Methodist manna: The enduring tradition of apple butter

Methodist manna: The enduring tradition of apple butter

Apple butter is a church fundraiser, but somehow, fundraiser seems an inadequate description, says the Rev. Clayton Farmer.

In July, I began my seventh year of ministry at a new appointment at Elizabeth Chapel United Methodist Church in Bluff City, Tennessee. In these first few months I have learned several valuable lessons about my new church and its people.

I have learned that studying the directory to quiz myself on names and faces is a weekly necessity.

I have learned the church balcony makes a wonderful second office in the middle of the afternoon.

I have learned that being a church in the parking lot of Bristol Motor Speedway is noisy but has the advantage of race-car sounds lulling a tired three-year-old to sleep.

Along with these new lessons, I have been pleasantly surprised to see some familiar traditions carry over from church to church. This is my third appointment and in each of my appointments, I have served at apple butter churches. For those unfamiliar with the significance of apple butter, it is a church fundraiser -- but "fundraiser" seems an inadequate word to describe it. A better term for apple butter might be “Methodist Manna,” an age-old tradition that allows Methodist churches to pay off fellowship halls, fund nursery renovations, and fuel mission projects by the stirring of their paddles and the scraping of their peelers.

Apple-butter making at Dennison UMC (2016)

In my experience, the apple butter process begins each year in late summer, when the apple butter matriarchs and patriarchs of the church give a tear-jerking speech in front of the congregation. They will say that apple butter may not happen this year because the apples are too expensive, the help is too old, and the young people just are not interested. From there the opinions vary. Some will agree that it’s time to hang up the stirring paddles. Others will say what a shame. Somebody else will inevitably say let’s sell the copper kettle! It’s worth a fortune! To which everyone will respond with an emphatic over my dead body!

Late in the summer someone will volunteer another person to get together an apple butter crew. When that someone is found, he or she will be critiqued by the ones who say they are too tired to come. Doubters will say, "If word gets out that a novice is making it, we’ll ruin our reputation and not sell a drop," but by September the apples are arranged, the kettle is out of the attic, and the church has already presold a few pints. There's no turning back.

This exact scenario happened at my first two appointments: The first peeling date was set on the calendar for late September at 9 a.m., yet only a handful of people signed up. At this point, the newly minted person in charge always regrets the decision to help. 

Apple butter at Rural Retreat UMC (2021)

However, in my seven years of apple butter experience, I have seen that on peeling day, God has a habit of providing a yearly miracle.

Nearly everyone who was too achy, too busy, too uninterested this year shows up to help, and each has a different interpretation of what the starting time is. They have been at the church since 8 a.m. or earlier, and the work is going faster than planned. At the cannery or the kettle, the people stir and laugh and argue about when to add the sugar and when to take it off the heat. No one seems to care that we’re exhausted and have molten applesauce burns.

Then near around dusk, when the last lid is screwed on the last jar, a matriarch or patriarch of the church gives a rousing “this is the last year we’re doing this” speech to which I always respond, “I bet that speech was as good as the one you gave 10 years ago."


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Clayton Farmer

The Rev. Clayton Farmer is pastor at Elizabeth Chapel United Methodist Church in Bluff City, Tennessee.