5019 Medlin Road, Monroe, NC
The men and women who built the old Smyrna Church were descendents of English, German, and Irish immigrants who came to America beginning in the 1630’s. Many had moved south from Maryland and Virginia colonies into the Carolinas. Others were descendents of dissenting, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who in the 1740’s came to Philadelphia where they purchased supplies, oxen with wagon and headed south through the great valley of Virginia along what became known as the Great Wagon Road. They followed the Carolina rivers, the Catawba and Yadkin, finally setting in the Waxhaws on land abandoned by the Catawba Indians because of small pox and migration. These were the people who settled what became Mecklenburg and Anson Counties. Union County was carved out of these two in 1842, and Smyrna Church was organized seven years later in August 1849.
The settlers were farmers making a life in the Carolina wilderness. The Methodism of John Wesley was brought into the area by “circuit riders” preaching in homes, under brush arbors, and at Camp Meetings in such places as Zoar just across the state line in South Carolina and at Pleasant Grove that dates back to 1829. Methodism had begun with John Wesley, an Anglican priest of England who sought to reawaken man to the living presence of God in the world and emphasized the methodical study of the Bible. He felt by careful reading and with the use of reason man could understand God’s will. He preached among the poor and down trodden of England, men and women ignored by the Church of England. Even though he once came to America but was unsuccessful in spreading his ideas, laymen migrating from Ireland and missionaries such as Francis Asbury who came to America in 1771 brought with them Wesley’s beliefs that became the foundation for the Methodist Episcopal Church in America in 1784.
Smyrna Church had its beginning on August 21, 1849, when the Baileys, Rogerses, Davises, Brigmans, Arants, Threatts, Waldens, Parkers, Elliots, and others who had been meeting in homes and under brush arbors purchased for two dollars the two acres where the present church stands. John Redfearn deeded the property to trustees Russell Rogers, John Walden, Thomas Threatt, William Parker and John Elliot so they, according to the deed, could “bild or cause to be arrected and bilt a place of worship for the use of the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South according to the rules and discipline which from time to time may be agreed upon and adopted by the ministers and preachers of the said church at their General Conferences.” By tradition the date 1859 was consider the year Smyrna was organized; however, the 1849 deed was located in 2002 by Dixie Ross of Florida in Book 16 page 50 of the Register of Deed, Union County Courthouse. She is a descendent of Russell Rogers and family members who are buried inside the old, ornate fence in the church cemetery. Rogers owned a large tracts of land that surrounded and was south of the present Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. Trustee John Walden owned a large tract of land on Medlin Road south of the Simpson Davis property and his cotton gin. Several other trustees and their family members including Elizabeth Osborne, the wife of John Elliot, are buried in the cemetery; however, many of the markers are no longer legible. One of those is probably that of John Elliot.
Smyrna became a part of the Charlotte District that had been recently organized. In 1870 the district became part of the Western North Carolina Conference. The name Smyrna Episcopal Church South reflects the split within the Methodist church in 1844 over the issue of slavery. The original sanctuary was about half the size of the present building and made of logs that were later covered over in vertical boards depot style, according to Sam Little (1870-1962) who attended the early church as a child. It was located in what is now the church parking lot near the cemetery. A road passed to the south of the building going east to Cheraw Road, one road east of what is today US60l. Just as most homes nearby had a bell to let workers know when to stop to for dinner time, Smyrna also had a bell that was used to signal the community when someone had died so that men could gather to dig the grave. It was used until the early 1950’s when phones became widely available.
