The congregation of one of Louisiana’s oldest Methodist churches, Bethel United Methodist, will celebrate its 200th anniversary on Sunday and a big crowd of former members, friends and relatives is expected.
From its humble beginnings as a rural, one-room, hand-hewn timber church served by circuit-riding preachers circa 1814, the small congregation now meets in a modern brick sanctuary, it’s fifth building. It is served by the Rev. Gene Rives, who also pastors First United Methodist Church of Baker.
“Bethel is a very comfortable, multi-generational church,” Rives said. “It is a very friendly congregation, and they are very welcoming.”
At recent Sunday morning service, grandparents sat with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Laverne Shaffer, 86, one of the church’s oldest members, was with her daughter Sandra Jones, 62, and Jones’ son, 31-year-old Jesse Jones. On the other side of Shaffer sat her granddaughter, Summer Shaffer Phenald, 28, holding her 2-year-old son, Casen Phenald.
“This church has been here as a shining light in this community for 200 years, and I have been coming here since 1951,” Shaffer said with a bright smile.
Sandra Jones said she and her brother, Opie, Summer Phenald’s father, grew up in the church in the 1950s and ’60s and “it was a lot of fun. We had a lot of kids, we did a lot of Christmas programs, things like that.”
Her son Jesse recalled, “We had all kinds of functions — playing hide-and-go-seek in the cemetery, Easter egg hunts. We’re hoping to get some more members involved.”
His cousin, Summer, smiled and added, “We played outside all the time, rolled down the hill out there. It’s nice Brother Gene always encourages us to bring our kids because he says they bring life to the church.”
Rives has been pastor in Pride and Baker for 10 years. He preaches each Sunday at 9 a.m. at Bethel and at 11 a.m. in Baker, but he doesn’t consider himself a “circuit-riding preacher.” While both congregations are small — several dozen members each — they are one body, he said, similar to larger churches that have two Sunday morning services.
“What has been so amazing is that the leadership of Bethel church paired up with the leadership of Baker to make a joint effort in the Baker community that Baker could not have done by themselves and Bethel could not do by themselves in their community,” said Rives.
Bethel worship leader and lifelong member Dale Jones, 74, also serves on the ministry staff at Baker UMC.
“We grew up here, my parents were very active in the church, in fact my mother was the oldest member at age 93 when she passed away,” she said. “We’ve been here a long, long, long time.”
Rulon G. Yarborough, 83, a longtime member and Sunday school teacher for 30 years, was sitting with his daughter, Karen Lewis Miguel, 52, who also grew up here.
“My four siblings and I were all raised here. Mom and dad were married here 55 years ago,” Miguel said. “It was a big church. We had a big youth group. My mother and a nephew who died of SIDs, are buried in the cemetery.”
The Yankees are coming
The church’s cemetery is a testament to the history of the area. Along with the ancestors of current families, soldiers who fought on both sides of the Civil War are buried there, apparent casualties of an 1863 skirmish, part of a larger campaign that is now called Grierson’s Raid by historians.
Grierson’s 1,700-member Union cavalry was westbound on what is now La. 37 headed toward Baton Rouge when they encountered a Confederate encampment around the church property and cemetery, according to a historic booklet compiled by the church for its 175th anniversary.
A hand-hewn cabin had been replaced in 1832 with a simple frame structure that was surrounded by about 150 Confederate tents. Most of the Confederate soldiers were gone at the time, searching for Grierson’s troops elsewhere.
“The church yard was occupied by Confederate troops under the command of Col. C.C. Wilbourne, CSA, when Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, Union Army, halted there on his wild ride from LaGrange, Tennessee, to aid Gen. Nathan Banks at Baton Rouge. Bethel Church was burned at dawn on Saturday, May 2, 1863,” the church booklet reports.
An exact number of casualties is not reported, but Grierson said he destroyed the tents and seized a large amount of ammunition, guns and supplies “and immediately took the road to Baton Rouge.”
John B. Powers, a church member who witnessed the burning, paid for a new building that served the congregation until it was destroyed by a storm in 1909, according to the booklet. By the 1940s, a fourth frame building was built and it was replaced with the current brick structures in the 1950s.
A current member who witnessed another burning is church historian and anniversary organizer Olive Campbell. She and other women were making preparations for the 1959 dedication service, she said, and some men were burning trash on an old tree that had fallen down out in the cemetery.
“They had just set the trash on fire when BOOM! the tree blew up!” Campbell said. “Apparently there were some live shells from the Civil War battle in it. We thought the Yankees were after us again!”