JACKSON, Mo. (BP)–Not far from the Mississippi River, sweet-sounding tones of the harpsichord and fiddle mingled with the chirping of the cicadas to accompany the voices of the faithful in well-worn hymns.
It might have been 201 years ago in 1806, when the first permanent Baptist house of worship west of the Mississippi was established at this site — and the first non-Catholic congregation.
But at this secluded, grassy clearing, the year was 2007 — a day of remembering God’s promises of the past and for the future as Missouri Baptists joined with Gov. Matt Blunt and Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page to celebrate the reconstruction of “Old Bethel” on Aug. 18.
Prior to 1806, it was illegal, not to mention dangerous, to worship as a non-Catholic in what was then French-controlled territory. Protestants certainly were not free to organize publicly until the United States entered into the Louisiana Purchase and made freedom of religion the law of the land. After several false starts, worshipers organized Bethel Baptist Church near what would become the town of Jackson in southeast Missouri’s Bootheel.
“I think of how those people persevered and suffered. They were so determined to cross the Mississippi and start this church,” said Melvin Gateley, a member of the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission and the coordinator for the reconstruction project.
Page spoke to the crowd of 300 about the power of mission in a territory that was lost.
“The tradition of ‘Old Bethel’ began not from a philosophy or a movement made in the heart of man, but it was a movement and theology based in the heart of God,” the SBC president said. “That which drove those early settlers to cross that river and establish this church was a calling that runs through the heart of every born-again believer. The heart of missions is the Lord Jesus.
“Today we reiterate the call of missions and the power of missions: to drive people across the Mississippi River to come and establish a work for the Lord. Now today we do stand in a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before and we realize their lives were based on sacrifice and commitment because of Jesus. The power of mission is why we’re here today.”
Because of those pioneers’ commitment to missions and the grace of God, the church grew and prospered. They planted new churches all over the area and sent out dozens of missionaries. Unfortunately, they were plagued by infighting and anti-missionary philosophies and disbanded in the 1860s.
David Tolliver, interim executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, told how Old Bethel’s rise and fall serves as an example to the modern church.
“Old Bethel was blessed and they began to grow,” Tolliver said. “In 1813 there were 143 members and 43 members of nine daughter churches. They were a thriving church as long as they were cooperating in missions. But Bethel changed. She became nearsighted and began to decline.
“I’m pleased we’re honoring and memorializing Old Bethel as a testament to missions and cooperation,” Tolliver continued. “But I hope, too, we’ll learn from her history. As long as she was cooperating in missions and ministry, she was a successful church. I’m convinced that when Christians and congregations come together as a denomination we will accomplish far more for God’s Kingdom than anything we could have done by ourselves.”
After the Civil War, the building was dismantled and, until 2002, the logs were thought to be lost until they were located about a mile away in a barn. Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo., bought them and donated them to the Missouri Baptist Convention in the hopes that they could one day be used to rebuild Old Bethel.
The building now stands completely restored as is the cemetery surrounding it. Second Baptist not only donated the logs but supplied a large portion of the volunteer labor that painstakingly replaced each log in its original position. While the three-year reconstruction is complete and a monument at the site is in place, the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission still needs approximately $20,000 to pay for the remainder of the $200,000 project.
Blunt, one of Second Baptist’s members, praised the founders of Old Bethel for their commitment to religious freedom.
“Our freedom, as best described in the Declaration of Independence, comes from God, not government,” the governor said. “It sounds obvious today, but it was revolutionary then.
“There are people in society today that want to argue that the establishment clause, which merely prohibits the establishment of a government-sponsored church, means the church shouldn’t have a place in civic life or culture,” Blunt continued. “These people are truly misinterpreted in the intentions of our forefathers and are pushing us down a very dangerous path. Our founders clearly understood that government should not establish religion or compel belief, but also that they could not and should not quell feelings of religious belief.
“They understood that God was always worthy of worship and they understood that the commands of Christ required them to congregate together, serve others and go about sharing the Gospel. What they saw here must have seemed like their own version of the Promised Land, a territory with plenty of fertile soil and room to grow. It was a young and beautiful place in an expanding nation that protected their God-given right better than any nation before,” Blunt said.
Second Baptist’s pastor, John Marshall, reminded the crowd not to forget the church’s and their own role in history.
“When you go to church tomorrow, you’re not just going to church for that day, you’re going for 200 years down the road as well,” Marshall said. “You’re going to church and worshipping the Lord because kids are going to grow up and raise families and spread your influence here, there and beyond. Out job is to receive the heritage of righteousness and then join together in local assemblies to serve the Lord. That is the lesson of Old Bethel.”
Brian Koonce is a staff writer with The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.