The Church at Shiloh — “. . .to know the place for the first time”

Having encouraged my Cartwright cousins to join me in “going up to Shiloh” the week before Memorial Day, I thought I might mention that I hope to arrange for the church to be open during our brief visit as part of the pilgrimage back to the place where our ancestors first settled in Western Arkansas.

Having not been inside the building of Shiloh Baptist Church, I can only imagine the interior. But having been in many small country churches over the course of my lifetime, I think I have a pretty good idea of what might be there. As you enter, I am guessing that there is a framed “Church Covenant.” There may or may not be a print of Salman’s Head of Christ or Christ knocking at the door. I would be surprised if there wasn’t a US flag behind the altar table and pulpit. In my mind’s eye, I think I see an attendance board and a similar size board with moveable letters that has the numbers of the hymns on it.

I assume that the congregation likes to sing, but they may or may not sing well. They might have some old copies of Heavenly Highways Hymns stuck in a corner.  On the other hand, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if to discover the congregation has a screen on the wall where they project praise music.

The past couple of times that I have driven up to Shiloh, I have noticed that someone has been doing work on the church. The sign in the front yard seems to be newish, and there is an addition that appears to be a fellowship hall.  The fence around the graveyard is well-used with a gate that is across the grass from an area used for parking. Each time that I have been to the church, the church lawn has been mowed, but the grass in the graveyard is usually a bit higher.  No doubt, this is a chore done by a volunteer. Possibly, it could be a person who doesn’t even have a relative buried in the graveyard.

I have a hunch that the current congregation may not have a lot o ties to the group that founded the church on that site. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the building is shared by some other group. Given how sparsely populated the area is today, there might be a couple of groups that use the building. And although there is a volunteer fire department building down the road at the corner of Shiloh Church Road and Nella Road, I wouldn’t be surprised if the church isn’t also used for community meetings.

Several years ago, I ran across a book about a “little church” in England. Written by a Protestant layperson, the book . . . . It is a quirky little volume, but it has just enough information in it to allow the reader to grasp the layers of history, which turn out to go back at least to the 13th entury.  The church was actually the subject of a law passed by Parliament that condemned it for being an “Arminian Nunnery” —  monastic community formed by Nicholas Ferrar and his family.  And it turns out that this is the church that was the subject of a remarkable poem by an American expatriate who returns to the country of his forebears — making the transit from West to East — as part of his spiritual pilgrimage to re-embrace the Christian faith.

Part of what attracted the writer of The Little Church that Refused to Die to this site in the first place is that he was a fan of T. S. Eliot’s poetry. One of the poems in The Four Quartets is entitled “Little Gidding.” The following excerpt conveys the retrospective mood of Eliot’s encounter with the ghosts of the past at the church at Little Gidding.

“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. . . .
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.”

Having rubbed its readers’ noses in the paradoxes of human history, Eliot’s poem continues a few lines later with the four lines that are most quoted words of T. S. Eliot’s poetic legacy.

“. . . We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring.
will be to arrive where we started
and to know the place for the first time”

Once upon a time, I took a class on “Modern Poetry.” Or rather, I audited the course. I do not remember reading Little Gidding in that class taught by Prof. Ashby Bland Crowder at Hendrix College. I do remember reacting to the way the instructor led us through Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” New Critical Formalists. I scoffed at the way the “new critics” wanted to think. At the time, I remember being stunned to hear that it was irrelevant to the meaning of the poem to take into account the fact that the author wrote it while spending time in a sanatorium and that he struggled with depression for an extended period of time during and after World War I.  These struck me as important biographical and historical circumstances to take into account.

Looking back on it, I wander how some of these scholars dealt with Eliot’s poem about the church at Little Gidding.  To be sure, Eliot’s quest for meaning was thoroughly “modernist” but it was also undeniably Christian in character.  Eliot had grown up in a family i n St. Louis, Missouri, that was Unitarian. He was an Anglophile, and actually gave up his U.S. citizenship at one point to take up residence in England where his Eliot ancestors once had lived. He also converted to Catholicism.  No mere rationalist, Eliot believed in the doctrine of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist.  His conception of memory was sacramental.

I recently re-read William W. Moore’s little book The Little Church That Refused to Die: History of the Church at Little Gidding, England. I am not sure what Eliot would have made of this book written by a dilletantish fan, a true amateur — not a scholar — but a lover of words who felt a strong affinity for the kinds of ideas with which Eliot wrestled.

Moore embraces the “technique” of encountering ghosts that Eliot used in Murder in the Cathedral, he play about St. Thomas a Beckett (In 1241, a priest at Canterbury Cathedral reported seeing the ghost of Thomas a Becket who objected to repairs that were being made to the Cathedral.) Moore’s use of this literary conceit is rather ineffective and didactic. He drives his point in the ground through overuse.

In truth, I found very few of the narrative encounters with ghosts associated with the history of the church to be illuminating, However, I did appreciate the fact that the author paid attention to the fact that this church has been the site of very different communities of faith going back to 1225.  Knights Templar built one of the first buildings. The congregation’s history intersects the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation, and the 17th century re-awakening of monasticism in England after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536-1540. I also like the author’s way of recognizing the intersections with the religious and political history of England as well as the region around Cambridge and the local parish.

To be sure, the little church at Shiloh in Blansett Township of Scott County, Arkans has a very different pedigree than the parish church at Little Gidding. The congregation at Shiloh was founded in the early 1870s, about the time that Eliza and her family were homesteading a farm just across the road from the church.  During its first two decades, it experienced great turbulence.  Within just a few years, the “Landmark” group split with those who had a different sense of the matter about church doctrine on matters of free will, etc.  The first building burned to the ground after which part of the congregation decided to build a building down in the “bottomlands” around Petit Jean River near Ione, Arkansas.  For a couple of decades, a congregation of Methodists shared space with the Baptists.

From what I gather, for most of the twentieth century, the building has been used by a congregation of Missionary Baptists, but beyond that, I don’t know much about Shiloh Baptist Church.  Indeed, there is more than a century of history still to be explored. Unlike the church at Little Gidding, there is probably not a plaque at the entrance that gives a brief chronicle of the congregation’s history.

All of which means that should a group of us actually make our way up to Shiloh on May 19, 2015, as I have proposed that we do, we will arrive where the Cartwright family first started, and like T. S. Eliot’s encounter with the church at Little Gidding, in our own ways we will begin “to know the place for the first time.”

In that respect, we will be like many Americans whose immigrant ancestors made their way west and settled (if only for a time) in a particular community.  Having reached the frontier’s end, we make our way “back east” to encounter communities and congregations whose history has gone well beyond whatever contributions our ancestors once made.  And we bring with us the baggage of our own journeys east and west and north and south.

There are hundreds of little churches around the country that, like Shiloh, are about all that remains of a community where immigrants once lived.  In that sense, Shiloh is simply one of the places established on the American frontier. At the same time, this is the place where our people’s journeys within and beyond the state of Arkansas began. It is the spot  on God’s earth where we can learn something about ourselves from our ancestors Thomas Baskin Cartwright and his wife Nancy as we stand before their graves and give thanks for having the privilege to come back home.

About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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