Local Bethel Association United Baptist churches; Bethel, Little Vine, New Providence, Oak Grove and Bethany, can trace their roots to the site of the 1806 original church, named Bethel Church, in Cape Girardeau County, now Jackson.
“The Bethel Association began in 1816 and that makes this year the 200th anniversary, in September,” Pastor of Oak Grove United Baptist, Lindell Sikes said. “The first meeting on the topic was in June of 1816 about forming the association.”
Sikes confirmed 110 of the original logs from “Old Bethel” survived and many gathered for its reconstruction which was completed in 2009.
This building stands on the site of the original church and is near the intersection of the Hubble and Goose Creeks at the end of Lee Ave. in Jackson.
When it was organized, July 19, 1806, the church minister was David Green and the deacons were George Lawrence and Henry Cockerham who officiated the church’s constitution.
“Issac Sheppard was the first moderator (president) of the entire association,” Sikes said.
Documentation on the organization’s roots at “Old” Bethel Church is found in “A History of The Baptists in Missouri,” by Robert Samuel Duncan, and a segment from page 38 is as follows; “Bethel Church, though the second organized, may be regarded as the first permanent church organization in Missouri; the first (Tywappity) having become defunct not long after it was gathered; and from Bethel Church, directly or indirectly, sprang all the churches that composed the first association.”
Those members of the not yet formalized Bethel Association sent representatives to the Little River Association to get authorization for its formation. Upon receiving this approval the association convened at the, “Bethel Meeting house on Saturday before the second Lord’s day in June, 1816,” according to their publication, “Minutes of Bethel Association United Baptist Churches of Jesus Christ 1816 – 1941 (inclusive).
“The men trusted with organizational duties and making contacts with Little River leaders were called messengers,” Sikes said.
“(Later that year) the association met again on the fifth Sunday in September to form a constitution at the Bethel meeting house in Cape Girardeau County and it still exists today,” Sikes said.
Churches and memberships sometimes changed rapidly in those early days. Some may have also changed the name of the church, as well. When the members decided to begin a new church, they would only have a few members and since they had not yet built a separate building they would hold services at a member’s home.
“The name (Bethel) comes from the Bible reference found in Genesis, Chapter 28, verses 16 to 19, to the place where Issac’s son, Jacob first met his Lord,” Sikes said.
Providence Baptist Church in Fredericktown was one of the original churches in the Bethel group. It remained until about 1847, but New Providence United Baptist Church located at 709 S. Main St. was built in its name on a different site. The church joined the association in 1957 with Lawerance Lewis as its Pastor.
In June of 1816, the Bethel Association had at least three original churches; beginning with Bethel in Jackson, then Tywappety (south of Cape Girardeau), and Providence in Fredericktown, which are confirmed by the association’s “Minutes” publication.
By the September association meeting there were several other Baptist churches that sent representatives and these included the following (possibly more); Belleview in Caledonia, Barren in Perry County, Dry Creek in Cape Girardeau County, St. Francois (about 25 miles south of Fredericktown on the St. Francis River), Turkey Creek and Saline.
The first association in the United States was the Philadelphia Association with not over six Baptist churches in the early 1700's. The next association was Elkhorn and a few others cropped up around the same time; however, the lineage of Madison County churches follows Elkhorn. Following Elkhorn, were the Metro District, Cumberland and Red River Associations. The Bethel Association sprang from the Little River Association. Over the years, these associations spread out from the northeastern states in all directions as membership grew and so did their families, according to Sikes.
“In 1823, the association meeting in Fredericktown was held in the courthouse due to high water,” Sikes said.
William Polk was one of the most prominent ministers in the association of churches in this portion of southeast Missouri. He began his work here in about the mid 1830's and preached in Madison County churches in Roselle and Marble Creek, as well as in Doe Run, in St. Francois County.
H. F. Tong, a Madison County author who was raised at Mine LaMotte and was apparently close to Polk, wrote about him in his book titled, “Historical Sketches of the Baptists of Southeast Missouri.”
“He was, doubtless, one of the most energetic, and by far the most influential and popular preacher in Southeast Missouri. He was so sympathetic, kind-hearted and truly pious, as well as faithful to all his engagements, that none doubted his high calling.”
According to a church related legend, Sam Hildebrand did “business” in Madison County on be-half of Polk’s family. Elder Polk and his wife were the parents of eight children. He was taken from his family on November 1, 1864 on the day of his murder. Polk was shot in the head in front of his home which was near the end of Hwy. MM off of Hwy. 72 West in Madison County.
