropriate song and starts singing. Others join in as the leader lines the words of the song…  Some members continue to shake hands and greet everyone as we sing. There is an atmosphere of orderliness, and yet individual freedom of expression is accepted and often encouraged. Humbleness is expected and reverence is demanded.

“Several songs are sung in succession without a formal list or prepared order. Individuals select them by picking up a book and starting one as they feel moved. Silence endures only long enough for someone to find and start another song. At about 10 a.m. the moderator steps to the pulpit and welcomes everyone, often referring to those in need of prayer and emphasizing mankind’s duty to honor God.

“The moderator selects a brother that has been called to the ministry to ‘open’ or ‘introduce’ the church service. A good introduction or opening sets the atmosphere, provokes thought, and promotes spirituality. It is relatively short and not meant to be an articulated sermon.

“After a few minutes the opening minister asks that a song be started. Everyone stands and sings, and again there is a lot of handshaking and spiritual embracing. After the song the minister leads in prayer. During prayer, many individuals will kneel on the floor. Whether individuals remain seated or get on their knees depend entirely on how they feel at the time.

“The prayer is a powerful, extemporaneous pleas to the Lord. It may be rather loud and last several minutes. A good prayer is a genuine, sincere desire of the heart expressed aloud without shame or embarrassment.

“After the prayer, perhaps three or four other brothers will each deliver an extemporaneous sermon. Each sermon has its own message and may or may not be related to the other sermons. A good sermon may last twenty to thirty minutes. It is powerful, bound in love and well ordered. It is not read or taken from notes, but it is delivered by the minister as God moves upon him in demonstration of the Spirit and Its power. During a powerful and spiritual meeting, there will be shouting and tears of joy.

“A few minutes before noon the church service comes to an end. When the last minister has finished with his sermon, he will extend an invitation for membership in the church my means of experience and baptism. ( A man or woman desiring to belong to the church will step forward and tell how conviction and repentance led to their being born again.) As the invitation is given, an appropriate song is lined and sung. The service is closed by prayer.”

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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