Monroe County Churches To 1876
By Charles Granville Hamilton
Presented at the meeting on 29 July 1977
of the Monroe County Historical Society
The Journal of Monroe Co History;
Vol 3, 1977; pgs 40-48 (c) Monroe County Historical Society
Copyrighted by and reprinted here with the permission of:
Monroe County Historical Society
30062 Sandhill Rd.
Aberdeen, MS 39730
Take yourself back to December 14, 1540. You are here in Aberdeen on Commerce Street, the old Chickasaw trail on which De Soto and his men travelled. They are listening to mass said by black-robed priests, the first Christian service held in what is now Monroe County. There were 12 priests with De Soto, four of whose names are unknown. Four of the regular priests were Denisie de Paris, Diego de Banudo of Cordoba, Rodrigo de Gallegos of Sevilla, Francisco del Pose of Cordoba. The friars were Fray Francisco de la Roche of Badajoz of the profession of the Most Holy Trinity, Fray Juane de Turres of Sevilla of the Order of St. Francis, Fray Juan Gallegos of Seville of the Order of St. Dominic, Fray Luis de Solo of Villenueva de Barcarrotto, Order of St. Dominic.
Move yourself ahead two centuries. You are at the stockade below the Chickasaw Council Tree, south of where Highway 278 West now crosses the Tombigbee River. You are seeing the second church service in the county, held by the French chaplains of Bienville.
Go east of the river by Weaver Creek to Wise's Gap, where Highway 278 East now crosses the Frisco Railroad. You are following the frail of Frederick Weaver, the first Protestant minister in the county, a Methodist after whom the creek was named. You are attending the first Protestant service in Monroe County in 1816 at "Uncle Jimmy Wise's Meetinghouse," the ancestor of the present New Hope Methodist Church, which is now on Highway 8 Last a mile south of its original location. Monroe County had been created in 1815 by Governor David Holmes.
Wouldn't you like to see the first church in Monroe County which still carries its original name? In Hatley is New Hope Primitive Baptist Church, begun three miles southwest in 1819, with the first Monroe County pastor, Thomas Willingham. Last year our Society heard the history of this church given by Fairybelle Hatchcock, which was published in the 1976 Journal.
The Church exercised strict discipline on its members, even punishing some for wetting their cotton before they sold it. The Church used Sacred Harp hymnbooks for over a century; hymns from them are still sung. Like most early Monroe churches, New Hope had black as well as white members.
Would you like to see the oldest church which is still at the original location? Splunge Free Will Baptist Church. known for a century as New Pleasant Ridge and popularly as "Grubtoe, is not only on the same spot but has the original beams and wood structure of 1844 under the recent siding. The oldest brick church in the county is St. John's Episcopal, Aberdeen, which was completed in 1853. The Natchez Courier noted on March 15, 1851, that Rev. Joseph H. Ingraham, a distinguished author, had come to Aberdeen to build this church.
With faith and hope these temples rose for the worship of the Eternal God. How many church buildings were constructed in antebellum days? Around 50. How many are over a century old? Around 90. How many are there in Monroe County now? Around 150.
Campgrounds for evangelistic meetings preceded many churches and supplemented them. The most outwardly religious man in the county in 1840 must have been Willie Hilliard, a Methodist living near Athens, who kept a tent at the first campground at Wise's Gap, another at Campground, one mile east of Athens, a third by the first Greenbrier Methodist Church and later a fourth at the Smithville campground.
Probably the third church in age in Monroe County is Mount Zion Baptist Church, now between Hatley and Smithville, but originally four miles west of Splunge and four north of Wise's Gap, at a place later known as "Lundy's Chunk." The tradition is that the original deed, like that of the New Hope Primitive Baptist Church, located it in Alabama. The records of Marion County, Alabama burned with the courthouse in 1883 and much Monroe County history was lost thereby. The boundary between Monroe County and Alabama was not surveyed until 1821 and many thought that Alabama extended to the Tombigbee. Shortly after Monroe County had been constituted by the legislature of Mississippi, the Alabama legislature named Cotton Gin Port as the county seat of Marion, assuming that this was in Alabama.
