At Carters Run Baptist Church, the little crowd in the clearing buzzed with lively conversation, punctuated by an occasional burst of laughter. This came as a surprise, for at other churches I attended, people dressed in their best and signaled their piety by their sober silences and frowns. I arrived in my new striped yellow polonaise to find all the women and girls wearing simple homespun. Several of them cast curious glances my way and I wished Joseph had known to mention I would blend in better in an everyday gown.
Most of the men also wore rough, everyday clothes. One, dark-haired and suntanned with a tomahawk stuck in his belt, seemed so rugged he would be at home among the native tribes. I shrank back a little as he drew near. He stood in stark contrast to my sandy-haired brother, whose knee breeches and linen shirt marked him as a tradesman.
To my surprise, Joseph greeted the swarthy young man with a smile and a handshake. “Thomas, good Sabbath. This is my sister, Anna. Anna, this is my friend Thomas Stone.”
He swept off his hat in a courtly gesture completely at odds with his appearance. “Miss Asbury, how nice to make your acquaintance.” A blonde young woman smiled in welcome as she joined us and he put his arm around her. “This is my wife, Betsy.”
“Good Sabbath.” Feeling silly for misjudging him, I dropped a hasty curtsey. As I rose, I locked eyes with the young man who stood just behind Thomas and Betsy. He, too, was dark haired, lanky, and tanned, but was dressed in a linen coat and breeches. The breeze ruffled a loose lock of hair that fell across his forehead and his dark eyes sparkled at me when he smiled. I nodded to acknowledge him but kept my face sober, as was proper for the Sabbath.
Joseph offered me his arm as everyone filed inside. “That’s Thomas’s brother, Benjamin,” he murmured.
My eyes darted around the unadorned meetinghouse. Rows of backless benches filled the space on either side of a narrow center aisle and a simple table stood on a raised platform at the front of the room. It was nothing like the ornately carved interior of Aquia Church in Stafford, the site of my christening, and the décor was not the only difference. Here, men and women sat together, instead of on opposite sides of the room, and there were black faces among the white.
As Thomas and Betsy filed in behind Joseph and me, I glanced sideways to see if Benjamin followed. Instead, he made his way to the front of the room and laid his Bible on the wooden table. An older man joined him to deliver the opening prayer and lead the hymn, and then placed a hand on Benjamin’s shoulder. “Brother Stone has asked to lead the meeting today.”
As Benjamin began to speak, his gaze fell upon me. Transfixed by his earnest and confiding manner, it seemed he directed his discourse as though he and I were the only ones present.
“When I was nine years old, thoughts of death, of judgment, and of future punishment began to oppress my mind. I resolved to live free of sin and to work until I received pardon for whatever childish transgressions I committed. I sought to be an exemplary Christian, but somehow, vowing to avoid sin did not hold for long.”
Thomas spoke up in a solemn voice. “I warrant I may have had something to do with that.”
Several men in the congregation snickered.
Had I not been watching Benjamin so closely I might have missed the wounded look that crossed his face before he recovered. “You did indeed have a hand in my frequent need to repent, Brother.”
This time I joined in as everyone in the congregation laughed at Thomas’s expense.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish