My first awareness of the Old Regular Baptists came during a seminar in ethnomusicology at Kent State University a few years ago, at which time we visited a Sunday morning worship service. I found the group so interesting that I later attended their worship another couple of times on my own. This paper was written later for a sociology course at John Carroll University dealing with the history of the Western Reserve.
I give this introduction to point out that my impressions have been gained after just a few visits to this fascinating group. Therefore, it is my hope that the perceptions I received were correct, that my observations give an accurate portrayal--and that the statements I make give clear indication of my great respect and admiration for these wonderful people.
It is seldom that we have the opportunity to closely view such a variety of traditions that span a duration of so many centuries. This group is truly unique here in northeastern Ohio, and the opportunity to observe and worship with them was truly a memorable experience that I will always cherish.
As Cleveland and other cities in the Western Reserve grew to become the giant industrial centers we know today, there was a great need for more and more laborers to man the furnaces and mills of the area. As in other major urban areas of the country, this work force often included large numbers of immigrants who came mostly during the hundred year period from 1850 to 1950.
These newcomers often settled into ethnic neighborhoods where they would receive the necessary assistance that was needed in a new and strange land--often within walking distance of the mills where they were employed. The focal point of the area was usually the church and the nationality hall, which were frequently constructed in the same architectural style as the buildings in the old country. Their nationalities were usually European, and still today we identify certain areas of our cities as Croatian, Slovak, Slovenian, German, Irish or Polish.
During the depression years of the 1930's, however, a very different kind of people began to arrive in the Western Reserve in the quest for work. This immigration continued through the war years of the early 1940's when area industry was fully mobilized in military production and jobs were plentiful.
This group of people didn't have to cross an ocean, however, since their homeland was just a few hours down the road. They didn't settle in small, easily defined areas, since there weren't enough of them in any given location, and their churches were not the repositories of breathtaking statuary, glowing icons or colorful stained glass of their predecessors, but rather a small white "meeting house" devoid of art or symbol.
These new arrivals were a devout, close-knit group that came mainly from the rugged hills of southeastern Kentucky and also parts of Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. They scattered throughout Ohio, parts of Indiana and southern Michigan in the search of a better life for themselves and their families, and now reside from one end of the Western Reserve to the other. They are called Old Regular Baptist, and their churches within this northeastern Ohio area are located in Geneva, Litchfield, Lorain, and a fourth just to the west in the town of Ruggles.
After nearly fifty years of integration into the culture of northern Ohio, however, they still retain their separate customs, traditions, dialect and religious faith as it is still found in their old homes in the hills and valleys of Appalachia.
These Old Regular Baptists are a strongly independent, highly religious group whose origins go back to 17th century England, Scotland and Holland (though it is likely that few of them are aware of this descendancy). In FOXFIRE 7 we read that there are at least fifty-three different Baptist groups that spread across Appalachia, ranging from the large, structured Southern Baptist Convention to numerous small, independent groups who "could not always agree on where they came from nor what they believed about the gospel or the church". (FOXFIRE 7, p 429) The Old Regular Baptists (ORB) would be included in this latter group, a denomination so small that the lengthy and detailed FOXFIRE article on the Baptist Church in the South didn't feel it necessary to even recognize its existence.
The ORB is strongly Calvinistic. It stresses personal discipline and conducts its worship and song in the old "oral tradition" with no use of pipe organs or other instruments. Sermons, prayers and music are all rendered from memory. There are no trained clergy or seminaries, nor are there any scholarly books written on the history, teachings, or worship of this denomination.
(An extensive search located only one book which discussed the ORB, a book titled HISTORY OF REGULAR BAPTIST AND THEIR ANCESTORS AND ACCESSORS(sic). This work is basically a compendium of recollections, anecdotes and testimonies of various ORB members that contain numerous spelling and grammatical errors and regional colloquialisms, but unfortunately very little history of the ORB beyond the memory of the writer. The editor's name is not given, only the names of the authors of individual chapters.)
The group shows strong male domination in their religious expression and in their personal lives. Only the men are active participants in the worship service, while the women are limited to verbal and other vocal responses to what is said by the speaker, and to periodic expressions of extreme emotion in which they weep and wail in almost trance-like behavior.
From a social viewpoint, the men appear to dress and act like the general public of the region, with no observable restrictions. For the women, however, it is another matter. They never cut their hair, thereby requiring a uniform style in which the hair is pulled straight back and tied in a bun. They are allowed no make-up of any kind, nor are they permitted to wear clothing which exposes either arms or legs.
On a typical Sunday morning the men may be wearing anything from an informal sport shirt and slacks to a stylish two or three-piece suit in any color. The women, on the other hand, will wear only a dress that is buttoned high at the neck, hangs low at the hem, and is of a dark color which most often is blue. They appear to never wear slacks. During the sermons the men are quite specific about how they expect their women to be attired, considering it a matter of godliness rather than personal preference.
