Centerpiece will be restoration of ‘Old Bethel’
By Brian Koonce
July 26, 2005
JACKSON – A key moment in the history of Missouri Baptists will be reached as the year 2006 marks the bicentennial of Baptists in the “Show Me” state.
In July 1806, 17 years before Missouri became a state, Kentucky preacher David Green crossed into the territory and formed Bethel Baptist Church near here. It was not only the first permanent Baptist church in what would become Missouri, it was the first non-Catholic religious organization west of the Mississippi River.
A launching point for spreading the Gospel on the western frontier, Bethel was an evangelistic force. In the book, Frontiers: The Story of Missouri Baptists, the former president of William Jewell College, J. Gordon Kingsley, writes that the church “was very evangelistic and established ‘arms’ in different locations, several of which became separate churches. Each ‘arm” was quite small and met in family cabins.”
David Daughenbaugh, chairman of the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission, says the churches of old – and especially “Old Bethel” – have much to offer modern congregations.
“We can learn a lot by studying what they did and didn’t do,” he said. “While they were busy doing what churches ought to do, they succeeded and grew. But when they adopted the anti-mission movement they disappeared and died. We need to be busy about the Kingdom work.”
According to Kingsley, the anti-mission movement was a “hyper-Calvinist” reaction against organized mission-sending and evangelism efforts. The church, which began because of missionary efforts, turned its focus inward and eventually died. It disbanded and the site was abandoned in 1861.
“For me, it’s important to know my history so I can understand and appreciate more what the church is doing today” Daughenbaugh said. “I think of the times when the founders of Bethel Baptist Church had to sneak across the river at night because it was illegal. Now, I can choose to go to Forrest Park Baptist Church, Wildwood Baptist Church, wherever I please.”
The Missouri Baptist Historical Commission was founded in the 1960s and is an agency of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC). It is charged with helping churches remember the past and partners with them in records maintenance and restoration. In addition to recording Baptist life by maintaining archives at the Baptist Building in Jefferson City, it formally recognizes churches’ historic milestones.
“If we start out on the right foot, if we make a conscious effort to take good notes and pictures, then it’s easier to remember what we’ve done and where we’ve been,” Daughenbaugh said. You can remember going through hard times and then see God’s hand and providence, how He keeps his promises.
Now, at 199 years old, Old Bethel’s surviving dismantled logs, may be on their way out of the “hard times.” The historical commission has designated Aug. 14 as Church History Sunday in an effort to encourage churches to celebrate their history. In addition, the MBC’s Executive Board has granted permission for a two-year offering to raise funds for a replica of “Old Bethel” to be built. By October 2006, when MBC messengers convene for their annual meeting 15 miles away in Cape Girardeau, the historical commission hopes to construct a metal building that would house the replica – built from the existing logs – in order to preserve it.
The first meeting house, built in 1812, was a small structure. It was 32 by 27 feet and built with hewn yellow poplar logs. Although the MBC owns the property, at some point the logs used in the original building were sold to a farmer who wanted to use them in a barn. Later, Second Baptist Church, Springfield, purchased the logs, some 80 all totaled, on Sept. 21, 2001, and donated them to the MBC. The MBC authorized the distribution of up to $10,000 in 2001 to assist the Historical Commission in building a replica of “Old Bethel.”
“It’ll be a place for people to go back and see where we all started,” Daughenbaugh said.