Originally created 07/01/03

Church members recall Thurmond



EDGEFIELD, S.C. - It was a simple Sunday statement about Strom Thurmond, made in front of a stained-glass window.

"As you all know, our beloved friend, Sen. Thurmond, passed away this week," former mayor John Pettigrew Jr. said, standing in the pulpit of Edgefield First Baptist Church. "Many of his values were shaped right here in this church."

More than a century of life made the South Carolina political icon a living institution during his record-setting 48 years in the U.S. Senate, but for the people of this red-bricked house of worship, bordered by the cemetery where Mr. Thurmond will be buried today, he was a hometown boy and churchgoing neighbor.

It didn't matter that he transferred his membership to the First Baptist Church of Aiken when he left the governor's mansion and established a law practice in that town in 1951.

When he visited the town of his birth, he often attended services in his old church. Even in death, he is still considered a member of Edgefield First Baptist.

"I'm excited and honored by his presence here," said Frank Corley, 64, the church organist and a member since 1960. "Just his presence. It's all around this church, and it's awe inspiring. He was right here, right beside you almost."

Mr. Thurmond was baptized at Edgefield First Baptist in 1912, said Mr. Pettigrew, a distant cousin. His mother, Gertrude, and his sisters, twins Martha and Mary, were also members.

A look at church records shows that Mr. Thurmond, a fledgling politician, was well-versed in church politics as well. He served on the pulpit committee that searched for a new pastor in 1926 and was elected a deacon in 1928. In 1936, he was elected Sunday school superintendent. Every Sunday he stood at a table near the pulpit and rang a bell that called people from their classes to the morning worship service.

He is listed on a plaque of honor listing church members who served during World War II - etched on as James S. Thurmond. So is his late brother, Allan George, a doctor who died in 1993 - the same year his daughter, Nancy Moore Thurmond, was killed when she was struck by a car in Columbia.

The death of his daughter hit Mr. Thurmond hard, said church members, who remember him ducking into a back pew shortly after her death. It served as a catalyst for the most dominant feature of Edgefield First Baptist's curved and balconied sanctuary - a towering, stained-glass representation of Jesus, robed in red, barefoot, with palms stretched low in welcome, a gift from Mr. Thurmond and his wife in memory of their daughter.

As with many others in this state, Strom Thurmond was a part of church members' lives for so long that they thought he was deathless.

"I don't know - I guess we've kind of taken Strom for granted and not realized the power and influence he had," said John Kemp, 65, a former mayor, timber farmer and church deacon. "We didn't appreciate it."