A History of the Chatfield Methodist Church
Navarro County Texas


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A History of the Chatfield Methodist Church
by Robert N. Jones, Jr.
Originally published in "The Navarro County Scroll", Vol. XX, 1975
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society

The early pioneers that came to Texas brought their spiritual provisions with them as they brought their material provisions.  When the expression "GTT, Gone to Texas", was prevalent, during the 1820's, 30's, and early '40's, there were no churches in this area.  The Spanish padres had never established any churches here as had been the case in South Texas, at El Paso, and even in East Texas.  The pioneers established the first churches in this area upon their arrival.  With so many things against them, many times hostile weather and hostile indians, they must have especially felt the need of God's help.

Most of the communities of Navarro County established a church of one denomination or another as soon as enough settlers had arrived.  The members of the church would have to depend on a circuit preacher that would come possibly once a month or more probably when he could ford the creeks.  Chatfield is privileged to have a very old and historic Methodist church.

The first record of the Methodist church there is found in 1846.  The membership rolls show that Mrs. Mary Crockett was received by the Rev. James E. Ferguson into what was called the "Chatfield Society" of the Texas Conference.  We do not know the year in which the Chatfield Methodist church was officially organized, but if the year 1846 is accepted as the date of organization, the Chatfield Methodist Church was officially organized, but if the year 1846 is accepted as the date of organization, the Chatfield Methodist Church is the oldest church in the county.  It actually predates the Methodist organization in Corsicana by about five years and the Methodist organization in Dresden by about 2 years.  In any event, Chatfield has one of the oldest churches in the county.

Rev. Ferguson was a circuit rider from the Richland circuit which probably included all of Navarro County.  A circuit was a group of churches under the supervision of one pastor.  At that time Corsicana did not exist and settlements consisted of just a few families.  The name of the Richland Circuit probably denotes what we call today Dresden because that town was first called Richland.  In 1857, Dr. Wiley S. Robinson, Jacob Hartzell, and others decided on the name of Dresden for the little town.

We do not exactly know of what the Chatfield Society consisted.  Probably it had no more than a half dozen families that lived in the northeastern part of the county.  By about 1850, we do know that camp meetings were being held by Methodists of the area in an oak grove near where a nature spring bubbled forth.  My great-great-grandfather, Capt. Robert Hodge, who had just brought his family from Kentucky, allowed many camp meetings to be help in the grove owing to the lack of a permanent building for worship  purposes.  "Families came in covered wagons from old Wadeville and miles around to camp out a week or longer," Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Hodge, Mr. & Mrs. W. P. Thorp, Mr. & Mrs. L. P. Hodge.  The booklet continues, "They brought 'well stocked larders' which were replenished with venison, wild turkeys and prairie chickens."  Of course a camp meeting was one of the rare opportunities for families to get together and become acquainted in the very early days.  It was of both religious and social importance.

After Capt. Hodge settled, a town began to grow as more families settled on the gentle rolling prairie around Chatfield.  By 1852, a store, blacksmith shop, and a doctor's office had grown up around the Hodge Plantation.  The people felt a school was needed and during that year Capt. Hodge donated the land in the center of the village.   A two story structure was erected.  Local folks did all the labor and the pine boards were hauled from East Texas by ox wagon and ferried across the Trinity River at Porter's Bluff.

During this time the Methodist Church had been growing, but a Baptist Church and a Christian Church were also established.  Each of the three Churches gained permission to use the school building on alternate Sundays.   This building was the home of the Chatfield Methodist Episcopal Church, South for 34 years.

It is fitting that along with a new building the Chatfield Church received a new circuit, being put on with Corsicana.  During this period, Church services were held with a considerable degree of regularity.  The first pastor, Rev. James H. Addison, wrote a letter soon after he received his circuit explaining his circuit route:
Saturday, Apr. 10, Rush Creek Ranch
Sunday, Apr. 11, Richland Town
Tuesday, Apr. 13, Head of Richland
Wednesday, Apr. 14, Chambers Creek
Thursday, Apr. 15, Chambers Creek Singletons
Friday, Apr. 16, Head of Waxahachie, Hawkins
Saturday, Apr. 18, Town of Waxahachie
Friday, Apr. 23, Trinity City on Trinity River
Sunday, Apr. 25, Chatfield Point - 14 Miles from Corsicana
Wednesday, Apr. 28, Baggett, below Trinity River
Thursday, Apr. 29, In the forks of Trinity and Chambers Creek
Friday, Apr. 30, Twelve miles above on the Corsicana Rd., Hamiltons
Saturday, May 1, still above on the Corsicana Road, Hilburns
Sunday, May 2, at Corsicana

The appointments will stand this way but one round.  Then the Quarterly meeting knocks them all out.