In spite of this apparent dominance, the men hold their women in highest regard, praising their virtues in word and song. They hang pictures of departed matrons on their church walls and even name their congregations after them (Little Rebecca, Maggie's Home or Little Ruth.)
In varying degrees, most Baptists retain certain Calvinistic teachings which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps the most significant of these tenets center around the acceptance, rejection or interpretation of the complex doctrine of predestination. The significance of a group's position in this matter lies not only in a belief, but more importantly, in how this belief affects other doctrines and actions of the group. For example, there are a number of groups who follow the strictest interpretation--that since man's salvation is already "predestinated," he is then saved through no will or effort of his own. Therefore, it would then be logical to believe that since man has no control over his salvation, there is no need for any mission work or evangelizing, in which one tries to bring others into the Church.
On the other hand, there are those who reject the idea that salvation is somehow predetermined, and that the will or actions of man are irrelevant. These groups support strong missionary efforts and feel that evangelism is of highest priority.
And so it is that we find a wide array of Baptist groups with official names such as Regular Predestinarian, Primitive, Old Regular, Independent, Missionary and Freewill.
The Articles of Faith of the ORB say nothing of predestination, though their teaching and practices tend to fall on that side of the theological spectrum. Elder Roy B. Akers, writing about the teaching of the ORB (Akers, p. 436), states that Calvinistic predestination has "caused some to go astray" and is in agreement with Bart Potter of Litchfield, Ohio, who in an interview with Dr. Terry Miller stated that the ORB is not Predestinarian.
However, in a sermon that I heard at Lily of the Valley Church in Geneva, Larry Newsome, an ordained preacher of the Litchfield congregation, clearly stated, "I believe in predestination." Exactly what he meant, of course, may be open to question.
The Articles of Faith appear to leave room for interpretation, stating in Article 3, "We believe in the doctrine of election by grace." (Minutes, p. 15) Actually, in keeping with the independent nature of these members, it would be highly unlikely that they all have exactly the same views of the complex theological concept, which, of course, could be said about most Christians, regardless of affiliation.
There is no ambiguity, however, in the ORB's rejection of any kind of missions or evangelizing. Even Sunday Schools are forbidden. In speaking about other denominations, Elder Akers states the idea the "The episcopal idea of Sunday Schools found followers among the weak and unfaithful. The purpose of this act was to draw innocent children into the church, and proselytizing (sic) them into the church in order to swell their membership." (Akers, p. 436)
There are a number of other ORB doctrines and practices which should be listed in order to permit a better understanding of this interesting and unique denomination.
1. Once a person is saved, he will always remain saved. There is no fall from grace. (Article 5)
2. Baptism is only for believing adults and must be administered "back foremost so as to cover all over." (Article 5)
3. Communion and foot washing take place once a year. The ritual foot washing is an important and highly emotional ceremony.
4. Great emphasis is placed on the total autonomy of the local congregation.
5. No musical instruments are allowed in the worship service.
6. The practice of tithes or pledges is not followed. In addition, the local congregation is not permitted to accumulate and hold large sums of money (more than a few hundred dollars.)
7 The church has no social or political activities "or any other event that goes to please the natural mind. We believe that any gathering of people for any other purpose than that of glorifying God is unacceptable to Him." (Aker, p. 443)
8. Drinking alcohol and dancing are not allowed (though it appears that seldom is anything said about social behavior.)
9. The church follows no creeds in matters of faith and doctrine.
In appearance, the "meeting house" resembles a well-kept rural social hall with no crosses or other symbols, towers or stained glass. Only a small inconspicuous sign informs the visitor of the church, a white, gable-roofed structure which is slightly rectangular.
Inside, a lectern sits approximately in the center of the room, surrounded by pews on all four sides, facing into the center.
The baptized members and guest preachers sit on both sides and behind the lectern, while the pews in front of the lectern are for the younger members of the family, as well as for guests. The result of this arrangement, contrary to the traditional European style, is that the active participating congregation is behind, rather than in front of the preacher.
At Lily of the Valley in Geneva, the men sit behind and to the left of the lectern, while the women sit on the right. A man may occasionally cross over and sit with the women, with no one appearing to feel this is improper. I believe, however, that a woman would never cross over to the male side. The women who do not have room to sit on their side will instead join the visitors in the section in front of the lectern, though off to the side as close as possible to the other women.
In the early days of the rural Appalachia, members often had to travel long distances under difficult conditions to get to church. Therefore, in various denominations services were held only once a month, after which there was a large dinner and time for socializing before the trip home.