You have probably never seen the site of the fourth church in Monroe County. Go north from Aberdeen on the Chickasaw trail which became the Aberdeen-Cotton Gin Port Road six miles and turn east at the crossroads one mile to the A. G. Doss place. Ride or walk one mile downhill to Tombigbee bottom and there you will find the historic marker of the Bell Indian Mission and Charity Hall School. Robert Bell was sent by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1821 as a missionary to the Chickasaws in the area. He located the church and school on land six miles south of the Council Tree given by Chief Levi Colbert.
Probably the next church in the county was Wesley Chapel, begun northeast of Hamilton after the county seat was located there in 1821. In 1892 the church sold its third building, which was on the site of the present Hamilton school. Wesley Chapel became the Hamilton Methodist Church. Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church was established in the 1830's where McKinley Creek now crosses Highway 45 South and was later moved three miles northeast.
You are unlikely to guess the first church in the county which was chartered by the legislature. It was Beersheba in 1830. It was in what became Lowndes County and is the ancestor of the Columbus Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The official history of the church incorrectly states that it began in 1861. It is noteworthy that while all these churches had been organized in Monroe County, Jackson in Hinds County, which had been established three days after Monroe, did not have a church organization until 1832 and no church building until 1836.
The Methodists were in the majority in Monroe County in its formative years and the county remained Methodist until the 1940's. Old Methodist
records list circuits but not individual churches and it is as hard to date some Methodist Churches as to date some others. During the 1830's Methodists added Riggan Chapel in the northeast, Antioch in the north center, Cotton Gin Port, Greenbrier at a campground southeast of Cotton Gin Port and Campground near Athens. These churches were later moved to Splunge, Hatley, Amory, Becker and Athens respectively.
The connectional system by which every church was given a pastor was rotated often enough to keep down dissatisfaction made Methodism the state church of the frontier. The circuit system gave each church its preaching Sunday. Sunday Schools met every Sunday. The annual conference which assigned the ministers for the year was the major ecclesiatical event in the county. New members were kept on probation for a year to ensure discipline. Methodist theology was comprehensible and its preaching touched the emotions. Methodists set up churches within four miles of most people in the county. Four miles was an hour's walk, which was not much for that day, although many came by horse, mule, wagon or buggy. The overwhelming majority of business and professional men as well as of planters were Methodists. Having a Methodist bishop in Aberdeen for many decades strengthened the church in the county. Annual conferences were held in Aberdeen in 1848, 1863 and 1864.
The first church buildings were usually constructed of logs which were later covered by boards or replaced by frame buildings. The first brick church was the original New Hope Primitive Baptist Church and the second was St. John's Episcopal in Aberdeen. Most churches had cemeteries by them, which added to the hallowed memories.
A new dimension was added to Monroe churches when Aberdeen, begun in 1836, became the county's religious center. A community church for the use of different denominations was erected at Chestnut and Monroe Streets in Aberdeen, the site of the present hospital. In 1836 James L. Finley and John Gilmore established the Aberdeen Methodist Church within the Tuscaloosa District of the Alabama Conference. Baptists began services in 1837 and later held them in a school at Poplar and Montgomery streets. Cumberland Presbyterians also began services in 1837 and took over the community church after others discontinued the use of it. Old School Presbyterians also organized in 1837 and constructed a building in 1840. Episcopalians began services in 1837 and completed St. John's in 1853. A Christian Church was organized in 1851. Primitive Baptists established a church but were unable to continue it.
Tolbert Fanning organized a Christian Church at Cotton Gin Port in 1840, of which Benjamin E. Manire became the first pastor. Alexander Campbell visited the congregation in 1857 and in 1858. The building was later moved to Amory on rollers.