Another quote from H. F. Tong’s book on page 57, states, “In sadness and shame for our country, we have to say, that this good man was shot from his horse, in front of his own door, by a squad of men dressed in the federal uniform, Nov. 1, 1864. His body was carried to his house by the writer, assisted by Reverend John Martin, Joseph Jones and J.C. Downs, and after preparation was laid to rest in the Bethany Church Cemetery.”
The legend of Sam Hildebrand follows that after Polk’s assassination, he shot Polk’s perpetrator as revenge. Some people say they were friends and Sikes believes the connection may have come though Polk’s preaching in Doe Run.
Although there is no formal connection between Sam and Fee Fee Baptist Church Founded in 1807, which is still in Bridgeton. The Hildebrands were among the original American families who claimed the Baptist denomination and who settled near the church. The settlement was called Marais de Liards and was later changed to Bridgeton.
Fee Fee Baptist Church lays claim to the title oldest Protestant church congregation and is still in use today according to its website, https://feefeebc.org. It is named for Nicholas Beaugenou, Jr. who was known to his friends as Fifi, however it became spelled “Fee Fee”.
The Bethel Association of Baptist Churches joins a few other Protestant churches in Missouri that were on the list as some of the first west of the Mississippi.
In 1799, the first Protestant sermon and baptism immersion west of the Mississippi River was performed in Randol Creek near Dutchtown, Missouri.
A seven-foot tall monument marks the spot where the first Protestant Church west of the Mississippi stood in what is now the Masonic Cemetery in St. Francois County.
The engraving on it reads as follows: “On this spot, the first Sunday School west of the Mississippi River was organized and taught by Sarah Barton Murphy, in the year 1805, in the log meeting-house which was the first Protestant Church west of the Mississippi River.”
The cemetery is north of Madison County and just to the east of Farmington on Colony Church Road about 5 miles from the Ste. Genevieve County line. Although the church came to be of the Methodist affiliation; the land donors the Murphy family were Baptist.
According to Sikes, the members of the original 40 or so Baptist churches became divided over the types of revival services into “regulars” and “separatists.” They began holding meetings for the purpose of reunification in the 1770s in Virginia and other states. As a result of these meetings the Bethel Association churches became known as United Baptist.
The state of Missouri was still part of the Louisiana Purchase (1803 from France) during these early years of Baptist church formation.
During this time there were only Catholic churches in the area west of the Mississippi which included Madison County.
Baptists began holding small gatherings in secret before the Louisiana Purchase. Sikes has heard stories of Baptist preachers and missionaries that were brave enough to come from as far away as Kentucky to spread their message to Madison County residents with an open ear.
One preacher developed a sort of friendship with one of the Catholic priests, but due to the legal constraints of the times this Baptist man had to sneak in and out of Madison County. One tale which has been passed down through the years includes the Baptist preacher’s successful navigation of the Mississippi River in order to evade a man from Catholic enforcement. Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, the main leadership of the Madison County Catholic Churches was in New Orleans. Its enforcer was sent to Madison County several times in unsuccessful attempts to catch the Baptist preacher from Kentucky.
After the state of Louisiana joined the Union in April of 1812; Congress renamed the remaining portion of the Louisiana Territory. In June of that year it was officially known as the Territory of Missouri and remained a territory until 1821 when its southeast portion became a portion of the State of Missouri. According to the Missouri Secretary of State website those first five counties were Cape Girardeau, Ste. Genevieve, St. Charles, St. Louis and New Madrid Counties.
In 1812, the territory contained land which forms Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska; the portion of Minnesota west of the Mississippi River; a large portion of North Dakota; a large portion of South Dakota; the northeastern section of New Mexico; the northern portion of Texas; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (plus New Orleans); and small portions of land within the present Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
There are 84 different churches affiliated with the Bethel Association during its 200 years in existence, mostly in Missouri with some in Illinois and Arkansas.
Some of the more than 250 ministers are listed below from the past 150 years include: Robert Graham, Bethel Pastor for 43 years; James Lacey, Pendleton Pastor for 42 years; W. W. Handy; Woodrow Hughes; Joel Lewis; Kenneth Wirtmiller, instrumental in starting Bible Camp and A. H. Vaugh, association moderator for 24 years. Currently the Preachers of Madison County’s Bethel Association Churches are Steve Rehkop of Little Vine, Robert Graham of Bethel, Charles Sutton of New Providence and Lindell Sikes of Oak Grove. All are United Baptist Churches. Both Sikes and Graham have decided to hang up their hats sometime in the next year according to Sikes.
All of the preachers and members of the association churches in Madison County will gather to celebrate this 200-year milestone with speeches and a dinner together, Sept. 24 at the association tabernacle building in Roselle.