Jason Reynolds, The Murfreesboro Post, September 25, 2018
A congregation in the Bethel community is celebrating the church’s 200th anniversary and a connection to the foundations of the Methodist denomination in America.
Bethel United Methodist Church was founded in 1818. The founder was evangelist Ebenezer MacGowan, a British native who immigrated to Virginia and settled near the church he planted, said the church’s worship chair, Jamie Huffman. The church actually was not in the Methodist district until 1827.
Ties to Methodist foundations
MacGowan was ordained as a deacon by New York Bishop Francis Asbury, one of the earliest Methodist bishops in the United States, said Bethel member Robert Bates. Asbury is one of the best-known Methodists in the U.S., he said. Asbury had the gift of organization, which was crucial in the young nation, and as a circuit-rider he ordained 700 ministers, Bates said.
“Asbury was so important in the founding of our country,” Bates said. “John Wesley sent him” to America.
The Bethel/Leanna community was named Bear Wallow when MacGowan and his family moved there in 1816, according to the “Rutherford County Historical Society Publication No. 8, Second Edition, Winter 1977,” a history journal. MacGowan died on April 30, 1850, at the age of 83. His father had been a friend of Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist denomination.
During his ministry, MacGowan was ordained as an elder by Bishop Joshua Soule, for whom Soule College in Murfreesboro was named, Bates said.
Bethel UMC is part of the history of the Bethel (or Leanna) community of Rutherford County, a history that is slipping away, Bates said.
“So many of these little communities are going away because of development,” Bates said, adding that as new residents move in they often do not know the history of the area. “It’s important that as the county grows we remember these little communities that were the backbone of the county.”
That is why Bates said he obtained a historical marker from the Tennessee Historical Commission to place outside the church. Part of the disappearing history includes a school that had been on the church grounds and moved across the street. That building now is a community center. The community cemetery recently closed as well.
Even after the founding in 1818, the church continued to impact history, Bates said.
The church building at 4286 Sulphur Springs Rd. was dedicated in 1887 – the 1818 building was a log cabin, Bates said. David Campbell Kelley presided over the 1887 building dedication, which drew a crowd of 1,500.
Kelley had returned to Murfreesboro after fighting for the South in the Civil War, when he had been known as “Forrest’s fighting preacher.” Kelley was also involved in the founding of Vanderbilt University, Bates said.
Bethel on Monday hosted a presentation on Kelley by local historian Dr. Michael Bradley, who spoke about a book he wrote titled, “Forrest’s Fighting Preacher.”
There have been other events this year marking the church’s history. In April a worship event was held with the bishop of the Tennessee UMC Conference, Huffman said. In July, the church held a service with a former district official who grew up in Bethel.
Coming up next, Huffman said, will be a Nov. 11 service with a man who grew up in Bethel and now preaches in Illinois: Brian Gilbert, son of Dr. Linda Gilbert, a church member and the superintendent of Murfreesboro City Schools. Dr. Gilbert plays the organ at the church.
The state’s historical marker will be installed outside the church at a 2 p.m. ceremony on Dec. 9, Huffman said. Bethel also received a historical marker from the Methodist conference and will dedicate it as well, Bates said.