The religious center of the farm where I grew up was Rose Hill Church, a classic whitewashed building that overlooks rolling fields from the crest of a tall hill. Its steeple rises above the front door, and the church bell stands beside it. The church has witnessed the revivals, weddings, and funerals of generations who passed through its doors.
During the sixties, the Rose Hill congregation gathered on the first Sunday of every month to hear Reverend Isaac Thomas preach his powerful sermons. The sound of its hymns drifting across graves on the hill always reminded me of the church’s rich musical history. There were no hymnals in the church, and the congregation sang its Dr. Watts hymns—originally composed by Isaac Watts—from memory. In the familiar, chanted pattern known as “lining out,” a lead singer spoke each line, and the congregation responded by singing it. This style of singing hymns originated in colonial America and is still used today in rural churches in Mississippi and other parts of the South. During each service at Rose Hill Church, Amanda Gordon, a tall, thin elder in her seventies, led the congregation as she lined out Dr. Watts hymns in her high-pitched voice. The sounds of slave music echoed in the hymns sung by Amanda Gordon.
When I was a child, our housekeeper, Mary Gordon, Amanda Gordon’s stepdaughter, took me and my brother Grey to services at Rose Hill Church, where I learned to sing “Ring the Bell,” a hymn that was sung as a member walked out of the water after being baptized. Mary Gordon brought a basket filled with fried chicken and biscuits that we ate after the service. The church was an intimate space for the black community, and whites rarely attended its services.
Rose Hill Church was originally built as a “brush arbor,” a shelter made