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In Olden Days, Churches Kept Social Order of a Town

When settlers made their way to the Ozarks—often by covered wagon—they brought with them their faith. Through today, churches have played a tremendous role in the formation of communities as well as the glue that held them together. For our ongoing series A Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson visits a church that can trace its involvement in the community back over 150 years.

[Sound of chatting churchgoers in fellowship hall]

On a recent Sunday, churchgoers chatted over coffee in between services at Fair Grove United Methodist Church. I met up with Betty Manning, a member of the Fair Grove Historical Society and a long-time member of this congregation.

"The congregation first met, with the Presbyterians--taking turns every other Sunday--in the log school house, which was the first public building."

That was in the 1850s, about a decade before the Civil War, and the congregation has been meeting continually ever since. In 1891, the congregants built the building they are still using today. For over 150 years, this United Methodist church has been an integral part in the Fair Grove Community, Manning says, working with the school and reaching out to community members in need.

"All pain was everyone’s pain. Any child who was killed in the war, anyone’s child or dad or whoever was killed, the whole community grieved." Manning says.

This is not an entirely uncommon story here in the Ozarks. Dr. Brooks Blevins is a professor of history and Ozarks studies at Missouri State University. He says that the church was essential to weaving the social fabric of a community, such as Fair Grove, during the 1800s.

"Protestant churches played central roles in communities. [They were] just one of many things that settlers did to recreate the lives they had known back east here in the Ozarks."

Blevins says that churches often had the power to keep social order in small communities due to the widespread membership within a community. If someone stepped outside of the moral boundaries of the church they ran the risk of getting so-called “churched” and ultimately excluded from the community.

"And if a person was 'churched'," Blevins says, "it usually meant that they were kicked out of church for some kind of moral offense. The churches, I think, in those days played a much more active role in being the moral censors in rural communities."

While the role the church plays within a community has changed a great deal, Churches have continued to be a binding factor in small towns throughout the Ozarks.

"It’s how people get to know each other, by worshiping together." Manning says.

[Sound of worship music]

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.