My great-great grandfather, and his father before him, were Primitive Baptist pastors in Elkins, West Virginia. The church is still there today, almost unchanged from how it was 100 years ago—a one room frame building with outhouses amid a cemetery on a hill. Until a few years ago, a cousin of mine was still pastor. I was there twenty or so years ago for my great-grandfather’s funeral. Other than the cars, it could have been a scene from 150 years earlier.
My mother followed the ways of her upbringing when she moved to Texas, and my once non-believing dad eventually became a Primitive Baptist, a deacon, and then a pastor.
Primitive Baptists are a small group sparsely scattered from Texas to the East Coast. Though I grew up south of Fort Worth, the Primitive Baptist churches of our type are all in East Texas, so we’d wake up early on Sundays, often leaving around 5:00 A.M. My sister and I slept until we stopped at McDonald’s in Hillsboro for breakfast, and then we’d go back to sleep for the rest of the trip.
The churches we went to were in Canton, Lufkin, Conroe, Huntington, Jasper, and most often, Elkhart.
All these churches are very old, and most are in rural locations, don’t have running water, and do have outhouses. But the most interesting, and the one with the greatest historical significance, is Old Pilgrim Primitive Baptist Church in Elkhart.
In 1833, Daniel Parker wanted to organize a Baptist church, but Texas was still under the control of Mexico. To avoid violating Mexican law, Parker traveled back to Illinois where he was from, established the church, and then led family and friends back to Texas in a caravan of wagons. They built a log cabin church house in Anderson County near present day Elkhart. Today Pilgrim is the oldest protestant church in Texas.
The building we met in when I was a boy was built of brick in the early 1900’s. It’s one large room, lined with windows on each side that look out at the cemetery. On either side of the pulpit are doors that, in the spring and summer, remained open during the services, beckoning a young boy to go out and explore.
Many of the stones in the cemetery are dated back into the early 1800’s, with lots of Parker’s present. Fort Parker, where the mother of Quanah Parker—Cynthia Ann—was taken by the Comanche when she was a girl, is nearby. I heard stories of the raid when I was young, and it was easy for me to imagine that the Comanches were still in the woods below the church.
My sister and I played amongst the old stones, catching lizards, chasing butterflies, and playing in the woods near the creek and fresh spring at the bottom of the hill. Surrounded by Magnolias and other over-sized flowering hardwoods and shrubs, the area is always shady and buzzing with life.
A replica of the original church still stands near the present church. We often played there, with me “preaching” from the rickety pulpit and my sister sitting on a split-log bench, while the acapella singing drifted out the open windows of the new church.
Every year around springtime I have a strange longing to go back and play outside the church with the sounds of my parents, grandparents, and other people who are long gone singing or preaching in the background, but I haven’t been there in years.
My parents went to a special two-day meeting at Pilgrim this past weekend. My dad said it was the best turnout in years, which may mean twenty or thirty people were there. Someday I hope to go back; maybe I can recapture a little of what it felt like thirty years ago, when a ten-year-old boy taught his six-year-old sister how to catch ant lions in the East Texas sand.
For more detail about the Parkers, and especially Quanah, here’s where I wrote on the subject last spring.