One Hundred Sixty Years: History Of Bethel Presbyterian Church, 1812-1972
by Jerry S. Nix
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Pioneers coming to Guilford County in 1750 found dense hardwood forests broken by areas of grassland inhabited by Indians. The land yielded to the settlers who were searching for comfort and freedom.
In 1771, after government and order had united the people, Guilford was formed. It was named in honor of Lord North, the Earl of Guilford, who was a Tory and prime minister to King George III.
By 1812, Guilford was becoming more settled and the communities began to take form. Cedar Creek, the first Presbyterian church near Gibsonville, was organized. During the year 1815, the church was moved and its name was changed to Bethel. In looking over the origin of Bethel we cannot forget that the word Bethel came from the Hebrew language meaning, “house of God.”
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The Earliest Settlers
In the region known as the Palatinate, hatred and troubles over church lands caused large numbers of people to flee to America. Their homes were laid in waste, the battles of the French invasion on the Rhine, The Thirty Years War, and more occurred. The new world offered a place of freedom and security. The immigrants poured into Pennsylvania and then turned to the South. This movement occurred from about 1688 up to 1775. The archives of that time show more than 30,000 males over sixteen who had come over.
The first Presbyterian church in America was a Reformed church established by the Dutch of New Amsterdam in 1628. The Puritans rather suppressed Presbyterianism in New England. The Virginians stood for Episcopacy. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the colonies of the South were more partial to Presbyterianism. The rich history of these early days in this territory must include the story of five denominations: Lutheran, Reformed, Moravian, Quaker, and Scotch-Irish Presbyterian. These denominations have left a rich heritage for all succeeding time.
Dr. W. W. Moore states that Presbyterians were taking up homes along the Haw and Eno rivers in 1738. Reverend Henry Patillo became pastor of Hawfields in 1765; Buffalo Church was organized in 1756; Alamance in 1762; and in 1764 Reverend David Caldwell arrived. The Presbyterian synods of New York and Philadelphia sent missionaries into this section in 1745 and 1758. The Nottingham Company of Pennsylvania bought a large tract for settlement along the waters of Buffalo and Reedy Fork.
Although these events occurred many decades before Bethel was organized in 1812, it was these occurrences that helped form the beginning of our church that has survived through many hardships.
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Building Churches in Wartime
During the War of 1812, a small but active group of religious seekers formed a new house of worship. “Cedar Creek” was thus established. Cedar Creek erected its first building on the site of what is known today as Gibsonville Cemetery on land donated by James and Moses Gibson. The membership was small with three ruling elders: John Smith, James Gibson, and Elisha Wharton. Samuel Paisley was the first pastor and served the church until 1816. The building was crude with no means of heating and the people came for miles on horseback through the coldest winter weather and sat shivering through the long sermon and considered it a privilege. This first church constructed was the third Presbyterian church built in Guilford County.
When Cedar Creek thought it would be wise to move the church from Gibsonville, Dr. David Caldwell, the pastor of Alamance and Buffalo Churches, opposed this move because he thought this would weaken these churches. Although he was very old, he rode horseback to persuade people to abandon this plan. Out of consideration for him, they decided to stay temporarily.
It is not known, for sure, how long services were held at Gibsonville. The time period could have consisted of about three years. It is known, however, that land was donated by Purnel Chance about 1815 near the community of McLeansville.
Purnel Chance specified in his deed that the land be used for the erection of a “meeting house.” There was no denomination definitely mentioned, so the first organization that took advantage of this offer could receive the land. The church accepted the land, moved, and changed the name from Cedar Creek to Bethel. This log “meeting house” was built in front of the site of the present church.
Later, a modest frame building was erected on the east side of the church, close to where the old session house now stands. The first session house for Bethel was built about the same time the third church edifice was built. Then disaster struck, fire [end of page 8] swept through the session house destroying it and many valuable records from 1822-1832 thus causing more hardships for Bethel’s congregation.
