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."

Those remain, in order, the priorities of many people in a region early settlers called "the black pit of irreligion," a feeling reflected in the names they gave some of the earliest settlements here such as Nameless, Difficult and Defeated. It didn't take long, though, for this rolling countryside to proclaim victory in Jesus and Democratic politics.

This was Andrew Jackson's political home base. Voters here have elected congressmen such as James Polk, who went on to become President; Cordell Hull, who became Secretary of State of won the Nobel Peace Prize; Albert Gore Sr., who became a U.S. Senator; and Albert Gore Jr.

The Cumberland Valley of Tennessee (and Kentucky) has had an even greater impact on American religion. Its 19th century church revivals and camp meetings ignited the Second Great Awakening, which spawned the Disciples of Christ, the Church of Christ and the Church of the Nazarene.

Nashville, 40 miles downriver from Carthage, is headquarters for the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, and a sizable portion of the United Methodist Church, not to mention some of the largest publishers of religious books, magazines and other materials.

Despite the diversity, Democrats and Baptists still dominate Middle Tennessee. "You generally have to be one or the other to get elected around here, both to get re-elected," joked Jerry Futrell, who has worked for the Gores for decades.

Gore has spent most of his life away from the back-breaking, soul-saving world of his grandparents, who lost nearly everything but their faith in the Depression. Their grandson was born in Washington D.C., attended a private Episcopal school there, went to college at Harvard and married a Virginia girl.

In the early 1970s, he took eight classes at Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, before going on to law school. Gore's varieties of political, social and religious experiences makes it difficult to categorize his faith, even for him.

"I am a Christian. I am a Protestant. I am a Baptist," Gore said last year in an interview with Newsweek. "All of those labels are less significant to me than my own personal religious faith, which has been shaped by the tradition that I have been raised in, but which has developed out of my own personal experience in life as well. And, indeed, the tradition of which I'm a part recognizes the importance of personal communication with the deity, along with the lessons that come from Scripture."

The folks at New Salem might say that last sentence in plainer words, but they'd probably give Gore an amen for the thought. The New Salem of Gore's grandparents and his youth is still, in the words of its current pastor, Elder Michael Agee, "just a little, old-timey Baptist church."

They still practice two ordinances (not sacraments): adult baptism by immersion and the Lord's Supper, which they share once a year. Men and women no longer sit on separate sides of the sanctuary, but men still pray on their knees.

In the sanctuary, the pulpit still shares center stage with the mourner's bench, a single pew set in front of the pulpit facing the congregation. Men and women who want to be "saved" are expected to spend some quality time on the bench, grieving their sinful state before finding salvation.

"We aren't like a lot of those Baptist churches, where all you have to do is say the words and be saved," Thomas Gibbs said. "Being saved isn't a decision you make, it's a change in your life. You're forsaking the sinful ways of the world for the ways of God."

The King James Bible still is the only curriculum for Sunday school and the only text for worship. The Church Covenant, hanging behind the pulpit between the church's only two stained-glass windows, still declares for all to see and follow this church's beliefs and practices. "We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love, to strive for the advancement of the Church in knowledge, holiness and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrine; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry and expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations," New Salem's covenant reads, in part.

These old-timey Baptists still refer to their pastors as elders, which they regard as more biblically correct than reverends. Their church pastors aren't trained in school; they're called by God and they preach extemporaneously.

"You study the Word and you pray, and when you get up there to preach, you're led by the Holy Spirit," said Agee, 39, who preaches on Sunday and supports his wife and three children by working at a local aluminum factory during the week.

"Sometimes, you get up there to say one thing and the Lord changes your mind. I had a good 'un prepared last Sunday, but the Lord had something else in mind."

Agree, like other old-timey Baptist ministers, still preaches the basics: the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the depravity of humans, the need for redemption from sin, the free gift of salvation and everlasting life.

"We can't just live any which way we want to," Agee told the congregation not long ago as he paced back and forth behind the pulpit between the stained-glass windows.

"We're God's children, and the Lord wants us to live right and do right. This world is not eternal. God has said he's going to destroy it one day after a while. God doesn't want us to be in sin and sickness. God's not that way.

"I'm saying some pretty powerful stuff here," he said. "Don't nobody leave here mad."

Nobody did.

Here's some stuff for the bells and whistles. New Salem doesn't have quite as much material as Dubya's 13,000-member megachurch, but I'll try.

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