When I was growing up in the city, a beautiful Sunday afternoon might find my family out “going for a ride in the country.”
My fond memories of this time in the late 1950s and early 1960s include driving south out of Columbus, Ohio, on U.S. 23, perhaps to visit the Adena State Memorial, the gracious stone home of onetime Governor Thomas Worthington near Chillicothe and the Appalachian foothills.
Perhaps we might drive east or west on U.S. 40, Thomas Jefferson’s National Road that brought so many people over the Appalachian Mountains in Conestoga wagons to spread out across the Midwest. If we headed east, we could explore the small towns in and near the Allegheny Plateau, with the dusty antique shops my mother and I loved to haunt. If we headed west on U.S. 40 toward the flatter, richer farmland, we could visit my mother’s Adams cousins or one of her high school friends whose family owned Hollandia Gardens, a nursery with fascinating greenhouses.
If we went southeast along U.S. 33 toward Canal Winchester—again toward the Allegheny Plateau—we might go to a dairy farm that sold this absolutely delicious vanilla ice cream flowing with creamy milk and heavenly honey.
Sometimes, we would make a whole day trip farther southeast toward Athens and the Hocking Hills State Parks, romantically named Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls, Rock House, Ash Cave, and Cantwell Cliffs. It was beautiful land preserved from the ravages of coal mining.
All of these trips, with three older brothers in the station wagon, featured:
Still, the trips allowed me to survive so that understanding and living rural life became my lifelong passion.
I don’t suspect my family thought that we were celebrating rural life on our Sunday forays out of the city. But I guess we were at some level, perhaps a thread of my mother’s rural heritage in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. As I continue to discover, rural life needs to be celebrated, now perhaps more than ever, perhaps in ways that meet the changing times of far more diverse people and places.
For generations, Protestant and Catholic churches across the country celebrated Rural Sunday (or Rural Life Sunday), usually after Easter to accompany spring planting, but sometimes in the fall to accompany the harvest.
A 1970 University of Nebraska Extension Circular reflects attitudes of the time, using a policy statement from the National Council of Churches as a lead in to engage 4-H members in Rural Sunday:
“Rural Life Sunday is a day set apart for emphasizing the meaning of Christianity for rural life. This celebration had its origin in a day when the vast majority of people were tillers of the soil, society was relatively simple in structure, and the lines separating rural and urban were rather distinct. In such a day, the invocation of God’s blessing upon the tiller, the seed, and the soil, was meaningful and highly relevant.
“In recent years, however, rural life has changed. To continue the original emphasis of man’s dependence upon God and to make the observance more relevant to the lives of people presently living in rural society, yet employed outside of agriculture, the Church must broaden the emphasis of Rural Life Sunday. It must take into account the vast complexity of present-day rural America (including agriculture) as being under the sovereignty of God and in need of His blessing.”
Rural life has changed dramatically in the United States since this piece was written, especially with economic and social dislocations in the past several decades. Here in the Midwest, many rural towns have continued to fade since the 1980s farm crisis. Population decline, as it has for more than a century, continues to lead to rural church closures. The population and workforce are more diverse, and the challenges of polarizing politics of fear are more commonplace. The population attending rural churches appears generally to be growing older, and getting young adults to participate more difficult. Newcomers bring new traditions.
Christianity may not be as central to rural life as it once was. Maybe there seems little cause to celebrate rural church life. Maybe the country or county fair or similar festivals are enough.
Perhaps it is ironic then that someone who has studied rural life from a secular perspective and lived in rural areas for almost 40 years is about to preach on rural life, definitely a first, and something of a surprise. I recently joined a small church, becoming “churched” for the first time in over a decade. When asked to preach, I found myself wondering what Rural Sunday means in the 21st century.
Many churches continue to celebrate rural Sunday in one form or another, but, unless I am mistaken, it appears to be something of a passing tradition. For my part, I will be glad to give this sermon, first because of the connections of land, people, and the church, but mainly because of the questions the sermon might raise:
How much do those of us who live in small towns and cities appreciate our rural landscape and the wide variety of life it could support, not only on farms?
What do those of us who do not live on farms, whether small towns or large cities, have to offer to rural life?
How do those of us who live in small towns and cities keep from being divorced from rural life, so near, but so far away?
What part in in celebrating changing rural life in all of its diversity can a church play?
I look forward to learning as time passes.
Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of a recently released fantasy book, Memories of Santa Claus, as well as Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.