In rural Tidewater Virginia the noises are usually the sound of a crane’s flapping wings or the gentle lapping of the waves. Macedonia Baptist Church in Mathews County recently offered its own sounds of celebration as the congregation celebrated the church’s 125th anniversary on Sunday, Oct. 9.
Macedonia occupies a small house of worship which was built in 1887 and enlarged in 1920 with small rooms off the front of the auditorium. The small congregational space was packed for the anniversary. J.B. Neal, the enthusiastic music director, promised that the little building was going to “vibrate” during the opening hymn, “To God Be the Glory.” With Charlene Moore on the baby grand piano and Edwin Jarvis on the organ, the vocal power in the room did produce an electrifying moment. Dawn and Dusty Dowdy offered some mellow instrumental music as with saxophone and piano they played two gospel hymns.
During the children’s message, Pastor John A. Duke added other sounds of celebration. He asked the children why we celebrate birthdays and one little boy, Ethan, said that “we want to have fun and we want to talk to God.” The pastor proceeded to answer his own question: “We celebrate because we want to say that we are glad you are in our lives. The church has been here a long time so we are glad its here.”
Macedonia’s children began to call out their reasons to celebrate their church’s presence in their lives. Playing, singing, praying and eating were among their reasons. At the close of the children’s message, the pastor did a dangerous thing. He gave each child a colorful whistle to blow in celebration.
Long after the kids had left the room, sounds of celebration included an occasional whistle heard down the hallway. Other sounds for the Baptist worship service included babies fretting and crying. These actually are happy sounds that signify life in the church.
Tim Ameen, who served as pastor of Macedonia from 1991-2002, returned as the guest preacher for the anniversary. His wife and sons sat on the front pew and he acknowledged that in many ways Macedonia represented home to them. He also remembered that his sons used to be much younger and prone to crawling under the pews.
Now a pastor in North Carolina, Ameen is a singing preacher, and despite a disclaimer that his voice was not up to par, he came forth with song on three separate occasions within his message. His sermon added yet another unique sound of celebration.
Macedonia is small. The wooden signboard at the front of the auditorium gave the Sunday school enrollment as 55 with attendance the previous Sunday at 22. The church’s latest report to the Baptist General Association of Virginia lists membership at 139.
Along the years the modest little church building was enlarged with additional classrooms, restrooms and vestibule. Stained-glass windows were placed in the church. In 1996 a large and up-to-date fellowship hall and kitchen were added. The entire building looks pristine.
Macedonia is a survivor. It began in 1886 as a chapel of Mathews Baptist Church, the mother church among the Baptists of the county. Macedonia’s history records: “John Hodges, a charter member, called to a passer-by with the Biblical quotation, ‘Come over into Macedonia and help us.’ ” The name stuck.
At Macedonia’s beginning, the several Baptist churches in the county were described as “destitute.” The word was appropriate for the times. There were five Baptist churches in the county in the late 1880s and no resident pastor. “Preaching every Sunday” in each church was not possible. When pastors were called, they seldom stayed long. These churches — with the exception of Gwynn’s Island Church — were known for being slow in paying their pastors. There was no regular and systematic giving; in an agrarian society, contributions were at the mercy of the success or failure of crops.
Macedonia survived all those early years of struggle. Despite tests from time to time, its members also have remained true to time-honored Baptist principles, including congregational governing, priesthood of each believer and displaying a free spirit willing to cooperate with other Baptist organizations.
As part of the celebration for the 125th anniversary, the members of the church voiced their own hopes and dreams for the future of the church. These also became sounds of celebration. Owen Tyler, chairman of the deacons, voiced his hope that Macedonia “can be an outreaching church to the community.” Tammy Faulkner echoed the sentiment by suggesting “participation in at least one mission project quarterly.” The Moughons — William, Suzanne and Clay — thought that “developing an on-going food drive” would be a worthy mission. Kim Moore wanted “to have a church full of children of all ages.” Gin Evans declared that visitors should be made “to feel like family.”
John Duke has been pastor of Macedonia since April 2010 when he returned to Virginia from Alabama. He, too, has hopes for the church: “That worship will be meaningful and affect lives, that the youth and children’s ministry will grow and thrive, that it will attract more people, that the church will have a real passion for its ministry.” These are good sounds to hear when celebrating a future as well as a past.
The anniversary Sunday concluded with the laying of a time capsule, the sharing of those dreams for the future and the familiar sounds from an affirmation song known by heart: “Jesus Loves Me.”
Fred Anderson (fred.anderson @vbmb.org) is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies.