By Ethan Colbert
As a child, Bill Picton would go to spend his summers at his great-aunt Letha, who lived across the road from a small country church around Farmington, Illinois.
It was a simple church, he said, with its white-painted walls, a small steeple, and large stained-glass windows. Nothing too ornate, just simple, as a country church should be.
During the dog days of summer, the rural Illinois one-room church would host revivals and young preachers fresh out of seminary would come from far and wide to preach from this church’s pulpit.
As the church lacked any form of air conditioning, Picton said the congregation always left the windows and doors standing open. The open windows and doors allowed Picton to hear the sermons from across the street.
Speaking in his slow country drawl, Picton said he didn’t know if it was a child’s curiosity or the fact that the young preachers were often “speaking pretty loud” that drew Picton from his great aunt’s yard and into the church’s sanctuary.
“I would sit in the back,” Picton said in an interview on Friday. “I would go in the door and I would listen to these young preachers get up there and preach and preach and preach,” Picton said. “I could go and listen to them forever.”
According to Picton, those early years stirred a passion in him for hearing what he describes as a good sermon.
“I do love a good sermon,” Picton said. “I could listen to a good sermon every day.”
He later said that the best sermons are when a minister is giddy with excitement about the opportunity to share the Gospel.
“When they get up there and are excited to tell you what the sermon is, then you know it is going to be good,” Picton said. He also said when a minister gets up and is just reading notes, then that is not a good sign.
In 1949, when the Picton family moved from Illinois to New Harmony in rural Pike County, they were not regular church attendees.
“Dad worked seven days a week,” Picton said. “He would go out on a job working Monday through Friday and then would come home and work on the farm during the weekend.”
Instead, Picton said Joe Branstetter, who organized a quasi-church transportation program for children living in the New Harmony community, picked up him and his siblings and took them to church each Sunday.
“That is how we started coming to this church,” Picton said on Friday. Picton was about nine years old at the time he started attending services at New Harmony.
“They were not our neighbors then, but they still drove over to get us every week,” Picton said.
The Farber, Mo., resident is now 76 years old and a 62-year member of the New Harmony Christian (Disciples of Christ) Congregation.
Picton was one of several dozens of attendees at the 175th Anniversary celebration of the New Harmony Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church, which was celebrated on Friday evening with a carry-in dinner and historical program.
The rural Pike County church was founded on June 15, 1843. The church’s first congregation consisted of 13 charter members. According to the book, “A History of Pike County: 1883,” those members included: Richard P. Fox, Findley Branstetter, Richard T. Jones, Lucretia Branstetter, Simon Branstetter, Jane Branstetter, Joseph Duncan, Josephefus Duncan, Melcher Duncan, Elizabeth Vannoy, Polly Woodson, M. A. D. Hames, and Elizabeth Hughes.
According to the book, “A History of Pike County: 1883,” the following church members were soon added to the rolls after the church’s founding:
Susan Fox, Kitty Irvine, Wesley Hamline, Jane Vannoy, and A. J. Dennis.
Since then, more than 58 men and women have served as minister at New Harmony Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church.
Picton said over the years he has heard many good sermons preached from the pulpit the New Harmony church by many of those 58 ministers.
One particular sermon stands out in Picton’s memory, which he describes as if it was yesterday.
It was a Mother’s Day Sunday and the congregation of New Harmony was packed tightly into the pews like sardines in a tin can.
Brother James “Jim” Coffman stepped forward to the pulpit and began to read a letter he had penned to his own mother.
“That letter was his sermon,” Picton said. He later described the letter as being heartfelt, reflective, engaging, and inspiring.
“I can tell you that nobody was whispering. There was nobody shifting around. No kids were fidgeting. We were all very interested in what he had to say,” Picton said. The letter, Picton said, left the congregation with a renewed appreciation for motherhood.
“That letter made you feel like your mother was the most special person in the world, but it also made you realize that all mothers are special people.”
Also sharing a special memory of Brother Coffman was Deborah Kraft.
Coffman served as the officiant for Kraft’s wedding to her husband, Allan, in 1972.
Kraft said on Friday that her wedding day was a blur.
“It just went so fast,” Kraft said. “Your wedding day is one of those days that you anticipate so much, but it was so quick to be over.”
According to Kraft, she has many fond memories of Coffman, who served as the minister at the rural county church from 1969 to 1976.
Kraft would later go on to share many moments of church history during her presentation of the history of the New Harmony Christian Church on Friday evening.
“I feel called to tell and re-tell the history of this church, so that we may remember and so that the generations that follow us will not forget,” Kraft said during her presentation.
In his interview, Picton agreed with the importance of sharing the history of New Harmony with future generations. He said he saw a connection between the knowledge of church history and the church’s outlook for the future.
“New Harmony is here because the neighborhood has kept it going,” Picton said. “We are all in this together — the old neighbors, the old people, the young people. We need the young people to keep this going.”
Picton said he is optimistic about the church’s future, because he believes New Harmony will continue to be a place where “good sermons are heard and the Gospel is shared,” especially since the arrival of Rev. Laura Beth Zeh.
“We come out here for Bible Study and I am getting a lot out of that,” Picton said. “I get a lot out of the sermon, too. I like Laura Beth. I think she is a good one.”
Even still, the lover of good sermons shared this piece of advice with the church’s posterity who may read this article in 50 years in preparation of the church’s 225th anniversary.
“The minister is an important piece of your church,” Picton said. “If you have a minister who preaches the same thing every week, that’s no good. People will get tired of that. You need a minister who will come up there and do different things. It is ok to do different things. You need a minister who will give a good sermon, and you’ll know a good sermon when you hear it.”