After the Civil War was over, the membership increased and it was decided to build a more suitable place for worship. The plans to build the new church were started in the year of 1866. The following two years were the busiest with the gathering of materials and labor from the members who could spare time. In 1868 John Doggett was elected Chairman of the Building Committee. The following is a list of subscribers to the fund for the new building which was taken from an actual document:
“We the undersigned agree to pay J. A. McLean, John Doggett, Wm. P. Wharton, R. C. Wilson, H. C. Dick, the sums annexed to our names, for the purpose of building a new house of worship at Bethel, to be paid in currency, labor, hauling, or lumber at the following prices, viz. lumber $1.50 per hundred feet, board measure, days hauling with four horse wagon $4.00 per day, with three horse wagon $3.00 per day, with two horse wagon $2.00 per day. Days work $1.00 per day. Shingles $5.00 per thousand. Lumber to be furnished at the church by the last of April, 1867.
Dec. 1st, 1866
John Doggett $75.00 John McLean $5.00
Wm P. Wharton 50.00 G. W. Wharton 75.00
R. C. Rankin 40.00 J. F. Hughes 20.00
Robert Wilson 25.00 A. P. Rankin 15.00
J. A. McLean 15.00 A. C. & J. Denny 15.00
Stanford Woodford 15.00 Thomas Rankin 30.00
H. B. Stratford 20.00 J. C. Rankin 25.00
W. R. Forbis 12.00 T. A. Rankin 12.00
J. W. Forbis 15.00 T. A. Gray 20.00
Persis Rankin 10.00 Barbara Wilson 15.00
Willis Sikes 15.00 Wm. Wilson 12.00
Derinda Summers 3.00 Jane S. Gilmer 25.00
Polly Woodford 3.00 R. A. Stratford 2.00
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Henry Gilmer 1.00 Thomas H. Whittington 4.00
R. C. Dick 2.00 Phebe Huffines 1.00
Rufus Smith 2.00 Wm. Gray 8.37
W. O. Stratford 2.00 J. R. Gilmer 15.00
John Rankin 2.00 Allen Gilmer (of color) 2.25
M. S. Whittington 2.00 Peggy Gray 4.00
W. N. Sikes 2.00 B. Stratford 2.00
J. M. Montgomery 2.00 Henry Cobb (of color) 2.25
Wm. A. Paisley 10.00 Green Wharton
A. B. Tate 2.00 (of color) 2.25
J. M. Smith 5.00 Jopie Montgomery
W. R. Story 2.00 5 days work 5.00
Jas. M. McLean 8.00 J. P. Montgomery 2.00
E. Denny 5.76 James Rankin (paid) 5.00
R. H. Rankin 10.00 Fannie Watson 50.00
J. W. Forbis 15.00 F. D. Whittington 2.00
During the early colonial period, many churches did not have a full time pastor. Ministers traveled from church to church. Each church had a minister only once a month if he had to officiate in three or four churches and the elders of the church would conduct the other services. Several churches became grouped together by having only one minister. Bethel was grouped with Greensboro First Presbyterian Church from 1824-1845, then grouped with Buffalo from 1847-1905, then grouped with Alamance and Springwood from 1905-1907, grouped with Alamance from 1907-1912, and then with Springwood from 1913-1951. [end of page 10]
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…The first church building, built in 1812, was a crude structure with no means of heating. This was built on land donated by James and Moses Gibson. The second church was moved from Gibsonville to McLeansville in 1815 where they built a log “meeting house.” It was located just in front of the site of the building that we now occupy on land donated by Purnel Chance. Sometime later the third church, a modest frame building, was erected on the east side of the present building close to where the old session house now stands.
The fourth building is the present one constructed between 1867 and 1868. It has been noted that one member remembered hearing her mother tell of the women giving pageants, plays, making and selling fancy work, and food to help raise money to build the church during this time. [end of page 14]
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Bethel Church Cemetery
One of the most interesting and historic cemeteries in North Carolina is located at Bethel. Some of the graves date back as far as 1821, while many of the old slate and soap stone tombstones are now broken and weathered with age. Several generations are represented here, as many as five or six generations can be found. Many of the families buried here have passed entirely from local surroundings. [end of page 31]
Soldiers rest here who fought in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
In the mid 1840’s an epidemic was spreading in the surrounding areas and many of Bethel’s members died within 30 and 40 hours of each other. If you notice that many are buried in the same year, this will be the reason.
Most of the members of Bethel are descendants of the original members such as: Close, Denny, Dick, Forbis, McLean, Paisley, Rankin, Ross, Smith, Shepherd, Story, Wharton, etc….
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Biographical Sketches of Ministers Who Have Served Bethel
Since 1812 Bethel has had only 23 ministers. Two were supply pastors. They were Rev. H. R. McFadyen and Rev. C. N. Morrison. Rev. Morrison was also a pastor of Bethel at a different time.
