Role of Churches in Rural Revitalization

15-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, March 12, 1911:  Tweet slept with me last night. I was rather restless. Don’t know whether she was the cause or not. This afternoon I went to Sunday school and church, staid for catechize. Besse and Curt were out this afternoon. I guess they just happened to come because we had some ice cream left from dinner.  

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma faithfully attends Sunday school in the diary. I’m still trying to figure out why the Baptist Church in McEwensville which Grandma apparently attended closed and vanished from the scene a few years later (See February 5 entry).

The Baptist church building was demolished years ago, but it was located somewhere in this section of Main Street.

There were many different denominations and ethnically-based churches scattered across rural America a hundred years ago. And memories were still strong of the ancestors who had migrated to the United States for religious reasons.  Those who traced their ancestry to Germany often attended a Lutheran or Baptist church. The Scot-Irish generally were Presbyterian and so on.

There were a number of church closures early in the 20th century and the McEwensville Baptist probably was caught up in those closures. As the older generation  passed on–and the differences across the various protestant denominations seemed less clear to younger people–many tiny, struggling rural churches closed.

Also, in 1911 national leaders in the United States believed that there was a “rural problem” because so many rural youth were migrating into the cities. The Country Life Commission published a plan for revitalizing the countryside a hundred years ago. The Commission believed that little rural churches with few social activities and members who bickered with members of neighboring churches were part of the problem with rural life—but that churches had a role in revitalizing rural America. (I’ve heard elderly people say that in the old days you knew people didn’t get along if there were more churches in a town than bars.)

The present system of little struggling churches involves great financial and moral waste, divides rural people instead of uniting them. . . Still, federation and cooperation embody the dominant spirit of the age we are now entering . . .

If the church is to play any important part in rural reorganization, it must evolve a program for social betterment and make its ministrations such as will enable it to render effective social service. Only a giving church is a growing church. There are many real needs of rural people which today call for ministration, and the church should set itself the task of finding these and trying to serve them.

Rural Life and Education: A Study of the Rural-School Problem as a Phase of the Rural-Life Problem (1914) by Ellwood Cubberley

That said, in 1911 the McEwensville Baptist Church seems to be meeting Grandma’s needs. She mentions attending church or Sunday school every week in her diary.

One Response

  1. [...] A hundred years ago there were many more small churches in rural hamlets than there are now. The Country Life Movement, which sought to revitalize rural life in an era when many youth were leaving rural areas for the cities, was at its peak in 1912.  The media, many government officials, policymakers, and academics saw the churches as having a key role in this rural revitalization. [...]

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