Jesus Comes to Penhook

Jesus Comes to Penhook



Scots-Irish Presbyterians

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland inherited the English and Irish thrones, uniting the crowns and making him King James I of England, Scotland and Ireland. As James was a Protestant king, and Ireland was a Catholic nation, his rule in Ireland was mostly titular. The English planed to pacify the recently conquered Irish by planting Protestant, English speaking loyalists there. Other plants or plantations as they were called, had been attempted in Ireland, but this was the most effective. In 1607 two Ulster chieftains moved to France rather than live under English rule. James confiscated their land, consisting of about four million acres and encouraged settlement on these lands - especially by Scottish Presbyterians. The Gaelic Irish were not displaced; the majority remained in occupation of their land, usually in close proximity to and even in the same vicinity as the Protestant settlers. This was no land grab, but an immigration into unoccupied and undeveloped land. Most Scots built their farms and homes on overgrown terrain best described as a wilderness.



Lowland Scotland in the 17th century was overpopulated and rents were high. The lands of Ulster lent themselves to the same farming practices that these families knew in Scotland. Scots settling in Ulster could expect to reasonably lease land  for a period of 21 to 31 years, an improvement over Scotland. By1619 over 8,000 families had relocated to Ulster and by 1715 one in three persons of  Ulster’s 600,000 inhabitants were Scotch Presbyterians.

 Consequently, there were three major ethnic groups and three religions in the Ulster: English/Anglican, Scottish/Presbyterian, and Irish/Catholic. The Irish resentment of occupation by Protestants made them more devoutly Catholic than ever. The Anglican Church, because of the English conquest, was the official Church of Ireland. Thus, surrounded by hostile Catholics and feeling oppressed by the government sanctioned Anglican church, Scottish Presbyterians became defensive and intolerant of other religions. They were able to maintain close ties with the Presbyterian Church in Scotland by frequent visits of ministers, but there were differences. While in Scotland, the church was sponsored by the government in Ulster, no such support existed.  Presbyterians had no role in the government, but paid tithes to the Anglican church. 

The Scots had come to Ulster for a better life, but the population of Ulster had grown, land was growing scarce and rents were rising. In short, the economic and social conditions were deteriorating and America was becoming attractive. Vast numbers of people left Ulster for America between the years 1717 and 1727, which corresponds to the end of the leases issued in the 1690s. Since America was a part of the British Empire, there were no emigration restrictions, and no language problem, and best of all, there was cheap land in America, no landlords, and no tithes to the Anglican church    As a linen trade route existed between Ulster and Philadelphia, finding passage was not a problem; emigrants could  find passage aboard a linen trade vessel. The ships  bringing  flax from Pennsylvania to Ulster welcomed  a return cargo. Most people could pay cash, but some emigrants  arranged to become indentured servants, selling their labor for a period of seven years for a ticket to America. In the 1730s and 1760s Carolina offered land, tools and seeds to settlers, thus making Charleston another popular destination.

Sometimes entire congregations left together, in 1772 a Rev. William Martin led 467 families to Carolina.  Some Catholics and Anglicans came across, but the vast majority of people leaving Ulster were Presbyterian Scots. Between 1717 and 1800 some 250,000 people left Ulster for America: 20,000 Anglo-Irish, 20,000 Irish, and the rest were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. The arrived mostly at Pennsylvania and Carolina ports. Soon, land became scarce and prices began to rise, especially in Pennsylvania. As they had no roots in Pennsylvania the cheap and fertile land of the Virginia Valley  attracted them. The Swannanoa Valley of Virginia was also a large trade route between the middle and the southern colonies.  With time, Presbyterian missionaries also moved south, but many of the same Scots-Irish who had purchased cheap land in Virginia and turned it into desirable farmsteads, sold the farms to new Scots-Irish migrants and bought even cheaper land in the Carolinas - migration became a trait of Scots-Irish culture. Although the strategy was profitable, it presented a problem for the Presbyterian Church, which required an educated clergy, and educated laity, and depended  on an organized structure connected thr9ough  presbyteries and synods; in short, Presbyterians needed to be settle. The church and the frontier movement were not compatible; and as one writer put it, "they were sheep without shepherds, and many strayed."  The Methodist and Baptist got 'em.