Free Will Baptists organized their first congregations in Mississippi at New Pleasant Ridge in 1844 and at Center Point in Sipsey Fork in 1845. Sipsey was the only community in the county which centered around one building, the Free Will Baptists and Methodists sharing the building for services and for the joint revivals. A Primitive Baptist Church established in Sipsey Fork in 1824 did not last long.
The southern part of Monroe County saw its first Missionary Baptist Church in 1838, New Prospect, originally known as South Carolina because most of its members came from that state. Mount Pleasant Baptist Church began northeast of Athens in the 1830's and is the ancestor of the Athens Baptist Church.
The 1840's witnessed many new churches, especially in the newly settled Fifth District of the county. Cumberland Presbyterians organized Old Union in 1844, the ancestor of the Wren Presbyterian Church. New Hope Methodist Church on the Aberdeen-Cotton Gin Port Road was begun in 1844 after a campground had been established northwest of it. The church was later nicknamed "Coontail" because a youthful hunter once nailed a coon's tail to the door of the church and it is so named in the Supervisors' Minutes of 1871. Northwest of the same campground Tranquil Methodist Church was established in 1847 and named for Tranquil Church in South Carolina from which some of the members came. The Monroe County Historical Society in 1976 heard a paper on Tranquil Church by William Joel and Jeanette Welford Smith which was published in the Journal, Volume II. Liberty Baptist Church was organized at this period by the Itawamba County line. Camargo around 1848 had Presbyterian, Methodist and Town Creek Baptist Churches, ancestors of Nettleton organizations, and Enon Primitive Baptist Church, two miles south of Camargo, the ancestor of Central Grove Baptist Church. Services were held in the Cason School from 1855 on by several denominations but no church was organized there for almost 90 years.
Goose Pond Baptist Church on the Aberdeen-Houston Road was begun at that time. Greenwood Baptist Church was a large congregation on the Isham Harrison plantation, by present Highway 45 near the Clay County line. Pilgrim Rest, begun in Lowndes County during this period, later moved a little north into Monroe County and became Bethel Baptist in Darracott.
In the 1850's Methodists and Baptists, who had been holding services at Smithville for years, erected church buildings there. In this decade Methodists added Friendship at Temperance Hill, later known as Grubb Springs, and Bethel and Oakland on the Aberdeen-Athens Road. Baptists began Bethlehem in the northeast corner of the county and Harmony in the north central section. Primitive Baptists added Mount Hebron on the west side of Buttahatchie River in 1851 and Sulphur Springs on the east side in 1857. The Latter Day Saints congregation organized east of Buttahatchie in the 1840's migrated to Utah.
The war did not extend to Monroe County except for a few raids. It was part of the granery of the Confederacy, with women and children and servants doing the work. Churches furnished faith and hope during these hard years, although getting to services was often difficult. Churches added during the 1860's included Center Hill Baptist near Hamilton, Rocky Springs Baptist by secession from Harmony, Pleasant Grove and Soule's Chapel Methodist east of Buttahatchie, Hamilton Presbyterian and Lebanon Methodist in Darracott.
The 1870's saw the rise of a few more white churches, including Pearce's
Chapel Free Will Baptist Church east of Smithvile, Pine Grove Primitive Baptist Church near Tombigbee west of Greenbrier and Mount Pisgah Methodist west of Town Creek, whose first cemetery markers date from 1876. Prairie Methodist Church began in 1876.
Most church members in the county a century ago were Methodists, with Missionary Baptists in second place. The smaller denominations had few members. Primitive Baptists did not number 200, nor did Free Will Baptists or Presbyterians, while members of the Christian and Episcopal churches were fewer.
White and black worshipped together in most churches. Although the Aberdeen Methodist Church continued to have many black members, it established in 1847 a Methodist church for blacks at Hamilton and Maple Streets, east of the present cotton compress. The church was moved to Monroe and Franklin Streets and became the largest antebellum black church in the state, with 437 members. The was the ancestor of St. Peter Methodist Church in Aberdeen.
