CLOVER — A dozen years before the United States was founded, three men gathered at a spring near Clover and decided to start one of the first churches organized in the colony of South Carolina.
Bethel Presbyterian Church, a small country church on S.C. 557 near Clover, is the oldest Presbyterian church in York County – founded in 1764. The church plans a series of events this year to celebrate its 250 years of ministry, missions and prayer.
“It’s mind-boggling to think of all the things that Bethel church has done over the 250 years we’ve been in existence,” said Cary Grant, who with his wife, Helen, serves as unofficial church historians. The church, he said, “helped form the United States of America, when you think about it.”
Grant and Bethel’s pastor, the Rev. John Gess, said 52 Revolutionary War soldiers are buried in the church’s historic cemetery.
Twenty-nine of those soldiers are named on a Revolutionary War monument at the cemetery’s entrance, and 23 more names are to be added to the other side of the monument later this year, Grant said.
“The members of Bethel played a prominent role in the Battle of Kings Mountain,” Gess said, referring to a Patriot militia’s victory over Loyalist troops. “And Kings Mountain was such a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War; it turned the Southern campaign.”
The church will begin the yearlong celebration of its 250th year with the dedication of a roadside historical marker at 10 a.m. Sunday. Lacy Ford, vice provost of the University of South Carolina, who was born and raised at Bethel, will speak. An 11 a.m. service will follow, during which the Rev. Wallace Tinsley, pastor at Filbert Presbyterian Church in York, will speak.
Church members plan to attend the events in 18th-century period dress, Grant said, and many are making their own garments.
The anniversary celebration will continue with a March 14-16 missions weekend; a May 31 Colonial Days patriotic program that will include the dedication of 23 more names for the Revolutionary War monument; a June 1 homecoming celebration; and a Nov. 16 grand finale.
An extensive newly published church history has been compiled for the occasion and is available for $10. The Grants, who compiled the history with Janice Currence, said they started collecting the material three years ago. The book includes pictures and biographical information about each minister who led the church.
The church was founded by Andrew Floyd, Adam Baird and Col. Samuel Watson, who met at a spring near the church, brought together by their desire to establish a worship place, Grant said. They realized they’d each traveled about the same distance and founded the church just above the spring.
All three founders later fought in the Revolutionary War, Grant said.
The present church building on S.C. 557, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1873 and is the fourth church structure in Bethel’s history, Grant said. A front porch and other additions were added later.
The early membership comprised settlers who had migrated south from Baltimore and through Virginia, Gess said.
“Most of them were Scots-Irish, and they were all Presbyterian,” he said.
Before the Civil War, the church’s membership included many enslaved African-Americans, and some of their descendants gathered at the church in 2011 for a reunion of the Armstrong-Currence family.
Some of those Armstrong-Currence descendants are expected to return to Bethel for the June 1 homecoming, Grant said.
The earliest grave in the cemetery dates to 1774, with the death of William Watson, the 11-year-old son of Samuel and Elizabeth Watson, who are buried beside him. In addition to the 52 Revolutionary War graves, Gess said, 76 Civil War veterans are buried there.
The church has given birth to eight daughter churches, Grant said, including five in York County – Beth Shiloh, Scherer, Bowling Green, Allison Creek and Clover Presbyterian churches. Three other daughter churches are in Gaston County, N.C.
The Grants, both retired, came to Bethel about 40 years ago from one of those daughter churches, Union Presbyterian in Gastonia.
“The people are good, and we stick to the Bible,” Helen Grant said. “And we both do things for the church – not for pay, but just for the glory of God.”
Gess, who has been Bethel’s pastor for 28 years, said the church continues a strong ministry.
“The church, after all these years, is still active, with a pretty vibrant congregation of some 400 members with quite a number of young families, which is good,” he said. “It’s a rapidly changing community with the growth from the Charlotte area.”
One of its ministries is to support young men who attend Reform Theological Seminary in Mecklenburg County, Gess said. Two houses on Bethel’s 72-acre property have been used to house seminary students and their families.
Bethel also supports the expansion of churches in northern Mexico, he said, as well as training for leaders from that area who “go back and lead their people in church planning.”
About a year ago, the church established a history room to display its considerable collection of pictures, published articles and historical artifacts, including a communion set that dates to 1835.
In addition to compiling the church history, the Grants also enjoy helping people search for information about ancestors buried in the Bethel cemetery.
God has richly blessed the church over the last 250 years, Cary Grant said.
“I hope we can be, for the next 250 years, a light on the hill for people to see,” he said. “Maybe our church can be an example to people that they can turn back to God.”