The Bethbirei Presbyterian Church turns 200

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bethbirei Presbyterian Church is on the eve of celebrating its bicentennial, and the congregation couldn't be more pleased and proud.

As church member and former secretary, Pauline Perryman once boasted, "If we stick around until 2010, we will be celebrating 200 years as a church."

The church has not only "stuck around," but its membership has more than doubled within the last two to three years.

"I've seen it go down twice and then back up in membership over the 43 years I've served, and it is definitely on the up swing right now. The overall membership is younger as well," said Reverend Claude McMillion.

Rev. McMillion, who has served the church since 1967, still faithfully delivers his sermon every other Sunday.

Though for a long time Bethbirei was, in fact, a second home to McMillion as he was also a full-time reverend at the First Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg. McMillion has since decided to remain at Bethbirei even through his retirement.

"When I was called to the First Church (First Presbyterian) in town, I was told that past reverends had also served Bethbirei, and I was asked to do so because the church did not have anyone at the time. I said I would, but that it was just on a temporary basis. It was only twice a month at nine in the morning, which was a perfect time. The people were very warm and welcoming, and I made friends fast. So, when I retired it was very easy to stay with Bethbirei," said McMillion.

Whether it is McMillion's heartfelt sermons, the welcoming smiles on the faces of church members or the church's simple and quaint country charm which has been keeping the church's numbers on the rise, it is likewise hard to deny that the church's lengthy and unique history has had its own appeal.

"In a busy world it's sort of tranquil and serene out there in the country, an ideal place for worship, but I think the reason why the church has lasted is because of the people. It is not only the congeniality of the people, but the strong family and community ties. There are third and fourth generations of families still attending this church," said McMillion.

He also pointed out that most of the families at one point in time lived in or around the small community of Farmington.

"I've been going since I was a child and have always enjoyed the family atmosphere," said church member Brenda Higgins, who also said she lived close to the church during her adolescence.

Church member and pianist Frankie N. Compton also has generational ties to the church and has recently made a mission of compiling all of the church's known history for its 200th birthday celebration scheduled for Sunday, May 2.

"The Bethbirei Church is not only the oldest church in Marshall County, but it is older than the county," said Compton.

It likely has one of the richest histories of any institute in the area because it was established approximately 26 years before the county was formed.

"There is an old rock on the property where the first sermon was given. It is dated June 1, 1810, but it may have truly been a little earlier or later that the church was formed, but we acknowledge June 1," said Compton.

While the church is recognized by state and county according to the Goodspeed History and the Marshall County Historical Quarterly as forming in 1810, the county seat was not established until 1836.

The areas of Lincoln, Bedford, Maury and later Giles counties which were chosen to make up Marshall County were at the time still very wild and vastly unpopulated.

"Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland were the first to settle here after the Revolutionary War had ended. The soldiers couldn't be paid by the government, so they were given grants of land," said Compton.

It isn't clear who the original land grant recipient of where the church resides was however, as the land passed through other hands. The Ewing family were the property owners who gave the land to the church for the sole purpose of "worship services and burials" as per the records of the Marshall County Historical Society.

From the church's first sermon preached on the large rock at the front left corner of the property by a Kentucky reverend named Samuel Finley to sometime between 1815 and 1820, the congregation met in tents and outside with nothing above them but blue skies and heaven.

"The people traveled from eight to 10 miles around to get to church. They came in covered wagons or walked. The services lasted all day," said Compton.

The first structure was a one-room log cabin, and the church was given the name Bethbirei, which is attributed with meaning "house of my creation" from 1 Chronicles 4:31.

During the first few months of its existence the church relied on guest preachers. Rev. John Gillespie was the first stated Supply Pastor to be employed by the church in January 1811.

However, it wasn't until 1814 when Rev. Thomas J. Hall became the official pastor of Bethbirei that the church actually began to progress and flourish.

He was responsible for creating the Rock Creek Bible Society in 1815, the Bethbirei Harmonica Society in 1822, the Rock Creek Sabbath School in 1827 and the Temperance Society in 1830.

"The Rock Creek Bible Society and the Rock Creek Sabbath School are the only two that are still going strong today, but there are some funny stories about the Temperance Society. It was established to try to get people to stop using alcohol for "medicinal purposes" as they would say back in those days. After that to several members he just became 'Old Man Hall' instead of Reverend Hall," said Compton.

Approximately five other churches branched off from Bethbirei around this time, which included the churches at Farmington and Round Hill. These churches helped to further the growth of the Rock Creek Bible Society, which still meets annually and will be at Bethbirei on Saturday, May 1, before the birthday celebration.

The speaker for the day will be retired Col. Wayne Coomes, and special music will be provided by the Whaley Family. Each person is asked to bring a friend and a potluck dish, and luncheon and fellowship will follow the short business meeting.

"The purpose of the Rock Creek Bible Society is to provide Bibles for folks who don't have one for some reason or other," said Perryman.

Much like the American Bible Society, which is more widely known, Hall's Rock Creek Bible Society was actually created one year earlier, and was the first society of its kind in the area.

Later in 1882, under the direction of M.S. Kennedy, the church settled into a new structure, the one which still stands today. Though plans for the new church building began as early as 1870, it did not reach completion until after Kennedy arrived in 1881.

Thomas J. Cathey and Jessie McCurdy, two craftsmen from the Verona Caney Community completed the construction of the spacious two-story building in 1882. It was dedicated to the congregation on April 2 of that year.

"It amazes me that the church is still in good shape and the membership is growing, but I guess it is the love of the people that keeps it going," said Rev. McMillion.

Throughout the church's life there have been many to dedicate their time to its upkeep, but according to Perryman the current congregation has worked very hard to repair and restore the old church with nothing but the love of their church and the excitement of sharing their soon-to-be-200-year-old Presbytership with the rest of the community.

The church has received a new front porch and railings, new gravel for parking, new sheet rock for the ceilings inside the front room, kitchen and Sunday school rooms upstairs, new paint and other new additions such as a pulpit cross and candles and donated artwork. Beautiful wrought iron work around the doors and windows as well as a new fence have also been installed within the past few years.

"The church is just looking great. We are proud of it and hope that everyone else who comes will like it as well," said Perryman.

On Sunday, May 2, the church will celebrate 200 years of worship. Pastor McMillion will deliver the sermon and the First Presbyterian Church Choir will furnish the special music for the day. After the service a catered luncheon will be enjoyed. Call Pauline Perryman at 359-1314 or Frankie Compton at 359-1769 to reserve your seat for the luncheon. You are cordially invited to attend and see for yourself how God has blessed the oldest church of any denomination in Marshall County.