“I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.”
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The following reminiscences of early times at Forest Church are narrated for their intrinsic as well as historic interest. The first one reveals an order of service that is very general in the colored Churches. It is one that affords the deacon, if he be a man so disposed, to spontaneously introduce considerable native wit and humor into the part of the service entrusted to him; and if he does, it very naturally prepares the way for unexpected shouts of joy and gladness on the part of those who are emotional or subject to the sudden impulse of ecstatic delight.
Forest Chapel, as is suggested by its name, was located in the large and dense oak forest along Red river eight miles south of Wheelock. Its post office has been successively, Wheelock, Fowlerville, Parsons and since 1906 Millerton. The Forest Church was organized by Parson Stewart about 1886, and was served by him once a month the next seven years. In 1898 it became a remote part of the field of Rev. William Butler of Eagletown, who also endeavored to visit it once a month.
The chapel was a lonely, dingy and dilapidated building, inside as well as outside. It was about 20 by 30 feet and was built entirely of rough lumber. The side walls consisted of one thickness of wide inch boards, nailed at the top and bottom, and having a thin strip over the cracks on the outside. The roof was covered with long, split, oak clapboards, that invariably look black and rough at the end of a year. The pulpit consisted of a box-like arrangement that stood on a small platform at the center of one end. The seats consisted of a half dozen rough benches without backs, that could be arranged around the stove in cold weather, or in three fold groups for a picnic dinner, the middle one being used for a table on such occasions and the other two for seats around it. No paint or even white wash ever found a place on this building. It was the largest and best building in the neighborhood, and the popular resort for all of their social gatherings.
The leading men of the congregation consisted of two elders, both venerable and devout survivors of the slavery period, neither of whom could read, and a deacon, who was one of the only two of the older people who could read a little.
Lifting The Collection
It was regarded as the duty of the deacon to “lift the collection” at the Sabbath services. This gave him a very prominent part in the services, for the collection is not lifted by passing the hat or basket, but each contributor, after the general call brings their offering and lays it either on the pulpit or a little stand near it. However novel this arrangement may at first appear to those unaccustomed to it, it must be remembered that a method somewhat similar to this was in use in the Temple in Jerusalem, when our Lord Jesus, taking his seat opposite the treasury, saw the poor widow cast in her two mites and commended her very highly.
It was not unusual for the deacon to announce before hand the amount needed and then, as the offerings are presented, to state the amount received from time to time, until finally the whole amount is obtained. This part of the service was always enlivened by singing some soul-stirring songs that everybody could sing. Occasionally it would take the form of a good natured rivalry, as to which could appear the most happy and joyous, the deacon, vociferously announcing from time to time as their offerings came in, the latest result of the collection, or, the people, whose merry singing would occasionally develop into a shout of ecstatic enjoyment, on the part of one or more of their number.
Primitive Mid-Week Meetings
The early preachers, having monthly appointments, were always very faithful in exhorting and encouraging the elders of their distant congregations to maintain regular Sabbath services, for the study of the Bible and Catechism, and a mid-week meeting for praise and prayer. The people were encouraged to attend all these meetings and cordially co-operate with the elders in making them interesting and instructive.
The older generation at Forest was one that had a foretaste of slavery in their early days, but not a day of school privileges, except as the Bible was read or taught at their meetings on the Sabbath. The lack of school privileges in the neighborhood and its remote seclusion from the outside world, had the effect of leaving these colored people to continue their primitive ways and methods of doing things, to a later date than in many other more highly favored communities.
The following narrative contains an account of the mid-week meetings held at Forest about the year 1897 when Miss Bertha L. Ahrens, a white missionary teacher of our Freedmen’s Board opened a mission school in the chapel. It shows how the people that lived in the gross darkness of utter ignorance, groped for the light and earnestly endeavored to extend it, when the gospel was first presented to them.
The mid-week meetings are held regularly when not prevented by rain or cold weather. The people live in little shanties scattered through the timber near springs of water and are poorly clad. In good weather they “begin to gather” about 8:30 p. m. and continue to “gather” until 9:30, when Elder “B.” taking his place at the left of the pulpit, “reckons that they’s all here that’s going to com.” Elder F. sits down beside him and neither of them can read. Deacon L. who serves as chorister, occupies a short seat in front of the pulpit. The wives of the elders, the lady missionary and other leading sisters occupy seats-a bench-at the right of the pulpit.
