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Remembering Bethel Lutheran Church
Bethel Church that burned 1939
The Bethel Lutheran Church which burned in 1939. - photo by Photo provided

It is not known exactly when Bethel Church was founded. Records from Strobel’s book “Salzburgers and their Descendants” cites that the Ebenezer Trustees found it necessary to build a church along Jack’s Branch near Springfield. Weather and flooding prevented travel to Ebenezer for services and schooling for the children.

Members who were unable to travel far had begun to gather under a bush arbor in the area to worship. Rev. Bergman was the first pastor from Ebenezer who also served Old Zion and Goshen. He continued to preach in the German language. His son who followed him preached in English.

The state of Georgia granted a 25-acre plot of land to establish a school to John and George Arnsdorff on June 2, 1807, deeded in 1809.  Upon this land, it was decided to erect Bethel Lutheran Church and that the land would be deeded to the church for as long as it existed. Over the years, other tracts were purchased adding to the original property.

The first structure was a log building. A new, small, one-room structure was built near the log cabin. These buildings were built between the current Bethel Church and the first parsonage, formerly the home of the late Mr. Chris Edwards, now in the Lancaster family. The Edwards purchased their home from Bethel when the parsonage was built in Springfield. The one-room church existed, so the story goes, until destruction in Sherman’s March to the Sea.

A new, larger church was built after the war around 1875 on the site where the current church sits. This church faced Arnsdorff Road (south toward Springfield). It had two entrances on the front and two exits on the rear as shown in the accompanying photograph. There was one Sunday school room in the back. Women entered by one entrance and sat segregated from the men.

There was no center aisle, according to the late Mr. Arte Heidt, only short rows on each outside wall and a wooden partition was built down the center of the church dividing the long pews in the center into halves. The pump organ, used until electricity was installed in 1946, was on the women’s side.

This church was lit by kerosene lamps. When repairs were made to the floor many years ago one of the elderly men said he had never been on the women’s side of the church. The first said to sit on the women’s side with his wife was the late Mr. Nesbit Arnsdorff after his marriage.

Around 1862, when Laurel Hill in Clyo was organized, the Bethel parish became independent of Ebenezer, eventually including Holy Trinity, which Bethel sponsored, founded in 1912 and Wingard Memorial in 1913. The parsonage for the joint churches was built on Early Street in Springfield. It was completed in 1913 at a cost of $3,277 including two lots, a barn, stables and a fence.

The parish had a joint pastor and parsonage until Bethel became an independent congregation late in 1986 and built their own parsonage.

Bethel’s first congregational meeting was recorded on Oct. 10, 1872, with the Rev. J.N. Derrick as pastor. It became part of the Georgia Synod that year.

Although Bethel is the older church in the Bethel Lutheran Parish, it was not formally organized, thereby celebrating its anniversary on the chartering date rather than the founding date. Elders first elected were: James R. Rahn, Jacob I. Freyermuth, James J. Heidt, Thomas E. Seckinger and Jonathan Snider.  Rev. J.N. Derrick accepted the first call as pastor. The first offering collected totaled $6.25.

Bethel’s church building was also used as the school until between 1880 and 1885. One site of the early school was on current property of Alan Heidt. Around 1900, a new one-room school was erected on property now owned by Walter Weitman, formerly that of his Uncle Paul. In 1921-22, Bethel consolidated with Effingham Academy in Springfield, having been in existence as a school for over 100 years.

The first Sunday School Convention was held in May 1879. The convention was held annually in April or May on a Wednesday and was later moved to Sunday. The Wednesday of Convention was a school holiday.

A program for the May 3, 1882, Convention indicates Bethel participated singing their song. Bethel supplied officers over the years and still participates. Mrs. Mazie Arnsdorff missed only one convention in all her years and was pianist for the convention for 26 years. The banner for Bethel is carried by a youngster following the superintendent as they march under the tabernacle for the event.

Bethel’s first organist was Mrs. Gussie A. Kieffer. Many have served in this capacity.  They have an active choir and have had several different choir robes through the years.  The choir members practice faithfully each Wednesday evening except in summer and are currently under direction of organist Dana Gnann.

Somewhere after Rev. H S. Wingard arrived in 1884, Bethel Council began to discuss a cemetery which was later established near the church. There are a few older graves outside the current cemetery in a small fenced area on the north side of the church.

Members came to church on horses or in horse-drawn wagons. There were hitching posts around the church where each family hitched the horses for services.

The longest-serving pastor, Rev. T.W. Shealy, served the Bethel Parish from 1900 to 1936, when he died on Tybee Island at a Sunday school picnic with Holy Trinity.

Children’s Day was observed each fourth Sunday in June from 1916 through the 1940s. There were regular worship services in the morning and after dinner on the grounds, a program was conducted in the afternoon by the children composed of songs, recitations and speeches. This was a special occasion for new clothes for the young ladies if possible.

Sunday school was originally held for all in the sanctuary divided into small groups. The first vacation Bible school was held jointly with Holy Trinity in summer of 1938.

Protracted Meeting (later called the Series of Services) was held beginning on the fourth Sunday in August through the following Wednesday. Confirmation was held during these services. On Sunday, there was dinner after church.

During the week they had services in the afternoon followed by supper on the grounds and another service inside the church after the meal. A guest minister was usually invited to hold these services. The Series of Services is no longer held. Bethel now holds weekly Wednesday evening Lenten services, Holy Week services and a sunrise service for Easter with breakfast following. Sunday School Rally Day is now also observed.

Bethel was known for its “Celebration,” which was a summer time picnic with a large barrel of hand-squeezed lemonade and pound cake in the afternoon for visitors following a congregational basket lunch after Sunday worship. In the early days Bethel only had services on the second Sunday afternoon and fourth Sunday morning and in later years in the mornings of those Sundays. Sunday school was held weekly. The shared pastor held services at the other parish churches on the other Sundays.

 The church was destroyed by fire immediately after Sunday school had been dismissed on March 19, 1939. The fire started by a heater that was inside the church. Five people passing by were the first to discover the fire. Practically everything was saved except the building. The church had been remodeled and enlarged about a year before the fire. Mrs. Libby Heidt, a young girl at the time, recalls sitting on the front steps at her home and seeing the smoke from the fire.

Services were held at Turkey Branch Methodist Church, nearby, until a new church was built. Timber was cut from the property of Bethel and hauled to Mr. Carl Arnsdorff’s mill where it was cut and planed. Mr. Arthur Wilder was general contractor to oversee the building. Many members gave their time and energy to build the church.  The late Mr. George Freyermuth, then a lad, recalled how slow all the older men worked compared to him on that first day but realized why when day two rolled around. This church was built facing Highway 21.

The new church was donated a bell, still in use today, by Mr. Willie Rude and Mrs. Berma Usher from their farm. The altar was donated by the family of Pastor Shealy and a lecturn Bible by Mrs. Ida Gnann in memory of husband Mr. J.M. Gnann. Cost of rebuilding the church was $1,327 and was paid in full by Jan. 13, 1940.

A deep well was added under tenure of Rev. Roy T. Troutman, who came in 1948. Prior to this time a well was located where the current educational building sits on the south side of the church. The picnic tables for gatherings were located there by the well under an oak tree and later relocated to a site near Highway 21 in later years with concrete tables replacing the wooden ones in 1968. The outside dinners moved inside once the church had air-conditioning.

To be continued next week …

A full history of Bethel Lutheran Church can be found in Effingham Museum. This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: