Bonner Day: Christian faith defines people in the valley

Bonner Day

People in the Shenandoah Valley have stronger Christian ties than in the state as a whole, and certainly more than in the nation. The official census figures indicate that and living in the valley confirms it.

As it does today and historically, this religious background helps to define the character of the valley.

The priorities among the early settlers were first to build their houses, then build a fort and a religious meeting house. As the settlements grew, the residents divided according to denomination. The earliest communities first had Lutheran and Episcopal churches, reflecting the faith of the first settlers.

But there is a changing trend. There are fewer in the church pews on Sunday than there were in decades past. Observers say this is because retirees coming from other parts of the country do not always join a church when they relocate.

“They just never get around to it,” one church pastor said. Some church members say the ban of the Bible in public school systems also hurt church membership. Others blame the older generation: seniors die without passing on their faith to the next generation.

Available statistics show that in Shenandoah County there are 19,954 members of the various churches, about 46 percent of the population of 43,021. In Warren County there are 12,326 members of churches, 32.8 percent of a population of 37,575. A survey of Frederick County showed 21,017 church members in a population of 71,187, or 29.5 percent. Church demographers point out that the official numbers of church members is only a fraction of the total number of Christians in a community. The difference are “unchurched” Christians.

The Federal Census shows about 80 percent of people in the area label themselves as Christian. Statewide, 76 percent are Christian, 2.6 percent are Muslim and 1 percent are Jewish.

The U.S. is known as the largest Christian nation in the world. The Pew Forum on Religion reports that of America’s 3.5 million residents, 65 percent are Christians. In the “mother” country, United Kingdom, by comparison, only 42 percent are Christians. In America, churches are filled on Sunday. Any tourist will tell you that’s not the case in Europe. Large beautiful churches lie vacant, a silent testimony to times past.

But actions are more arresting than numbers. Christianity makes its presence known with charity and community service. New residents in the valley are struck by the variety: free health clinics, services for unwed mothers, food pantries, clothing closets for the needy, activities and education programs for the youth.

Community assistance programs were created by individuals who see a need. That springs partly from the pioneer tradition that felt the governor and legislature in Williamsburg were too far away to help the settler in the valley.

The valley was settled by Virginians from Tidewater Virginia, and from Scotch-Irish and German emigrants from Pennsylvania. Many of those with German names in the valley are able to trace their ancestry back to emigrants more than 200 years ago. And they brought with them a loyalty to the Lutheran and Brethren principles that generated their churches in the valley.

Similarly, the Scotch-Irish and Tidewater English built today’s Episcopal, Methodist and Baptist churches in the valley. Later arrivals added to the denominations. The result is a collection of communities with a strong reliance on Christian principals.

Christians know they are charged by their faith to invite their neighbors to church. But many are shy and reluctant to impose on others. Even in the valley, secular society’s preaching of “separation of church and state” makes many Christians reluctant to exercise this duty.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret: a complete stranger can go to most any church and be welcomed with no fuss. There is no test, no admission charge, no signing up. A church is friendlier than any bar, and you are much less likely to get into a fight. If you have never been to a church in the valley, try it some Sunday. I guarantee you will meet some wonderful people, united and inspired by their love of their fellowman.

Bonner Day raises cattle in the valley and tries to attend church regularly.