The meetings are opened by the deacon, who reads two lines of a hymn and, winding out a tune, the people unite in singing them. Two more lines continue to be read and sung until the hymn has been completed.
When the deacon is not present Elder “B.” says: “Will some of you select something to sing?” If no brother is present, who can read, a sister or the missionary, or perhaps one of her school boys, may “line out” a hymn and may even “raise it” but the tune must be one “the old folks can sing.” If the one who “raises the tune” breaks down with it, any one may pick it up and go on with it to the end of the two lines that have been “lined out.”
The missionary’s organ is in position ready for use, but it must be silent in the prayer meeting, and also at the preaching service. It is a new and troublesome innovation. It takes the prominence in the singing that belongs to the officers of the Church. The missionary cannot wind and slur the tunes on it, the way the old folks have learned to sing them, and it robs the singing of its old-time sweetness and power. The organ therefore remains silent.
After the first hymn, Elder “B.” who never allows any one else, not even the preacher, to lead the prayer meeting, now calls on some one to “read us a lesson from the Bible.” This was an innovation introduced into the prayer meeting after the arrival of the lady missionary. It is at first merely tolerated; comments and explanations are strictly forbidden. These restrictions in regard to the Bible in the meeting were due to the influence exerted by the wife of Elder “B.” who had been the first real leader of the Church and was still regarded as a “mother in Israel, whose opinions should be respected.” She felt that God had taught her by visions and dreams, and believed he would teach others the same way. Elder “F.” however, is not satisfied till he and others have heard the “Word of God” and permission to read it is given.
“Down to pray,” is the next request of the leader, and the voice of every one present is expected to be heard in this part of the meeting. A sister, whose seat is near a window, begs the Lord to “come this-a-way, just a little while, to lay his head in the window and hear his servant pray.” A brother near the front door responds approvingly, “Yes sir,” and bids him, “Walk in, and take a front seat.” The prayer of a devout sister after one or two petitions, becomes an earnest exhortation to all the sinners to repent and be saved.
Some seemed to believe their prayers have to travel long journeys and are better long than short. Some prayers are chanted with a pleasing variety of the voice, while others are agonized by using many repetitions. All are witnessed to by “amen” and similar words of attestation; for these are “live Christians”, and have no use for “dead meetings.”
Elder “F.” who sits beside the leader, sometimes insists on “making some remarks.” If the leader whispers to him “make it short,” and he does not give good heed, the starting of a familiar hymn is the method adopted to “bring him down.”
At a meeting held on the forenoon of Christmas, Elder “F.” was feeling too happy and grateful to restrain himself. His theme was “Our Wonderful Savior,” and he began to exhort sinners to open their hearts to him. He became so absorbed in the greatness and importance of his theme as not to heed the usual whisper of the leader or even the starting of the familiar hymn. The situation is one of embarrassment to the leader. The one that proves equal to it is Elder “B.’s” wife. She walks over to him, grabs him by both arms and pushes him down on his seat, saying, “Bud, you talks too much, sit down now and keep still.” She laughs as she says this, the elder smiles as he sits down, and the meeting proceeds in good form.
The usual way of closing the mid-week meeting was about as follows: Elder “B.” says, “Well we’s done about all we can do. Let us sing something and go home.” If elder “F.” does not call for the new hymn, they have recently learned from the organ.
“Lord dismiss us with thy blessing,” they stand and sing a familiar one. Elder “B.” then says: “Amen!” and dismisses the congregation with a wave of his hand.
In the Sunday school the attitude of the people toward the Bible, the organ and the lady missionary was altogether different. Here she is the recognized leader, both in the singing and Bible instruction. As they profit by her instruction, and listen a few times to some of their familiar hymns on the organ, the younger people manifest pleasure and delight and the early prejudices of the older ones are gradually forgotten.
The first elders of Forest Church were Simon Folsom, Charles Bibbs and Lee Bibbs. Charles Bashears was soon afterward added to their number and died in 1912. His wife exerted a leading influence in the earlier years of this Church.
The allotment of lands in 1905 made it necessary to move Forest Church to another location; and in 1909, it was moved about two miles east in the valley of Red river.