What was it like in 1849 when Smyrna was established? Religion was important, but there were few churches. Schooling occurred in the home. It was not until the 1880’s that Belk (1886-1918), Beulah, and Mount Pleasant schools were established. Most families lived in small log cabins surrounded by corncribs; barns for oxen, mules, and horses; and vegetable gardens. No doubt they spent much time clearing the dense forest to create fields for cotton, corn, wheat, and sugar cane for molasses. Corn was the chief crop. It was used for food and for whiskey with excess sold for cash to purchases supplies. In 1878 Ellison Belk, who had lost an army at Gettysburg, purchased 122 acres of land from the Waldens on Lanes Creek. He built a home that still stands on Belk Mill Road, a water powered grist mill, cotton gin, and shop. The nearby Belk grist mill, no doubt, became both a gathering place and source of corn meal and flour. He was instrumental in building both Belk School and Beulah Presbyterian Church (1892). By mid-century subsistence farmers were still in the majority although large farmers, who concentrated on growing and selling cotton, were gaining prominence. Except for the larger landowners, few had slaves. Families entertained themselves with barn raisings, corn shuckings, quiltings bees, horse racing, and weddings. Once a month there was the half-day drive by horse and wagon to Monroe that had been chartered only five years earlier (1844). Monroe was the county seat for the newly created Union County (1842).
What would have been on the minds of these men and women in 1849 other than the weather, the price of cotton? No doubt the cry, “Remember the Alamo” still echoed. The war with Mexico had ended February 2, 1848. Texas had been annexed, and the United States, under President James K. Polk, had taken control of much of the Southwest including New Mexico and California. Manifest Destiny, the belief that America was entitled to all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific, dominated political thought. President Polk, a Democrat born in Mecklenburg County, had just left office and retired to his home in Tennessee. He lived only one year, but during this time he left the Presbyterian church and became a Methodist which he felt was closer to his own beliefs. Zachary Taylor, a member of the Whig party and hero of the war with Mexico, became the new president in March 1849.
The issue of slavery haunted the nation. The debate centered on whether a new state coming into the Union would be a free state or a slave state and the debate over California and Texas was raging. It was an issue that had divided political parties and religious groups such as the Methodist church. It would lead to the Civil War with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. On March 4, 1850, old and mortally ill John Calhoun delivered his last speech in the US Senate. It was an angry indictment of the North’s attitude toward slavery and the South, a defense of states’ rights, and a warning of Southern secession. Two years later the full text of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published which outraged the South. Needless to say, there was a great deal of conflict and uncertainty. Fortunately, the founders of Smyrna Church resisted the temptation of many other Americans to leave for quieter places. By the 1840’s many settlers were heading west on the Oregon Trail with others turning toward California. In 1848 James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill and by the next year word had spread all over the East Coast and the Gold Rush of 1849 was underway with 75,000 gold-fevered American flocking to California.
The Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter off Charleston, SC, in April 1861. By 1862 Smyrna Church was an induction center for local men joining the Confederate Army. Three of these veterans are buried in the church cemetery: Samuel Arant, Alexander Osborne, and Tom Rorie. The National Archives of Confederate soldiers record the activities of the three brothers, John, Harrison, and Alexander Osborne. John and Harrison Osborne enlisted at Smyrna as members of E. Company 48th Regiment of North Carolina. They went on to fight at Fredericksburg where on December 13, Harrison died of wounds received in battle, one among 18,000 casualties. The younger brother Alexander was in the 42th Regiment and was captured July 3, 1862, at one the bloodiest battles—Gettysburg. At this turning point in the war there were 61,000 casualties in three days. Alexander was a prisoner of war in Maryland for the remainder of the conflict. After the war he returned home to the Landsford-Stacks Road section of lower Union County, married Martha Stack, and eventually became a leader at Smyrna. He and his wife are buried on the first row of the church cemetery. For many years the Confederate veterans of the community would gather annual at his home.
The history of our church is chiseled in the granite and slate of its cemetery. Over a hundred graves of early members have only blue slate markers with names long since erased by time and weather. The names of Rebecca Rogers (1870) and Josiah Bailey (1876) are among the earliest still legible. The graves of A. Wats, a former slave born in 1848, and his family lie in front of the present fellowship hall. The only remaining document of the early church is the 1890 Register listing members of various families including Brigman, Little, Rogers, Armfield, Funderburk, Hinson, Rorie, Mangum, Threatt, Hawfield, Deese, Belk, Walden, and others.
