By June of 1840, the small settlement of Oak Grove had managed a small but steady community of residents. The 1840 census showed about 377 residents in the general area from what is now 85 N west to what is now known as Blackman and south to what was once known as Peaden Town (see the 21 Nov 2016 post for more info on the two decades from 1840-1860). This area was generally called Oak Grove by the residents starting at the end of this time period (1865-1870), though it was never incorporated as a town. Much of the rich land along the river had been cleared and the vast majority of settlers were yeoman farmers.
But they were missing something key to the cohesion and stability of a community: a church to serve the people that called it home. So on the 14th of June 1840, nine members of the community met with representatives of the Bethlehem Baptist Association from Alabama and formed the Yellow River Baptist Church. The nine community members who were listed as founders were : John Robertson, James Barrow, David Gartman, Elizabeth Stegall, Margaret Weeks, Elizabeth Wood, Mary Wood, Mary Senterfitt, and Nancy Busby. The two elders from the Bethlehem Baptist Association were J. J. Sessions and K. Hawthorn. The church was the result of the missionary work conducted by the Bethlehem Baptist Association in the newly settled Florida panhandle. They would be instrumental in establishing several early baptist churches in Santa Rosa and Escambia Co, FL.
We find a number of long standing surnames from this area of northwest Florida in the first membership list for the church. This membership list was done between 14 June 1840 and 15 December 1840. I know this because my great, great grandmother Martha Senterfitt Barrow is still listed with her maiden name on the list. She married Richmond Barrow on December 15th in Andalusia, AL. Surnames found on this initial membership list are: Baker, Busby, Campbell, Caswell, Clary, Dannelly, Devereaux, Gartman, Gordon, Hart, Little, McWilliams, Senterfitt, Stegall, Steele, Stewart, Stokes, Stuckey, Tillery, Turvin, Ward, Williams, and Wilkinson. The ten black members listed were listed by first names but a cross reference to later membership lists that provided surnames for them indicates that they were primarily from the Reuben Hart, Sr. household or his son Daniel’s household, with one each from McCaskill, Milligan and Spears households. These black persons were: Jerry [Hart], Tom [McCaskill], Sally [Hart], Charlotte [Hart], Jude [Hart], Mary [Hart], Nancy [Spears], Darky [Hart], Molly [Hart] and Clark [Milligan].
It is unclear if a church building was ever completed during these very early years because the business records don’t mention one. If they didn’t have a separate building, it isn’t clear if they were meeting in someone’s home or in another community building, such as the Masonic building or the schoolhouse. It is clear from the records that the church had access to the schoolhouse during this period because they reference the men retiring to the schoolhouse to discuss financial issues but that would seem to indicate a building separate from the schoolhouse for church services. Some of the early pastors named in the records are: Noah Parker, Daniel Giddings, and John F. Cook. Though some years the church had a regular pastor for a year or two, in other years they were served by circuit riders sent from Bethlehem Baptist Association.
One thing that was clear in the early years of the church was the struggle to discourage the production and use of “ardent spirits”. This likely doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us who have ancestors from the area and have studied the social and cultural trends of the community. Not only was the community one of yeomen farmers, it was a producer of some reputedly fine bootleg. The springs and creeks emanating from the river and the well water in the area were clean and sweet and produced a good quality brew. In February 1859, the church produced a resolution on the use of ardent spirits and reading the business records indicates that drinking and producing led to quite a steady stream of members who were summoned to explain their behavior and depending on their response were sometimes excluded from the church.
In 1860, the church left the Bethlehem Baptist Association and joined the Zion Association. The war would bring a new struggle to the community. I wrote about some of the challenge last year (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) when I shared that I had discovered at least 18 members, or sons of members, who joined the 1st Florida Union Cavalry during 1864. Part of the church’s practice was to keep track of attendance and a visit by appointed members to the non-attendee when the third absence occurred. They tried to maintain that practice during the war but indicated in March of 1864 that it was no longer possible “on account of the war frustrating the people so much”. Interestingly, that was about the only mention of the war in the surviving records. Obviously, they tried to maintain their beliefs and practices and tried to continue a normal life in the turmoil of the war in the panhandle.
The church grew after the war and there is mention in 1884 that they built a [new?] church building. This building was likely east of the current location of the church, possibly back near, or next to, what is sometimes referred to as the Old Yellow River Cemetery or the Old Black Cemetery. This old cemetery is directly east of the current church, on private property and in poor condition. I am in the process of researching the cemetery and the names on the few remaining headstones to make some connections and see if some of my hypothesis on this cemetery and the location of the original church can be borne out by some documentation. The property at the current location of the church was purchased in 1891. Just a few years after the church moved to the current location, a cemetery was created behind the new church with the burials of William Coplin King, Jr. and wife Roseda Sawyer King and A. B. Dixon and his wife. We suspect there may be a few other burials in the far back corner of the cemetery and hope to try and confirm or deny that with some work in the next year or so.
