Old Bethel Baptist Church stands new again

Sunday, May 31, 2009
The Old Bethel Church and Cemetery in Jackson, Mo., will be dedicated this summer after over a year of restoration work that involved almost exclusively manual efforts because the remote location and the presence of the cemetery made heavy machinery difficult to use. (Kit Doyle)

One hundred and ten original logs survived from the first Protestant Church west of the Mississippi River, Old Bethel Baptist Church.

"From these hand hewn poplar logs many people came together and helped reconstruct Old Bethel on its original site near Jackson," Melvin Gateley, coordinator on the rebuilding project for the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission, said.

The Church and cemetery are located behind the Rubbermaid Plant just south of Jackson. Crossing a stream called "The Little Jordon" and up a gravel pathway to the top of a peaceful fenced-in plot, the Church and its metal covering sit among mature trees and ancient stone grave markers.

According to Missouri Baptist Historical Commission records, Old Bethel was formed by 15 charter members in and around the Jackson area in the year 1806. It was the first non-Catholic church in the new Louisiana Territory purchased by the United States in 1804.

It had been illegal to worship as a Protestant denomination in the French and Spanish controlled territory before 1804, and so the members of the community were thankful to be able to build a place to meet.

The original church constitution outlines the purpose for its establishment:

"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 ... "

During the first 18 years Old Bethel existed, the congregation started or inspired nine other churches: Boise Brule (1807); St. Michael (Fredericktown, 1812); Saline (1813); St. Francois (1813); Turtle Creek, also called Turkey Creek (1813); Apple Creek (1820); Big Bend (1821); Hebron (1822); and Jackson (1824). Of those churches, Jackson still exists as First Baptist Church of Jackson.

At the height of its membership the Church had 143 members in 1813

The logs which the 're-constructionists' found and used to rebuild the Church were actually from the second structure built by the settlers in the early 1800s.

As the story is told by Baptist records and Gateley, the original building was constructed on the land of one of the early settlers in the area Thomas Bull, who was also a charter member of the church. It was a small log structure where the congregation held meetings and services.

But they soon needed a larger building and commenced to build a 30 foot by 24 foot church with a fireplace and shingled roof able to hold 100 to 150 people. This structure was built around 1811. It was these logs that were found in a farmers' barn barely a mile from where the building originally stood.

"After the church's eventual decline in the late 1860s, the church went into disrepair and the whole building was sold for the wood to a local farmer who used some of the logs to build a corn crib and stored the rest," Gateley said.

According to the Cape Girardeau Baptist Association, the logs were found in 2002 and purchased by the Second Baptist Church of Springfield under the leadership of Pastor John Marshall.

"The logs cost about $5,000 and Pastor Marshall knew plenty of people in the Southeast Missouri Baptist community who helped him get them from where they were back to the original site," Gateley said.

The entire rebuilding effort was eventually funded by a yearlong offering approved by the Executive Board of the Missouri Baptist Convention. It was coordinated by the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission.

"I got involved in 2005," Gateley said, "and we got Steve Strom, who also helped with the Red House in Cape, to give us a hand. The first thing he had us do was to inventory and measure every log and put it on paper."

From there it became clear that the building could be rebuilt.

"You could see from the lengths and dimensions of the logs on paper how they were going to fit together," Gateley said.

With volunteers and a little expert help, Gateley and the rest rebuilt Old Bethel with the original logs on the original site in a little over two years. The opening ceremony included then-Gov. Matt Blunt and Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page in August of 2007.

The Old Bethel site is available for tours by contacting Melvin Gateley through the Cape Girardeau Baptist Association Office at 573-334-3511 or info@cgbaptist.net.

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