Early Cherokee County Churches
Cherokee County Churches
Churches also antedate the county organization. In 1844 the Mt. Olive Baptist Church was organized.2 Although its exact location is not known, it was apparently near the old San Antonio road, west of the Angelina River. Probably as early as 1845 and certainly not later than 1847 a group of settlers met at the home of B. F. Selman and organized another church, called Palestine for a Mississippi church to which some of the members had belonged. Disguised by a weatherboard covering, the house still stands almost in front of the Linwood stores on the King's Highway. The last of its charter members, Mrs. B. F. Selman (nee Elizabeth Roark) died in 1910. Four years after its organization the Palestine church, then having only sixteen members, dissolved and united with the Mt. Olive church. Just when and why the name Palestine was again assumed has not been ascertained The church still exists, the present building being located on the King's Highway, four miles east of Alto, but is called Old Palestine to distinguish it from the Anderson county seat.
The Rocky Springs Baptist Church, one and one-half miles west of Dialville, has passed its eighty-sixth birthday. The Mt. Zion and Shiloh Methodist churches, near Alto, the Myrtle Springs Baptist Church, afterward moved to Ponta, the Rusk and Jacksonville Methodist churches and the Rusk Presbyterian Church existed prior to 1850, the Shiloh church doubtless being the oldest of the group. The Pine Springs Baptist Church existed at least as early as 1853. The Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, two miles west of Maydelle, has its minutes from the date of organization, September 16, 1854. No doubt others whose records are unavailable are just as old. A number of other churches boast of eighty years' existence.
But many pioneer churches have fallen victim to the ebb and flow of the industrial tide. Once centers of prosperous communities, their sites are now desolate, the near-by stones marking the last resting place of former members, the only proof of their having existed. Prominent on the roster of these ghost churches are Mt Comfort near Maydelle, Social Chapel in the Holcomb settlement on Box's Creek, Liberty near the Pure Oil Pump Station, Mt. Olivant at old Knoxville and the oldest of the group at Keyes Creek.
These little graveyards, now tucked away in off-the-road places, are rarely found in weed-grown wastes. Unique perhaps in East Texas are the graveyard workings held once a year when the flowers bloom most riotously. Then relatives and friends gather on an appointed day to rake and weed and hoe their plots and pay tribute to the dead.
In many cases the early deeds which record donations of church sites specify that the church building be also used for a neighborhood school. For example, John Slaton for one dollar paid by Sam Nelson, William Hammett and William Matthews, trustees for the M. E. Church, South, sold one acre "for church and educational purposes to be free to all orthodox Christians to preach in and to the neighborhood for a schoolhouse and educational purposes all the time they wish to use it."
Pioneer deacons and elders were stern disciplinarians who tolerated no trifling with church rules. Preferring charges against erring members was a frequent item of business recorded in church minutes. In some cases a confession of fault and a promise of refraining from further offense brought forgiveness. In others, the offender was publicly expelled from the congregation.
The annual camp meeting was a red-letter event on the religious calendar. After crops were laid by, pioneer kitchens witnessed an orgy of cooking, prelude to the entire family's going to meeting.
On the appointed day heavily loaded wagons from every direction creaked into the camping ground. Amidst eager interchange of friendly greetings and help, a canvas village swiftly sprang to life. Even while housekeeping arrangements held older folk apart for a few hours, knots of younger folk were happily flitting from tent to tent, exchanging confidences, sharing experiences since last they met. Dusk came. The grounds were bright with torches of blazing pine, securely fastened in dirt-floored scaffolds. The blast of a horn, signal for evening service, hushed the babble of voices.
Swiftly, from every nook and corner, young and old converged upon the center of the camp—the brush arbor. A leader "set the music," doubtless "Brethren, We Have Come to Worship," and the majestic notes of the old tune filled the countryside. Next came a call to prayer.
Quoting Reverend D. D. Shattuck, a veteran camper, "The leader soared aloft, talked right into the face of God, while `Amens' sounded all over the kneeling congregation. All this put the preacher in excellent fix for his sermon. He couldn't help preaching. After the sermon people were invited to the 'Anxious Seat.' When the altar filled, the right person was called on to pray, one who knew how to really talk to God. Before the prayer was over, shouting almost rent the arbor."
Although primarily a religious gathering, the summer camp meeting was also an eagerly anticipated social event. "Go to my tent for dinner. . . . Come with me for supper." Never was there a lack of invitation. For the young visitors from tent to tent the hours between services were often all too short. Many a happy courtship progressed swiftly on camp-meeting grounds.
As the years passed, the various denominations formed the habit of holding their own evangelistic campaigns in their own churches and the pioneer camp meeting lost favor.
Among the prominent pioneer ministers serving these rural churches were. George W. Slover, Samuel C. Box, John A. Box, J. B. Harris, Preston B. Hobbs, D. M. Stovall, S. K. Stovall, John B. Renfro, T. N. McKee and J. A. Kimball.
A history of Cherokee County, 1934 by Hattie Joplin Roach
2 Minutes Sabine County Baptist Association, 1846 and 1849.