It was a beautiful fall day in the mountains of Lee County, Virginia that October 10th in 2009. Basket sized fall Mums were in bloom, it was still warm and the leaves hadn’t yet begun to turn paintbrush hues that would soon cover the mountainsides.
Descendants of Nicholas Speak, founding minister of the Speak Methodist Church almost 190 years earlier gathered in Middlesboro, Kentucky, a few miles away, for a family reunion.
The highlight would be returning to worship together in the small nearly-abandoned country church NIcholas founded about 1822, as it always was when the reunion was held near the the home of our family. The humble white church sits nestled in the hollow across Speaks Branch Road from the cemetery where our Nicholas is buried with his wife, Sarah Faires, along with many of their children and grandchildren.
The Speak Cemetery isn’t much to speak of, graves marked mostly with field stones of humble settlers who probably had all they could do to clear enough land for a “burying ground.” Tombstones weren’t for poor frontier folk in the wilderness.
Field stones stand eternal sentry over beloved family members; parents, husbands, wives, children, babies – all departed too soon. They would be sorely grieved – for the rest of the lives of the people who now lay in adjacent graves. Joined together forever in the now-anonymous field of stones.
Back then, everyone knew where each person was buried. They had all dug the graves, gathered round as the final sermon was preached, first by Nicholas, and then one day – for Nicholas. Tears streaming down their faces as they sang the song that was sung for every occasion – Amazing Grace – then lowering the casket into the ground and closing the grave. Each person symbolically dropping one handful of dirt onto the coffin, full well knowing that hollow thud meant forever gone.
No one would ever forget that day. No marker with a name was needed.
Want to visit with Nicholas? Just walk across the road after church and sit a spell.
The Speak cousins, more than 100 years after Nicholas’s death in 1852 and Sarah’s in 1865, bought a memorial stone for Nicholas and Sarah, although by this time no one knew where in the cemetery they were actually buried. Their blood and that of generations of family members was scattered everyplace here.
Nicholas and Sarah’s cabin remained across the road until in the 1970s, when it was disassembled, before it fell completely down, and combined with another log cabin into a lovely log home near Middlesboro.
Nicholas and family would have walked a short distance to the church every Sunday morning for Nicholas to preach to his ever-expanding congregation of family, friends and neighbors, some of whom came quite some distance from the northern part of then-Claiborne, now-Hancock County, Tennessee.
How do we know this? Nicholas deeded the land where the church was built to church trustees, some of whom were neighbors in Claiborne County to the family of the young man, Samuel Claxton, who would marry Nicholas’s granddaughter in 1832. You can’t marry who you don’t see. In fact, Nicholas probably married the couple right in this very church, about 78 years before the picture below was taken around 1910. This building is believed to be the third church building which doubled as a school, but the first two were in the same location.
Our church service was held on Saturday during the reunion, because the volunteer minister, Tracy McPherson, worked full-time in the coal mines during the week as well as volunteered to preach in two other small churches. Speaks Chapel only had a preacher every third Sunday. With a whopping attendance of 6 people, the pews in this quaint country church were mostly empty.
They wouldn’t be today!
We filled the pews and breathed joy-filled life back into that church so cherished by our family!
The cousins who so graciously organized the reunion assembled a keepsake program.
How many remember the fans from before churches had air conditioning? When I was a kid, they were wedged in the back of every pew, along with the hymnals. Most of us didn’t need the hymnals, but everyone needed fans!
All southern church services MUST have a program, so ours did too. Not only that, our lovely cousin, Dolores, prepared a history. Others assembled a worship service song book too. Most of us knew the words by heart anyway.
Led by Bill Hall, we began with Church in the Wildwood and ended with Amazing Grace, all sung without musical accompaniment. Our melded voices, echoing off the mountains in the distance, drifting up the hollers, were music enough. I hope Nicholas could hear the choir of his descendants, come home one last time.
Indeed, we raised our voices and made a joyful noise, well…at least noise.
How fitting this hymn, given where Nicholas decided to settle.
My wonderful cousin, Lola-Margaret Hall, twice descended from Nicholas and his wife, Sarah Faires Speaks paid us a visit in the persona of Sarah. “Sarah” mesmerized us that day with the story of her life; married to Nicholas, settling in the wilderness, carving out a home and founding the church. Her voice, transporting us all back to the early 1800s as she rocked, reminisced and read from the Bible, sitting near the pulpit where Nicholas would have preached his version of Salvation. We rode along in the wagon with “Sarah” as she and Nicholas left Washington County, crossing mountains, headed into an uncertain future and untamed frontier in Lee County, transcending time into the misty past, sharing experiences.
Although most of us were “returning home,” not all of Nicholas’s descendants left for greener pastures. Jewell Davis, now deceased, and her family lived next door and cared for the church and cemetery for many decades – including preparing a lunch for the reunion that day.
Dolores Hamm, on behalf of the family presented Jewel with a plaque and a Bible of course, what else? Jewel now rests with Nicholas.
Preacher Tracy, Bible in hand, delivered a special message.
Then, it seems that Preacher Tracy had a few questions for me.
Anyone know what the pitcher and bowl are for?
For those who aren’t aware, Methodists don’t practice full immersion baptisms. We fondly call them “sprinklings.” Or maybe that’s the Baptists that call Methodist baptisms sprinklings.
Regardless, somehow as a child I think I managed to escape being baptized, but I’m not entirely sure. For some reason, I always thought I was baptized as a child in the Methodist church my mother and grandmother attended. If so, I have no memory of the baptism, just fond memories of belting out “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of my pre-school lungs.
I always presumed that I had been baptized as an infant or young child, because I wasn’t baptized when I was older in a subsequent Methodist church we attended, and by the time we moved again and I attended a Baptist church, I think there was an assumption that I had previously been baptized because I was allowed to take communion.
Then, one day, many years later, someone asked me when I had been baptized? It occurred to me that I really didn’t know. It wasn’t written in mother’s Bible, or in either of the Bibles that I had received from the church, and by that time, there was no one left to ask.
Regardless of the circumstances, I felt that there was no better time or place on this earth, literally, than in the very church where Nicholas would have baptized so many, and in the embrace of my loving family. I had more relatives gathered that day with me in this small country church that I’ve had any time or place since.
Thank you to one of my wonderful cousins for this photo collage of an incredibly emotional event, for all kinds of reasons, to Preacher McPherson, and to Nicholas. Little did Nicholas know his legacy would reach 6 generations and almost 200 years into the future, and still counting.
What better way to honor Nicholas than to be baptized in his church and to share the story with you this Easter Sunday.
I have yet in my lifetime to get through Amazing Grace dry-eyed. Literally, it is the universal hymn played for every emotional event of my lifetime, including the funerals of my mother, step-father and siblings.