Though a small local service is held every Saturday, either morning or evening, the ORB still follows that mountain tradition by designating one Sunday of each month for each local congregation, at which time visitors and guest preachers will travel far to be with friends and relatives. While attending services in Geneva, I have heard guest preachers from as far as the Columbus and Cincinnati areas.
The service is led by a moderator who functions mainly as a master of ceremonies. It is his responsibility to see that the service progresses with order and dignity. The service is long, usually almost three hours, and there may be from three to five sermons by different preachers, as well as numerous prayers and hymns. Order, therefore, is an essential ingredient for a successful worship experience.
The morning begins with about a thirty minute song service as the people are gathering and greeting one another with enthusiastic hugs, which various members informed us were "Baptist hugs." They appeared genuinely happy to meet once again, perhaps after a months time since the last service.
Though words cannot begin to describe the powerful and emotional qualities of their hymns, I must make the attempt, for it is in the music of this group that we find one of its most unique features. The first impression of the visitor is that the volume of the vocal sound is exceptionally loud, seemingly amplified by the bare walls, floor and wooden pews. The quality of the singing has a definite "mountain" sound, nasal and forced, which most people will immediately associate with the Appalachian region from which these people came.
Going back even further, the origin of this unique sound and dialect can be traced to the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides Islands to the west, where one may still hear singing in both Gaelic and English which to our ear has the familiar Appalachian quality. This should not be surprising, for this is the home of their distant ancestors.
Not only do these people retain their ancestral vocal quality and dialect, they also retain a unique practice which goes back to the early 17th century. It was in 1645 that the Westminster Assembly of Devines, meeting in Westminster Abbey, drew up a document called A DIRECTORY FOR THE PUBLIKE WORSHIP. It is in this document that for the first time a practice called "lining out" was specifically described. (Miller, p. 16)
At a time when the more sophisticated and better educated English were enjoying the beautiful anthems of Tallis, Byrd and Purcell, the rural Scottish Calvinists were concerned with the problem of helping their parishioners remember the words of their hymns. Their solution can still be heard today in the ORB congregations in the Western Reserve.
"Lining out" a hymn requires a leader (called a precentor in early Scotland) who would recite the words of each phrase, after which the congregation would respond with the singing of that phrase. Before the end of the 17th century this "lined" phrase had changed from a spoken recitation to a monotone-like chant. (Temperly, pp. 532-535) Before long the precentors began to improvise a melody and actually sing the phrase, which is how we still hear it today in the ORB, except that now various men take turns "lining out" the hymn rather than having a precentor. Being chosen to so lead the congregation is an honor, and those who are just learning to sing in this old style are encouraged to try, and are then complimented when they finish.
"Lining out" is much more than just an antiphonal interaction between leader and congregation, however, for that is just one aspect of that type of singing which is called the "oral tradition."
The ORB does authorize a hymn book, but one which has only words and no music. The only person who opens a book, however, is the person doing the "lining out", the others all know the tunes and leader is now giving them the words. Actually, I suspect that most members know all the words from memory also.
The singing of these old hymns is unlike any other form of vocal music. The melody is essentially in unison, except that the notes are all held out, with little or no feeling of beat or meter, and are then "ornamented" by adding numerous notes that are not a part of the melody. Each congregation, indeed each individual, has a particular way of ornamenting the tune, and as a result a perfect unison seldom occurs (though perhaps more often then one might expect.) The resulting near-unison is called heterophony. Country and Western singers have carried this technique over into the pop idiom, though not to the extent it is heard in the singing of an ORB hymn.
With the practice of "lining out," the elongation of notes and the added ornamentation, the singing of a simple hymn can last a considerable duration of time. With all of this going on, it occasionally happens that the listener (and sometimes even the singer) may lose track of the melody altogether.
It is impossible to describe the sheer power and emotional impact of this old way of singing. Eventually these rugged old hymns begin to have an almost hypnotic effect on the congregation. A new hymn has hardly begun when tears begin to flow, voices wail, comforting hugs are exchanged and shouts of praise fill the air.
The worship service normally includes three to five different sermons, each lasting from thirty to forty minutes. The preacher speaks from memory as the words come to him. Sermons tend to be a sequence of well-known expressions and Bible verses, so much so, that when a preacher falters even momentarily for a word, someone present will eagerly help him out. Everyone present appears to know just what that next word should be.
Since his congregation surrounds him on all sides, the preacher seldom approaches the lectern. Instead, he moves constantly from one side to the other, turning to the rear and then to the front, depending upon the person he is addressing at the moment. He seldom stands still, and tends to punctuate each thought with a vigorous arm movement, stamp of the foot, or a handshake with a person sitting nearby.
