Hearty souls established Bethel Church
July 26, 2005
JACKSON – Life as a believer in Missouri as the 19th century approached was hard. The territory belonged to Spain or France until the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. As such, Roman Catholicism was the only approved religion. In order to worship outside a Catholic church, believers had to gather in homes. To preach a sermon, pastors had to swim or boat across the Mississippi River, many times at night, to avoid being apprehended. To be caught could mean the hangman’s noose. It must have been hard, knowing that religious freedom existed just across the river in territory owned by the United States. It was in this environment that Bethel Church was formed on July 19, 1806.
The handful of believers who formed Bethel Church clearly treasured the freedom of worship that came to them when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase. The next year a preacher came to the area, and the thought of forming a church came in earnest. Here is how the church constitution reads:
“We the members of the Baptist Church having been a long time destitute of having the privilege of being in any Church order, do feel it our duty to embody ourselves together in the fear of God as a church, hoping that God will bless us in so good an undertaking with the teaching of his holy spirit and enable us through grace to live in the declarative glory of Him, and the praise of his Gospel.”
Churches have always been places of gathering for mutual support in times of community trouble. Many churches noted increased attendance after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the days and year following the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812, it seems our forebears had the same need for support, as the membership of the Bethel Church increased from 73 to 142. Here is the entry for Dec. 10, 1811: “On Monday at 3 o’clock in the morning a great and tremendous earthquake commenced which broke many places of the earth at New Madrid County. It continued shaking very hard all this winter. [Note: Shocks are sensibly felt this spring, 1812 – Transcriber] During these times of continual turmoil, the church was where people came to be strengthened.”
Churches are also a place where people gather for comfort in grief. Pioneer lives were hard, and death was part of that hard life. Bethel Church has a cemetery attached to it, and 57 people are mentioned in the church minutes as being buried there. There is also a marker containing the names, birth and death dates of eight children born to Milas and Mary L. (Knott) Niblack, and mentioning the twin infant boys and infant triplets born to the family without living long enough to have been named. Clearly the church offered a sense of stability and comfort to the family, to place a marker to their 13 dead children born between 1846 and 1867, none of whom lived more than eight months.
The church was one place in the pioneer society where all were recognized as God’s children. Many of the members of early 19th century churches were slaves. The first slave member noted in the “record of the proceeding of the church” at Bethel Church on Oct. 11, 1806, read as follows: “The Church met in conference. Agreed to build a meeting house on Thomas Bull’s land. Received by Baptism Mr. Byrd’s Negro woman Vicey.” Three “negroes” are listed among the 57 people buried at the cemetery, Dick Green being 103 years old when he died. The story about Dick Green is that his master refused to let him be baptized. When Dick told the pastor to go ahead anyway, the pastor questioned him, asking whether his master would be angry about the baptism. Dick’s answer was, “Pastor, I have two masters, and one is more important than the other.”
It is noteworthy that the church had not been formed three months when the church voted to construct a meeting house, the first evangelical, non-catholic house of worship west of the Mississippi River. It is this building that the Missouri Baptist Historical Society has undertaken to reconstruct from some of the original logs that remain today. This faith effort is to be funded by receiving a year-long free-will offering approved by the Executive Board of the Missouri Baptist Convention. A goal of $200,000 will be used to reconstruct the church building, build a permanent covering over it to protect it from weather, build a road and parking lot for the site, and refurbish the cemetery grave markers. Any amount left over will be put into a trust for the continued upkeep of the property, so that future generations can see how it was to worship in the early days of our country.
Would you consider giving a God-honoring gift to this historic restoration?