Keeping a lonely vigil over antebellum church, area history

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Well back in the Allendale County countryside sits Smyrna Baptist Church. The antebellum church hasn’t held services since 1958 and today has but a single member on its rolls. Yet, there was a time when Smyrna Baptist, like so many rural Southern churches, was a vibrant, thriving house of worship.

Today, Hugh Gray, a cotton farmer and former Allendale County councilman, takes it upon himself to keep watch over the church. He grew up attending Smyrna Baptist, his family is buried in its graveyard and he’s purposely kept his name on the church rolls, making him the lone member, even though he attends Beech Branch Baptist Church, near Luray, S.C., about 15 miles away.

Gray helps keep up the grounds and watches out for troublemakers. A couple of residents closer to the church call him whenever a vehicle stops at the church.

Gray said individuals have broken into the venerable structure, stolen pews and otherwise caused trouble.

“More often than not when I get a call that someone’s down here at the church, they’re up to no good,” he said.

Constructed somewhere between 1827 and 1848 (dates vary according to sources), Smyrna Baptist was organized in 1827 and originally known as Kirkland Church, after its first minister. By the early 1830s, the church was big enough that it could afford to try three members for heresy regarding communion.

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In the end, the trio, a husband, wife and the wife’s sister-in-law, were excommunicated and would go on to form a nearby church, Antioch Christian Church, which operated from 1835 until 1939.

Smyrna Baptist is described a meeting house-style structure, featuring a front with a central Palladian window “flanked by balancing nine-paneled entrance doors with transoms.”

The windows have louvered shutters with eyebrow-type windows located above each window. The structure’s original roof was covered with metal in the 1970s. Smyrna Baptist was placed on the National Register of Historic Properties in 1976.

Among those buried in its graveyard are Dr. Benjamin Lawton (1822-1879), a local physician and planter who signed the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession and served as a captain in the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry Regiment; and Lt. Col. Benjamin B. Kirkland (1838-1885), who served in the 1st South Carolina Infantry Regiment and was wounded at Second Manassas.

There’s also a memorial to William Baker Rice Jr., an Allendale County native who volunteered for the Royal Air Force during World War II and was killed in action on April 28, 1942, over what was then Bengal, India, and is buried in Chittagong War Cemetery, in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

The decline of Smyrna Baptist and hundreds of other rural churches across the region reflect the migration that’s taken place during the past century as significant numbers of Southerners have packed up from rustic locations and made their way to larger towns and cities, be they medium-sized polities such as Columbia, SC, Knoxville, Tenn., or Richmond, Va., or large metropolises such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Jacksonville.

Smyrna Baptist and churches like it reflect an era that’s long passed. Hugh Gray is doing what he can to keep his small church from falling victim to the ravages of time and vandals, but one has to wonder who will take over once he inevitably joins his family in the church’s graveyard at some unknown point in the future.

And who is looking after all the many small churches that don’t have someone like Hugh Gray to watch over them?

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2 thoughts on “Keeping a lonely vigil over antebellum church, area history

  1. A lovely looking building. Surely there could be some local, non-congregational community purpose it could be put to? Do American towns have local government-funded community centres for general use?

    • There are local government-funded community centers in the US, but I’m afraid this small church is so far away from any community of any size that there aren’t enough people to warrant that type of use. The county it’s located in has been in sharp decline since the Interstate went through in the late 1960s, and today is one of the poorest in the state. People have been moving out of the county since well before that, however. One can only hope that someone else in that area steps up when the time is at hand to keep watch.

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