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The Oldest Baptist Church in Illinois
By J. M. Peck, D. D., 1855
      THE Baptist Church, now called BETHEL, in the northern part of St. Clair, and southern part of Madison counties, is not the first that was formed in this territory, but is the oldest in consecutive continuance. The house of worship, situated in a beautiful walnut grove, is a commodious framed building, sixty by forty feet; the walls twenty feet high, with large windows on each side, protected by Venetian blinds. The building is painted both within and without. The house is on the road from Belleville to Edwardsville, in St. Clair, one mile south of the boundary of Madison county. The residences of the members extend over a district of country that includes about one hundred square miles or sections of land, and their house is central for all, and is reached by cross roads from each point.

      Within this district are two towns or villages, Collinsville is N. N. W., two and a half miles distant in Madison county, and contains about one hundred and fifty families, and has four congregations and houses of worship: Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and German Lutheran. There might be a Baptist Church formed here, and probably will be in a few years, but hitherto the people have had the good sense not to spoil one good strong church to make two feeble ones. Caseyville is three miles southwest, at the foot of the bluffs that overhang the American bottom, and is the first depot of the Ohio and Mississippi railroad from the river. It contains immense coal beds, which are worked horizontally into the bluffs, and has about one hundred families, and will probably be a manufacturing site. The only paper mill in Southern Illinois is located here.

      With the exception of a portion of the people in these two villages, the population within the boundaries of Bethel Church are enterprising, industrious farmers; and farms now sell within this district from thirty to fifty dollars per acre.

      Bethel Church was constituted by Elders James Lemen, Jr., (as he was then designated,) and John Baugh, on the 10th of December, 1809; and for thirty years after was known by the name of Cantine Creek, from a small stream in the vicinity. It had the appendage, "Friends to Humanity," as its members were opposed to hereditary and perpetual slavery. The constituent members were James Lemen, Sr., (father of the family of that name,) Joseph Lemen, Benjamin Ogle, Robert Lemen, Catherine Lemen, Ketty Lemen, and Polly K. Lemen; all of whom had been members of a Baptist Church in the same county, known by the name of Richland Creek. James Lemen, Sr., Joseph Lemen, and Benj. Ogle, were licensed preachers. James Lemen, Jr., (now Sr.,) was an ordained preacher, previously, and joined the church by letter the same evening after the constitution.

      There had been seven Baptist churches organized in the territory of Illinois previous to this one, from May, 1796, in the following consecutive order: New Design, Mississippi Bottom, Richland, Wood River, Silver Creek, Richland Creek, and Looking Glass Prairie; all of which for many years past have been extinct.

      Consequently this church is now the oldest Baptist Church, and the oldest religious society in Illinois, except French Catholics.

      The monthly meetings of this church were held on the first Saturday and succeeding Sabbath, and alternating between the settlements of Cantine Creek and New Design, in Monroe county. The places of these alternate meetings were thirty-six miles apart, and most of the members, male and female, were accustomed to attend them by traveling this distance on horseback. There was no regularly appointed pastor for many years. James Lemen, Sr., Joseph Lemen, and Benj. Ogle, were ordained in 1810, and James Garrison in 1813. The

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church was supplied with preaching at its regular monthly meetings by these ministers, with James Lemen, Jr. James Garrison had a few members belonging to this church in the American Bottom, some twelve or fifteen miles west of the New Design settlement where he lived, and had it not been for his lamented death in 1816, another church would have been formed there. He was a faithful, orderly and correct preacher, a man much beloved by all classes, and his early death was deeply regretted by his surviving brethren.

      In the intervals of the monthly meetings the preachers of this church were always engaged on the Sabbaths, and frequently on week days in preaching in the destitute settlements on both sides of the Mississippi river. Besides, they had farms to make and cultivate, rapidly increasing families to provide for, and all the personal, social, domestic and public duties of life to perform. They were itinerant missionaries, who furnished their own outfit, provided their own salaries, and then traveled more miles and preached more times each year than many country pastors who have been moderately sustained by the churches they serve. There was not a failure of monthly church meetings on Saturday and Sabbath, during the first period of ten years, in the existence of this church.

      To give system to this sketch, we propose to divide the history of this church into periods:

      PERIOD FIRST. - From December 1809, to May 1819, of nine and half years, no special revival of religion was enjoyed. The first half of this period was the time of the Indian war, and from the continuous alarms many families removed from the country. The population that remained was scattered, and those that remained on the outskirts of the old settlements were compelled to live in forts or "stations," as they were called. For six years very few immigrants came into the country.

      Unhappy divisions had gotten amongst the few and feeble Baptist churches.

      During this period twelve persons were received by experience and baptism in this church; thirty by letter and recommendation; three were dismissed by letter, six excluded, one restored, and three died; leaving in membership thirtyeight.

