On Sunday May 17, the Bethesda United Methodist Church congregation celebrated 100 years of worship. Following the 11 a.m. worship service, lunch was served to about 175 members and guests in attendance. In the afternoon lemonade from a wooden barrel was served and enjoyed with pound cake and homemade ice cream.
Thirty-three pastors have served Bethesda. The current minister is the Rev. Matthew Waldron.
The origins of the church begin with Union Methodist, founded in 1844, a congregation that met on Lowground Road. Union served a farming, rural area at the turn of the century. As times changed, the focus of the community moved from the Lowground Road location to Highway 30. Members of Union began to worship more at Bethesda and other churches, and it disbanded in 1962.
In 1915, Mrs. Fannie Kessler recalled that a group from Union Methodist Church, looking for a more convenient place to worship, began meeting at the Springhead School House under the leadership of Rev. M.A. Shaw. The schoolhouse was located off Highway 30 on lands owned by F.A. “Berry” Hinely. By 1916, land was donated by Ira Kessler for a church building.
The first Bethesda Church was erected by the members and was dedicated in 1918. It served as a place of worship for 20 years, until it burned to the ground during a Sunday morning worship service. Hampton Kessler and Vera Kessler Dasher were present and recalled how the fire started in the flue for the woodstove and there was nothing much that the members could do but remove some of the articles in the church, like pews, hymn books, Bibles and even windows. There was no water except buckets across the dirt road from the Ira Kessler home and no ladder, according to Hampton Kessler, who said the church was a tall building with wooden shingles.
It is of interest that this congregation survived worshiping at nearby Miller Chapel Lutheran Church after the fire until they could rebuild again during the Great Depression. In 1936, four acres were purchased from the Hester estate on the south side of Skinner Bay, located on the corner of Midland and Nease Roads. The abandoned Pineora Methodist Church was purchased for $75, according to a receipt signed by Clark Kessler dated October 25, 1936. The lumber was used to build the current church building. The new church was dedicated on Easter Sunday, April 19, 1938.
In 1944, SAMWILKA, Inc. donated five more acres for a cemetery. This is a company owned by the ancestors of Clayton Morgan, whose family are still members there.
Over the years a social hall and an educational building were added. A portable building donated by Tim Yarbrough was added for the youth. It is of interest that this church built their place of worship with whatever was available through the years.
The social hall was constructed from materials of an old school at the site of a Union Camp Mill (now International Paper). The youth trailer was a former Department of Transportation mobile building. Some historians refer to this approach of using what was available as vernacular architecture, which was and continues to be, an important part of folk culture of the rural American South, according to Rev. Waldron. The last renovations to Bethesda were to the front of the church, with the addition of a portico and restrooms.
The history of Bethesda takes place over the background of the 20th century. The congregation has seen economic collapse, two World Wars, war in Korea and Vietnam as well as vast political and social change. These people were and are still people of very strong faith and commitment to worship even in the midst of trying times.
As Bethesda continues to worship and celebrate their first century, they look to the future worshipping God and serving their community as did their founding fathers and mothers back in 1915 and before at the mother church, Union Methodist.
This was compiled by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society from information provided by Irma Kessler, Thressa Morgan and Rev. Matthew Waldron. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.