Paisley, Samuel ~ 1812-1816
Rev. Samuel Paisley was born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 6, 1773. He was the son of William and Deliverance Paine Paisley. Licensed on June 25, 1804 and ordained September 25, 1812. Pastor of Bethel, 1812-1816; Euphronia and groups, Fayetteville Presbytery, 1839-1851; stated supply of Bensalem, Fayetteville Presbytery in 1854-1859; stated supply of Mineral Springs 1852-1857. No further record can be found.
Paisley, William D. ~ 1818-1841
Rev. William D. Paisley was ordained in 1798. In 1809, he was superintendent of a grammar school in Orange County about ten miles west of Hillsboro. In 1818 Father Paisley resigned to take charge of the Greensboro Academy. He pastored Bethel and fathered the group in Greensboro that in 1824 became the First Presbyterian Church. Rev. Paisley died in 1857.
Gretter, John A. ~ 1841-1845
Rev. John Augustus Gretter, the son of Michael and Joanna Hewlett Gretter, was born in Richmond, Virginia, on September 28, 1810. Through his mother, he was descended from the distinguished Clopton family, George Clopton III of Virginia being her maternal grandfather. The Cloptons were among the nobility, tracing back to 1212, and the owners of Stratford Manor since that date. Sir Hugh Clopton being Lord Mayor of London and benefactor of Stratford-on-Avon. [end of page 34] In 1824 when Lafayette visited America, young Gretter was captain of a boys’ military company in Richmond which marched out to meet the distinguished visitor. After going to school in Richmond he entered the University of Virginia in January 1827, and graduated in July 1829, at the age of 19. From February till July of 1831, he taught mathematics in Mr. Crawford’s school in Huntsville, Alabama. In August 1831 he was married to Mary Wynn and in October they both united with the Second Presbyterian Church of Richmond. He then entered the Theological Seminary at Princeton, but the northern climate proved unfavorable to his health, he returned to Virginia, and as a member of East Hanover Presbytery studied theology under his pastor, Rev. Taylor. He was licensed to preach in the fall of 1833, ordained in September 1834, and soon after sent as a missionary to Genito, Powhatan County, Virginia, where he labored with great acceptance. In the spring of 1836, he moved to Greensboro, N.C., and became a professor of mathematics in Caldwell Institute, a Presbyerial school opened in the fall of 1835 or the very beginning of 1836, and conducted under the control of Orange Presbytery. In 1841 he accepted a call from the congregations of Bethel and Gum Grove. In 1844 he resigned to become pastor of Greensboro Presbyterian Church and Bethel. Rev. Gretter died on the night of the 21st of January, 1853, in the 43rd year of his age.
Caldwell, Cyrus K. ~ 1848-1859
Rev. Cyrus K. Caldwell was born in 1821. He attended Davidson College in 1841 and Union Theological Seminary of Richmond, Virginia, from 1843-1846. He was licensed September 29, 1846 and ordained on December 19, 1847 in Orange Presbytery. Pastor of Buffalo and Bethel 1848-1859, Pittsboro, N. C., 1860-1866, Eaton Church, Denmark, Tenn. from 1867-1876. He died March 29, 1876. [end of page 35]
Alexander, James Calvin ~ 1861-1886
James Alexander was born in Lincolnton, N.C., on October 2, 1831. He attended Davidson College and becamea a teacher. He attended Union Theological Seminary of Richmond, Virginia, from 1855-1856; graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary, S. C. Licensed on April 1859, Concord Presbytery. Stated supply of Ramah Church from 1859-1861. Ordained on July 21, 1861, Orange Presbytery. Pastor of Buffalo and Bethel from 1861-1886. Rev. Alexander died in Guilford County on November 15, 1886.
Culbertson, R. W. ~ 1887-1892
Rev. Richard Watt Culbertson was born March 26, 1860 in Woodleaf, N. C. He attended Davidson College and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1883; Union Theological Seminary of Virginia, Richmond from 1885-1887. He was licensed on June 8, 1887, Orange Presbytery. Pastor of Buffalo and Bethel 1887-1892, Midway Church 1888-1892, Hawfields, Cross Roads, organized Beth 1892-1906, Stoney Creek, Griers 1906-1907, Center, Prospect, Concord Presbytery, 1908-1915, Sheares 1908-1913, Poplar Tent, Gilwood 1915-1920, Central Steele Creek, Pleasant Hill, Mecklenburg Presbytery 1920-1931. He died August 24, 1932.