The second church for blacks in the county was Hebron, near Egypt, the former Goose Pond Church. Thurston Rogers was the first pastor of this Baptist Church, which has remained one of the larger churches of the county. Under his successor, Alexander Henderson, the services were held under a brush arbor on the plantation of William H. Vassar, who was State Treasurer a few years later, which is now the Godbey place.
Many white churches had a section of the building set apart for blacks. As the number of blacks increased in a few churches, special services were held for them, often with black preachers. After the war blacks established their own churches, often with the help of whites. They were not excluded from white churches but preferred their own.
Northern Methodist missionaries were sent in who established Spruill's Chapel in Smithville in 1865, later moved a mile south; New Prospect on Four Mile Creek in 1870, later moved a mile north; St. James in Cotton Gin Port around 1870, later moved to Amory; New Point on the River Road west of Becker around 1870; Valley Chapel near Hamilton in 1875. West of the river were established around 1870 Pleasant Valley and Union Grove near Wren and League Chapel on the Aberdeen-Cotton Gin Port Road. King's Chapel at Binford began in 1867 and Paine's Chapel in Aberdeen in 1870. Southern Methodists sponsored Colored Methodist Churches around 1870: St. Paul's near Parham's Store, St. Paul's at Athens, Paine's Chapel at Strong and Poplar Springs in the northwest corner of the county.
The first black Baptist churches in the county east of the Tombigbee were begun around Hamilton before 1875: Bethel, Sulphur Springs, Mount Zion and Tabernacle. They were followed by Mayfield near Hatley and Quincy Chapel. Blackwood Chapel in the northwest of the county began around 1865 and New Prospect, Darden's Chapel and Chapel Grove followed. The Fourth District had the most black Baptist churches. The Missionary Baptist Church in Aberdeen was organized in 1865. Ebenezer near Gibson began around 1870, Cedar Grove around 1873 and Mount Moriah north of Aberdeen in 1876. Baptist Grove and Daniel were organized near Prairie around 1870 and during the same period James Creek above Darracott,
Free Grace below Darracott, Spring Creek near Binford, New Grove and Mount Union on the Muldon Road and Greenwood, Crossroads and New Hope in the extreme southwest of the county.
The churches of the years before and after the war were the undisputed centers of Monroe County life. Fellowship grew with the years. Most people rarely went to town. Most schools met in churches. Young people found churches good places at which to meet people, and so did candidates. Not everyone in the county attended church; the anti-social and the criminal were sometimes anti-religious, although some of them held church offices. Churches were crowded at funerals and revivals. The annual revival, held after the crop was laid by, was the major community event of the year. An old saying declared, "If you can't get religion in August, you can't get it." Emotions were stirred, converts made and the straying brought back.
Churches were cultural centers. Singing the old classic hymns was a cultural experience. The long prayer carried the listeners to the throne of grace. The sermon was the major event of most weeks. Preaching was simple and Bible characters were familiar to the congregation. Long sermons were expected; what was the use of going miles to church unless the message lasted an hour or more? Some ministers were ignorant, but no more than their members, while many had been educated or had heard educated preachers. Many who could not read depended on the preacher to enlighten them. Churches were intellectual centers; many preachers taught school and more books were produced by ministers than by any other profession in the county.
The highest a community can offer is the worship of God and work for the betterment of others. Members were expected to lead good lives. Sincerity was evident and doubters were scarce. Children's eyes brightened at the wonders of heaven and the old were prepared for the coming sunset. Women found consolation for the hard, daily grind of life at the services and men found it helpful to think beyond this vale of toil and tears. With their obvious faults and failings, common to all human institutions, the churches of Monroe County brought eternity near and made it real and gave courage and strength for the arduous daily round of life through hope in Jesus.
List of Churches, date founded and location