It was a Sunday like any other at Big Creek Baptist Church.
There was praise and testimony. Preaching and beseeching. Hymn singing and altar calling.
The Carter Family in the choir and Merle Haggard at the altar.
“We’re glad you’re here today in a very ordinary service at Big Creek,” pastor Jimmy Whitlock told his flock as they sat among the blinding stage lights, the booming microphones and the bigger-than-life country music stars.
“Not a thing unusual about it at all. We have this many lights and this many microphones every Sunday,” Whitlock said.
After everyone laughed, Whitlock invited the congregation to stand and sing from the Baptist Hymnal No. 473: “We’ll understand it better bye and bye.”
And they did.
“I was supposed to be in that choir that morning, but when we got there, they told us to sit in the front pews,” said Nell Moore, the congregation’s historian who has been coming to Big Creek since she was 15 in 1949. “After we saw Mother Maybelle in the choir, we couldn’t complain. Now that was a memorable moment.”Big Creek Baptist Church has experienced countless memorable moments in its 200 years as a worshipping congregation. Past and present members will swap some of those stories at Sunday’s Homecoming service, when they gather to worship the Lord and celebrate the life of Shelby County’s oldest church.
They’ll talk about the time one of the founders, a settler from Carolina, was banished for marrying a Native American girl.
The time just before the Civil War when the congregation included more African-Americans than whites.
The two times the church was forced to shut its doors — during the Civil War and during the Great Depression.
They’ll remember the farmer who was kicked out of the congregation for plowing a field outside the church on a Sunday morning. “They told him not to plow that field during worship,” Moore said.
The casket that crashed through the old rotted floorboards during a funeral. “Ain’t no guessing as to where that one’s going,” joked pastor Timothy Hickman, Big Creek’s leader the past four years.
They’ll also remember the Sunday morning in 1969 when they were greeted by Merle Haggard, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.
“It’s our intention this morning to record a portion of an album, and at the same time we’d like to create some enjoyable music for you here at the Big Creek Baptist Church,” Haggard told the congregation.
Haggard, a Californian best known for the big-hit small-town anthem “Okie From Muskogee,” had been looking for a little country church that could serve as a backdrop for a country gospel album — The Land of Many Churches.
He called the Blackwood Brothers, the legendary gospel quartet who were members of First Assembly of God in Memphis. They told him about Big Creek, an old country church near an orchard and a cemetery just outside Millington.
“In the past, I’ve done a couple of tribute albums,” Haggard explained to the congregation that morning, “and this is sort of a tribute to an old friend of mine who is truly No. 1. Of course, I’m speaking of our Lord Jesus Christ. This entire album is a tribute to him.”
And, in many ways, to Big Creek Baptist Church, organized in 1812 — seven years before Shelby was a county and 14 years before Memphis was incorporated.
Big Creek’s old sanctuary graced the cover of Haggard’s album, released in 1971. The first 21 minutes of the album were recorded during a Sunday service in 1969.
Haggard and his band, The Strangers; Bonnie Owens, his wife at the time; and the Carter Family (minus June Carter Cash) sang “Precious Lord,” “Jesus Hold My Hand,” “Precious Memories,” “Turn Your Radio On,” and — just before Whitlock’s altar call — “Just As I Am.”
Whitlock gave a brief history of the church, which first met under a brush arbor built by a small group of Carolinians who settled north of the Loosahatchie River.
“Today, Big Creek is a growing progressive, missionary Southern Baptist country church with a warmth of Christian fellowship that stimulates the soul,” Whitlock said.
Today, Big Creek isn’t that big. When Hickman took the pulpit for the first time four years ago, seven of the 19 people in the pews were members of his family. Now, a few dozen folks fill the newer sanctuary most Sunday mornings.
Last Tuesday, John Louis McRee, who was raised in Big Creek Baptist Church by his late parents, Franklin and Nelia McRee, who in 1941 became the first married man in Tennessee to be drafted into World War II, and who died Sept. 23, was buried in Big Creek’s cemetery. He was 94.
“There’s been a lot of fussing and feuding and fighting over the years, including over that cemetery, but we are still here after all these years, still serving the Lord,” Moore said.
“I guess the Lord wanted a church here.”