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York County church to celebrate 250th anniversary

Bethesda Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest churches in York County, is celebrating its 250th anniversary on Sunday.

The York church is known for its plain style, pre-Revolutionary War beginnings and historically rich cemetery filled with well-known surnames and patriots - the oldest identifiable marker reading a death date of Nov. 5, 1777.

The anniversary celebration includes a worship service with a guest minister, the Rev. Charles Edward Raynal III, a historical marker dedication and covered-dish luncheon.

"This is a big deal," said Dr. Robert H. Walker, 45, whose sixth great-grandfather, Henry Neely, was one of the first ruling church elders. "Not many churches survive to celebrate 250 years."

Bethesda, named for the surrounding 16-square-mile region of York County, became a preaching station in 1760, and the community constructed a plain wooden building one mile east of the present church. The church was officially organized in 1769 with the help of the Rev. William Richardson, the pastor of Waxhaw Church in North Carolina.

Fire destroyed the original church in 1780; another wooden church was built at the present site and stood for 40 years; then in 1820, the brick church with a balcony that still sits along McConnells Highway was constructed.

"As far as I know, we are the oldest church building still in use in York County," Walker said. "What you see is that we have a traditional Presbyterian meeting house. The Presbyterians traditionally were plain. We were about God and Jesus Christ - not material things."

Prayer, song, community

Many of Bethesda Presbyterian's 250 members are descendents of the founders, who were Scotch-Irish immigrants.

The anniversary is special to Neil Williamson, 82, a descendent of founder James Williamson, who was too old to fight in the Revolutionary War in 1775. Still, James Williamson is infamously tied to the Battle of Williamson's Plantation, known today as Huck's Defeat.

"It just doesn't feel right if you don't go to church on Sunday," said Williamson, who recalled the excitement of adding electricity to the church in 1936. "The congregation is a wonderful congregation - warm, receptive."

His fond memories of church life in a small community span generations. Williamson can remember carrying the pews out of Bethesda Presbyterian to have Bible school under the big oak trees surrounding the church. Each summer morning for two weeks, the children of the community went to the church.

"I was 8, 9, 10 years old," he said. "I learned all the books of the Bible. I learned a lot of songs, songs I can still recite. Memory work is great. You don't know what it means when you memorize it as a child, but it means so much to you when you get older."

A more recent source of pride for Williamson is the family life center, added in 1992, that includes a day care. The church also has an educational building, fellowship hall, manse and tennis court - all added after 1950.

'Revolutionary crowd'

But it is the church grounds where Williamson spends most of his time. He enjoys helping keep up the historic cemetery, and is especially intrigued by the graves he calls "the Revolutionary crowd."

It is his family cemetery. Bethesda Presbyterian is the church he has attended his entire life. It is also American history and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

There are at least 37 veterans of the Revolutionary War and about 81 Civil War veterans buried at Bethesda Cemetery. Walker can identify the graves of four of his Revolutionary War ancestors. He feels closest to his roots in the church.

"I have a spiritual and historical feeling when I enter the sanctuary," he said. "It's a special day for me on Sundays."

Also buried in the cemetery are at least 65 descendents and family members of Col. William Bratton, local Revolutionary War hero and family patriarch of nearby Historic Brattonsville, according to church historian Harold S. Walker, Robert Walker's father.

The guest minister, Raynal, former director of advanced studies at the Columbia Theological Seminary and former pastor of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, descends from several of the church's founding families, including the Brattons and the Erwins.

Bethesda's history includes hosting camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening, beginning in 1802 after the church's first pastor, the Rev. Robert Boyd Walker, attended movements in Kentucky and Tennessee. Church history states that people came from up to 40 miles away and camped in wooden tents on the church grounds. A large wooden arbor was built in 1859 to accommodate 2,000 worshippers.

African-American slaves and freemen were known to attend church from the balcony of Bethesda Presbyterian before and after the Civil War and go on to form their own local churches.

Progressive congregation

Although there is much history surrounding Bethesda, the Rev. Daniel Smoak considers its 250-member congregation progressive.

"For a church that has the historical roots it has, it's a remarkably forward-thinking church," said Smoak, 34, who has been pastor of Bethesda for two years. "They are proud of the past, but they are definitely not stuck in the past."

The church has expanded its campus over the years and added many family-friendly ministries. The day care enrolls about 90 children.

Among Smoak's goals: "For the church to be inwardly strong and outwardly focused." He wants to develop disciples while reaching out to others through mission work.

Smoak believes he was called by God to preach at Bethesda Presbyterian.

"It's very humbling to be among these folks," he said. "The future is bright. We have a lot to do."