It was during this period that Yellow River worked to extend Baptist places of worship and the congregate work of these churches in fellowship. The business records indicate support for the establishment of Pyron Chapel in 1888 and working closely with Pilgrim’s Rest to advocate for and help initiate the Santa Rosa Baptist Association in 1907. Within a few years the church would be in the newly formed Okaloosa County. Newspaper accounts from the middle part of the 20th century indicate they were often the site for activities in the annual meeting of the Okaloosa Baptist Association.
In 1901, a black couple, Isaac H. and Rosilla Harrison, who had purchased acreage from Dugal Stewart that included the community cemetery then known as “Stewart Graveyard”, sold the 4 acres that had been set aside for the cemetery to Yellow River Baptist Church for permanent maintenance as a community cemetery. That has been anything but simple. A family moved into the area in the 1920s that attempted to limit access to the cemetery and allowed their cows to roam in the cemetery, doing much destruction in the process. It seems likely that the disruption to the church that started in 1916 (see below) allowed the loss of institutional memory as the decade wore on.
While the church members continued to try and go to the cemetery to clean it up, they seemed to have lost the deed and in time there were few members that knew the church actually owned the cemetery, though the sense of responsibility was still there. The property surrounding the cemetery was bought by its current owner in the early 70s. The situation improved somewhat. Then in 2016, while doing some work on the church records, I stumbled across a reference to the church owning Stewart Cemetery. Knowing where to go to find the deed and the original purchase of the property from Dugal Stewart, the church now has a certified copy of the deed, a current survey clearly laying out the 4 acres, and have plans to clean it up and put up a fence in the near future. I suspect there are quite a few ancestor members of the church watching from above that are happy that the erosion of the cemetery will end.
The church records indicate that the period from 12 Mar 1916 until 1938 was another period of great struggle. The church did not have a regular pastor and the keeping of records ceased. It is unclear what happened though two wars and the Great Depression, and the subsequent migrations away from the area looking for work, may have contributed to the break. From memories of some who lived through parts of this period, the members continued to gather and sing and maintained the annual homecoming celebration. But in 1938, William Franklin King, John Jesse Barrow, Jr. and Earl H. Merritt, pastor, reorganized the church and affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
1938 to the Present
There have been at least three church buildings at the present location. The first one built in the first decade of the 20th century. This building was two story and the top story housed the school after the schoolhouse burned down in 1923. William Franklin King was the schoolteacher during this period until the school for the area was established by the State of Florida in Blackman. When the church reorganized in 1938 the top floor was removed and the first floor was the church until June 1960 when a new church building was finished. This is the church I remember the most. I attended Vacation Bible School during summers, attended services when we were visiting and said goodbye to my grandfather for the last time. This is the church that was burned by an arsonist in 1982. The current church was built soon afterward.
The church has seen the establishment of the State of Florida, multiple changes in the county they are located in (Walton, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa), the War for Southern Independence, WWI, the Great Depression and WWII. Through it all it has worked to be a steadfast presence in the community; a place to worship, a place to learn, a place to vote and a place to gather in fellowship. It is one of the earliest Baptist churches in the northwest Florida panhandle. It appears to be the third oldest in the panhandle, but only one of those, First Baptist Church of Campbellton/Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Campbellton is still active. After Yellow River lost its pastor in 2015, Alton Nixon took on the role of pastor and the church has been growing again.
On the second Sunday each year, the church celebrates homecoming. This year that will be 11 Jun 2017. This will be the church’s 177th year in service to the community. For me, it is a direct connection to my family’s past. Many of my maternal ancestors attended the church and Mary Faircloth Senterfitt, wife of Jesse Senterfitt, was one of the founding members. As I drive up Yellow River Baptist Church road, I feel the pull of history and the voices of my ancestors in the whispering of the pines. It is a profound sense that often takes my breathe away for a moment. My Mom became a member of the church at age 9 and was baptized in the river in the same year. She has never felt she was a member anywhere else. It has become difficult for us to make the trip every Sunday but homecoming is a time we don’t miss. Good fellowship and good food.
I invite anyone with ancestors who helped settle northern Okaloosa County to come join us on the 11th at 10:30 am. You will be welcomed with love.
Until next time.
- Yellow River Baptist Church: Membership Records and Chronological History, 1840-1950, editor Sharon D. Marsh, 2016
- Unpublished business records for Yellow River Baptist Church
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