The Whitlash Church, the "Lord's Acre Plan" and the "E Hanging M" brand
March 20, 2019
Whitlash, Montana. Columnist’s note: In the narthex (entrance) of the Whitlash Presbyterian Church there is a ‘centennial quilt’ on display. The quilt commemorates the church’s hundredth anniversary celebrated in 2013 and is made of quilt blocks highlighting major milestones of the church—when the church was organized, when the present building was completed and other significant highpoints.
One of the blocks (see accompanying photo) is a drawing of the church building with the year 1945 along the bottom and the “E Hanging M” brand at a top corner. I didn’t realize the “EM” was a brand until one of the church members pointed to the brand and said, “That’s the brand owned by the church.”
I don’t ever recall hearing of a church owning a livestock brand. I figured there had to be a story. Here’s part of what I learned about the Whitlash church’s participation in an international agrarian movement and how that led to the church owning a livestock.
A short history of “The Lord’s Acre Movement/Plan”
In 1922 Reverend H.M. Melton of the Bluffton Baptist Church in Clay County, Georgia, a rural area in the cotton belt, encouraged his members to “set aside one acre of farmland and donate the proceeds from crops raised there to the cash-poor church.” Seven farmers agreed and The Lord’s Acre Movement was launched. When the dreaded boll weevil by-passed the pledged cotton acres the following year, the movement gained interest.
The Lords’ Acre Movement was part of a larger crusade of Christian agrarians who believed the rural church had a role as the focal point of rural communities for social and economic as well as religious life. An article in “Time” magazine in 1924 widely publicized the focus and acceptance of the movement and the program flourished in the deep south.
Jim McClure, who was the son of a Presbyterian minister and trained as a minister himself, abandoned a career as a minister and was chosen in 1927 to head the Farmer’s Federation of Western North Carolina. McClure believed in the importance of the church to rural communities and added a ‘religious department’ to the farming association. His brother-in-law, also trained as a minister and advocate of the Lord’s Acre idea, developed the Lord’s Acre Plan (The Plan) for the association. The Plan was eventually embraced by over one thousand churches in twenty different denominations. It had international followers as well.
One unforeseen benefit of using The Plan was that many rural churches met their financial obligations during the cash-scarce Depression of the 1930’s and survived. Over time The Plan expanded to include pledged livestock and, for non-farmers, projects of donated time and service as well as gifts of homemade goods, arts and crafts with proceeds going to support the church. Many surviving church festivals, bazaars and dinners still follow the format of the Lord’s Acre Plan developed by the North Carolina farmers’ group. As a formal process, The Plan was active until the early 1970’s.
The Lord’s Acre
Plan at Whitlash
John McDowell, a student at Princeton Seminary, was sent to serve the Whitlash church in 1945. McDowell likely was familiar with The Lord’s Acre Plan as the Presbyterian Church in the United States (then known as the ‘southern Presbyterians’) had been teaching rural church leaders about the potential benefits of The Plan. Or, church leaders could have heard of the plan from other churches. At Whitlash, the Youth Group, young adults, adopted The Plan to begin raising funds to build a church building.
The church was meeting in Liberty Hall, a multi-use community building. According to Jeannette Brown, a long time member of the church, “the Youth Group was concerned with having to clean up the beer and whiskey bottles from the Saturday night dances before church could be held on Sunday morning at the hall.” That year the Youth Group raised nearly $900 for the building fund, the equivalent of about $12,000 in today’s value.
Toni Dafoe, Jeannette Brown’s daughter, said that she believes that was the year the brand was acquired so parishioners could brand livestock and donate the sale proceeds to the building fund. Per Dafoe the “E Hanging M” brand was formerly owned by her grandfather, Elmer Marshal Brown. She said, “I always heard my grandpa had several brands and agreed that the church could use that particular brand.” Current church treasurer Diana Thompson said the church reregistered the brand during the last cycle (mid-2000’s) and the brand is still owned by the church.
The “E Hanging M” brand was first registered in 1899
Because the brand came from Elmer Marshal Brown, I was curious to see if the brand design was based on Brown’s first two initials. Turns out that was a coincidence as the brand was first registered by W. J. Mansfield in Geyser, May 12, 1899. The brand remained registered to various owners in the Cascade County area, then in Judith Basin County after the latter was created in 1920.
The brand came to this area in 1942 when Ernest Adams, showing a Shelby address, registered the brand but did not reregister it in 1951. Because of some technical issues with how the brands are indexed with the Montana Memory Project, Historical Society Research Bureau Chief Molly Kruckenberg responded to my inquiry “I was not able to locate exactly when the Whitlash Presbyterian Church first registered this brand. However, it was sometime between 1950 and 1961.”
Most members I talked to said they could not recall the brand being used recently. One said, “The times changed and so did ways people support the church.” But the annual dinner and Bazaar, held each fall, is still a mainstay of financial support for the church. The first dinner was held in 1945 and the event is still very much in line with the Lord’s Acre festivals and events still held by churches of many denominations nearly a century after the first pledges in the cotton belt. Like so much in agriculture and rural America, things change as do techniques and practices.