Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Our Tabernacle Bench


This bench served as a pew in an old, local tabernacle from the late 19th century.

In our carport there sits an old church bench which Jennifer and I moved from my grandparents’ porch several years ago. The bench is actually a pew from a Methodist tabernacle that existed before my grandparents’ church was built near the turn of the last century. Our best guess is that it was built and in use around the 1880’s.

The bench is simple, nothing special really except for its age and design. Its wooden slats are angled such that, when you sit in it, you are in a proper, upright posture that is surprisingly comfortable. We use it for outdoor parties and gatherings and many of our friends and visitors have commented on how pleasant it is to sit upon.

Of course, “comfort” is a relative term. The bench is in no way “cushy” or soft. It simply is easy to sit in, not tiresome, obviously constructed for long Sunday afternoons when the preacher would be getting his second-wind, as it were, in the extended sermons that were prevalent to this area in the late-19th century.

Back then, Sunday services began in late-morning to give church attendees time to arrive in their wagons and carriages from miles around. There were no "early" services so the family could spend the rest of the afternoon away from church. Oh no, back then when you arrived at church on Sundays you brought a picnic and stayed most of the day.

This was a country tabernacle which sat beside a wet-weather stream that was partially fed by a spring. As a child, I would go wading in that stream during Sunday afternoon lunches and singings. I sometimes played around the spring, though the adults didn’t really care for the kids playing so far away from their observation and near such a potentially dangerous water source.

Even though the water was just bubbling up out of the ground it was considered unsafe for the sometimes wild play we exhibited. Rumor had it someone had drowned in that spring once. But then, childhood is filled with such rumors designed to keep youthful exuberance in check.

My great-great-great-grandfather, Sampson, likely attended that tabernacle when our pew was in its original use. He is buried in the church cemetery today. He was a Confederate soldier and his headstone is marked with the appropriate veteran’s insignia though it is somewhat difficult to make out these days after such a passage of time.

Most likely when the tabernacle was replaced with the church building some time over 100 years ago, my great-great-grandfather, William Swift, was one of the members that took one of the old pews home when the new ones were installed. Those new pews were the ones I initially used in the 1960’s. They have since been replaced more modern, cushioned pews with fancier place holders for hymnals and little notches for pens that people can conveniently use to write out their checks for the offering plate.

There are no such luxuries on our tabernacle bench. It does have a crude wooden pocket on the back side for song books though. It sat on my grandparents’ porch probably for nine decades or more. During that time the porch bowed a bit and so the bench, supported by four legs, currently doesn’t sit flush against the ground on the ends. We compensate by placing some tiles under it for added support.

It was at least once painted by my grandfather. Jennifer painted it a blue-green color (I call it "turquoise" she says "Destin [as in Florida] blue", whatever) after we moved it to our place. It probably looks more cheerful now than was originally intended. But then in the 1880’s it wasn’t exactly the party bench that it has become today.

The wood is very old, of course, and not as strong as it once was. Over the years termites have gotten into parts of it. Some of it is partially rotted. There are holes in the sides. But, so far, we haven’t replaced anything but for the paint job and it can sturdily hold a full load of people.

These past few weeks we have experienced some wonderful fall weather. So, I have sat often on the bench for at least a brief spell. Each time I do so I can’t help but think back, as I settle in to its simple comfort, to what it must have been like almost 6,000 Sundays ago. There were no internal combustion engines to hear. There were no airplanes overhead. Instead you had babies crying and horses snorting and the sound of the breeze in the trees.

In that simple comfortable and comparative quiet voices were raised in praise to an ideal of goodness and eternity that seems naïve and sentimental today. And then the preacher would read from scripture and deliver his second or third sermon for the long day. People would listen. Some would be moved. They had nowhere to go and nothing really to do. In summer they would be fanning themselves with heavy paper hand fans. It was a day of rest. This was the country. There was no entertainment industry here. After some hours, they would rise from this bench and have fellowship together before mounting their wagons and carriages for the slow ride back home in the cool stillness of dusk.

The curve in the seat is really perfect for secure, comfortable sitting. The firm, straight back gives you good posture. Just the ticket for those extended hellfire and brimstone sermons of yesteryear.

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