Author of Southern Stories



The "Jaybird Wray" Episode

The June 11, 1919 edition of the Sandersville Progress carried a front page headline reading “Shot Bird in Church Sunday.” The incident took place at the Sandersville Baptist Church which formerly occupied the corner of West Church and South Harris Streets, now the location of CVS Pharmacy. The minister, the Rev. William A. Wray, had produced a shotgun and killed a bird in the sanctuary during the morning services the preceding Sunday, June 8th. 

The weather being hot at the time, the doors and windows of the church were open and a blue jay had flown in. According to the paper’s account, the bird had been flying about near the ceiling “occasionally uttering the cry, ‘Jay,’ which is probably because of the name it bears.” Rev. Wray stated, “if the bird uttered the cry again he would get a gun and kill it.” The bird once again said, “Jay.” The minister procured a small gun “and fired at the bird which fell dead. The services were resumed as if nothing had happened….”

The incident was the talk of the town, and apparently made it to the national news wires, heaping a bit of not-undeserved ridicule on the local church. In the next week’s paper, Mr. A. L. Evans, Chairman of the Board of Deacons, felt obligated to issue a statement to correct certain “erroneous reports” found “in the press throughout America.” It seems that the bird had appeared during “Sabbath School,” and efforts were made to get it out of the sanctuary before the main service. When this was unsuccessful, “a small gun was sent for” during the intermission and placed in an anteroom to be ready just in case the annoying bird resumed its squawking. Evans was careful to note that “the gun shoots a cartridge the size of one’s little finger, loaded with mustard shot,” in case any readers might think this would lessen the severity of the act.

The statement went on: “The bird continued to squawk as the Pastor endeavored to read the Scripture. It was then fully realized that the service must either be dismissed, or the bird shot. The Pastor then stated that if the bird continued to shriek he would have to shoot him though he hated to do so.” With that, he shot the bird, which was removed by a Deacon.

In an apparent attempt to downplay the incident, Evans reported, “There was no smoke from the gun, and very little noise, compared to a shotgun.” And as if to illustrate the relative normality of such events, he noted, “The Pastor afterwards made his regular announcements, preached and took a large collection for Mercer University.” It is unclear from the record what influence the presence of a shotgun-wielding minister may have had on the size of the collection offering. The following Sunday, June 15th, the entire church voted unanimously that “the action of the pastor in the entire proceedings was correct and essential for the good of the cause.”

But memory of the incident did not so quickly fade. Some twenty months later on February 23, 1921 a front page Progress headline again reported “Jaybird Parson Shoots a Hen.” The article took the form of a letter to the editor signed only by “Citizen.” The correspondent reported the Rev. Wray “has made another bid for the lime light by shooting up the Widow Walden’s setting hen.” He stated, “About 3 o’clock last Friday afternoon (the) neighborhood was startled by the report of a gun discharged in the immediate vicinity of where Willie dispenses the gospel to a fashionable congregation at $2,500 per annum with no charge for extra thrills.”

Rev. Wray seems to have found the hen annoying in that it occasionally wandered into his unfenced yard. He had applied to the police for permission “to use all force necessary to repel the trespasser.” Rather than contact the hen’s owner, the minister simply shot it. “Citizen” opined that “more peaceable means of settlement did not appeal to (Wray’s) sense of the spectacular.”

With regard the preacher’s involvement in the whole incident, the letter writer said, “There may be a few old fashioned people who think that a very poor substitute for the dignity, not to say piety, that is usually expected in his sacred profession. But you can’t please everyone. Or it may have been that the good lady who owned the hen (and not much else) had neglected to send him any toothsome delicacies since last hog killing time, as was her custom. But be all that as it may, Mrs. Walden has had her little ‘cry,’ and been duly sympathized with by indignant friends, and the parson has once more vindicated his valiant manhood to an admiring populace, and all is well.”

“Citizen” also noted that Rev. Wray’s free-ranging pet goat had been using “the Walden front porch for a bed-chamber,” often leaving “a more substantial remembrance,” all without protest from the good widow. Wray apparently chose not to reply. For whatever positive contributions he may have made during his tenure in Sandersville, he is to this day remembered by older members of the Baptist congregation as “Jaybird Wray.”

(This article originally appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of the Sandersville Progress.)