      PERIOD SECOND, extends from May, 1819, to the close of December, 1830, a space of eleven years and eight months. During this period, besides baptisms in the intervals, there were three special revivals of religion. The first commenced in the spring of 1819, and during that year fifteen were baptized, several received by letter, and the church was much strengthened. Seven more were baptized in 1820.

      The second revival was in 1821, when there was another ingathering, principally in Monroe county, where six persons were baptized in April, and eleven received by letter. This last number included Elder Daniel Hilton, and a company of brethren who came to the Illinois country with him. They were originally from the State of Maine, but had made a halt for a year or two in Ohio, from whence they came to Illinois in 1819. Elder Hilton was a Free Will Baptist in Maine, but by a more enlarged acquaintance with our denomination, his views were in some particulars changed. He was an upright man, of moderate talents, useful in the ministry, and died in the full assurance of hope.

      On the 10th of June, 1821, Fountain Creek Church was organized in Monroe county, by which thirty-two members, including two ordained preachers (Elders James Lemen, Sr., and Daniel Hilton) were dismissed from this church. During the same year fifteen were baptized. In 1822, '23 and '25, eleven persons were baptized.

      In 1824 the church erected the first house of worship, a framed building, one story, forty feet by thirty, which for

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several years they occupied in an unfinished state. This was the first house (other than rough log cabins) erected by a Baptist Church in Illinois.

      The cost of this house when finished was about six hundred and fifty dollars. Immediately on opening the house the third revival began, which continued several months, and twenty converts were baptized.

      During the whole period eighty-five persons were baptized, forty-eight members were received by letter, and ten were excluded. The church reported to the association in 1830 eighty-six members. Hence seventy-five persons must have been dismissed and died within that period.

      PERIOD THIRD. - Of ten years from December 31st, 1830, to the close of December, 1840. There were four revivals within this period. Baptized in 1832 twenty-eight; in 1833 one hundred and ten; in 1838 forty-one; and in 1840 twenty-one. In 1831, 1834 and 1837, eight more. There were no baptisms recorded in 1835 and 1839. There were nineteen excluded within the ten years, one of whom was restored at a subsequent period. The church was prosperous, and made good progress during this period. The whole number baptized was two hundred and eight. Received by letter thirty. At the close of 1840. the number of members was one hundred and sixty-seven. Hence there must have been separated from the church during this period by dismissions and deaths one hundred and thirty-nine. It was during this period the church adopted the practice of making contributions for missions and other benevolent objects, and at the same time began to make some compensation to the ministers that served the churches. These were Joseph and James Lemen, with casual aid from Joseph Chance.

      In 1838 the church took measures to erect a new meeting house, and a subscription to an encouraging amount was raised; the plan of the house laid before the church, and "unanimously adopted," so say the records; and the members pledged themselves to make up any deficiency on its completion, according to their ability.

      On the subscription and pledges given, the committee entered into contracts with the builders. Probably no difficulty would have followed this effort had not the financial interests of the whole country experienced a sudden and most unexpected revulsion.

      The house was finished and opened for public worship on the 5th of September, 1840.

      The building cost about four thousand one hundred dollars. A debt of about one thousand five hundred dollars hung over the church; the financial circumstances of many had been changed; those who thought themselves rich were overwhelmed in debt. Some did not pay their subscriptions; others thought it hard to be required by their pledge to the church to pay their proportion of the deficiency. The pressure, however, was not felt so severely until about 1843. The debt was paid by the members; no pastor was sent into the commercial cities with a lugubrious tale to beg of those who are oppressed with such calls. But the church suffered in its spiritual interests; several were excluded, rather for an improper spirit than a refusal to pay money; and the effects were not removed until about the close of the next period. On opening the new house in 1840, the name of the church was changed from Cantine Creek to BETHEL, by which name the settlement is now known, far and near.

      PERIOD FOURTH includes ten years, and closes with December, 1850.

      In the midst of pecuniary embarrassments God was gracious, and the church enjoyed a precious revival in 1841, which was the continuation of the one commenced in 1840, and twenty converts wan baptised,

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      There are no baptisms recorded for 1842 until November, when the presence of God was manifested in a powerful manner, and fifty-three converts were baptized during that month. Then followed a dreary time of darkness, difficulty and trials already alluded to, and there was but a single baptism until January, 1846; a period of three and half years. James Lemen had been chosen pastor annually for three or four years, with the occasional assistance of his elder brother Joseph j and Moses Lemen, a younger brother, was invited to take charge of the church, which office he filled a year and a half, with such aid as the two elder brethren could give. Difficulties about paying the debt due on the house, and the arrangement in a mode satisfactory to all, the pastoral relationship, with alienation of feelings and unpleasant misunderstandings are the most we can record. The glory of Bethel for a time was obscured, and the ways of Zion mourned because few came to her solemn feasts. Yet there was about the same attention as ordinary on the ministry of the word. The thing lacking was a revival spirit.

