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For 210 years, ‘our little country church
SoVaNow.com / May 30, 2013Many years ago, by the entrance to the old Pleasant Grove church in Vernon Hill, a person could gaze out at a stand of oaks — trees that predated the church itself, most likely, although no one today can say for sure.
The trees formed a pleasant grove, recalls Elise Farmer, one of the church’s eldest members, who remembers the quiet sylvan beauty of the landscape. Maybe that’s how Pleasant Grove Church came by its name, she speculates. But another possibility presents itself: Mrs. Farmer’s great-grandfather donated the land upon which the church was built. He bore the archaic-sounding name of Pleasant William Farmer. Was the original log house of worship built on Pleasant’s Grove?
Considering the matter, Mrs. Farmer confesses she is unsure: “We used to have a lot of trees there we don’t have any more. I always figured the name came from that.”
It’s not surprising that gaps would develop in the 210-year history of Pleasant Grove Christian Church, one of Halifax County’s oldest places of worship. This weekend, as the church celebrates the milestone anniversary at its annual homecoming service, stories will be told and perhaps some lingering mysteries will be resolved. But amid the telling of old tales, the congregation will also have its sights turned in the opposing direction: the future.
Anthony Landrum, the chairman of Pleasant Grove’s board of deacons, laments the slow decline of what he lovingly describes as “our little country church,” but he notes that Pleasant Grove is hardly alone in grappling with a changing world. “It’s mighty little now, but there was a time when this was a big church,” he says. The congregation today is largely made up of senior citizens, with few young families coming in to take their place, but Landrum says the decline in churchgoing is something that many country churches have witnessed.
When he was young, says Landrum, now in his mid-50s, “that was just something you planned on every Sunday morning — to get up and go to church. You didn’t ask any questions about it.
“I guess [people] have other plans and other interests these days.”
Today Pleasant Grove lists a membership of around 120 people, although an average Sunday service will draw anywhere from around 30 to 50. What the church may lack in numbers, it makes up with loyalty; the homecoming service, Landrum notes, regularly attracts members who’ve moved away from the area yet retain a place in the hearts for their home church: “They still come back.”
(The homecoming service, held each year, will be led by a fondly-remembered former pastor at Pleasant Grove, the Rev. Isaac Mooneyham, now with Danville Baptist Tabernacle. The event will also feature a covered dish lunch on the church grounds, another good reason to attend, says Landrum: “I’m telling you, those ladies can cook.”)
The founding of Pleasant Grove is traced to an arrival from up north, the Rev. James O’Kelly, who came to Halifax County and organized the church in 1803. According to church lore, he was part of a budding church movement called “Just Plain Christian”; research suggests he may have been part of a Quaker community before coming to Halifax.
The local Farmer families, of which Elise Farmer is the oldest living member, were among O’Kelly’s early converts. The Farmers donated the land for the building that would come to replace the original log-hewn church; that stick-built structure, erected in 1850 and remodeled twice, was later torn down to make way for the current building. Established in 1908, “it was noted to be the most modern and rural church in Halifax County,” says Landrum.
Remnants of the original church remain in evidence — notably, the stone steps used by churchgoers who each Sunday arrived by buggy. In addition to the land for the church building, the Farmers donated the two-acre cemetery plot that nowadays is dotted by numerous headstones bearing the family name. Last year, Mrs. Farmer’s late husband, Guy, was laid to rest there at age 88.
In many respects Pleasant Grove is little different than other local houses of worship — the church offers activities and services for its elderly members, and the youth group is small but active. (A cherished activity: going around to nursing homes and singing for the residents. “You’d be surprised at how people who are 80 or 90 years old, in wheelchairs, you’ll start singing a hymn and they’ll start singing along and they’ll know every word,” Landrum says.) From the standpoint of theology, the church is conservative, but welcoming: “You don’t have to be a member of the church to receive God’s love.” Pleasant Grove relies on guest speakers to conduct the service each Sunday, but soon, perhaps, it will choose a permanent pastor.
After 210 years, Landrum says, he figures Pleasant Grove is safe doing what it has always done: putting its fate in the hands of the Lord: “God has worked through this church for 210 years. Or else we wouldn’t be here.”
(Pleasant Grove Christian Church will celebrate its 210th anniversary on Sunday, June 2, with Sunday school at 11:00 a.m. and worship at noon, with a memorial service, a flag retirement ceremony by Boy Scout Troop 410 and lunch. All are welcome to join the congregation for the celebration.)
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