ELIZABETHTOWN — All too often we see old buildings fall into disrepair or we see them demolished in order to erect newer, fancier structures that will be more appealing to the eye, and less burdensome on the heart, of society. Sadly, their history, at times piercing and at times heartwarming, often crumbles with the brick. Therefore, when one is preserved and maintained and its stories remain intact, it is worth noting.
Look, for instance, at a small white clapboard church that stands tall atop a small rise east of the Poplar Street/Broad Street intersection — the Old Trinity Methodist Church — its walls and furnishings proudly bearing the scars and remembrances of almost 200 years.
Take note of her history, for her guests have endured the Civil War, the Great Depression, and two world wars. They saw the gold rush, women’s suffrage, the polio vaccine, emancipation, the invention of the airplane and automobile, and the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.
The history of the Methodist church in the area dates back to 1785, one year after John Wesley commissioned Francis Asbury to establish the Methodist church in the colonies and the year that Asbury visited Elizabethtown. It is thought that he began a Methodist society at that time and revisited the same in 1795.
He wrote of the experience: “We set out by sunrise, and had to work our way through the swamps, where I feared being plunged in headformost … This country abounds with bays, swamps, and drains; if there were here no sinners, I would not go along these roads. I am in want of rest, and should be glad of better fare. O, for patience, faith, courage, and every grace!”
While the exact location of the society he visited is unknown, records show that on Dec. 10, 1836, a deed was made for the property on which Old Trinity currently sits. The document names as the buyers several men who were members of the church and the seller as Louis Sheridan of Elizabethtown.
Sheridan was a freed black man who had amassed considerable property around Elizabethtown in the early 1900s, having a large home in town with 16 slaves and five freed black men. He was liquidating his estate in order to move to Liberia and, in 1837, after selling the property to the church for $400, reportedly left the country with upwards of $30,000.
Shortly after acquiring the property, the church erected a temporary structure on the lot, which was used until the current building was built by slaves in either 1848 or 1849.
A placard on the building today sets its establishment as 1848, and records kept by the church include a newspaper article from an unknown paper dated August, 1848 telling of a Fourth of July celebration on the site.
The article stated: “The exercises were held in the Methodist church and … the declaration was read by Mr. George Montgomery White, in the most admirable tone we have ever heard … The ladies prepared the dinner as a part of the fair which was held on the same evening for the purpose of procuring money to build a church at this place.”
However, a diary entry of Elizabeth Robeson, dated July 4, 1849, states: “The ladies had a fair in Elizabeth for the purposes of building a church.”
Whether it took place in 1848 or 1849, the construction of the church was of such quality as to remain standing more than 150 years later.
A visitor to the church today will ascend broad, streetside steps and enter through narrow, but lofty, wooden doors. A small vestibule invites guests inside.
To the left, a narrow staircase would have taken upstairs those whose names were borne on the rolls but whose presence was ostricized from the gathering below. Here we find the true scars of our shared history. A slave balcony runs the length of both sides of the building and of the rear of the church above the narthex, where its occupants could observe and listen from their paradoxical positions on high. A rope suspended from the ceiling in the back can still be used to ring an old bell, summoning members to worship.
Original pine floors, divulging wounds caused by multitudes of people who have born their burdens to the altar for release, have aged to a rich, dark tone. The burdens have been many and heavy, as they have spanned a tumultous and tearful time. The curved pews bend toward the front of the church, beckoning visitors to take note of the church’s many messages of grace that have been delivered from her pulpit.
What were once shuttered windows that would have invited a gentle cross-breeze from the slight elevation have been replaced over the years with double-pane windows that acquiesce to the light. A gouge in the center of the floor and on the ceiling above reveal that a stove and a chimney once stood on the spot to warm the church’s guests. The tongue-and-groove ceiling fittingly draws the eye upward.
Looking out the windows, one would see chiseled stone emerging from the landscape surrounding the church, attestations that God’s curse on man’s sin has prevailed over humanity’s desire for immortality. To the east close to the church lie Rinaldis, Lytles and Thaggards. To the rear of the church near a lone tree draped with Spanish moss are the Halls and Lyons. Cromarties, Robinsons and Bostics lie in the church’s shadow to the west, all proof of the verity of their Maker’s word.
“He bringeth them into their desired location” reads the hope of R.H. Lyon, born in 1843 and seeing his hope in 1895. One of the oldest markers in the home for discarded mortality is for Argulus Poynter, who served in the Revolutionary War and passed away in 1795.
To keep and maintain a penetrating history requires effort. Over the years, the pews have been replaced and a new cedar shake composite that adheres to the National Historic Registry requirements has been installed on the roof. Plaster walls have been reparied when needed and, when a tree fell on the church in the 1980s during Hurricane Fran, repair work was done on one corner of the church.
Trinity Methodist currently has plans to build up the balcony railing to a higher, safer level, repair the threshold, woodwork, and doors, do some structural work, and paint the outside.
Nelson Goodnight, church historian, said, “We’re continually working to keep it preserved. That’s what we’re concentrating on — preserving it.”
The church annually holds its early Easter service at Old Trinity, and will do so again this year on March 27 at 7 a.m.
If those walls could talk, what tears their conversation would elicit — drops of joy over life’s victories, tears of remorse because our brothers and sisters sit in the balcony, and droplets of gratitude for the salvation preached within.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.