Bringing back Old Bethel

Thursday, June 23, 2005

N ot far from Goose Creek amid the fields and forests outside Jackson is a historic cemetery and the remains of the area's oldest Baptist church.

Piled at the far edge of the cemetery are the logs that once formed Old Bethel Baptist Church, a congregation that founded nine other Baptist churches from Fredericktown to parts of Wayne and Bollinger counties nearly 200 years ago.

At its founding, Bethel Church was the first non-Catholic religious group meeting west of the Mississippi River. At the time, there were likely only 50 Baptists west of the river and less than 200,000 in the entire United States. Today there are 16 million Southern Baptists and 42,000 churches.

Old Bethel's 1806 founding preceded the Southern Baptist Convention, formed in 1845, of which it later became a part. Old Bethel predates most area churches, said Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University.

"It reflects the frontier heritage," Nickell said. "People from the East came through Kentucky and Tennessee down the Ohio and reached the Missouri frontier. One of the first things they would do was to establish a community."

And the signs of a civilized community were schools, churches and newspapers. Often, the school and church were housed in the same space, Nickell said.

"They wanted God's blessing on their venture," he said, so churches were important. "They felt incomplete without a church."

In 2006, local Southern Baptists will observe the 200th anniversary of Old Bethel's founding. That same year, the Missouri Baptist Convention will gather in Cape Girardeau. Local Baptists want to rebuild the church in time for the meeting.

The project is organized by the state denomination's historical commission, with help from volunteers and local churches. Melvin Gateley and Doug Austin are taking the lead on the project locally. Gateley serves on the commission and Austin serves on the Missouri Baptist Convention executive committee.

Although no detailed plan is in place yet, ideas are starting to form about what Old Bethel could again become.

"We want to make it as authentic as possible," Gateley said.

'Borderline sin'

There is talk of creating a parking area, covered shelter and rebuilding the church at its former site. A granite marker designating the Old Bethel centennial stands on the grounds and lists the names of founding members.

As he walks the ground where Old Bethel once stood, Austin talks about the history of the site. He points out grave markers going back centuries that are beginning to crumble from the weather and lack of preservation. Some graves were marked only with stones or metal crosses.

Many of the names found on the markers are those of prominent Cape Girardeau County residents, including Thomas English, who settled in the region after fighting in the American Revolutionary War.

"It's a borderline sin that we've let this place go," Austin said. "It's just sitting here."

Austin wants to make sure that the property gets preserved. He envisions something like Old McKendree Church, a log structure that is the oldest Methodist Church still standing west of the Mississippi River. Old McKendree was built in 1819.

Bethel Baptist Church was organized July 19, 1806, as the first permanent Baptist church west of the Mississippi River. The church also was the site of court hearings in the county from 1814 to 1815.

By 1861, the church moved its meetings to another site more convenient for its membership and then eventually abandoned the building.

The Old Bethel property is now owned by the Missouri Baptist Convention. Years ago, the logs used in the building were sold to a farmer who wanted to use them in a barn. When that barn was dismantled, the logs were purchased by members at Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo., and donated to the local Baptists in case Old Bethel was to be rebuilt.

Because the site holds so much history for the region and for Baptist congregations, Gateley hopes it can be considered as a state or national historic site. Nickell said the building would be hard to document but the site could easily qualify.

"We've talked to the people who worked on the Red House to help us with the restoration," he said. The idea is to take drawings and descriptions of Old Bethel, much like what was done when the Red House Interpretive Center was built, and use those to design the structure.

Records from the Old Bethel Church describe the structure as having been made of hewed poplar logs and measuring 30 feet by 24 feet. The building sat about 1 1/2 miles south of the current Jackson city limits.

A model of the church sits in the basement of the Cape Girardeau Baptist Association office. But rebuilding the church will take money that hasn't been allocated yet.

Gateley said the convention is sponsoring a statewide "Old Bethel Days" offering in mid-August for the next two years to encourage people to donate to the reconstruction project. The commission is looking for a project engineer or contractor to oversee the reconstruction work.

"We'll use volunteers to do the work, but we need a supervisor," he said.

Gateley and the commission hope to begin groundwork for the construction this fall and be completed by October 2006.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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