Pastor retires from boyhood church that was model for TV's 'The Waltons' - Word&Way

Pastor retires from boyhood church that was model for TV’s ‘The Waltons’

SCHUYLER, Va. — Matthew Fordwick was the young pastor of the Baptist church in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on The Waltons, a popular television show created by Earl Hamner Jr.

Fordwick came to Walton’s Mountain Baptist Church fresh from seminary and in the show’s first season had a humbling experience when he accidentally got drunk on “the recipe” while visiting the Baldwin sisters. After learning a valuable lesson in forgiveness, he faithfully served as the community’s religious leader for the next three seasons.

Earl Hamner Jr. created The Waltons from his own boyhood recollections growing up during the Depression in the rural village of Schuyler, Va. The white frame church that played a significant role in the spiritual nurture of the Hamner family is Schuyler Baptist Church, where for the past 13 years Tom Fowler served as pastor until his retirement on July 1.

While Fowler may not be as well-known outside of local circles as the pastor portrayed on the show, both served a congregation rich in tradition and with a heart for the gospel.

Schuyler Baptist Church

Schuyler was once a booming town with more than 7,000 citizens and over 1,300 people who worked at the soapstone plant. There was a hospital, three movie theaters, nine general merchandise stores, a jewelry store, bank and an electric trolley that brought students to school.

The largest commissary in Virginia was located in Schuyler. “And in its heyday, Schuyler was known for its spectacular homemade liquor or ‘recipe,’ ” Fowler confirms, although Hamner admits that stories in the book may not have taken place exactly as presented.

Today Schuyler’s population is less than 2,000. Many of those businesses and places are gone, and the soapstone workforce is considerably smaller.

Hamner fondly remembers his childhood at Schuyler Baptist Church. His mother, Doris Marion Gianinni Hamner, was a devoted member there all of her life. Even if she was unable to attend, he says, she saw to it that all eight of her offspring, coached in how to behave and in their best go-to-meeting clothes were sent off to Sunday school or Wednesday night prayer meeting or choir practice on Thursday nights. And he says that usually at least one of the Hamner children was in the annual Christmas pageant.

“I came from a poor family,” he recalls, “but was able to attend the University of Richmond on a scholarship.” However one of the conditions of the scholarship was that Hamner knew Latin. It was only through a crash course in Latin by the pastor of the Baptist church during the summer that he was able to accept the scholarship and attend college.

Fowler was called to Schuyler Baptist Church as interim pastor in 1998 when he came to the area to work as a parent educator for the Thomas Jefferson Health Department in Charlottesville, Va. In 2000 he felt the call to leave that job and serve the Lord as Schuyler’s full-time pastor.

When asked to recount some of the milestones of the church during his 13-year tenure, Fowler says some are sad. Over 50 percent of the active membership of the church has died during those years. Burying so many of its faithful members is disheartening, he recounts.

But there have been joyful times. For its 100th anniversary in 2005 the congregation dedicated a newly-restored sanctuary. Stained glass windows and a wood-beamed ceiling obscured by a drop ceiling were discovered and restored. Handicap ramps, rails and bathroom facilities have been added, along with a new kitchen, sound system and heating and air conditioning systems.

The congregation added a pavilion to its grounds. Plaques of soapstone are embedded in the floor of the pavilion, including a stone for Doris Hamner, Earl’s mother. “It’s a walk of memory to stroll along the floor and see so many beloved names of loved ones,” Fowler says.

This church in the Blue Ridge mountains reaches beyond its doors supporting ministries in Kenya, Uganda and Haiti through Mission LINK International Inc. Two missionaries in China receive support from Schuyler Baptist, and for the past two years the congregation has donated seeds for MLI’s agriculture ministry to nationals in Africa.

Earl Hamner Jr. (left) and Pastor Tom Fowler ring the church bell at Schuyler Baptist Church.

For the past 11 years Schuyler Baptist Church has held a Cross Carry that concludes on the church grounds where the cross is erected. The membership has been actively involved in this and the struggle to carry the cross even a short distance never fails to touch the hearts of those participating.

In addition, there is the traditional Easter sunrise service and breakfast and the annual Christmas pageant made famous in Hamner’s essay.

Earl left Schuyler in 1939 when he entered the Army and was sent to Europe. Today he lives in California and although his visits to Virginia are now rare he says the Blue Ridge Mountains will always be home to him.

“Pastor Tom’s leaving will be keenly felt in Schuyler,” says Hamner. “He approached all things, religious or secular, with humor, insight, innovation, wisdom and love of God and man. I am blessed to call him friend.”

Fowler says he has been privileged to exhaust himself in such a worthy calling. “I thank the Father for the opportunity and the strength to do it.”