Seabrook, J. McLeod ~ 1892-1904
Josiah McLeod Seabrook was born April 12, 1852 on James Island, South Carolina. He was the son of William Benjamin and Elizabeth Mary (her maiden name isn’t known). He married Rachel Thompson Thornley in Pickens, S. C. on October 6, 1880. He attended Davidson College 1873-1877 and received his Bachelor of Arts Degree; Columbia Theological Seminary, S. C., 1877-1880. Licensed in April 1880, Charleston Presbytery and ordained October 1881, Lexington Presbytery. Pastor of McDowell and Williamsville, Lexington Presbytery, 1881-1884; stated supply and pastor of [end of page 36] Seneca, Richland, and Walhalla, S. C. Presbytery, 1884-1888, James Island, S. C. 1888-1892, Buffalo, Midway, and Bethel, Orange Presbytery, 1892-1904, stated supply of Gordonsville, Wills Memorial, Southern Plains, and Barboursville, West Hanover Presbytery, 1905-1906. Rev. Seabrook died on April 2, 1906.
Rankin, Samuel M. ~ 1905-1907
Samuel Meek Rankin was born in Guilford County, near Greensboro, N.C., on July 30, 1864, son of R. C. and Mary Ann McLean Rankin. Rev. Rankin married Mary Lee Wharton on January 18, 1894. He attended Oakdale Academy, Alamance County, N. C.; McLeansville Academy, Guilford County, N. C.; Davidson College, 1888-1890 and received the bachelor of Arts degree. He became a teacher. He attended Union Theological Seminary of Virginia, Richmond, 1891-1894. He was licensed Jan. 31, 1894 and was ordained Feb. 22, 1894, Fayetteville Presbytery, Pastor of Red Springs, N. C. and groups, 1894-1906; Jackson, Kentucky, 1897; Stanford, 1898-1902; Alamance and group, Orange Presbytery, 1903-1907; Bethel, 1905-1907. Superintendent of home missions and evangelist, Orange Presbytery, resident of Greensboro, N. C., 1907-1924; ill health, Greensboro, 1924-1932. Stated supply of East Burlington, 1932-1935. He died April 12, 1939. Author of The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy and Buffalo Church and Her People. Rev. Rankin started writing the history of Bethel when he died.
[this series of biographies continues into the 1970’s in the book]
Deacons of Bethel
(before 1900, with dates of ordination)
John Wharton July 23, 1843 Calvin Rankin July 23, 1843 Robert C. Rankin May 27, 1843 Rufus W. Smith May 27, 1866 W. P. Wharton June 4, 1872 E. W. Stratford June 4, 1872 William C. Rankin Dec. 8, 1878 Israel N. Clapp Dec. 8, 1878 W. L. Lindsey June 29, 1884 W. H. McLean June 29, 1884 John H. Rankin June 29, 1884 Millard J. Rankin June 29, 1884 J. M. Dick Dec. 24, 1893 D. A. Montgomery Dec. 24, 1893 J. C. Browning June 12, 1898 W. R. Denny June 12, 1898
[from page 43]
Ruling Elders of Bethel
(before 1900, with dates of ordination)
James Gibson 1815 John Smith 1815-1822 Elisha Wharton 1815-1863 Alexander Gray 1816-1855 Moses Gibson 1816-1841 Robert Law 1818-1851 Joseph Gibson 1822-1857 Preston Paisley 1822-1836 James Carson Donnell 1833 Elisha Denny 1841-1880 Newton Wharton 1841-1845 John W. McMurray 1841-1852 Thomas Rankin 1848-1899 Andrew Wilson 1848-1866 Dr. S. D. Schoolfield 1848-1849 Dr. J. A. McLean 1853-1896 George W. Wharton 1859-1900 J. F. Hughes 1859-1866 A. C. Lindsey 1861-1862 Thomas A. Gray 1866-1868 Robert Wilson 1866-1896 Robert C. Rankin 1876-1921 A. Calvin Denny 1881-1913 John W. Paisley 1893-1939 A. Frank Forbis 1893-1906 John Wesley Summers 1898-1905 J. D. Clapp 1898-1944
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