The form of each sermon tends to be similar. The opening is usually quiet and the words are well chosen. There is often a bit of hesitation at this point as the speaker appears not quite sure of the content or direction of his sermon. Soon the tempo begins to pick up, the pitch rises and extraneous vocal sounds may began to emphasize the end of a phrase.
Gradually the speaking pitch changes, first into a sung monotone, which eventually turns into a chant-like melody that usually moves upward to add emphasis to the syllable. At this point the change of pitches become rhythmic and the congregation begins to respond with exclamations of agreement, words of encouragement or cries of lament in a growing crescendo of sound and emotion.
After a period of time the speaker will gradually restore calm and order as at the beginning. It is common for most preachers to use this emotional roller-coaster technique two or three times in a sermon.
The distance between the pews is the most that I have ever seen in a church, but I soon discovered that the reason was not to accommodate long-legged people. During the prayers the congregation kneels on the floor, facing the pew, upon which they place their forearms. The hands are folded and serve as a cushion on which to rest the bowed head. If a person is not near a pew, he kneels and rests his forearms on the floor, still putting his bowed head down on his folded hands.
One person leads a prayer, though soon all the others begin to join in with their own prayers, everyone in full voice. For the unaccustomed, the resulting din may seem quite unusual. The voice of the leader usually predominates over the others, but not always, making it difficult to focus upon any given individual thought.
As the prayer progresses, the intensity gradually builds. The leader will frequently begin the monotone chant like what was heard in the sermon, except that now others join with a similar sound. Again, to emphasize a particular syllable the leader will make an upward skip, often a large interval, and then return. We now begin to hear a most beautiful effect as another member on the far side of the room will echo that interval and perhaps a third person in another area will re-echo the sound once again until the room appears to be filled with waves of sound, rising and falling. Suddenly, as if by some prearranged signal the voices begin to subside and drop out one by one, until finally only the leader is left and he brings the prayer to an end.
Finally, what is the outlook for this interesting group who for almost half a century has been a part of this region? That is difficult to answer. A few statistics and observations may lead one to believe that the prospect for the future is not bright, but the uniqueness of this group can make these figures meaningless.
The official ORB statistical table for 1977 lists the following: (Minutes, p. 23)
CONGREGATION TOTAL DECEASED TOTAL NEW MEMBERS OR DISMISSED MEMBERSHIP Little Edna 0 1 23 Lorain Little Pilgrim's Home 3 7 22 Ruggles Pleasant View 6 2 89 Litchfield Lily of the Valley 2 1 26 Geneva TOTAL 11 11 160
Compared to the statistics compiled a decade earlier, total membership of the congregations in the Western Reserve is virtually unchanged, though this is due to a large increase of membership at Pleasant Valley. The other three congregations declined slightly.
Within the membership of 160 are a number of large, extended families who have intermarried to the point that it appears to the visitor that "everybody is related to everybody else." I would suspect that this close relationship tends to lead to a numeric stability within the group in spite of the small numbers.
With only 26 baptized members, Lily of the Valley has just completed a renovation of the meeting house. Both it and the adjacent social hall are in excellent condition and give every indication of a secure, vital congregation.
In the few visits that I have made to this church, I have never heard a word concerning membership, nor have I been aware of any pessimism in this regard. This shouldn't be surprising, since one has to remember that these members believe that this matter is totally in God's hand, leaving no reason for concern on their part.
Yet, when one observes a membership in the low 20's and slowly declining, one has to feel that the sudden loss of even two or three families could bring an end to that congregation. And here lies the dichotomy, for if the church should suddenly reach out and draw in new members from northeastern Ohio, it would no longer be that unique group of people whose roots go back to the Appalachian valleys and the Scottish Highlands. In the meantime, we can only hope that we in the Western Reserve never lose these treasures which exist in our midst.
Akers, Roy B. "A Brief Outline of the History of the Northern New Salem Association," HISTORY OF REGULAR BAPTIST AND THEIR ANCESTORS AND ACCESSORS. Haysi: Rufus Perrigan, 1961
Leonard, Bill. "Baptists," FOXFIRE 7. Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982. pp. 429-443
Miller, Terry E. "Oral Tradition Psalmody Surviving in England and Scotland." THE HYMN 35-1 (Jan., 1984: pp. 15-22
Minutes of the Thirtieth Annual Session of the Northern New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptist of Jesus Christ. Little Angel Church. Columbus, Ohio. July 31, August 1, 2, 1987
(This is an unpublished program of the association, which includes the Constitution, Articles of Faith, Rules of Decorum, Association statistics and much other information.)
Temperly, Nicholas. "The Old Way of Singing: Its Origins and Development." JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MUSIOLOGICAL SOCIETY 34-3 (Fall, 1981): pp. 511-544