Church of the Week: Welch Neck Baptist Church
By Bill Segars, Guest Writer
I don’t think the News & Press has enough ink to print all of the written history that has been maintained concerning this old Baptist congregation, the Welch Neck Baptist Church. This congregation is not only one of oldest “Dissenter” congregations in South Carolina, but they have maintained an enormous amount of printed records. Before we go any further, I feel that I need to explain the term “Dissenter” so no one will get offended. It is not a bad or derogatory term. In the Church Act of 1706, South Carolina established the Anglican religion as the religion of the State. One of the main reasons for settling the new land, away from England and the Church of England, was religious freedom. Provisions were made in this act for any group to establish their own religion without persecution, but they were to be called “Dissenter” and they were required to worship in “Meeting Houses”, not a church. During this time, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were commonly known of as “Dissenters,” meaning a person or group that dissented, or moves away from an established church, political party, or majority opinion. Now that we’ve gotten that cleared up, let’s get back to Welch Neck.
The first religious service held among this settlement of Welch people from Pennsylvania was on the first Lord’s Day of January 1738 by Rev. James C. Furman. They adopted the name of Pee Dee Church, since it was located on the Pee Dee River. Let us put that 1738 date in prospective: Charles Towne, the first settlement in the Carolina was settled in 1670; Charleston Baptist, the first Baptist church in Carolina, was established on September 25, 1682; Pee Dee Church in January of 1738. For back woods people settling in an unknown area, that’s a fast time line. More importantly, the quickness of starting a church shows the great importance this group placed on religion and staying in contact with God.
This article is not intended to be a complete history of this congregation. But, for those interested in learning more, there is a 69-page book written about the complete history of Welch Neck Baptist Church that was compiled in 1988, and was the source of much of this information.
Let’s fast forward to the year of 1928. By then, the name of Welch Neck Baptist had been adopted on March 17, 1785. The congregation moved from the Northern bank of the Pee Dee River to the Southern bank, in the town of Society Hill, where they built a wood frame building in 1843. All was going well for Welch Neck and the town of Society Hill. They were now located on high ground, somewhat away from the low-lying land of the rising and falling Pee Dee River. The railroad had come to town. The population had survived The War Between the States, jobs were available, and the economy was looking up.
Then the unthinkable occurred on July 5, 1928, when lighting struck Welch Neck’s beautiful 85-year-old worship center. On that Thursday night during a tremendous storm, a single bolt of lightning struck the wooden building. Within an hour the beautiful building, with most of its precious memories, was a pile of smoldering ruins. So quick was the massive destruction that little could be saved, but several brave souls did attempt to salvage some items. Risking their own lives, they entered the burning building several times to bring out the 80 year old Bible, the piano, one set of the organ pipes, and a few pieces of the pulpit furniture. Take a moment to think about what “things” would you risk life and limb to save from a burning building? I hope that you are never faced with that question, but perhaps we all should think about it.
From all over South Carolina came an outpouring of support and strength for the congregation of Welch Neck in the small hamlet of Society Hill. The famed architect from Hartsville wrote in The State newspaper, “The building itself bore all the marks of those master builders who contributed so much to the stability and charm of our colonial work, and later gave us the stately architecture of the Antebellum South.”
The closing portion of a resolution written by A. H. Rogers and Miss Helen Coker exemplified the faith of this congregation; it was read near the ruins on the Sunday following the fire: “Let us expect great things from God, and in His name let us be willing to attempt great things for Him. Therefore, we accept this as a testing time and we dedicate anew our lives to our God that we may be led of His spirit to carry out His plan for us in the erection of a new Welsh Neck Baptist Church.”
Again I’ll ask a question; would you be willing to have this positive of an attitude in the face of such a devastating loss?
Even before the ruins were cleaned up, the congregation began making plans to rebuild their house of worship. Bennettsville native Henry Dudley Harrall was hired as the architect for the new building. Fund raising began, and money begins to flow in slowly. Enough money was accumulated that construction began with a groundbreaking ceremony on July 8, 1929, almost exactly one year after the fire. By November of 1929, $18,000 had been collected and expended on the building; the only problem was, it was not finished. The exterior was completed and it certainly appeared to be a finished building, but nothing on the inside had been done. When I say nothing, I mean nothing- no floor, no walls, nothing- but the outside looked good, and everyone seemed to be pleased with the progress.
With construction spanning the time of July to November of 1929, that time frame encompasses October 24, 1929. For those that may have forgotten the significance of that date, does the Stock Market Crash of 1929 ring a bell? Times were hard, and there was simply no money available to continue the building process at the pace that the members desired. Cutbacks were necessary; even the Pastor, Rev. C. E. Stevens’, salary was cut, and he was given permission to seek additional work as a “half time preacher”. What did not waver was the dedication of the congregation to complete their building, and their giving to missions. Even facing hard times and a strong desire to finish their building, Welch Neck continued to send 25% of any money collected to the Baptist Convention in support of mission work.
Little by little, progress was being made inside the building. On July 19, 1931, the anxious congregation couldn’t wait any longer; they held the first service in the unfinished building. The interior was far from finished, with no heat, sub flooring only, handmade benches, and no painting; but it was finally their church home. That first service was the spur needed to push on to the final completion. Progress continued to be slow; most everyone realized that there just was not enough money available.
By June of 1935, a small group of ladies of the church had had enough. The “Ladies Aid Society,” a group of 15 ladies banded together to make plans for the upcoming church’s 200th Anniversary in 1938. The ladies were determined to hold that service in a completed building; “It can’t be done” was not an option. They were going to see that completion was achieved by January of 1938. Completion to this group of headstrong ladies was not just painting the interior of the building; they wanted it be completed with new pews, new pulpit furniture and a new organ. To make a long story short, the ladies’ 2-½ year endeavor may be summed up with: “No is not an acceptable answer.” And, they did it; the new Pilcher Pipe Organ was dedicated on October 3, 1937, and the Bicentennial Service was held in the completed sanctuary on April 3, 1938.
As with most churches, the history of Welch Neck Baptist Church’s 277 years has experienced a fair share of peaks and valleys. However, their strong willed faith has driven this congregation up the hills of adversity to be a strong guiding light not just for Society Hill, or Darlington County, but as an example to all that now know the real story of what can be done through faith if you believe in God and set your mind to it.
Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821. He uses his 39-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 700 religious edifices throughout the state.