The History of ‘Sunday Go to Meet’n Clothes’

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Photo: Appalachian Family, 1915.
Photo: Appalachian Family, 1915.

In the hills of Appalachia, a simple wooden country church is about as common of a sight as a mountain stream or white tail deer.  If religion isn’t part of the mountains’ DNA, it is undeniably a prominent pillar in its history.

For a land of coal miners, farmers and salt of the earth kind of people, Sundays were also the one day of the week that folks dressed up.

“We were told that we were going to God’s house and that we would be meeting with His people, so that meant that we’d have to dress our very best — even if that was wearing a hand-me-down dress or a skirt made from a feedsack,” stated Garland Brown, the daughter of a Baptist deacon in Virginia from the previous century.

“My father never once wore a tie to church, but he insisted that all of us dress up on Sundays — not to impress people, but to look good as a show of reverence to God.”

These days, such a mentality is quickly vanishing from church pews, but only a handful of decades ago, they were the norm.

Interestingly, like so many other things regarding religion, the practice of dressing up on Sundays was a point of great contention in the Appalachian Mountains a few centuries ago.

While the extremely wealthy wore extravagant and colorful clothes to worship services during the days of medieval Christianity, the vast majority of attendees basically wore drab and tattered rags to meetings due to the simple fact that this was all they owned.  Wearing fancy clothes to church provided an opportunity for the “haves” to flaunt their wealth in front of the “have-nots”.

All of this changed in 1764, however, with the invention of the “Spinning Jenny” which allowed for the economic production of finer and more colorful fabrics, making affordable “dress up clothes” available to the masses for the first time in world history.

Soon, common people in England and Europe began purchasing these “fancy clothes” and wearing them to church and eventually this practice would make its way across the Atlantic and reach the hills of Appalachia.

While this new practice of common folks dressing up on Sundays for church was embraced by denominations with more wealthy members such as the Episcopal Church, Baptists and Methodists in Appalachia initially pushed hard against this practice during the 1800s.

In the early days of Appalachian camp meetings of the 19th century, individuals who showed up “dressed in fine or expensive apparel would be turned away, denied admittance,” as meeting moderators argued the fine clothing inevitably separates the rich from the poor.

John Wesley frequently wrote and spoke out against fine adornment, saying that gold and costly apparel were sinful.  “Let your dress be cheap, as well as plain,” Wesley taught, peddling what Leigh Eric Schmidt entitled a “gospel of plainness.”

These thoughts were based upon a number of Scriptures, including Luke 7, in which Jesus told his disciples that John the Baptist didn’t dress in “soft clothes” as well as other Scriptures which teach that Christians are to be adorned “in modest apparel… not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array…” (I Timothy 2).

Despite all the preaching to the contrary, however, the tide of dressing fancy for church proved to be too much for the early Baptist and Methodist preachers of the 1800s and by the turn of the century, everyone from coal miners and farmers could be found wearing suits on Sunday mornings.

At the end of his life, Appalachian-born revivalist and Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) lamented, “The Methodists in that early day dressed plain… they wore no jewelry, nor ruffles… but O, how have things changed for the worse in this educational age of the world.”

Arguments were ultimately made that on Sunday, Christians should “dress their very best” for God and interestingly, what was once preached against from the pulpits of Appalachia eventually became the acceptable, then assumed, then required dress for preachers and servants of the church.

The “uniform” of an American preacher of the 20th century became a white shirt, tie, and suit.

As we move deeper into the 21st century and the way people dress for Sunday go to meeting is again changing drastically, perhaps its time we look past the suit or shirt and examine the heart — maybe it never was about whether suits were bad or good or dressing fancy was showing off or looking good for God; perhaps, all along, the real question has been the motives of the heart… which brings to mind a great closing thought, “for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” –I Samuel 16.7.

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

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