(by Don Meador, July 2004, The Citizen-Times)
Almost two hundred
years ago, a wealthy Virginian came to Allen
County and purchased a large amount of
land in north central Allen
establishing a homestead for himself and his children, Jeremiah Stark donated a
portion of his land for a meeting house, a place for folks to gather for
worship. One hundred ninety years have passed with many changes coming to the
area in which Stark first settled in 1808. However, one thing that has stood
the test of time is that place of worship, a place that became Bethel Missionary
Today, as one travels down the narrow country roads leading to the church located on the Gainesville-Port Oliver Road a few hundred yards west of Difficult Creek, it almost like journeying back into time. This past Sunday, the church’s small congregation were joined by friends and decedents of former church members for a glimpse back into the history of the church. .
The history of Bethel Missionary Baptist notes that Stark, aided by his son James, built the church, then called the Stark Meeting House in 1811. It is believed that Stark’s slaves provided much of the labor including the labor for the construction of the church’s pews, pews that still remain inside the structure. Hewed logs were used in the construction.
On July 9, 1814,
the Stark Meeting House was constituted a church and given the name Bethel
United Baptist Church of Christ. Membership, which included several slaves in
the first years, grew. Over the next 100 years, Bethel would see its membership grow under
the leadership of several Pastors. Bro. Jessie Lee Hickman served as the first
Pastor, ministering for 26 years. He would be followed by Younger Weatherspoon
and Mordecai Ham. Ham is credited with keeping the church together through the traumatic
times of the War Between the States.
Hamm stepped down in the 1870’s and was followed by Pastor’s F.P. Dotson, T.J. Ham, Willis Harlin, Isaac Stovall, B.F. Page and John McQueen. Pastor J.A. Howell would be the Pastor as the church celebrated their 100th anniversary on a rainy Sunday in 1914.
“At the homecoming on July 14, 1914,” Joyce Marr recalled from the church records, “the crowd was not large on account of rain which was much needed. After a short history of our church read by Bro. C.J. Morehead, had interesting talk by former Pastor Rev. I.S. Stovall.”
The last 90 years
would see the church undergo only minor physical changes. Outside, aluminum
siding covers the original hewed logs that weatherboarding. Inside, Sunday
School rooms, bathrooms and a small fellowship area have been added at the rear
of the church. A heating and cooling system has been installed and the front of
the church has undergone a minor change.
“Originally, the church had two front doors with a window in the middle,” Marr recounted, “Now we have just the one door. One of the last things that was done to the church was the adding of the roof over the front porch.”
Sunday’s services began with church member John Jameson carrying on a tradition dating back years and years; the ringing of the churches bell as a “the call to worship.” Manually, Jameson toned the bell for minutes as the song leader invited the guests to lift their voices in praise.
In her review of
the history of the church, Joyce Stovall Marr recalled two items still found in
the church. The first was a birthday money jar, still setting in a window sill.
The custom is that a penny is placed in the jar for each birthday year.
Marr also recalled the “rock jar” door stop. According to tradition, during a revival many years ago, before air conditioning, Mrs. Stark filled a glass jar with rocks to use to prop he rear church door open. The jar, with rocks intact, remains to this day as a door stop, holding open the door which now leads to the rear addition of the church.
“This is a great day for Bethel church,” said the current pastor Bro. Richard Lyle. “We are glad you are here.”
Sunday’s homecoming was much like any other Sunday with the congregation singing a selection of classic gospel songs before former Pastor Randall Carter bringing the message. Carter touched briefly on the church’s history.
“Many churches have not stood as long as Bethel,” Carter told the full house. “It has brought strength to see how this church has lasted. The church has been made better, it’s been strengthened by the Lord.”
Men who have served as Pastors in the past 100 years have included C. W. Rigdon, J.L. Dawsey, J.C. McCleary, Harold Moore, Wilbert Taylor, Joe Richey, Roy Richey, Derwood Garmon, Johnnie Bullington, Roy Lee Britt, Richard Chism, Jimmie Lawarence, James Warren Wood, Gordon Moore, Terry Joe O’Neal, Steve Dyle and current pastor Richard Lyle.
Sunday’s morning worship concluded with an old-fashioned “right hand of fellowship” and congregational singing, including the classic hymn “Precious Memories, a song appropriate for a church with almost 200 years of precious memories.