Putting old school boogie into my Methodist ass

In just over a week from now, on Sunday, Sept. 29, the First United Methodist Church in Cynthiana is going to celebrate its 195th anniversary. In five years, of course, the church will be celebrating its bicentennial, a major milestone for any church to celebrate.
Earlier this week, I interviewed Bro. Mike Coppersmith and former Cynthiana Mayor Virgie Wells, who serves as the church historian, about the church’s history and to find out how the congregation planned to celebrate this event. It will be a feature story for next week, so be looking for it.
However, in the boxes of yellowing documents that Ms. Wells brought to Bro. Coppersmith’s office, some of them very fragile, we found several draft copies of George Slade’s “History of the First Methodist Church, Cynthiana, Kentucky.”
There were many details in this document that I found intriguing. But the thing that struck me most was the mention of the Methodist Conference meeting in 1803 which “met at Mount Gerizim in the Harrison County community of East Broadwell, three miles from Cynthiana on the Ruddles Mills Road. This was the scene of many early camp meetings, which were practical affairs since there were few meeting houses.”
By no means do I claim to be a student of church history, but since moving to this area of central Kentucky over 20 years ago, and being reminded frequently of the Cane Ridge Shrine in Bourbon County, I have been fascinated by old-time camp-meeting worship.
A big reason why will take some brief explanation, so bear with me.
When I was growing up in Carroll County, the entire breadth of my church-going experience was as a member of the Carrollton United Methodist Church. Like so many of the other established churches in town, Carrollton UMC was very traditional, very middle class and … very civilized.
For example, I recall times when members would present special music and the congregation did not clap at the end. The service was quite routine, followed a specific trajectory, and frequently ended about 10 minutes before the Baptist church next door, thus ensuring we were first in line at the breakfast buffet at General Butler State Park.
The church has loosened up considerably from when I grew up there, thank goodness, but being raised in this environment from the time I was an infant, I never thought the lack of applause, the lack of much noise at all, really, was strange. Being quietly polite and reserved was how respectable families acted in established town churches.
And I never knew any different until a friend of mine invited me to a revival at the local Pentecostal church. His church occupied space at an old hardware store that had gone bankrupt years ago.
My father, a wise man, said nothing to prepare me for the experience, which was as contrary to my religious upbringing as it was possible to be. Where we had a solemn pipe organ and hymns, they had a stratocaster, bass and a full drum set. The congregation thought nothing of dancing in the aisles, clapping, and giving vent to a full physical expression of their spirituality.
When I returned home, a bit shell-shocked and with a bookload of questions, my father told me about Cane Ridge and how worship at the old camp meetings was as much a part of the heart as it was of the mind.
I still did not come to appreciate that level of spirituality until I began singing with different gospel groups in the local area.
There is a marked contrast between performing for an audience in a town church and going out into the countryside to a small community church where there are fewer notions of “proper” behavior in a church sanctuary.
Having a performer’s mindset as a gospel singer, it is gratifying to sing before a congregation that is unafraid to express itself emotionally when they are moved by the spirit. And it causes me to wonder about the spirit that once moved these camp meetings when our various Christian denominations were young and new.
Reading over the history of the First Methodist Church, one of the first, incidentally, to establish itself in Kentucky, it fires my imagination to think of the enthusiasm that brought people together and organized themselves into a body for the purposes of worship.
Having been raised at a time when many established denominations have undergone the same sort of “civilizing” process that all our towns and cities developed from the 1800s to now, I don’t think it’s possible for me to  ever approach the same sort of joy of discovery that our ancestors in these camp meetings experienced. But for those who profess the Christian faith, I think it is important to appreciate, and celebrate, those roots … maybe by just shaking my booty in the pew a little bit.

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