There are other bits and pieces of early history. We know that in 1869 J. W. Abernathy was pastor at Smyrna and at Philadelphia Methodist Church (now Baptist). He is listed in Branson’s Business Directory of 1869, found in the courthouse. The 1890 Register also lists ministers from then until the present. They are J.M. Dowman 1895, J.W. West 1897, A.A. Craton 1900, A.R. Surratt 1901, Francis Bradley 1904, J.P. Hipps 1905, John M. Price 1906, A.J. Burris 1907, J.H. Bradley 1912, T.J. Huggins 1913, J.W. Williams 1914, Seymour Taylor 1916, J.J. Edwards 1922, Elyie Myers 1924, R.E. Hunt 1827, G.W. Clay 1928, G.W. Williams 1932, J.C. Grose 1934, R.F. Huneycut 1940, R.C. Kirk 1943, E. A. Bingham 1944, W. R. Ormand 1948, Thomas Langford 1952, Leon Atkinson 1953, David Charlton 1954, Edwin Needham 1958, Curtis Sides 1962, Jack Hilton 1966, George Thompson 1968, Britt Hadley 1972, Haywood Morrison 1976, Cleveland Duke 1981, Janice Clark (the first female minister at Smyrna) 1979, Sydnor Thompson, Jr. 1981, John Taylor 1982, Terry Moore 1984, Bill Melton 1986, David Hughes 1987, Mike Solano 1989, David Hughes 1991, Joe Reeves 1994, Robert Romanello 1996, Lloyd McCracken 2000, Dee B. Martin 2001.
In the 1890’s the people of Smyrna continued to make their living as farmers at the mercy of weather and fluctuating prices. . In the depression years of the late 1890’s the price of wheat went from $1.20 a bushel in 1881 to 50 cents in 1895. Cotton was 10 ˝ cents a pound in 1881 and 5 cents in 1894. Thirty years after the Civil War slavery had given way to the sharecropper system. For many blacks this was not an improvement. Often unscrupulous landowners rented land to blacks who still could not read nor understand math and were at a distinct disadvantage at the end of the year when they settled with the white landowner. Sharecropping was wide spread in Union County until the early 20th century. The Supreme Court had upheld the policy of separate by equal in relation to the races, and it was a policy defended by Southerners well into the new century. Segregation was defended from the pulpit and the courthouse. Like the majority of other Southerners, the members of Smyrna supported the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election; however, he lost to Republican William McKinley. Two years later Smyrna was literally blown of its foundations by a cyclone. L.M. Newell, a church superintendent, using his house moving equipment, was able to place the building back on its pillars. (The congregation of 1989 was reminded of this incident when Hurricane Hugo hit in September. Forecasters noted such a storm only happened once every hundred years. Fortunately, the present church survived the eighty miles per hour wind with minor damage.) In 1896 J.W. Little deeded two and one half acres “where the church now stands” on Belk Mill Road (now Medlin Road) to trustees J.W. Brigman, R.W.A. Rogers, and William Funderburk (Book 25 p. 718). The R.W.A. Rogers was the son of Russell, one of the original trustees of Smyrna. The two and one half acres seems to be the same plot that was deed in 1849. According to a 1907 map of the county listing landowners and roads, R.W.A. owned the land on Stacks Road near Mt. Pleasant Church that he probably inherited from his father Russell. The cemetery was expanded in 1937 with the addition of 3.1 acres deeded to trustees Joseph Hinson and Jim Mangum by Lawrence and Emma Howie (Book 105 p. 101). The largest financial gift to the church came in 1989. In her will, Edith Phillips Polk, who grew up next door to the church, bequeathed an endowment of $30,000 to the church and cemetery fund that has helped tremendously in meeting maintenance costs. Other endowments are recorded in a ledger kept in the church sanctuary.
