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JIM: A Funeral in the Hills of Kentucky (1921) - An Ohion's Unkind Perspective

It's a story about visitor's misperceptions about Adair County customs and ways, and practice of Christianity, misperceptions which were published in a denomination's house organ, then in the Adair County News along with just rebuttals, and which later drew a round of apologies from the author of the offending article, and higher ups in the church. Jim came across it in his research, It got him so riled, he wrote it, dispatched it. CM received it, and we're reprinting here without the more even tempered prior restraint from his cousin, Historian Watson, too.

By JIM

"August in the Piney Ridge country was also the time of revivals and great preachings. Big white tents mushroomed in the hollows and the ridges, each ministering to a particular neighborhood." -- Miss Willie (Janice Holt Giles).

In the summer of 1921, a child (the name is unimportant) died in the Bearwallow community and in the custom of the day, the church filled for the funeral. In addition to the friends, neighbors, and grieving family members present, a small group of outlanders, "mission workers who were accompanying the [revival] tent," came to observe the funeral. In the group was 21-year-old Lela Fern Hoover, a Buckeye by birth and a student at Messiah College, Pennsylvania, who had a penchant for writing. A few months later, a vitriolic missive from her appeared in the Evangelical Visitor, the house organ of the Brethren in Christ. The only good thing she had to say about the experience was praise for the minister. Of him and his sermon, she wrote that<


He was an elderly man with a gray beard. He seemed to be of a better class than his congregation...He seemed to have had a real experience of salvation in his heart and he preached to the living instead of about the dead as so many preachers do today. We enjoyed it very much.

Otherwise, young Miss Hoover's words, utterly devoid of compassion (Christian or otherwise) reeked and roiled with contempt and disdain for the good people of Bearwallow and their ways -- and by extension, the people of Adair County, Kentucky, and the entire South. Her letter, far too long to replicate here, excoriated very nearly everything her eyes beheld and every sound her ears picked up. A few short excerpts from her letter (published under the heading "A Funeral in the Hills of Kentucky") will more than suffice to illustrate her singular lack of understanding.

Of the funeral procession to the church:

It was a strange sight to behold. First came the hearse (if it could be called that), for it was nothing more than a box-like wagon with two mules pulling it.

Of the Bear Wallow (as she spelled it) pulpit and church building:

[The pulpit] was only a rough piece of workmanship which held a large Bible. The Church was very rudely built. Long rough benches took the place of our comfortable pews. No carpet of any kind upon the floor...

Of the modes of dress:

Most men and women were dressed in their everyday working clothes. Even the father of the deceased child had on just a torn blue shirt and overalls. Most of the women had on large sunbonnets.

Of the preacher calling upon the "young people" (the mission workers) to sing:

We always carried song books with us so we were prepared and sang "No Disappointment in Heaven" and "Asleep in Jesus" for them. The people looked at us with wonder and awe upon their faces for it seemed they had never heard such singing. I doubt if they would have had any singing if we had not been there.

Of things funerary:

Among the poorer classes in Kentucky they have no undertaker and of course the body is not embalmed...Immediately after the lid [of the casket] was removed it seemed the entire body of people in the church arose and began to crowd around the corpse...[T]here was no one there to see that things were done in an orderly way and they were too ignorant themselves to know any difference...[S]uch an outburst of grief followed the gathering about the coffin our voices [the minister had again called upon the group to sing] could scarcely be heard.

The southern people are very emotional and sympathetic, and it seemed each tried to outdo the other in their manifestations of seeming sorrow and sympathy. You cannot imagine the confusion and noise there was for about fifteen or twenty minutes...the minister told several men to replace the coffin lid, and take the coffin to the grave, but this was easier said than done for several women whom I took to be the mother and sisters seemed unreasonable in their heartrending grief.

I forgot to mention that the only flowers which they had were a small bunch of marigolds at least that is what they looked like to me.


Of the hope - or lack thereof -- for salvation:

My heart ached to see the grief of these ignorant people who had no hope in Jesus Christ. They had no comforting thought of ever seeing their loved one again...And so having witnessed the strangest funeral we ever expect to see, we went away more determined than ever to bring the good news of salvation and hope to these poor souls living in ignorance and darkness.