In the sparsely populated areas, in the rough frontier days, the pattern of organization in the Methodist Episcopal Church worked especially well.  In the Methodist denominations, congregations do not employ  a pastor of their own choice. Instead, a bishop appoints a pastor to a congregation or a group of congregations. Methodist clergy were appointed to circuits wherever people were settling. Because of the distance between churches the circuit riders would ride horseback and were called circuit riders or saddlebag preachers, as they traveled  with what could fit in their saddlebags. They preached at any place available: homes, courthouses, fields, and meeting houses. They were enormously successful. As more  people moved westward towards the mountains, they encounter a British government that did not want settlers on Cherokee land.  The Scots-Irish settlers thus began fighting both the British and the  Cherokee. When the Revolution started in 1776, the British  enticed  the Cherokee to attack the settlers. Unsurprisingly, the Scots-Irish were on the patriot side of the Revolutionary War, seeing it in part as an extension of their old conflict with the British.  After the Revolution, the government of North Carolina gave large land grants to Revolutionary War veterans, thus encouraged many of the Scots-Irish  to push on even further west.

One grave marker at the Mounds cemetery, of a Revolutionary War veteran, which reflects the westward movement to Penhook, reads:

 Edward Johnson      
 b. North Carolina,1766
d. January 26, 1846
There is an official DAR marker attached to the headstone indicating  that he was a Revolutionary War Veteran.

In addition to the loss of members to the Methodist and Baptist, the Presbyterians had internal problems in the 18th century. The church  split between the Old Side, congregations of Scots-Irish, who favored a doctrinally-oriented church with a highly-educated ministry and the New Side, mostly English congregations, who put greater emphasis on the revival techniques. The formal split between Old Side and New Side only lasted for a few years, but the two orientations remained  in the reunified church. Because of the loss of members, the Cumberland Presbytery in Kentucky drawing on New Side precedents, began ordaining men without the educational background required by the synod. Presbytery and synod were involved in a protracted dispute which touched upon the nature of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Eventually the synod expelled the Cumberland Presbyterians.

English Methodist

The Methodist branch of Protestant religion dates to England, 1739, and  the teachings of John Wesley. While at Oxford, Wesley and several other students formed a group devoted to study, prayer and helping others; called  "Methodist" by their fellow students because of the way they used "rule" and "method"  in their services. Wesley was an  ordained ministers in the Church of England, but he was  barred from preaching  in Church of England pulpits because of his evangelistic methods. He preached in homes, farm houses, barns, and wherever he found an audience. In America the Methodist soon split into a number of separate denominations. John Wesley was a  proponent of "Open Air Sermons" and the Methodist settlers in south west Arkansas held a camp meeting at Liberty (between Fulton and Washington).  Every autumn  folks would come from all directions for a week of socializing  and listening to preachers. Unlike traditional religious events these meetings provided  participants, called campers, with almost continuous services; once one speaker was finished (often after several hours) another would often rise to take his place. These sorts of meetings were a contributing factors to the Second Great Awakening. Camp meeting music was the creative outpouring of participants seized by the spirit of a sermon. Someone would take some words from the sermon and make a melody, either from a known tune or made up on the spot. The line would be sung again and shaped into a stanza. These spontaneous hymns were started by somebody feeling the spirit and taken up others until the meeting became a singing ecstasy with lots of movement and lots of Hallelujahs. Other hymns were composed deliberately and lined out from the pulpit.
Methodist Camp Meeting 1819 (Library of Congress) Straw was spread out all around the raised altar  From the doctrine of original sin the tradition of a mourner’s bench and alter call arose. The bench was two feet high and several feet long - a place of outbreaks of tears over sin. When the preacher managed to infect participants with the spirit, these "mourners" would be struck down and fall on to the straw. As life became more settled, the emotional elements of Methodist services gradually faded away. If someone struck by the spirit fell down in a Methodist service today, an ambulance would be called. 


In 1939, the three branches of American Methodism (the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South) came to an agreement to reunite under the name "The Methodist Church." This  church prospered, as did the newly reunited Evangelical United Brethren Church. In 1968, bishops of the two churches took the necessary steps to combine their churches into what has become the second largest Protestant denomination in America, The United Methodist Church.

