Russell’s Ramblings

Those who do not hear the music might think the dancer mad

Brief Historical Sketch of Bethesda Presbyterian Church – Homecoming 1996

Brief Historical Sketch of Bethesda Presbyterian Church
Homecoming Address 1996
By Bill Russell, Jr.

2009_h1“Bethesda” is a section of York County about 16 miles square, eight miles southeast of the county seat.  The original population were chiefly immigrants from the North of Ireland, mostly Presbyterians, a few Roman Catholics- Some came from Pennsylvania and some from Native Ireland.  Many of our senior members have heard this origination for some time.  But today, I want to dwelve a little different.  I went to the library and began to research the time period our early ancestors migrated to York County.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact time the Scotch-Irish began moving in, we do know that they began to settle here as early as 1735.  The years 1753-1763 were the greatest  years of migration.  There were two substantial events which caused the settling of the Piedmont.  Both dealt with our existing Native American Indian Tribe the Cherokees.  On February 12, 1747 Governor Glen of South Carolina met with the Cherokee Spokesman “who was known to the locals as “Little Carpenter”.  He relinquished a vast area of land which at that time had been under the control of the Cherokee Nation.  All land South and East of Long Cane Creek which is now Abbeville County and running a line Northward and Northeastward was given in treaty to the “Great Chief in England”.  Most historians agree that this incorporates the greater Piedmont belt including York County.

The second event took place in 1775 when Braddock was defeated by the French & Indians in Pennsylvania.  Even though this event took place some 500 miles north of present day Bethesda, it had a decisive bearing on York County and this area in particular.  Braddock’s defeat left the western front of the Northern Colonies exposed to constant Indian raids.  To escape these hostilities, many Pennsylvanians and Virginians moved Southward to a more pleasant climate and genteel Indians.  While the Cherokee Nation was harshly mistreated and abused by the future Government of the United States, they were extremely good neighbors of the early York County settlers.

By the mid 1750’s, the fertile valleys and creeks around Bullocks and Fishing Creek were doted with Log Cabins and was yielding to the iron plows of planters.  In a confederation of family and religious ties, these early settlers found peace in the land around Bethesda.

Our church is one of the Four B’s (or Bees as in King George’s Bonnet) of the Bethel Presbytery.  The others being Bethel, Bullocks Creek, and Beersheba.  Two conflicting dates have been given for the organization of Bullock’s Creek- 1765 and 1769.  For many years there has been a friendly feud between the two churches of Bethesda and Bullocks Creek as to which is older.  Some church record place the founding of Bethesda in 1769, five years later than Bethel and along the same year as Ebenezer and perhaps the later date of Bullocks Creek.  That would also correspond to the 227 years we are celebrating today.

However, it has been documented that there had been preaching in the Bethesda community long before 1769.  It has been recorded that a church building, a log structure, was reared in 1760.  It was plain but substantial.  This was about one mile east of the present structure, and close by was the graveyard where the dead were buried.  Three of these headstones from the old cemetery were removed and placed here at our cemetery in 1979.  They include William Neely, Mary Neely, and Elizabeth Neely.

This building was burned by a fire accidentally set in 1780.  The next church building was a frame structure with sides of split board which stands a few feet from where our present sanctuary sits.  It stood for 40 years until the present building was built in 1820 for a cost of $5,000.00

Going back to the feud with Bullocks Creek, who claims to be the oldest.  S.M. Tanney a renown Curator for Montreat College notes that The History of Scotch-Irish Settlements written by Hanna records on page 116 of Volume 2 Bethesda of York District was organized in 1760 and Bethel four years later in 1764.  Since Hanna is considered the authority by research students, the data here, according to Tanney, should be deemed dependable. That makes Bethesda older than Bullock’s Creek and just to ensure their were no doubters, we held our Bicentennial Celebration, honoring 200 years of Bethesda Worship in 1960.  

From the best records available, it is thought that the first preacher may have been Rev. William Richardson, an Englishman who studied under Rev. Samuel Davis who later became President of Princeton University.  Among the early ministers was also Rev. Dr. James Alexander of Bullocks Creek.  Alexander is noted for his role as a Revolutionary War Patriot.  A preeminent educator, he also had some very famous students including Gov. Johnson of S.C. and Andrew Jackson, President of the United States.

