Quintessentially Lowcountry

Praise houses are a portal into the past

March 5, 2010 

Three times each week when Elsie Holmes Mollison was a little girl, she and her neighbors on St. Helena Island's Coffin Point packed into a white, one-room building no more than 10 feet by 15 feet.

They crammed together -- 10, 20, 30 or more people at a time -- to clap their hands, stomp their feet and extol Jesus in a melding of Christian and African rituals. They also gathered there to share news and settle disputes, as the island's blacks did at 30 or so other praise houses scattered about St. Helena.

But that was decades ago.

Progress has brought bigger congregations and more lavish church buildings. Meanwhile, praise houses around Beaufort County are crumbling or being demolished faster than they can be preserved. Those still standing seldom host regular religious ceremonies, let alone the kind of community meetings that made them a focal point of daily life.

"There's something missing today," said Mollison, 88. "We don't have that same close community anymore."

That's why Mollison and a handful of others hope for the preservation of the few remaining praise houses and the way of life they symbolize.

When the bell rang, the flock gathered.

The sound could mean worship was about to start. Or it could mean a baby had been born, a neighbor had died or the community needed to tend to important business. Praise house elders wielded the bells and much power -- a power that was both spiritual and secular.

"The praise house leader was much respected," said Mary LeGree, president of the Coffin Point Community Association. As a child, she attended the Coffin Point praise house with her grandmother. "The praise houses were really the center of the community. That's where the people came together, not only to worship but to make decisions.

"Back then, the people helped each other and depended on each other. There was a real bond."

The praise house tradition traces its origin to antebellum times, when slaves seldom were allowed to attend services with whites or to congregate in large numbers, because of plantation owners' fears they might hatch a rebellion. Instead, slaves were allowed to assemble in a modest house or cabin on a plantation's row of slave quarters, according to Kitty Green, who has researched the religious practices of Lowcountry blacks and who owns Gullah-N-Geechie Mahn Tours.

White ministers -- particularly of the Baptist and Methodist denominations -- sometimes visited to lead services, but the slaves were left mostly to their own devices. Thus, worship in the praise houses became an amalgam of their old African rituals and their newfound religion, Green said.

The praise house tradition did not end with slavery. Indeed, it flourished well into the 1930s, when as many as 25 operated on St. Helena Island, according to several histories.

Worship there remained spartan and uniquely shaped by the conditions of the black communities they served.

For instance, entire congregations sometimes shared a single hymnal and a lone Bible, which was just as well since a majority could not read, according to Robert Ralph Middleton, 83, who still worships at the Croft Plantation praise house on St. Helena Island's Eddings Point Road. That gave power and status to the literate and shaped the method of worship -- for example, songs usually were performed in call-response fashion, with the leader singing the words and the congregation repeating them.

Services typically were held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and the praise houses were used for other purposes -- they were the center of a quasi-legal system, for example.

"If the praise house leader couldn't handle (a dispute), it went to the deacon; if the deacon couldn't handle it, it went to the church," Middleton said. "We didn't have much need to go to court or call the sheriff."

Ironically, praise houses lost their influence as blacks gained theirs, Middleton and Mollison say -- the abolishment of segregation meant black congregations could afford bigger, centralized churches and the automobiles needed to get there.

Further, once-isolated island populations were linked to the larger world, first by bridges, then by radio and television, then by the Internet.

"Unfortunately, there are so many other influences here on the island," Green said. "The young people have their DVDs and iPods and other distractions. And many of them move away and aren't coming back home.

"... We could see (Gullah ways) becoming archive quality but not a living culture."

Among the praise houses that have either deteriorated beyond recognition or been demolished is the Eddings Point praise house, which remains on the National Register of Historic Places. Three other Beaufort County praise houses in that registry remain -- the Coffin Point, Mary Jenkins and Croft Plantation houses, all on St. Helena Island.

At least three other structures still standing in Beaufort County have been used as praise houses, as well.

The building beside Daufuskie Island's historic First Union African Baptist Church was rebuilt in 2002 after the original structure crumbled to the ground. About the same time, Zion Baptist Church in Bluffton renovated a praise house that started as a one-room school building on the old Belfair Plantation and was moved to church property in the 1950s.

The third, however, could be torn down in a matter of weeks.

The owner of a house on Bluffton's Dubois Lane has asked the town to demolish it because she no longer can afford to maintain it. That could happen as soon as mid-March, according to Andre White, town community development coordinator.

LeGree said praise houses are difficult to preserve because many sit on private land owned by people who cannot afford their upkeep or who live elsewhere and don't appreciate their historic value.

It's an up-hill battle preserving the Coffin Point praise house. Animals have gnawed through interior drywall. Several floorboards are cracked or weakened.

LeGree hopes a carpenter will donate time or materials to help with the repairs of the modest structure she sweeps and cleans regularly.

The building long has been sustained by the kindness of community members.

The Coffin Point praise house has been standing since 1942 after a previous building was destroyed by a hurricane, according to the state Department of Archives and History. Frank "Billy Boy" Jenkins, who lives across the street, says the house nearly was virtually destroyed again in 1958 after hunters set fire to a nearby field to flush out rabbits and the conflagration spread. Jenkins said he rebuilt the praise house at his own expense using timbers from a shed behind his house. At age 84, he uses a walker and no longer can do such work.

A few miles away, at the Croft Plantation praise house on Eddings Point Road, restoration is proceeding more rapidly, Middleton said. That house is thought to be the only one still hosting regular religious services, although those temporarily have shifted about a mile down the road to the Mary Jenkins praise house while repairs are made.

Middleton said the Croft praise house community hopes to rebuild more than the structure; those who still worship there are going door to door, trying to draw their neighbors back to the services and remind them of the benefits of the old ways.

"It's having some effect," said Middleton, who estimates the services held three times a month typically are attended by 10 to 12 people, including several children. "... That's the key -- getting the young people back in."

Call to help:

  • Mary LeGree, president of the nonprofit Coffin Point Community Association, seeks volunteers to help maintain the Coffin Point praise house. Donations of labor or materials might be tax deductible, she said. Information: Call 843-838-4655 or e-mail mlegree@embarqmail.com.

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