English Baptist

Baptist are characterized by the practice of adult baptism, local church autonomy and a disavowal of creeds, which lead to a diversity of beliefs and practices. The movement is linked to the English Dissenter and Separatist movement of the 16th century. By 1644 about fifty  Baptist churches were already established in England. Roger Williams came to America to escape religious persecution, and in 1638 established the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. By the mid eighteenth century the number of Baptists increased greatly as a result of the Great Awakening. By 1775 there were 42 churches in the North Carolina area, referred to as the  Separate Baptists. They believed in emotional conversion, membership in a community, personal accountability and adult baptism by immersion. 

By the early 1800's Baptists began to organize and expand, they formed missionary societies, which led to other organizational structures that would define and make a denomination of Southern Baptists. The   Baptists migrated from England, where they had been discriminated against by the Church of England. They established their first church in Charleston in 1682.  New members, both black and white, were converted by Baptist traveling preachers.  As the Baptists welcomed African Americans more so than other denominations, black congregations and churches were founded in South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia before the Revolution. 

Before the Revolution, Virginia and most other southern colonies, the Anglican Church was the state-established church and was supported by taxes, in Britain.  Baptist preachers were prosecuted for preaching without licenses from the Anglican Church.  James Madison at the Constitutional Convention, ensured that religious rights were incorporated into the constitution. Thus, when the American Revolution began, most Baptists became active patriots in the cause of independence.  Before the Revolution  Baptist and Methodist evangelicals in the South  promoted the view of man's equality before God, which embraced African Americans.  They challenged the hierarchies of class and race, and urged planters to abolish slavery. But, the next generation of Baptist preachers accommodated themselves to  society. Rather than challenging the gentry on slavery, they began to interpret the Bible as supporting its practice.

By the 1830's tension began to mount between the Northern and Southern Baptists. The Baptists in the south met in May of 1845 and organized the Southern Baptist Convention
. By the late 19th century African Americans established a separate association within the Baptist denomination.

Baptists in different regions also prefer different types of organization. Baptists in the north prefer a loosely structured system composed of individuals who paid annual dues, while Baptists in southern churches prefer a more centralized organization of congregations under the direction of one denominational organization. Each church is free to determine its own membership and to set its own course. It may enter into alliance with other churches as it chooses, so long as those other churches are willing.

African American Churches

Evangelical Baptist preachers traveled through the South during the Great Awakening in the late 18th century and converted many slaves to the Baptist church, where they had active roles in new congregations. Freed blacks and slaves had participated in earlier Baptist churches, such as one in Savanna, Georgia before 1800.But in  the slave quarters, Blacks organized their own  "hush harbors" where they mixed African rhythms, singing, and beliefs with evangelical Christianity. Here the spirituals, with their double meanings of religious salvation and freedom from slavery, developed and flourished. Also Black preachers polished their "chanted sermons," an intoned style of extemporaneous preaching.  These meetings provided one of the few ways for enslaved African Americans to express and enact their hopes for a better future.

After the War northern Black Protestants attempted to assist the adjustment of the freed slaves to American life. In a  missionary effort, northern Black leaders established missions to their Southern counterparts, resulting in the  growth of independent Black churches in the South between 1865 and 1900. Predominantly white denominations, such as the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal churches, also sponsored missions, opened schools for freed slaves, and aided the general welfare of southern Blacks, but the majority of African-Americans chose to join the independent black denominations founded in the northern states.

Within a decade the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) churches claimed Southern membership in the hundreds of thousands, far outstripping that of any other organizations. They were  joined in 1870 by a new Southern-based denomination, the Colored (now "Christian") Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by indigenous Southern black leaders.

 Finally, in 1894 black Baptists formed the National Baptist Convention, an organization that is currently the largest black religious organization in the United States.The  missionary effort was successful. It helped finance new churches and schools,  facilitated an increase in Southern black literacy (from 5% in 1870 to approximately 70% by 1900), and, as had been the case in the North, promoted the rise of many African American leaders. But there were tensions between Northerners, who saw themselves  as  superiors of their less fortunate Southern brethren. Southerner Blacks had their own ideas about how to worship, work, and live. Most Northern blacks  saw Southern black worship as hopelessly primitive. Northern  "Missionaries"  attempted  to educate Southern blacks  to true Christianity. They wanted the Southerners to give up all remnants of African practices, such as drumming, dancing, and moaning, for a more  intellectual and sedate form of religious practice. Southern blacks thought of religion as a matter of oral tradition, immediate experience, and emotions. Northerners thought Christians should be able to read the Bible, understand the creeds and written literature of a text oriented religious system. Gradually, Southern religious life became more variegated, with Protestant churches adopting a variety of styles. Generally, poorer and more rural churches clung to older customs, and to more emotional forms of worship. As the majority of Southern blacks remained in rural areas, many of the traditions of the "hush harbors" remained a part of church service.