      The month of January, 1846, opened with the voices of converts coming to Zion. Fourteen were baptized in that month, and four more in May. Then followed another period of spiritual dearth for four years and six months, during which not a single baptism was recorded. The revival that followed the meeting for the organization of the Baptist Convention of Southern Illinois, in the autumn of 1850, resulted in the baptism of fifteen converts, and a general awakening out of sleep on the part of the church.

      During the last period of ten years, one hundred and two persons were baptized, twenty-nine excluded, and several dropped from long absence, their residences being unknown. Such persons ought ever to be excluded for breach of covenant engagements in not holding communication with the church, or applying for a dismissal to join another church in gospel order.

      PERIOD FIFTH, includes four years and four months, from January, 1851, to the close of April, 1855. During this period the writer, solicited by the church, and urged by the venerable ministers, who had served the church more than forty years, undertook to perform the duties of pastor, and sustained that relation about two and a half years.

      One object had in view was to lead the church into the habit of raising in advance an annual sum for pastoral and other expenses. The rules of order were revised; members who resided within the bounds of other churches were advised to take letters and change their relationship; delinquent members, who had removed to unknown parts without a regular dismission, were dropped from fellowship. In these and all other measures we had the cordial cooperation of the former pastors, and harmony and mutual fellowship increased. Only two persons were baptized. The project of providing a parsonage was commenced, and has been consummated within a few months past. Efforts were made without success to obtain and settle a pastor, and on the resignation of the writer, the former Elders supplied the church to the close of this period.

      We now come to an event, the parallel of which cannot be found in the history of any Baptist Church in America. It has been the custom of this church from an early period to hold a protracted meeting about Christmas and New Years, for a longer or shorter period, as providence may direct. The last season this meeting was attended and conducted by the four Elders, Joseph, James, Josiah and Moses Lemen, brothers in the flesh; the eldest seventy, and the youngest fifty-eight years of age. A young minister by the name of D. M. Howell, born and educated in this

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county, was present, and aided one week. The meetings were kept up consecutively from December 24th to January 14th. Josiah Lemen continued but one week. Moses Lemen, the youngest, but verging on three score, performed most of the preaching and the baptizing. Each of the venerable men labored in the pulpit and in private circles. These aged ministers had each held the office, and faithfully served their Divine Master from thirty-two to forty-seven years. The infirmities of age are fast creeping over them. Fifty-three converts were baptized during the protracted meeting, and thirteen since, four were restored, and the whole church much invigorated. A number of the most moral, respectable and enterprising heads of families in the bounds of the church, were brought, by the instrumentality of these men, through the mighty working of the Holy Ghost, into union and fellowship with the people of God. At the close of this period, Rev. D. M. Howell, the young minister who attended with the old ones in the protracted meeting, has been called to the pastoral charge, and accepted the office.

      The church has purchased ten acres of choice land adjoining the tract on which the house was erected, have laid off a church cemetery, and are preparing to build a parsonage.

      During the fifth period the alterations have been as follows: Baptized sixty-six; received by letter five; restored four; dismissed by letter twenty; excluded twelve; died eleven; leaving the present number two hundred and ten; a higher number than ever before reached.

      From the constitution of the church to the present period, four hundred and seventy converts have been baptized; about one hundred and thirty-five members received from other churches; eighty-two have been excluded, of which fourteen have been restored in this church, and about as many more reclaimed and received into other churches after having removed from the settlement; and about one hundred and twelve have died while members of the church. A number have been dismissed by letter, and again received after a longer or shorter period of absence.

      In reviewing the progress of Bethel Church, we find it has been distinguished for revivals and baptisms. Since May, 1819, there have been twelve distinct revivals, during which protracted meetings were held. In several instances such meetings produced happy effects on the spirituality of the members of the church, and their growth in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, though no immediate conversions were made manifest.

      Four churches have been organized, of members who, in part or in the whole, belonged to this church. Fountain creek, in Monroe county; Upper Silver creek, (then called Union, and now Troy,) in Madison county; Turkey Hill, (now Belleville,) in St. Clair county, and Rock spring, in the territory (now State) of Iowa. Many other churches have been gathered, far and near, by the ministers of this body. In one sense, this church, with its ministry, is the parent of South District, North District, (now Carrollton,) Vandalia and Nine Mile Associations in this State, and two associations of people of color. Six ordained ministers have joined this church since its constitution; seven ministers have been raised up and ordained while members; four members have been licensed here, who were ordained after removal; and five brethren commenced the ministry in other churches after removal from this body. The church had no deacon for more than ten years, since which six brethren at different times have been set apart to the office of deacon, have purchased to themselves a good degree, and died in the office. One member was chosen deacon, and after several years discharged at his own request. Four deacons are now in office.

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      P. S. This article was nearly prepared for the press the first week in April, when the writer was attacked with illness, and has not been able to finish it until this date.
     Rock Spring, Illinois, June 1st, 1855.

[From American Baptist memorial: a statistical biographical, and ..., Volume 15, 1855, pp. 232-237. Document from Google Books On-line. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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