Church of the Week: Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church
By Bill Segars
In last week’s “Church of the Week” we learned about the community of Lydia, on the western border of Darlington County, and how the economic times helped to shape Mt. Elon’s history. In this week’s church, Wesley Chapel United Methodist, we’ll see that it was impacted by the same economic events with a very important additional influence. The growth and evolution of Methodism in South Carolina played a vital part in not only the beliefs of the Methodist Church, but also how they worshiped and the facilities they used.
Recorded history is very important to many Southern rural churches. Wesley Chapel is very fortunate to have Johnny Andrews as their Church Historian. I am fortunate to have copies of his written history, which is where most of this abbreviated version of Wesley Chapel’s history was obtained.
Wesley Chapel’s history began in 1789, shortly after Francis Asbury brought Methodism to the Pee Dee in 1785. As a result of that visit, the Pee Dee Circuit was established in 1786. The Gully Meeting House, forerunner of Wesley Chapel, was established in 1789. Be mindful of these dates, 1785-1789. This was right after the American Revolution. To start an entirely new religion at this time was a big challenge and was not supported by the masses. There were enough people in the area to embrace this new religion and the Gully Meeting House was established under a bushy arbor.
Unlike other religions that had a preacher for each church, Methodist churches started out with circuit riding preachers, ministers that would ride the countryside on horseback, stopping, staying, and preaching wherever they could find willing souls to help them and listen. Aris Woodham and Spencer Harrell were two people in the area that opened their homes to the circuit riders and encouraged neighbors to attend services held at camp meetings. (Remember the term camp meetings, there’s an entire article that I can write on camp meetings and their facilities, some are still active in South Carolina today.)
A small building was erected facing the dirt road from McCullom’s Ferry to the Darlington Court House. This is basically where Highway 15 is now, at the Boggy Gully. In 1832, the group moved to higher ground, about one and a half miles south, on a six-acre tract of property purchased from Jesse Clements and John Clements Jr. for ten dollars. By 1834, they had completed a basic, but comfortable Meeting House style building to serve their needs and changed their name to Wesley Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
In 1857, under the leadership of Rev. J. F. A. Elliott, a new larger building was built to meet the demands of the growing congregation. The size of this building afforded the church the opportunity to move from the camp meeting style of worshiping into the newly formed class meeting style. More importance was being placed on teaching as an educational tool to enhance the members spiritual welfare than the day long camp meeting sessions. This is what we know of today as Sunday School.
Remember last week’s article stating the Lydia Post office opened on January 31, 1856? Lydia’s growth that followed paralleled the growth of Wesley Chapel. Even though Wesley Chapel was about one and a half miles outside of “downtown” Lydia, the strong farming based community enabled the membership of Wesley Chapel to increase and prosper. The Women’s Missionary Society, the forerunner of United Methodist Women, was started and camp meetings were held as an annual event at this location for about a decade.
With positive economic times abounding, a movement began in 1907 to build a new building. This was spearheaded by Rev. J. R. T. Major and a goodly number of members including James Register. The membership felt like they had outgrown their 1857 40′ x 66′ building. Very quickly a building committee was formed by members Register, Lee, Reynolds, Best, Harrell, Clements and Lawson; many descendants of these members continue to be pillars of the church today. In a very short time $5,000 was raised to begin construction.
By early 1908 the 1857 building had been demolished, which sadden some members. But when they realized that the new building would be built in the exact location as the old building, this gave those members a since of continuity between the past, the present and the future. Times were prospering and the new church was certainly a visual sign that Wesley Chapel was moving forward with The Lord’s work.
Mr. J. E. Moon, a native of Greer SC, who was living in Hartsville at the time, was chosen to be the builder of their new edifice. With the help of local members, work moved very quickly on their wood frame building. As was the typical practice, timber was cut locally and the lumber sawn locally for the building materials. The Modified Gothic building’s interior contained an auditorium, a choir loft, Sunday School class rooms, a pastor’s study and a ladies parlor. The interior walls are covered with horse hair lime based plaster applied to sawn wood lath. The ceiling has directional tongue and groove, v-grooved wood ceiling boards.
The exterior elevations exhibit several Gothic architectural elements for instance the pointed windows under steeply pitched roofing. The present stained glass windows are memorial windows, which replaced the original red colored glass. Horizontal 1×6 lap siding covers the exterior walls. The bell tower and gables are covered with hand drawn cypress wood shingles installed in a staggered edge pattern. The bell tower houses a bell which is rung by pulling a rope just inside the front doors.
The first service was held in the new church on December 20, 1908 with a full dedication service held on January 10, 1909. Allow me to point out a technicality about a dedication service or a consecration service, depending on the religion. Either service is held only when the building is debt free. Otherwise the building is simply blessed upon moving in. This fact tells us that when the congregation moved into the new building at Wesley Chapel, it was completely paid for; which was quite an accomplishment for these times.
The present congregation of Wesley Chapel continues to do an admirable job of maintaining their building in its original state. Additions or repairs that have been made to the building are in the same or similar character as the original 1908 construction. I’m sure that this would make Mr. Moon and the original building committee proud of the building that you see today at 3061 Wesley Chapel Rd. in Lydia.
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 40-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 750 religious edifices throughout the state. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact him at: email@example.com.