Old Bethel restoration moves forward
By Glen Cantrell
October 18, 2005
JACKSON – The pastor bound for church glances one more time to make sure he has everything, including his Bible, food for the trip, his rifle and paddles. He loads everything in his canoe and shoves off into the river.
Under the cover of darkness he crosses the mighty Mississippi and then hikes for 10 miles over hills and through woods. He travels down a rocky road and walks through Goose Creek. Finally he has arrived at the small church in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.
This is the scene played out over and over again in the early 1800s in Jackson. It is where the Old Bethel Church once stood and where it will now stand again, by the grace of God alone.
Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) leaders, along with church leaders from around the state, came together Oct. 14 for a groundbreaking ceremony at the site where the church stood almost 200 years ago.This is the largest and perhaps the most important restoration project in MBC history.
“Old Bethel serves as a great reminder that we are changing lives,” said MBC Historical Commission President David Daughenbaugh. “This is going to be a permanent reminder of our history and our mission for our future to come.”
Old Bethel is the first Baptist Church—and the first non-Catholic church—west of the Mississippi. In the early 1800s, it was illegal to have a non-Catholic Church in this region, so these early Baptist had to worship in fear of being caught by the local French authorities. The penalty was death.
“I think what is really important is this sense of place for Baptist and Protestantism, west of the Mississippi,” said Frank Nickell, director for regional history at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
MBC Executive Director David Clippard, a Jackson native, said the site where Old Bethel once stood was a “spot that means religious freedom.” Clippard told stories of slaves who were baptized into the church, “and that tells us that everyone, man, woman and even slaves, were welcomed into this church and they were all one in Christ.”
In 2001, when the original logs of the historic church were found in a barn about a mile away from its original location, Second Baptist Church, Springfield, bought them for $5,000.
“There were two stories about the logs of this church,” said Pastor John Marshall. “One was that they were destroyed and the other was that they were just a mile away stored in someone’s barn.”
It turned out that the barn story was true. A local developer was about to tear it down when he made the discovery. That’s when he contacted Nickell, who in turn called Second Baptist Church.
“The developer was either going to use them as mantel pieces in the homes he was going to build, or we could buy them as a lot for $5,000,” Marshall said.
After laying a concrete foundation, workers will rebuild Old Bethel. Cape Girardeau Attorney Steve Strom, who has rebuilt one historic log building locally, now will take on this project. “Each log is numbered,” he said, “so now we’ll take each one and carefully put them in place.”
Once the church is rebuilt, a large canopy will be constructed to protect the building from the weather.
“We want people to come here and just be proud of this,” said Melvin Gateley, local coordinator of the Old Bethel Project. “We want people to be able to use this for various activities, meetings, weddings, church or just a whole host of things that will help enrich lives and bless them.”
Donations are still being sought for the project. Daughenbaugh said the total cost of the project will be $200,000. If you would like to donate, you can send donations through your church or by mailing them to the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission, 400 East High Street, Jefferson City, Mo,, 65101-3253.