By 1911 better times had returned. The church had outgrown its log sanctuary; therefore, the congregation decided to build a new sanctuary to the south of the old building. Men of the church including Joseph Hinson, Harvey and Jim Mangum, Alexander Osborne, Minor Rollins and others began construction on the present building. It was completed in 1912 with former pastor A.J. Burris returning for the dedication. The basic design of the sanctuary was not altered until the late 1950’s. It had a very high ceiling, clear glass windows on two walls, two front doors, and a small extension behind the pulpit with three windows. There was no porch or church school classrooms. Two sets of wooden steps at the front lead to doors that opened to the two aisles inside. Pews were made of narrow slats and were aligned in three rows. A pot belly stove was used for heating. Green burlap drapes hanging from wires were used to divide the sanctuary into classes during Sunday school hour. Only the communion table, speaker’s stand, one bench, and a pulpit chair remain of the original furnishings. One way to see the change in past and present and the impact of inflation is to look at Smyrna’s budget for 1944 that was $349. In 2003 it is $33,000.
The front porch and Sunday school rooms of the present church were added in the 1950’s, supervised by Vann Hargett and Paul Thomas, who were building contractors, and other members of the church including Vance and Barron Greene, Joe Hargett, Keith Davis, Excel Hinson, and others. The two front doors were replaced with one and new pews were purchased. Smyrna struggled through the years as more and more Baptist churches were built nearby. It was often at odds with the leaders of the Western North Carolina conference who seemed remote and rather indifferent to the needs of a small country church. Attendance at the morning worship service was around 35 with an average offering of $10.00 each Sunday. Often there was talk of breaking with the conference and becoming independent. Beloved ministers such as J.C. Grose and W. R. Ormand helped members through the difficult times of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and World War II. It was also fortunate to have ministers such as Edwin Needham in the 1950’s and George Thompson in the 1960’s. Reverend Thompson was one of the church’s most eloquent speakers, rivaled only by Reverend Joe Reeves (1994). The success of the church rose and fell according to the appointments of ministers by the conference. Many of the leaders in the 1970’s chose burial plots in the newly created Lakeland Memorial Park in Monroe rather than the Smyrna cemetery, possibly from fear that the church would not survive the century. Beside some effective ministers, the church was also blessed with dedicated leadership. During the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s Keith Davis served for years as its superintendent. Excel Hinson was song leader. Vann Hargett, Vance Greene, and Paul Thomas were long time trustees. Dot Griffin and Mary Arden Hargett served as treasurer. It also had some fine Sunday school teachers including Sarah Greene and Vera Davis.
By the 1950’s and 60’s members of Smyrna supplemented their farm income by working in stores and factories of nearby towns or as carpenters, truck drivers, and mechanics. The bowl weevil wrecked havoc with the attempt to grow cotton, and many turned farmland into pastures for raising livestock. Along with the rest of the country and the South, Smyrna was changed by World War II. Soldiers came home to a country that was rapidly moving from a rural to an urban society. Blacks who had fought in the war were unwilling to return to the position of second class citizens. Women who had worked in factories building the materials for war had learned they had skill that could be used outside the home. Integration of schools became a hot topic for debate with the majority of Southerners staunchly defending the concept of separate but equal, a concept struck down by federal courts in the 1950’s. Television arrived in the late 50’s and altered the way families spent their free time. The solid Democratic South of the Franklin Roosevelt era gradually shifted Republican so that by the 1980’s the majority of members had changed their political outlook. But Smyrna remained a very inclusive church with members representing the entire political and economic spectrum. Several Hispanics who had moved into Union County in the 1990’s joined the church; however, it did not have any blacks except for participants in special programs.