One cannot talk about the history of the Church without mention of the Battle of Brattonsville.  The Church and its people are intertwined.  A party of Whigs under the command of Col. Bratton, Major Winn, and Captain McClure defeated the English under the command of Huck.  Huck’s Calvary made up of Royal Militia and Tories numbered 400.  Huck tried to induce Col. Bratton to join his force.  He wanted Mrs. Bratton to convince her husband, but she stood by her husband the cause of freedom.  At the Battle of Williamson’s Plantation, Huck was killed and his army routed.  Bethesda Cemetery is now the resting place of 37 Revolutionary War Veterans.

Perhaps Bethesda is best known for the Great Revivals and Camp Meeting of the early 1800’s.  Around the turn of the Century,  Rev. R. B. Walker, pastor of Bethesda heard of the great religious awakening in Kentucky and Tennessee.  It came from travelers who stopped by speaking to this energetic preacher.  He saddled his horse named “Old Dobbler” and made the journey up to Kentucky where he stayed for some time.  Shortly after returning to Bethesda, he instituted camp meetings here.  Neighboring ministers participated, and people traveled from as far as 40 miles to attend.  It is said that “the people were moved as the trees of the woods are moved by the wind.”  The record says that the first camp meeting is known in church history as “The old revival” and resulted in the conversion of 300 souls.  The next revival in 1817 saw 200 more souls added to the Lord.

In 1859, a large arbor was built on the church grounds to accommodate 2,000 people.  This large tent had no sides and could accommodate the large crowds.  In 1861, the War Between the States, impacted Bethesda and called many of her sons to war to fight for states rights and to keep northern invaders from southern lands.  In 1864, the last camp meeting was held.  Bethesda contributed heavily to the Southern Cause.  Again our cemetery is filled with young men who fought for Southern Independence and many never returned to be properly buried.  There are 81 Confederate soldiers interned at Bethesda among them Dr. Bratton, a confederate surgeon.

Bethesda’s history is filled with a moral and ethical code which would seem strange today.  One member was charged with fishing on Sunday.  Another had to fight off a drunk in Yorkville and apologized to the Session for his action.  Among the worst offenses were when Church elders investigated  homes where dancing was reported.

Bethesda Cemetery - 1986

Bethesda Cemetery - 1986

Incidentally, according to the Yorkville Enquirer of the time- well to do people were expected to own their own stills and everyone was expected to drink a toddy more or less frequently, and neither preachers, elders, deacons, stewards, or vestrymen refrained from the sprits when social occasions deemed necessary.

I could go on and on with the wonderful history of this church.  For those really interested, Roy Glover and Bobby Walker put together a great cemetery directory  in 1994 and Miss Rebecca Williamson and Hattie Lee Petty have tirelessly kept our history alive along with the recollections of Mrs. Bratton.

Mrs. Moore had asked that I blend in the physical history of the church with that of the evangelical history.  Well, I don’t know if I’ve done a rather good job of it.  I tend to be more of a student of Bethesda its church, its people, and the culture surrounding it.  I have tried to find one scripture verse that perhaps ties it all together.  While not as well versed in the scriptures as Rev. Carter, one passage in Joshua stands out to me.  Chapter 24 Verse 13:

I have given you a land for which you did not labor, and cities which you did not build, and you dwell in them; you eat of the vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.”

My family roots the Adkins, Boggs, Browns, and Russell’s hail from Beersheba, Bullocks Creek, and Bethesda.  The Boggs dating back to King George and the settling of Bethesda.

The Lord provided for our early families, and here they made their home, built their church, and raised their families.  Some of us have moved away and come home again.  Sons and daughters enjoying the fruits and labors of their parents.  We enjoy the lands we did not plant and the Church we did not build.  But we have a responsibility and a privilege to educate the next generation, to pass on the virtues and ideals we cherish, as did the family members who came before us.   
Verse 27:
And Joshua said to the people, “Behold this stone shall be a witness to us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which he spoke to us.  It shall therefore be a witness to you, lest you deny your God.”

So Joshua let the people depart, each to his own inheritance.


April 20, 2009 Posted by | Bethesda Presbyterian Church History | , , , , | 1 Comment