The Centennial History from which this information is derived, also continues with a comment: "The above gives us some idea of the hard life of a circuit rider, and it was made no easier by the fact that he received his compensation in potatoes and beans for the most part."

The Chatfield Parish was very well served until the Civil War.  At that time most men went into the army and life almost came to a standstill on the home front.  Even ministers entered the army and everything was geared to help the war effort.  But don't think the people's faith was eroded during this time.  On the contrary, as the dark days of the War stretched into months and years, it was only the people's faith in God that sustained them.

With the War's close, Church services began to be held on a more regular basis.  Chatfield was put on the Waxahachie Circuit.  The first pastor after the war was Rev. Fountain Pitts Ray.  In later years he served as Secretary of the Texas Conference.

A story is told about him by which it seems he was not an extremely jovial character, perhaps the bitter lessons of a Civil War and a harsh reconstruction had dulled his sense of fun.  Many years after he had left Chatfield, he served at Waxahachie.  While there, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus arrived in town, but not one of his family saw it and if he had had his way none of his parishioners would have either.  As the circus passed the parsonage, he pulled all the shades and worried that his whole congregation would be sent to fiery eternal hell with one look.

After about 11 years Chatfield left the Waxahachie Circuit, and formed its own with Rice.  The minister officiated at the Rice Methodist Church and the Chatfield Church on alternate Sundays.  By 1885, the congregation felt it was time they built their own building.  During the years after the Civil War, the number of Church members had grown tremendously.  The congregation now numbered over 150.  Therefore, the next year, 1886, under the pastorate of Rev. John S. Davis, the Church obtained a lot on which to erect a building from Mr. Nail McMullan, a church official.  The deed stated:

We, Nail McMullan and H. E. McMullan, of the County of Navarro and state aforesaid; in consideration of the love we bear for the cause of Christ and earnest desire to promote his heritage, do give and grant, and by these present do convey 3/4 acres of land unto R. M. McMullan, J. A. Sands, and J. C. Cummings, the Board of Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church South at Chatfield.

Building quickly began and soon a frame structure had been erected.  Jim Sheets was the builder and almost all members of the Church helped in some way.  The congregation had a right to be proud of their little Church they had built themselves.  Quoting from the Centennial History again:

The church measured about 58' x 36' and was painted white.  There were several windows on either side.  In the front were double doors, flanked on each side by a window.  In the back were a window and a door, on apposite sides.  This building faced south with the pulpit and Altar in the center of the north end.  On each side of the Altar were benches, one for the choir and other for the "Amen Corner."

The "Amen Corner" was composed of mostly old men and women who were fond of sprinkling the service with "Amen" when they were in agreement with something said.

The church also bought a bell and organ.   This large bell measuring 24 inches across was installed in the belfry and was rung each Sunday morning calling worshipers to the services.  It has a clear, resounding tone that could be heard for several miles around.  During times of celebration the citizens of Chatfield heard the joyous pealing and at times of sadness all heard the doleful tolling of the bell.  The bell was always tolled for the death of someone living at Chatfield.  Mr. Walter C. McCants rang the bell the longest whether in joy or sadness.  This was his job from about 1900 to about 1930, a few years before the destruction of the old church In 1938, he died.  Since the bell has remained on a stand outside the door of the Church and is rung only on special occasions.  One of these occasions was the celebration of the Centennial   I was only five years old at the time but I helped with painting the bell with aluminum paint as it had grown in disrepair.  I remember helping to paint, but I don't remember the incident that has   been told to me many times about it.  The story goes that I was painting the inside of the bell when the minister's wife complemented my work.   She asked how old I was and I stopped painting, turned around and helped up five fingers saying, "I'm five, be six in March."  Then I went back to my job which I had taken very seriously.  I try to make it a point to ring the bell on the Forth of July now.

The organ that was bought when the Church was built was a small pump organ about the size of the organ that we have displayed at the Pioneer Village.  For 35 years its sweet tones were heard in the Church.  A number of people played it, but Mrs. Gus (Mollie Mizell) Hodge played it the longest time.   She was the first to play that organ and continued that job until 1909.  For several years Miss Judith Thorp, Mrs. W> P. (Josie McMullan) Thorp, Mrs. J. M. (Frances Meredith) Hodge, and others took turns as organists.  After about 1915, Mrs. Hodge played until the organ was  sold in 1920 and replaced with a piano.  Mrs.   W. F. Burkhalter and Mrs. Hodge took turns playing for Church and Sunday School until 1962 when Mrs. Burkhalter retired due to ill health.  Mrs. J. M> Hodge retired in 1970 after a career spanning 65 years of playing for services.  Ollie Harwell played for sometime and now Miss Katheryn Kimble serves as pianist.

