CLOVER — For Jim and Beth Jackson, Bethel Presbyterian Church isn’t just a house of worship – it’s a reminder of a family lineage that dates back to the country’s frontier beginnings during the late 18th century to their own modern-day history.
The Jacksons, Clover natives, both have ancestors buried in the adjoining cemetery from the late 1700s, were baptized at the church as infants, attended the church’s Bible school as children and were later married there as young adults.
For the church’s 250th anniversary on Sunday morning, the Jacksons – along with other longtime church members – swapped out their normal Sunday clothing for more traditional garb.
Jim wore a pair of white pants and a vest over a custom shirt made by his wife. Beth wore a poncho over a dress along with a long-brimmed hat. The “Sunday school sweethearts” will also celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary later this year.
“It’s pretty hard to believe,” Beth said of the church’s history, which predates the Revolutionary War and the U.S. itself. “We’ve been faithful so long,” added Jim, a church elder.
Founded in 1764, Bethel Presbyterian celebrated its anniversary with the dedication of a new roadside marker in front of its main building along Highway 557 near Clover. The marker details the church’s history as the oldest Presbyterian church in York County, founded when traveling conditions and population scarcity made formal worship houses rare in rural areas.
“This really was a pioneering church,” said Dr. Lacy Ford, a history professor and vice provost at University of South Carolina, whose parents were both church members. “I suspect it was the church that created the community.”
During a service before the dedication, Ford recounted some of the church’s past, which included his own personal experiences growing up in the area. He said the church was barely over a decade old when the Revolutionary War broke out, politically fracturing the state.
The service kicked off a year-long celebration for the church, which will feature several events and conclude in November with a special visit from a pastor from Jackson, Miss.
At a time when support for the war in South Carolina’s Upstate was divisive, Bethel’s congregation was unanimous in its rebellious stance against British rule, Ford said.
Pre-Civil War church members included nearly 100 slaves, including Elias Hill, who later became a pastor of his own church. Hill later gained national notoriety after he was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. Ford said several black church members learned how to read the Bible at Bethel, despite statewide laws that banned slaves from becoming literate.
The church’s current white building, constructed in 1873, is the fourth in its history. Previous buildings were lost due to fire or updated, according to Cary Grant, a longtime church member and unofficial church historian. He and his wife, Helen, have been with the church for 40 years.
Grant said the historical marker will help tell the story of the church to those driving by who may have no idea that the cemetery is home to 52 Revolutionary War graves, as well as 76 Civil War burial sites and dozens of other final resting sites for veterans of wars from World War I on.
The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and the earliest gravesite was dug in 1774. Several of the Revolutionary War-era graves were from the historic Battle of Kings Mountain, a pivotal moment in the war, said Rev. John Gess, who was been with Bethel for 28 years.
Gess said the church has played a large role in shaping the surrounding community with the creation of several daughter churches in the county as well as in Gaston County in North Carolina. The church also has continued its expansion across the U.S. border in Monterrey and other cities across Northern Mexico, Gess said.
“We hope the church will grow along with the community,” said Jim Jackson. “We hope it lasts another 250 years.”
Jie Jenny Zou • 803-329-4062