As if Miss Hoover's words hadn't been quite hurtful enough, the 36-year-old editor of the Evangelical Visitor twisted the knife with a rhetorical question: "Do you think these people need the Gospel?"

Miss Hoover's and the editor's comment were reprinted in the December 6, 1921 Adair County News, to which the News editor appended his own brief comment: "The article is said to be greatly overdrawn, and the people of the community are very much wrought up over it."

Two weeks later, the News published a letter from Garlin resident Maud Conover in which she most satisfactorily administered a much deserved word-thrashing to the author:

[Miss Hoover] calls us Southern people ignorant. I say to her, we so-called ignorant people were better raised than to go to funerals as curiosity seekers. I will say that God gives rain and sunshine to grow the marigold and the Lord likes the little marigold just as well as he does the hot-house plants from the city...

Did our Savior ever attend a funeral and take notice of what the people wore, and write up a description of so-called ignorant peoples' ways, manner of dressing, etc?...[T]he dear old mothers were as good in their sunbonnets as she was with her little Turtle shell of bonnet fashion, the kind she wore to protect her city tresses. We so-called ignorant women don't wear little white caps for show. The angels guard our heads to keep us...

I would advise [Miss Hoover] if she expects ever to attend another funeral in the Kentucky hills, to take her a bottle of embalming fluid with her, for fear she might need the undertaker's care by the time the funeral was over...

While the little boy [surname deleted] sleeps in his narrow bed of clay, I would not give his chance for yours in the great judgement day...
The following week (December 27) Mrs. Josh Johnston, a native and resident of Nebraska and the wife of an Adair Countian, continued the thorough dusting of young Miss Hoover's (figurative) breeches. Among her pithy comments were these:

In spite of the fact that the pulpit was so rude, we are relieved to know that a large Bible graced it. Another uncommon sight in the modern church.

[Miss Hoover's letter] further states, "The people looked at us with wonder and awe upon their faces for it seemed they had never heard such singing." Perhaps they never did. Kentucky people are accustomed to good music.

I was grieved to learn that these visitors know so little about Kentucky Christianity. Having traveled extensively in our U.S., I will say that in no place do I find the standard of Christianity any higher than in the good old state of Kentucky.


The Conover and Johnston letters -- and probably any number of others of similar vein directed straight to the editor of the Evangelical Visitor or higher ups in the church -- struck home. In mid-January, 1922, no fewer than three letter of apology appeared in the pages of the News. The first, from Miss Hoover, stated in part:

The time which it was my privilege to spend with the evangelistic party in Kentucky was my first experience in mission work. The customs and conditions were quite different from those to which I had been accustomed and made deep impressions on my mind.

The article when written was not intended for publication, but was written in connection with literary work assigned me at the Bible School which I was attending. After having written it I sent a copy to the office of the
Evangelical Visitor without considering the effects it might have on my friends in Kentucky...

I therefore most humbly and sincerely beg the complete and lasting pardon of all who have been grieved by the writing of the article.


The second apology profundus was from Vernon L. Stump, editor of the Visitor, who confessed his serious lapse in judgement was tantamount to stepping in a bear trap, commenting thus:

I published the article without submitting it to the judgement of other who have labored in that field and are familiar with conditions there. [I have since learned] that, in the judgment of the brethren who have labored in that part of Kentucky the publication of the article was very unwise. I have also learned of the unpleasant results which have been produced...

I therefore...most sincerely beg the pardon of all who have been grieved by its publication.


The third letter of humble apology appeared above the signatures of J.N. Hoover, M.L. Dohner, Orville B. Ulery, and Walter L. Reighard. (Their direct association, if any, in the incident at Bearwallow is unknown. By 1929, Messrs. Dohner and Ulery were Bishops in the Brethren in Christ church.) The first paragraph got straight to the point: "We, the undersigned...wish to inform the readers the article was published without our knowledge or consent."

The letter went on to acknowledge that

We have very much appreciated the courtesy and hospitality with which we have been received and entertained by the dear people of Kentucky, and we wish to commend the deep interest and appreciation with which the truth has been received by the public in the localities in which we have preached the gospel.

The letter closed by apologizing for "the grievances we have caused, and for the injustice which has been done by the reflections which have been cast upon the generous hearted people among whom we have worked in the different communities."

Compiled by Jim


This story was posted on 2012-03-18 18:20:37
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