Saturday History: The Church on the Hill
by Letty Owings
The three entities that shaped my early years were family, Cabbage Neck School, and the Evangelical Church. Before radio, or TV, or daily newspapers, or junk mail, or iPads, the people in our orbit were connected in one way or another to those three.
The Evangelical Church in Wellington, Missouri is by far the most imposing building for miles around. For reasons of their own, the German immigrants who came in great numbers to the United States in the 1830’s, landed in New Orleans and followed the mighty Mississippi River to the St. Louis area. They left the land that would be united and called “Germany” in 1871 under the rule of Otto von Bismarck. When they left, they knew they could never return, and never see their loved ones again. .
Those who came were German Protestants, united by their strong faith and their language. They called themselves “Evangelical” because they wanted to distance themselves from the Lutherans. In the principalities that became Germany, people were classified as either Lutheran or Catholic, and those who came to America were an evangelical offshoot of the Lutherans, a group with a literal interpretation of scripture. They had no intention of giving up their language or changing their religious beliefs when they “crossed the pond” to a new land. For many generations they were successful. They held German church services, taught confirmation classes in German, and spoke their native tongue in their homes. They put the Poles and other eastern European immigrants to shame when it came to hanging on to old ways. Those old ways slipped from their grasp with the advent of World War II when Hitler gave Germany a terrible name, and young German-speaking Evangelicals became members of the armed forces scattered all over the world.
Our family attended church every Sunday we could. That meant we were there if the roads were passable and nobody was sick. English services alternated with German services. I could not understand the German sermons at all because they were in “hoch Deutsch,” high German, and we spoke “platt Deutsch,” low German at home. My parents spoke both dialects. High German and Low German came from different areas that after 1871 became part of Germany. The dialect spoken closest to the Low Countries was designated as Low German. High German became the official language of the new nation. The German script was used until Hitler came into power and did away with it.
Gradually our church loosened rules and let men and wives sit together. None of the older folks did that because the habits run deep. Except for hands and face, women were covered head to toe. Thick stockings covered any bit of leg that showed. Shoes were ugly, black laced and chunky looking. My mother referred to the hats women wore as “pot hats” because they resembled a cook pot turned upside down. Men wore suits, usually the one they married in years before if they could still get it on. The preacher wore a long black robe. God would never see his flock joyful or relaxed. They were solemn, serious, and unfriendly.
The special events of the year brought some relief to the otherwise gloomy church experience: a picnic in the summer, a mission festival in the fall, and a Christmas program on the night of December 25. My father took me to the picnic because he enjoyed visiting with other farmers who brought their kids. Each Sunday School student got five tickets worth five cents each. I never had any money to spend beyond the tickets, so I planned weeks ahead how to use them. One was for strawberry pop, one for a sucker, and at least one to fish. The fish “pond” was a tent. A ticket attached to a string could be tossed into the tent where a secret person fastened a prize on the hook. It might be a pencil or a tiny notebook or a candy sucker- all sorts of amazing surprises. I always hated for the day of the picnic to end, knowing another such an affair would be a year to wait.
The fall Mission Festival was a solemn affair with a guest speaker, preferable a missionary, and dinner on the grounds with each lady showing off her special dish. My mother detested social affairs, but she had no choice when it came to attending the fall festival. If she were not there, she would be the subject of gossip. The German ladies dipped their tongues in acid when they went after one another.
Our church building was beautiful and impressive, up on a hill with a high steeple and a bell. In other words, it looked like a church. One drawback was the lack of central heat or electricity to run the lights, the bell or the pipe organ. The building also lacked indoor plumbing. That was added after I left home. Before automation, the bell was tolled by a man pulling a rope. It had a glorious sound that carried for miles. It was tolled at the beginning of every service on Sunday. When a church member died, it was tolled once for each year of the person’s life. That might be as few as one or as many as a hundred. It was tolled that many times again as the casket was carried in front of the alter. The bell toller had quite a task when somebody old passed away. The person who pumped the organ every time it was used also needed stamina.
The cemetery was immediately behind the church which meant I had to walk by it on the way to the outhouse. A grave that fascinated me when I was a kid was of a man buried backwards. Ordinarily, a body was buried to face the rising sun. He had taken his own life, and the church showed its disapproval in a strange way.
Babies were baptized before the congregation. That was to tide them over until they were old enough to attend Confirmation School, get examined by a preacher on Palm Sunday who then offered them their first communion on Easter Sunday. Then they could be deemed fit to enter the kingdom.
Confirmation School on Saturdays was not my favorite thing to do. My dad drove me to the lessons. I memorized what I had to on the way to the church. The pastor who replaced the one who looked like an undertaker was a great person. He had five children of his own. He stayed calm and collected while he taught the pupils who had no interest in being there. I remember only one incident during those long Saturday lessons. One boy asked, “What if none of this is true?” The pastor replied, “Well, I don’t guess it hurt to learn it.”
On the Palm Sunday we were to be questioned, girls all dressed in white and the guys uncomfortable in their new suits. I was sick with a high fever. I did not pick a good date to get the flu. The pastor had me kneel in front of the congregation and repeat the Apostles’ Creed. That I did. Then he lay his hand on my head and pronounced me good to go.
No story of my early church home would be complete without my telling of my being shunned. Perhaps “shunned” is too harsh, but I certainly was rejected. The church was never friendly. In fact, it was an unfriendly closed society. Visitors, if there were any, got icy stares. Nobody shook hands or smiled. When I was twelve and out of grade school, the decision was made to send me to Warrensburg High School. My sister had borrowed money for a year of college there. When we were home for a weekend and went to church, nobody spoke to me. That continued for the three years I attended High School. I was out of the loop, and was made to feel it. The circle was tight, and it was for those at Wellington only.
Church mergers changed the dynamics of the institutional church. In 1934, the German evangelicals merged with the Reformed Church in America to become the E. and R. That merger made little difference on the local level in the Midwest, but when E and R merged with the Congregational and became UCC in 1954, the center did not hold. The end of World War II ushered in a time of church mergers. “That they all became one” became the rallying call. Perhaps the movement grew because the people felt if nations could sit at a table and lay aside arms and forget their differences, could churches do less? That is when E and R “married” the Congragationalists and created UCC. To say it was a disaster might be a bit of an exaggeration, but in many places it was bad news. The two denominations had little in common. What happened next was predictable. Congregations left the fold. Some merged with other groups. Some tried to make it on their own. Some stayed with the merger and ignored what that meant.
My old home church in Missouri pulled out of UCC and merged with the Evangelical Free Church which shared little in common with them but the name “Evangelical.” Some members did not agree with the merger and started their own church in the local funeral parlor. The space was available because the funeral director was in the state pen for stealing over a million dollars. What was left of the congregation had great hope of becoming a megachurch. They built a monstrous building to hold events. They hoped that Kansas City folks would flock to their door and fill the church and the new center. Why would they do that when Kansas City churches are full of empty pews? It has not happened, of course, and the future of my old church is in question.
The family I knew, the schools I knew, the church I knew, all live only in memories of the very few of us who are left to tell the stories. With the changes in communication, perhaps my putting pen to paper is as outdated as what I have written about.
Creative Commons photo courtesy of wgdavis on flickr.