Chapel Hill Baptist continues impact on community

Published 12:00am Saturday, May 19, 2012

In last week’s column, the inter-relationships of the Cravey and Dunson families were reviewed. One of the Cravey descendants, Nancy Caroline, daughter of John Riley and Pricilla Williams (Dickey) Cravey, was married to Wiley Francis Martin, who was an early evangelist in area Baptist churches. Wiley’s years of work with the New Hope Baptist Church was mentioned. In addition, he was a charter member and contributed significantly to the establishment and growth of a neighboring one, the Chapel Hill Baptist Church. A brief history of that church is the topic of today’s column.

Chapel Hill Baptist Church was one of the earliest to be established in Covington County. Soon after the first settlers arrived in the extreme southeastern corner of the county, they sought to create a place for worship, which they accomplished in 1852. It has been reported to be the oldest church in the Sardis Association. Since that time, the church has been a center of that community’s activity. It is located about seven miles northeast of the Town of Florala on Highway 54.

Although, there is not a complete listing of all charter members, some have been identified: Preacher John B. Allen and his son, David C. Allen, who was also a preacher, Preacher Wiley Francis Martin, Jim Hughes, Mack Williams, and members of the following families: Geohagans, Leonards, Millers, Ervins, Lords and Cawthons.

Evangelist John B. Allen is credited with being the founding minister. He served as the local preacher for the church until his enlistment into the Confederate Army. It is also interesting that his oldest son, David C. Allen served as minister for the church some years later. While in Confederate service, John B. became a Second Lieutenant in Company I, 29th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He was mustered in on March 4, 1862, and died during the Battle of Franklin, Tenn.

John B. Allen had been a very successful businessman and community leader. In 1860, he owned six slaves and was elected during that year to serve as Justice of the Peace for Beat Seven. His son, David C. Allen, served as Justice of the Peace for Beat Nine in 1871. During 1856 and 1857, John B. purchased as many as 320.16 acres of land in the Chapel Hill Township.

One of the earliest church buildings at Chapel Hill was a wooden log, two-story structure, which housed the church on the first floor and the Masonic Lodge on the second floor. The current facility is a picturesque white building topped by a steeple, and it is nestled beside the Chapel Hill Cemetery, which was begun at the same time as the church. Many area families continue to bury their deceased relatives in this location.

From its beginning, the church was very missionary-minded. By 1959, it was a part of the Zion Association, which was made up of other churches in the county. At that time, John D. Carter was serving as the preacher. He, along with three other men, John B. Allen, J.M. Martin, and F.C. Lord, attended the associational meetings. Wiley Francis Martin also represented the Chapel Hill Church at special services at the New Hope Baptist Church. Martin would have been a leader in both churches at different times.

Through its missionary zeal, the Chapel Hill Church was instrumental in establishing and sponsoring the Sardis Church, which once stood in the west end of Geneva County. The little mission began in a “brush arbor” and was overseen by the Chapel Hill Church leaders. A frame building was constructed in 1888, so the church began functioning as an independent congregation.

A second church begun through the efforts of Chapel Hill was the First Baptist Church of Florala, which was organized in 1881 as Shade Grove Missionary Baptist Church. Pierce D. Bulger, a well-known preacher and teacher in the area, was the minister at Chapel Hill at the time and also assumed those duties for the new church. The first services were held in a school building that stood on the site of the current Greenwood Cemetery, which was near the state line in Florala. This meant members came from Alabama and Florida, which helped the young church to grow. Church services were only held once a month in the beginning.

By 1883, the Shady Grove Church had become a member of the Zion Association, and records show it was located at Lakeview with Preacher Bulger still serving it as well as Chapel Hill. Again, in 1888-1891, association records show the same minister with three men representing Shady Grove: M.A. George, J.A. Hart and N.R. Stewart.

By July 31, 1897, services were held in a new building at the present location. It was at this time that the name was officially changed to First Baptist Church of Florala. The following men served as part-time preachers during this period: Wiley F. Martin, George W. Kierce and David C. Allen. Beginning in 1902, a full-time preacher was engaged, so weekly services were scheduled from that time. The current stately brick building was erected in 1921 along with the pastorium adjacent to it.

The missionary efforts of the small, rural Chapel Chapel Hill Church have obviously quite successful to have established two other congregations. Also, some very reputable Baptist evangelists serving in the area during those years were quite influential in their growth and development of those early churches. Today, the church remains active, and is a member of the Sardis Association. Dennis Sims is serving as the preacher, and Mrs. Billy (Sara) Pickron is the secretary-treasurer.

The sources for this writing include articles in the The Heritage of Covington County, Alabama and Gus and Ruby Bryan’s Covington County History—1821-1976. Any one who might have any correction to the above or additional information on the Chapel Hill Church is requested to contact this writer, Curtis Thomasson, at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-222-6467; or email: cthomasson@centurytel.net.

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