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Today is November 21, 2017

Mississippi Seen

Port Gibson’s Golden Hand

Port Gibson’s Golden Hand

The heaven-pointing hand atop the Port Gibson Presbyterian Church steeple is down at ground level for a few months for a cleaning and re-gold leafing. The steeple is one of Mississippi's most unusual icons. Photo: Walt Grayson

One of Mississippi's most famous icons, the Golden Hand pointing heavenward atop the Port Gibson Presbyterian Church steeple, has come down. Temporarily. It’s going back up in a few months.

The problem is, all that’s gold doesn’t glitter. Well, it doesn’t after a quarter century since its last cleaning. Neither the elements nor the birds have been kind to it. So the Golden Hand has been brought down for repair, cleaning and a new application of gold leaf.

The present heaven-pointing hand is not the original hand that topped the steeple. That first hand was wooden, carved by a young artist named Daniel Foley around 1860. I have been told he is the same teenager who carved the altar rail in St. Joseph Catholic Church in Port Gibson about that same time.

Woodpeckers rendered the original hand too “holy” to use, so it was replaced by a more durable metal hand around 1901. The last cleaning and gold leafing was done in 1989. The steeple was reinforced at the same time. Now, it needs another going over.

The inspiration for the clenched fist with the finger pointing toward heaven as an ornament for the top of the steeple may have come from the first pastor, the Rev. Zebulon Butler. They say he gestured upward with his index finger during intense moments in his sermons, attempting (literally) to make a point.

That may be true. But I have also heard other theories why the church chose the heaven-hand as their steeple topper. Supposedly there was a house of less-than-good reputation in Port Gibson back in that day, and pointy-hand placards were nailed all over town leading to it. The church supposedly adopted the heaven-pointing hand to point to a better place. ‘Course, no bigger than Port Gibson is, I figure everybody knew where the house was as well as they knew where the church was.

There may be other reasons for using a hand pointing toward heaven. I have done a lot of stories about cemeteries. I tell people I like any cemetery I can walk out of. My fondness for cemeteries comes from my childhood. During family reunions at Grandmother’s, at some point we would all pile into however many cars it took to get all of us there, and we’d caravan out to the family burial grounds.

The trip there was fun for me. Every uncle I would ride with had different stories about adventures of growing up there. (They all had different stories, but each of them would tell their same stories every time we went.)

When we got to the cemetery my cousins I and would try to find the oldest grave. And I particularly noticed different headstone decorations. One of the recurring headstone themes was the index finger pointing heavenward.

A few years ago someone wanted me to check out a headstone in a cemetery in the eastern part of the state that had the finger pointing DOWNWARD! They figured that person must have been particularly bad, and his unfortunate eternal destination was engraved as a warning for all passersby to see.

I actually found that stone but decided it was just a variation on the “upward” theme. Sort of like God pointing down in the same spirit of the old “Uncle Sam Wants You!” recruiting posters.

As far as the hand, what comes down must go back up. Give them a few months and you can get your golden directions to heaven once again in Port Gibson, atop the steeple at the Presbyterian Church.

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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