Religion in urban areas of the South also changed after the 1880s. Issues of class arose, as middle-class blacks began to build a religious life  like that of their white counterparts: the AME Church, organized  formal churches, educational networks of schools and colleges, and a publishing arm. Yet unlike white church leaders, who were  engaged in  disputes about biblical history and interpretation, middle-class blacks were mostly concerned with issues of social justices. This cause promoted a degree of political unity among Black Protestant groups that eventually outweighed their many differences. In 1895, a gathering of over  2000 clergy was held in Atlanta, Georgia. The three largest conventions of the day: the Baptist Foreign Missionary Convention, the American National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Educational Convention merged to form the National Baptist Convention of the United States of America. This brought both northern and southern black Baptist churches together.

Locally, the Macedonia Baptist  Church was organized in 1869, the Hopewell Church  and the Camp Springs sometime later. Of the remaining churches around Penhook, the Macedonia Baptist Church is the most viable.

White Penhook churches

 Rev. William Stevenson, of the  Methodist Episcopal Church, South, came to Hempstead county in 1816, and organized a church. Rev. Mr. Perkins, of the Missionary Baptist Church, located where Nashville now stands, organized a Baptist congregation and was their pastor until his death in 1851. Rev. James Black, of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, came to Arkansas in 1826 and organized the first Cumberland Presbyterian  church, called the Mound Prairie Congregation.
1875, the Presbyterians built a new church in Penhook. Before that great grandpa Robert Wilson used a buggy pulled by a spirited horse to attend church at Washington. The buggy ride took about and hour in good weather, but a wagon pulled by a team of mules would take twice as long. As the  roads had no gravel cover, wet weather could turn the roads into quagmires, making the going slower.

The Methodist built a log church around 1817, then a fine  two towered building later in the century. That building had doorways at the base of both towers; one entry for women and one for men, as the sexes were seated on opposite sides of the church. The Methodist church was destroyed in a storm in the 1940's and never rebuilt. By then the Presbyterians were running out of members and so the Methodist began holding services in that church.

The Baptist built a church in Penhook in 1893 and a bell tower was added in 1907. At midnight each New Year's, somebody rings the bell; Penhook has a pulse, but it is ever so faint.  

Penhook baptism
Penhook Baptist ceremony in the 1940's. Notice the absence of obese individuals.

Originally, the  gentry was comprised mostly of Presbyterians, who were large land holders and slave owners. The Presbyterian church said little about slavery. Their church services were formal and the congregation was always well dressed. Their ministers were well educated and Presbyterians sent their daughters to finishing schools and their sons to college in the east, if they could. As they tended to marry into other families within the gentry, there were many cousins who became husband and wife. Although they spoke a Southern dialect, they employed correct English grammar, and tended to look down at those who did not.

The merchants and business men were mostly Methodist, roughly forming a middle class. Church services were much like the Presbyterians, with a few differences in doctrine. The Methodist retained the old emotional element of the early Methodist church through the yearly camp meetings. After WWII those camp meeting began to fade.

The Baptist were drawn mostly from the working class. Their preachers were less educated and their church services more emotional with frequent alter calls. As their children were often needed on the farm, many did not finish high school, some did not finish 8th grade. You need not wear a coat and tie to an early Baptist service.

presbyterian church
The first couple married in the Presbyterian Church in 1875 were James S. Wilson and Mary Stuart, my grandparents.

The Presbyterian church in Penhook was decommissioned after World War II and the synod planned to dismantle the building, but discovered the church was on private land. The Methodist  began holding services there until that congregation also diminished. The building sat empty until a calm night in 2008 when a dead red oak tree fell across the nave collapsing the building. A few of us poked around the fallen church and found a half grown great horned owl peaking out of the collapsed bell tower.

The next day a few family members returned, one with a dead mouse and another with some bacon bits, but the owl could not be found. The Sidhe-that-Rides-the-Wind 

 departed Penhook and no one looks for an early return.

 Walker Percy in The Last Gentleman wrote,"God writes straight with crooked lines".