ELMWOOD, Tenn. -- People here at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church know he's coming back, but they never know when until they pull up on Sunday morning and see the black truck idling on the lawn.

Inside the truck are two Secret Service agents, who will give the 150-year-old newly-steepled and vinyl-sided building a quick security sweep before Sunday school begins and he arrives. It's a slight intrusion, but his coming once or twice a year is no bother.

They're tickled to have him. Vice President Al Gore grew up in this church. He's home folk, and when he brings his wife and children and son-in-law and grandchild, not to mention his guardian agents, attendance nearly doubles.

"He always makes a little talk, and he can say the most beautiful prayers. He comes because he feels at home here with us," said Ruth Farmer, the church clerk who joined New Salem in the early 1940s, not long after Gore's grandparents, "Mr. Allen and Miz Maggie" Gore.

"He doesn't come for the votes," added a smiling Thomas Gibbs, church deacon and treasurer and a member of the fifth of six generations of Gibbses to call New Salem their home church.

Al and Tipper Gore were baptized in Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington, Va., the Southern Baptist church they've attended regularly since Gore first was elected to Congress in 1976. But Gore still calls New Salem his home church.

By the way, New Salem is not, nor has it ever been, a Southern Baptist church. Gore may be Southern Baptist by immersion, but not by birth. He grew up in an "old-timey" Missionary Baptist church.

The national media may not know or appreciate such distinctions, but folks around here live by them. They know there's a difference between Carthage, the county seat three miles west on Highway 70, the river town Gore touts as his hometown, and the community of Elmwood, home of New Salem and most of its members, including the Vice President, whose 2,100-square-foot brick home a mile west remains his legal residence.

"Elmwood is where we live and worship. Carthage is where we go to town," said Farmer, who has lived here since she was born 86 years ago.

Farmer and other lifelong Smith Countians also know that Southern isn't the only sort of Baptist here among the fertile hills and along the steep banks of the Cumberland and Caney Fork rivers.

Like Al Gore's ancestors, the first Baptists who began settling Middle Tennessee's Cumberland basin in the 1780s came from Virginia and called themselves "United" Baptists. That unity of the body lasted until the 1820s, when the tiny frontier Baptist cells began dividing for reasons that varied from sin and salvation to slavery.

After that, there were United Baptists. There also were Primitive and Free Will Baptists, Two-Seed and Hardshell Baptists, Duck River and Elk River Baptists, Separate and Landmark Baptists, Southern and National and Missionary Baptists--by the turn of the 20th century 27 different Baptist groups.

"Now, it shouldn't ought to be this way, but people have their troubles in the church as well as out of the church," said Elder James Gibbs, who grew up in New Salem and was its pastor from 1960-1964. His great-great-grandfather, Felix Gibbs, was the first Gibbs to join New Salem. His uncle Phocian Gibbs and his cousin Kenneth Gibbs also were New Salem pastors.

New Salem had its troubles for a while, too.

It was founded as a United Baptist church with 36 members in 1849. By the 1880s, pressure was mounting for New Salem to join the growing association of Southern Baptist churches. Through the Southern Baptist Convention, those churches were pooling their resources to support overseas missionaries as well as large education and publishing arms.

New Salem members wanted to support missionaries, but the tiny congregation didn't have much to give. They decided to send their small offerings directly to foreign missionaries, rather than through the SBC's bureaucracy.

"They weren't convinced that all the money sent to the SBC was being used like it ought to be," James Gibbs said, "but they still were missionary-minded, so they took the name Missionary Baptist and stayed independent."

That independence wasn't easy. The congregation didn't meet from 1898-1920, but no one knows or remembers why, and there are no records to explain.

Once resurrected, though, the congregation flourished. A 1921 revival inspired 40 professions of faith, doubling church membership almost overnight.

Membership peaked in the 1960s, when New Salem claimed 168 people on its rolls, including the "Ken and Barbie of Elmwood." That's what young Al Gore Jr. called himself and Donna Armistead, an Elmwood and New Salem girl Gore dated during high school.

Edna Armistead, Donna's righteous grandmother who ran a general store in Elmwood, was a big influence on young Gore, often talking to him for hours at a time about her three priorities in life: "God, family and the Democrats."

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