By Brian Koonce
JACKSON—When a ledger containing the records of Bethel Baptist Church came up on an estate auction block, it was just too historic for the Missouri Baptist Convention to pass up.
That was the idea behind the Aug. 12 purchase of the 91-page book, which went for $3,000, plus commission auction fees.
It includes the oringal church constitution, membership list, records of the minutes of monthly business meetings from Aug. 1806 to Sept. 11, 1852, birth, death and baptism records and rules of decorum.
David Daughenaugh, chairman of the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission (MBHC) said there are several options for the display of the records including at the Baptist Building in Jefferson City, in Southerneast Missouri State University’s library or at the Cape Girardeau Baptist Association office.
Old Bethel was founded 204 years ago in 1806 and is a milestone in Missouri Baptist life. It was the first permanent Baptist – and non-Catholic for that matter – house of worship west of the Mississippi River.
Prior to 1806, it was illegal, not to mention dangerous, to worship as a non-Catholic in what was then French-controlled territory. Protestants certainly were not free to organize publicly until the United States entered into the Louisiana Purchase and made freedom of religion the law of the land. After several false starts, worshipers organized Bethel Baptist Church near what would become Jackson in The Bootheel of Missouri.
“My mind goes back 200 years,” said Melvin Gateley, a member of the MBHC and the coordinator for the reconstruction project at the church’s rededication in 2007. “I think of how those people persevered and suffered. They were so determined to cross the Mississippi and start this church.”
Because of those pioneers’ commitment to missions and by the grace of God, the church grew and prospered. They planted new churches all over the area and sent out dozens of missionaries. Unfortunately, they were plagued by infighting and anti-missionary philosophies and disbanded in the 1860s.
After the Civil War, the building was dismantled and the logs thought lost until 2002, when they were located about a mile away in a barn. Second Baptist Church in Springfield bought them and donated them to the MBC in the hopes that they could one day be used to rebuild Old Bethel. The building now stands completely restored as is the cemetery surrounding it.