Brush arbor meetings were religious affairs
Old-time revivals were big events in rural south after "laying by and gathering" times

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

It sounds like a feature from the old familiar Grit newspaper peddled around the neighborhood in years past, but I'm frequently asked about old time revival meetings usually held between "laying by and gathering" time for crops.

One event, usually on a much smaller scale often held in sparsely populated areas, were the Brush Arbor revivals that mostly took place around the turn of the late 19th century.

No, brush arbors were not constructed to support grape vines, running berry bushes or flowers, but were first constructed for crude shelter from the weather. They were usually first built when settlements were being formed into viable communities as temporary residences, and later converted to outdoor churches when a need for spiritual enlightenment was deemed necessary by the village elders.

Contrary to popular belief, brush arbors were usually the first crude means of shelter to be thrown up in the wilderness areas of North Central Louisiana to ward off the elements until land could be cleared, trees felled and sawn into lumber, and dwellings could be constructed before winter set in.

The site selected for the brush arbor was usually in a centralized grove of young saplings with as many trees in a straight line as possible to minimize having to dig additional post holes. The arbor was usually laid out so as to be about 20 feet wide and 25 feet long with a slight pitch to the roof. The saplings selected as posts to hold up the roof were cut off about 10 feet high and matching forked limbs were left in place to support cross timbers, to hold up the roof. It would usually take about 16 saplings or poles to provide the necessary roof support, along with about five cross bars.

Most natural roofing materials used were different native varieties of bay or magnolia trees, which included eight different species, including one called a cow cumber magnolia. If the brush arbor was to be later used as a place of worship, the entire floor was hoed totally clean of all vegetation whatsoever, and rigorously swept prior to every service with a dogwood brush broom.

The pulpit was usually a round slick hickory post set in the ground near the front of the arbor and standing about four feet high. A section of a split log was nailed to the top of the post with the surface for the preacher to pound his fist to make his points against sin. Benches for the congregation were made by splitting oak logs, shaping the seat with a broad axe, then smoothing the seating surface with a sandstone rubbing rock. All that labor still didn't make them any more comfortably.

Notches were cut along the front edge of the pews to mark off the seat widths, and the pews were placed only on one side of the church. The women usually sat in a cowhided bottomed chair in the wagon on their way to the service, and then they arrived the chairs would be removed, and placed on the bare side of the arbor for them to sit in during the service.

Sunday school groups divided into groups and held classes under shade trees which usually brought on a good supply of tick and redbug invasions to the participants, and caused an excessive amount of scratching during the main service. Following the Sunday school lesson, the congregation usually reassembled under the brush arbor for the regular service, which usually lasted about an hour because every one's guts would go to sounding off, including the preacher.

For the evening service, the sole interior illumination was a pump-type coal oil lantern usually for the preacher's benefit. When the wick on the lantern began to dim and flicker the reverend knew it was time to end the service.

Some of the mischievous boys in the congregation would volunteer to pump up the lantern prior to the service, and they would purposely not pump the lantern up so much, so as to cut down on the preaching time.

With the service ending, the congregation then began lighting up their litered-pine torches for the trip home.