Religion and Patriotism on Decoration Day

On Sunday, May 30, 1954, an unexpectedly large congregation gathered for worship at the Christian Church in Somerset, Indiana, and as a result I came to a better understanding of a traditional intertwining of religion and patriotism in America.

I was student pastor in this little congregation, snuggled along the banks of the Mississinewa River, seventy-five miles north of Indianapolis. In early November, our historic brick chapel (building with green roof at center right) had been destroyed by fire, and since that time we had been meeting on the stage of the township school (large building on upper right) across the street from the parsonage (small house obscured by tree). This no-rent arrangement had been set up by Carl Albaugh, our leading member, who taught math at Somerset High, the very school from which he had graduated more than 40 years before.

A few weeks earlier, this same Carl Albaugh had offered me free tickets to the state basketball finals at Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Because of church duties the next day, I had turned down his offer, a decision I have regretted ever since. That was the game when Bobby Plump, from miniscule Milan High School, sank the basket at the buzzer that has become one of the legends of Hoosier basketball history.

Chauncey Kessler (first row, right end), another of the elders, who lived, with his sister Agnes on the same piece of land their grandparents had homesteaded, told me that as soon as the service was over the younger men would be loading up our folding chairs to take out to Vernon Cemetery where he was caretaker. They had to hurry in order to be ready for the community-wide Decoration Day ceremonies that would start in early afternoon.

I probably shortened my sermon a little and as one of the younger men I helped with the chairs. More important, I made it a point to attend the ceremonies even though my wife was in the last days of her first pregnancy. Our daughter Sharon, who now is General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was born thirteen days later. I remember only that a crowd showed up, the entire village, it seemed, and many people I had never seen before. Some of the older people referred to relatives whom they remembered from their childhood, men who had fought in the Civil War. Now the ancient ones slept in Vernon Cemetery and on this day every year people came out to remember them and to honor the nation whose unity they had preserved.

I remember nothing strident, either in political or religious language. The mood is what I remember. If there are words for it, they would be respectful gratitude. No claims of America’s righteousness or power. No insistence that America is a Christian nation or that crosses should be planted on public land or tablets of stone in courthouses around the nation. No demands that church and state should be disentangled.

Rather, there was the feeling that all of us enjoy freedom to live our lives in quiet places, to pray or not to pray, to let the boundaries between religious and public systems stay permeable because of the people, some of them perpetually at rest in Vernon Cemetery, who had protected these rights during the war that had defined America’s soul. (The photo below shows the congregation of the Somerset Christian Church in 1937; I became pastor sixteen years after this picture was taken.)

In the years since then, Decoration Day has become Memorial Day, and the veterans of America’s later wars are now remembered as much or more than those of that terrible war between North and South. Memorial Day has moved from May 30 to a Monday in order to allow a longer vacation from work and school. For an increasingly large proportion of the population, both piety and patriotism have been eclipsed by sporting events, family outings, and celebrations of the onset of summer.

We now live in a society in which theology is stringent and patriotism strident. But again this year I remember with gratitude my first—and perhaps only—real Memorial Day, a time long since gone when folk piety and simple patriotism were intertwined in little places like Vernon Cemetery, Waltz Township, Wabash County, Indiana.

Postscript: A few months following the Sunday described above, the Corps of Engineers announced plans to build a flood control dam down river from Somerset, near the small city of Peru, Indiana. Somerset would have to be relocated up to  higher ground near State Road 13. The school, of course would not be moved; in fact, it would be consolidated with larger schools in the county, which meant that the center of village life would disappear. Old cemeteries would be relocated, which meant that the graves, some of them nearly a century old, would be exhumed and reburied. Instead of little burial grounds hallowed by generations of burials and Decoration Days, the eternal resting places became the Mississinewa Memorial Cemetery, a bleak geometrical grid in what previously had been fields of corn and soybeans. Many thanks to Judy Garst Schram and George R. Lorenz who have posted pictures of old Somerset before the dam.

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