This past Friday, February 3, would have marked my Granny’s 92nd birthday. She was the grand-daughter of Bill Birchfield, the Confederate deserter. She was raised on the north side of the Little Tennessee River in Swain County, NC, in an area now within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The communities along Hazel Creek were bought out and sent packing by the TVA in the mid ‘40s for the construction of Fontana Dam and reservoir. Where Granny grew up is now beyond the infamous “Road to Nowhere.”
Granny’s dad, C.C. Birchfield, was a farmer on Hazel Creek before the inundation and later in McDowell County (where Granny would meet and marry my Papaw). As my uncle likes to tell it, C.C. “never had a public job in his life,” meaning that he lived entirely off his own land and labor and was never employed by another. For people such as this, biblical stories take on a more immediate relevance. Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Jacob and Moses were agrarians with whom Granny and her kin could readily relate. They were not distant; to the rural Southern Appalachian mind they might have been only a few generations removed. There was an imminent sense of tangible reality to the Bible stories.
Granny never spoke of a “personal relationship” with Jesus in the postmodern evangelical sense. But she talked directly with Him every day, often crawling under her kitchen table (the specific reason for which I never quite understood) and pouring out her soul to Him. She could speak to Him as plainly as anyone else in the room. When not addressing Him she busied herself with caring for grand young’uns, sharing vegetables from her prodigious garden with down-and-out neighbors, and visiting with the shut in. One summer my brother and I stood with her at that kitchen table and rolled gospel tracts in cellophane, to be strategically placed on drug store counters and in public restrooms. One could say that Granny had fellowship with the Father and the Son because she was ever about God’s business.
The Christian faith wasn’t her resource or wellspring; it was her life. Even as I write this it shames me to realize the extent to which I tend to veer off the simple path she followed through laughter and tears. But when I think of her I have in my mind probably the most authentic Christian that I have ever personally known.
I don’t know what Granny, a lifelong independent Baptist, would make of my embrace of the “fer’en” Anglican tradition. I would like to think that from her position now she would very much understand and appreciate what we’re doing, and why. But one thing she instilled in me was a fundamentalism – not simply of scriptural authority – but of God’s ever present nearness and the implications that go with it. I think we had (perhaps still) a “fundamentalist” strain within the Anglican tradition. I think of Dean Alford, Bishop Ryle, Dr. Griffith Thomas, the Church Society in England; perhaps our brethren in East Africa and elsewhere who have nowhere else to go but to the Lord under tables and rocks and in the bush and caves.
I believe that in the age to come - a day for which Granny always longed - all of these will recognize in each other a like precious faith. They are parts of the great tradition. We could stand to follow their example more closely.