Tomorrow being Easter, and my work focusing so much on historic buildings, I thought I’d write a bit about some of the oldest, and often most-overlooked, structures in Mason County.
They’re everywhere, if you just take the time to look. Out near those old country crossroads, it’s easy to find an often relatively small rectangular building, typically clad in white clapboard and with a short steeple. Sometimes they’re well-kept, other times they may be covered in vines or partially collapsed, but they’re instantly recognizable no matter their condition.
With the first settlers to cross the Alleghenies came the circuit riders and backwoods ministers tending to their flocks, as early as the Rev. Terry’s sermon on the Sunday before the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774. Though, as far as I can find, he and his fellow soldier Reverend John Lythe were the only official ministers to visit our area until after settlement really took off following the 1795 Treaty of Greenville.
Some of these first ministers included Paul Henkel for the Lutherans, Francis Dutton for the Presbyterians, Moses Michael for the United Brethren, and dozens of circuit riders for the Methodists, among them Francis Asbury, John Smith, and “Uncle” Sam Black. Doubtless though, there were many more whose names are lost to history.
These early ministers were travelers, only staying in one place long enough to deliver a sermon, catch up on baptisms and marriages since their last visit, and sleep a few hours. Here and there, at the Mansion House or the Roush homes of the Upper Flats, they’d gather a crowd and proselytize, bringing the Good Word to the people Asbury himself described as “the boldest cast of adventurers… good moralists they are not, and good Christians they cannot be, unless they are better taught.”
It took some time to tame those frontier souls, bringing under control tendencies toward alcohol, revenge, and murder, but before long, churches were under construction all over the county. Tradition says that the first church in the county was built in 1796 at Reverend William Graham’s Presbyterian settlement in the Bend Area, though this town didn’t last long before Graham’s death in 1799.
The next church was built in 1816 in Point Pleasant by Reverend Paul Henkel’s Lutheran congregation. Few records survive of this early church, the first in the city, especially compared to its sister church. The Barn Church of Broad Run, Henkel’s other charge, was built a year or so later in 1817 or ’18. This church, of course, survives at the West Virginia State Farm Museum.
By the 1830s, the Second Great Awakening was in full swing across the entire nation, and congregations were sprouting everywhere. The Methodists and United Brethren were strongest at this time, and churches came together at Arbuckle, Point Pleasant, Smith, Union, and West Columbia, the five churches from which most current United Methodist churches can trace their spiritual roots.
At the same time, the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church was organized in a brick building that once stood at the corner of 3rd and Main, eventually, after several moves, being replaced by their current building.
In 1842, the Episcopalians organized at Bruce Chapel in Gallipolis Ferry, led by the Moore family. Paid for in large part by the Moores and Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, this was perhaps the most ornate church in the county when it was built. This church was also used by the Methodists and Presbyterians until they built their own churches around the southern end of the county.
A little more than a decade later, in 1856, Christ Episcopal Church of Point Pleasant was organized, their current building being an architectural masterpiece designed by Ralph Adams Cram and completed in 1922.
And finally, just before the Civil War, the Catholic and Baptist congregations of this county began to organize. Both were brought about by immigration to this county by people working in the salt furnaces and coal mines, the first of each being the German Catholics in Mason and Welsh Baptists in Hartford.
From these few, most of the 150+ congregations in Mason County were formed. Yet after two centuries of schisms, splits, divisions, reorganizations, revivals, missions, and mergers, many of these original congregations survive, and as vaccines are rolled out, many are once again echoing with the sounds of praise and worship.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.