Soon after the erection of the 1886 Church the other two churches, the Baptist and Christian Churches began to falter.  By the mid 1890's these Churches had either ceased to exist or were not holding services regularly.   But the Methodist Church continued to thrive and its membership grew to the largest that it has ever been at one time.  At the time of Rev. George S. Clark's pastorate in 1896, it had 205 members -- meaning those persons that have been both Baptized and confirmed into the Church.  Some of the members include the Jeffers, Thorps, Mizells, McCants, McMullans, and Sands.  Since it was the only Church in the area many people that were not Methodists attended it and supported it.  It is still this way today.   My grandfather, J. M. Hodge, although an Episcopalian, attended the Church regularly and still does because it is the Church of Chatfield.  His first Sunday School teacher was Mrs. Susie Wright who lives in Corsicana today with her two daughters, Miss Erma and Miss Mary Jewel Wright.

In 1896, the people of Tupelo just a few miles from Chatfield formed their own church.  A number of people withdrew from the Chatfield Church joining the one at Tupelo.  The membership fell to about 160.   It caused a great hardship on Chatfield to lose so many members, but the Congregation was equal to the challenge.  In 1966, when the Tupelo Church was dissolved and its members transferred to Chatfield, two ladies that as young women had gone to Tupelo from the Chatfield Church, returned their memberships.  These ladies were Mrs. Mattie McMullan Wheeler and Mrs. Eva Humphries Mitchell.  The minister during this time was Rev. J. P. Mussatt.  He had lost a leg, and in place of his natural limb, he wore a wooden peg-leg.  I have been told that the "clomp-clomp" of his wooden leg on the bare plank flooring of the Church, attracted the undivided attention of the children and filled them somewhat with awe.

Rice, Chatfield, and Tupelo began sharing a minister and formed their own circuit.  One of these minister, the Rev. J. C. Mimms, who served from 1900 to 1902, was known as a rather sophisticated man.  He was the first pastor of the 20th Century and he implemented modern 20th Century ideas.  He organized a conducted tour to Europe and the Holy Land for the people in the county.   He apparently felt they should see the important places of the civilized world and the historic sites of Christendom.  I do not know what they toured, but I am sure they saw Canterbury in England and probably other sites there and the Vatican in Rome, and of course, Bethlehem.  The party left Navarro County in the summer of 1901 or 1902 and remained abroad the rest of the season.

After several years, Chatfield joined the Alma Circuit for one year in 1909.  The minister was Rev. J. W. Head.  He was not liked very much by the youth of the Church because he  was such a stern man.   They called Rev. Head -- "Ole Sorehead."

In 1910, the Church arranged for the purchase of a parsonage because Chatfield was forming a circuit with Tupelo and Roane and the minister would be living at Chatfield.  The Official Board bought a 6 room house about 300 yards east of the Church.  It was sold to the Church by Mrs. Fannie Meredith Smith.   This house has served as the home for Chatfield's pastors for 65 years.

While World War I raged in Europe, a fat and jolly man was pastor.  I have heard that Rev. B. E. Kinbrow was an uncommonly good comedienne.  Instead of a cut and dried sermon, he would often tell a number of jokes on Sunday morning.  No doubt this pleased the young people and numerous others of the congregation, but it also angered some.  There was no telling what he might do.   One day as he was riding in his buggy, he picked up a young boy.  Rev. Kinbrow told him, "Now, I have fits and if I begin having one, you start running."   Of course this was just one of his practical jokes.  Soon the minister started rolling his eyes and convulsing about.  The boy yelled, "Let me off," and without waiting for the buggy to stop, he took a flying leap onto the road.

In the years after World War I, the Church noted for it beautiful Christmas services that were always presented by the children and youth to the accompaniment of the new piano.  This piano had been bought in Dallas at Brook-Mays Music Co.  It was a Krakauer and cost $400.  The congregation put on a Halloween Carnival in 1920 to pay for the instrument.  The services were held on Christmas Eve, and afterwards each child received a present, and fruit, nuts, and candy from Santa Clause.  My mother has told me that during the Depression, this was often the only Christmas present that many children received.  But whatever their economic means, the children and even their parents felt the true meaning of Christmas.

Although times were hard, the Church continued its activity throughout the Depression era.  The Church was redecorated and renovated, the first time any major work had occurred since it had been built in 1886.  Shortly after the work was completed a revival was held during the summer of 1937.  Fate seemed to be waiting in the wings to deal a cruel blow to the Chatfield Church.  On August 5, about an hour before the revival was to commence, a tornado flattened the Church and damaged much of the little town.  Had the storm struck later, many people would have undoubtedly been killed while the revival was in session.