In 1974 the members remodeled the sanctuary by lowering the ceiling, adding carpeting, and replacing gas heaters with central heat and air. It also built a fellowship hall and placed a plaque inside to honor the men and women who had kept the church alive during the Depression and war years. It is a list that continues to grow. Those listed on the plaque are Jack Davis 1952, Parks Mangum 1956, Rachel N. Hargett 1958, Wiley Greene 1961, E.E. Hinson 1967, Crissie O. Davis 1967, Barron Greene 1969, Sarah R. Hargett 1972, Oscar Adams 1972, J.F. Rogers 1973, Richard Phillips 1973, Gladys D. Thomas 1974, Keith Davis 1976, Ada Howie 1976, Ollie Davis 1977, Stonie Robinson 1977, Aline Robinson 1981, Sarah Greene 1984, Lucille Mangum 1986, Levy Miller 1987, Joyce T. Baker 1987, Vann Hargett 1988, Dot Griffin 1989, Edith Polk 1989, Pat McManus 1989, Paul Thomas 1990, Mae Mangum 1992, June Rollins 1992, Blanche Greene 1997, Burl Griffin 1998, Ethel Rollins 1999, Clay Bennett 2000, Mary Adams 2000, Vera Davis 2002, and Annie R. Rogers 2002.
Two of the most effective church superintendents during this period were Vann Hargett and Keith Davis. Both men loved to sing and made sure that the annual fourth Sunday in August Homecomings were filled with music. Approximately 100 members, former members, and friends gathered for the special occasion. With the new air-conditioned fellowship hall, “dinner on the ground” was moved inside from the long weathered tables that had been built under the trees in the churchyard. Prior to the 1940’s members literally spread their dinner on quilts and tablecloths that had been placed on the ground. No tables were used. As late as 1970’s homecoming was followed by a week of revival with the windows opened to let in a night breeze as well as moths and bugs attracted by the light. Women of the church took turns preparing supper for the minister and visiting preacher. On a rainy Sunday, July 4, 1976, Smyrna joined the nation in its bicentennial celebration. Members gather in the fellowship hall at noon for lunch, music, and games. Those present signed a statement of reaffirmation as they celebrated American freedom.
In the 1990’s under the effective leadership of ministers such as Dr. Joe Reeves, Rev. Robert Romanello, and church leaders Don Meadows, Vance Greene, Pam Thomas, Susie and Randy Mullis, Keith Bone, and others, the church gradually grew to an enrollment of 80 plus members with regular attendance often reaching 50. In 1994-5 the members repainted the sanctuary and added new carpet. They replaced the flooring in the fellowship hall, painted the paneling, and added central heating and air-conditioning. Monthly fellowship suppers remained popular along with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Each Christmas the sanctuary was elaborately decorated with flowers and a tree covered in the tatted snowflakes and crocheted angels of Vera Davis (1902-2002), its oldest member. The handbell choir, under the direction of Susie Mullis, performed along with Sunday school classes. After the program members had a covered-dish supper followed by a “white elephant party.” All members brought an object from home they wanted desperately to be rid of. Most “gifts” were opened with great caution, followed by hearty laughter. Morning worship services began at 11 a.m. harkening back to the days Smyrna had been a member of a charge. Sunday School began at 10:45 following a coffee and fellowship time.
Like the rest of the nation, the people of Smyrna held their breaths and watched on television as the new millennium was celebrated in New Zeland, then Australia, then Japan. The threat of Y2K, year 2000 computer chaos, did not materialize. The new century was off to a good start, but quickly went down hill. The Bush-Gore presidential election was in doubt for weeks, the dot.com technology bubble burst, and unemployment grew. A quick recovery was shattered by the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Like other American following the attack, the members were defiant and unified. For the first time an American flag, along with a Christian flag, was placed permanently inside the church. The Pledge of Allegiance became part of the ritual. Those who remembered Pearl Harbor drew comparisons. Today there remains a sense of uneasiness but also confidence. Words such as Terrorism, Afghanistan, al-Qaida, Saddam, Iraq have become common and are often tied to Sunday school lessons. Union County has become one of the faster growing sections of the country, and the spillover from Charlotte-Mecklenburg is gradually making its way down Medlin Road. Today as in the past its members face an uncertain future, but they remain steadfast in a rapidly changing, secular world, urged on by that vast host of witnesses who came before them.
Maurice Thomas, Church Historian