Bethel Church was founded outside Jackson, Missouri on July 19, 1806. Being a Protestant believer in Missouri as the 19th century approached was a hard life. The territory still belonged to Spain or to France at the last part of the 1700s, and Catholicism was the only approved religion. In order to worship outside a Catholic church, Christians had to gather in homes. Pastors had to swim or boat across the Mississippi River, sometimes at night to avoid being apprehended, to supply a sermon.
Being a Protestant believer in Missouri as the 19th century approached was a hard life. The territory still belonged to Spain or to France at the last part of the 1700s, and Catholicism was the only approved religion. In order to worship outside a Catholic church, Christians had to gather in homes. Pastors had to swim or boat across the Mississippi River, sometimes at night to avoid being apprehended, to supply a sermon. It must have been hard, knowing that religious freedom was just across the river in territory owned by the United States. It was in this environment of religious freedom gained by the Louisiana Purchase that Bethel Church was formed on July 19, 1806.
The handful of believers who formed Bethel Church clearly treasured the freedom of worship that came to them with the United States buying the land where they lived in the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. The next year a preacher came to the area, and the thought of forming a church came about. Here is how the church constitution reads: We the members of the Baptist Church having been a long time destitute of having the privelege of being in any Church order, do feel it our duty to embody ourselves together in the fear of God as a church, hoping that God will bless us in so good an undertaking with the teaching of his holy spirit and enable us through grace to live in the declarative glory of Him, and the praise of his Gospel.
Churches have always been places of gathering for mutual support in times of community trouble. Many churches in our century noted increased attendance after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Here is the church record entry for December 10, 1811, following the first of the New Madrid earthquakes: “On Monday at 3 o’clock in the morning a great and tremendous earthquake commenced which broke many places of the earth at New Madrid County. It continued shaking very hard all this winter. [Note: Shocks are sensibly felt this spring, 1812 – Transcriber] In the days and year following the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812, it seems our forebears had the same need for support, as the membership of the Bethel Church increased from 73 to 142. During times of continual turmoil, the church was where people came to be strengthened.
Churches are also a place where people gather for comfort in grief. Pioneer lives were hard, and death was part of that hard life. Bethel Church has a cemetery attached to it, and 57 people are mentioned in the church minutes as being buried there. There is also a marker containing the names, birth and death dates of 8 children born to Milas and Mary L. (Knott) Niblack, and mentioning the twin infant boys and infant triplets born to the family without living long enough to have been named. Clearly the church offered a sense of stability and comfort to the family, to place a marker to their 13 dead children born between 1846 and 1867, none of whom lived more than 8 months.
The church was one place in the pioneer society where all were recognized as God’s children. Many of the members of early 1800s churches were slaves. The first slave member noted in the “record of the proceeding of the church” at Bethel Church on October 11, 1806, read as follows: “The Church met in conference. Agreed to build a meeting house on Thomas Bull’s land. Received by Baptism Mr. Byrds Negro woman Vicey.” Three negroes are listed among the 57 people buried at the cemetery, Dick Green being 103 years old when he died. The story about Dick Green is that his master refused to let him be baptized. When Dick told the pastor to go ahead anyway, the pastor questioned him, asking whether his master would be angry about the baptism. Dick’s answer was, “Pastor, I have two masters, and one is more important than the other.”
It is noteworthy that the church had been formed less than three months when they voted to construct a meeting house, the first non-Catholic house of worship west of the Mississippi River. It is this building that the Missouri Baptist Historical Society has undertaken to reconstruct from some of the original logs that remain today. This effort is being funded by a year-long offering approved by the Executive Board of the Missouri Baptist Convention. A goal of $200,000 will be used to reconstruct the church building, build a permanent covering over it to protect from weather, build a road and parking lot for the site, and refurbish the cemetery grave markers. Any amount left over will be put into a trust for the continued upkeep of the property, so that future generations can see how it was to worship in the early days of our country.