The congregation faced the challenge of rebuilding with optimistic courage.  Each member living at Chatfield pledged a certain amount.   Some gave $5.00, others 10.00, a few even $100.00, but his amount was not sufficient with which to build a church.  The Board was faced with the task of raising more money.  Many members were living away from Chatfield and it was decided to write each of these inactive members explaining the situation and asking for a donation.  Those that had moved their memberships to other Churches also remembered their old Church at Chatfield.  Money poured in from all over the United States.   People showed their devotion to the Church in which they had been reared.   After several months over four thousand dollars had been collected.  In the meantime services were held at the school building as had been the case before a Church had been built.  A Building Committee was organized and the important members of the congregation began the task of planning the new Church.  After many plans were reviewed, St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Dallas was selected as a model for the new Church.

Less than a year after the storm, the new church had been completed.  On June 25, 1938, the church was dedicated at a service held by Bishop Ivan Lee Holt.  An article from the June 28 Dallas News explained the significance of this event, "Work began in January and the first service in the new edifice was held April 24, Under the law of the Church, a house of worship may not be dedicated till it is free of debt.  This building and furnishings represent a cost of $5,000 and the congregation consists of about 150."  In his address, Bishop Holt remarked how rare it was for a Church to be debt free in the same year it constructs a new building, and he continued by praising Chatfield for their perseverance.  This was something the congregation had reason to be very proud.

The Dedication Day consisted of the actual dedication in the morning, a dinner prepared by the ladies of the community, and an afternoon of special music and some brief remarks by a few former pastors.  The climax of the Dedication services came as W. P. Thorp, a leading Church official, made the formal presentation of the house of worship and the Bishop added his blessings to the Church in the closing prayer.  After-wards the dinner was served in a cool oak grove behind the Church.  Many guests had returned to Chatfield for this special event, and after the noon meal the celebration continued with the music and pastor's remarks.

It remains a beautiful Church today.  It was built and furnished with painstaking care and is maintained with love nowadays.  The piano which had been nearly destroyed was rebuilt and placed in the choir stall to the right of the Alter.  New pews fashioned from elm were ordered and installed.   The Gothic ceiling was paneled in oak as were the walls up to the cathedral windows.  Two Sunday School rooms for the children were built and furnished, one on each side of the Alter.  A number of large ceiling lights were installed and later four ceiling fans were placed in the Church to honor Mrs. Will Sands.  The two pulpit chairs were given in memory of Mr. Robert M. McMullan, a longtime Church official.  A new Communion Service was later given in memory of Mrs. Robert Hodge Witherspoon.

During World War II, Chatfield received its first student minister, Rev. James A. Willaimson, who was a student at Perkin's Seminary at SMU.   He was a young man originally from Mississippi and now serves a Church there.   Even today he is still interested in the Chatfield Church, and corresponds regularly with members of the congregation.  He has always maintained that the experience gained at Chatfield enabled him to become a successful minister.

In the 1950's, the congregation began to feel a lack of space.  There fore, a Sunday School annex was built in 1957.  It consisted of 4 classrooms and modern restroom facilities.  It also serves an excellent recreational facility and a nursery is now being furnished.

Always mindful of their bright history, Chatfield celebrated two historical events during the early 1960's.  On May 1, 1960, about a dozen members were recognized in a special service as having been members of the Church for 50 or years or longer.  Mrs. Robert Hodge Witherspoon the oldest member recognized had also been a member the longest time.  She had been a member of the Chatfield Church for 75 years joining in 1885.

In 1962, although in existence much longer than a hundred years, the congregation decided to hold a Centennial Celebration.  Throughout the summer, the entire community was involved in the Celebration.  The pastor and his wife, Rev. and Mrs. Don T. Johnson aided greatly in organizing and executing the plans for the event.  The Church History to which I have referred many times was written during this time.  On October 7, the Centennial was climaxed in a Service of Celebration at which the pastor; the District Superintendent, Rev. John Wesley Ford; Bishop William C. Martin; Rev. Don Goodwin, a former pastor; and Rev Leslie Seymour officiated.  Rev. Seymour is the only man the Chatfield Church has furnished to the ministry.  The Celebration was then ended by a delicious meal prepared by the ladies of Chatfield.

Many Churches were faced with decreasing donations during the 1960's, and subsequently found it difficult to operate.  This was especially true of small churches.  In 1966, Chatfield solved this problem by instituting a cattle plan.  Being a ranching community, this was a very logical thing to do.  Each member living at Chatfield was asked to keep a cow for the Church and the money from her calf when sold each year went to the Church.  This has proved a very satisfactory way to raise money and with individual donations maintains the Church very nicely.

The Chatfield Methodist Church continues to be a strong Church with an inspiring past, vigorous present, and bright future.  It has a very active youth group that regularly does service work such as visiting members in nursing homes and those confined to their homes.  At present it has 105 members.   The oldest of these is Mr. W. P. Thorp who is in his nineties and still is quite active attending church every Sunday.  The members of the Chatfield Methodist Church are striving to see that it will be around for another 129 years.

 


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