“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
~ Mark Twain
from Innocents Abroad
This is a story of how I began to let go of some prejudices that I had been carrying around for a while. Having traveled and lived in other parts of the world, I can say that Mark Twain was right about travel being fatal to prejudice. Sometimes a journey to the other side of the world can open one’s eyes; at other times, all it takes is a trip across town.
First Came the Music
For most of my life I did not think very highly of Primitive Baptists. I was raised Southern Baptist in a household that valued education. I didn’t know any Primitive Baptists when I was growing up; I just heard stories about those “Hard Shell Baptists,” or “foot-washing Baptists.” They were typically not interested in higher education. I remember my father, a seminary educated pastor, jokingly saying that the Primitive Baptists had no seminaries because “they believe that if the Lord wants an educated pastor, He’ll call one.”
My attitude did a complete 180 a few years ago when I attended my first National Sacred Harp Convention. I was absolutely blown away by the experience. As the ones who kept Sacred Harp music alive down through the years, I saw that the Primitive Baptists had something very important to bring to the table. I wrote about it on my blog in 2011 and again in 2013. There is a growing interest in preserving the music, with Sacred Harp organizations being formed in places like Chicago, New York, Ireland, and Poland. The music really does a number on me. One year, I took an Episcopal priest friend to the Sacred Harp Convention with me who later described it as “a wondersome and transformative experience.”
This is how I described my first encounter with Sacred Harp singing:
I was captivated, stirred on the inside, tears threatening to well up – and no words had been sung yet. It was that bracing harmony of pure notes filling the sunlit space. The sound reminded me of the Bulgarian women’s folk singing that has attracted many listeners since the 1990 recording, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. There was a similar directness and exuberance, a hearty primitive and uplifting – even startling – vocal effect. Yet these were regular folks, local people from Alabama and others traveling from points near and far who were producing that fantastic harmony. The visceral effect was also similar to being in the presence of bagpipes as they are played. It grabs your attention and stirs you on the inside.
In that first blog post, I went on to explain that:
Sacred Harp came to this country by way of the early English settlers. It was first established in New England before the American Revolution, but gradually died out in that part of the country. For years it was kept alive in the hills of Appalachia, particularly among the Primitive Baptists. Nowadays it continues to be preserved by Sacred Harp gatherings and conventions.
I became aware on that day of a particular treasure that had been preserved through the years by the Primitive Baptists. They were no longer some unknown oddity removed from my experience. They were conveyers of a sacred tradition that until that day I had not been privy to. Standing within that undeniable experience, I had to sift through and re-think years of uninformed prejudice.
Then Came the Book
There was this other thing I grew up hearing about those “Hard Shell” Primitive Baptists: they didn’t believe in missionary work because their Calvinist theology led them to believe that God has already decided who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. In the Old South, some Baptist Churches called themselves “Missionary Baptist” as one way to distinguish themselves from their Calvinist Primitive Baptist cousins. A few years ago, friend who is an expert in Appalachian culture and history, and who also happens to me a Unitarian Universalist minister, told me about a fascinating book, In the Hands of a Happy God, by Howard Dorcan. The subtitle of the book is The “No-Hellers of Central Appalachia, and it chronicles the development of a universalist strand of Primitive Baptists. I was intrigued by the notion because I like the idea of Universalist theology – which is something that the Southern Baptists of my childhood were quite leery of. I was especially intrigued that a group of Primitive Baptists managed to arrive at such a positive outlook that most Christian denominations cannot bring themselves to believe to this day.
The title of Dorcan’s book intentionally contrasts the Primitive Baptist Universalists with that famous Calvinist New England Congregationalist preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who is best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In the Hands of a Happy God is part history, part sociology, and in a way a detective story. Dorcan writes about his work in tracing the development of the Primitive Baptist Universalist churches. He mentions that the churches were so similar in organization, and they simply call themselves Primitive Baptists, that he at first was not aware of their theological distinctions until further discussions with their elders. Moreover, in the Primitive Baptist tradition, there is very little "written record" of theological beliefs. The PBUs see God as a happy God because he figured out a way to redeem all of humanity. They may be the only Calvinists in the world who can say, “Yes, God has already decided who is going to heaven – and it’s EVERYBODY!”
Dorcan’s book let me see that even among these stern Calvinists who have no formal schools of theology and no centralized institutional structure, there can be a dynamic debate and exploration of ideas. Furthermore, they can shatter their own stereotypes to arrive at a happy and optimistic world view. It was just one more reason for me to gain a new appreciation for Primitive Baptists and to let go of some of my preconceived notions.
And Then There Is the Food
One of the traditions of Sacred Harp singing is that everyone shares a big potluck dinner, or “covered dish” dinner as they used to say down South. You may have heard the expression, “All Day Singing and Dinner on the Ground.” This has its roots in the Sacred Harp tradition. Periodically, a church would designate a day set aside for singing – no preaching or formal worship service – just singing. At these gatherings people would bring their prepared dishes from home and there was always a time of fellowship when everyone would sit and eat together. The National Sacred Harp Convention continues that tradition with a pot luck meal served in the middle of each day of their annual gathering. They always invite all visitors to join them in the meal. One of the best ways to see beyond differences and into the shared humanity of another is to share a meal together. Joy and commonality can always be found around food.
If you want to get to know a group of people, spend some time singing with them; spend some time eating with them. It will not make you agree with everything they say, but it will help you to see that agreement in every detail is not really the point. Sharing life in all of its joys and sorrows, accepting people of other traditions, listening to other points of view – all of these things can contribute to a fuller life and a greater understanding of your neighbor. Next time you get a chance to travel, especially if it means singing with someone else or eating with someone else, make the journey, even if it is only across town.
Upper:Salem Primitive Baptist Church in Adel, Georgia
Credit: Michael Rivera
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Lower: Church potluck
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons