Why is Yellow River Baptist Church’s (northern Okaloosa County) history so important to the Florida Panhandle’s history? Now, I might be a bit prejudiced on the side of importance because my family has been involved with the church from its beginnings but there is a broader, more important reason. It is the oldest Baptist Church in the Northwest Florida panhandle (Walton County over to Escambia County) and the third oldest in the entirety of the Florida Panhandle. It is reflective of the religious culture brought to the panhandle by the settlers that immigrated to the area after Florida became a territory. And a significant part of its records remain extant and these can tell us a good bit about early Missionary Baptist Churches, the community itself and how the members interacted with each other and managed the business of the church through the historical events of its 180 years of existence.
As many of you know, if you’ve been reading my blog posts for a while, Yellow River Baptist Church was founded in 1840 by a delegation from Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Association from Alabama and a handful of local residents: Elizabeth STEGALL, Margaret WEEKS, Elizabeth WOOD, Mary WOOD, Mary SENTERFITT, Nancy BUSBY, John ROBERTSON, James BARROW and David GARTMAN. The existing church records do not provide us any details on the first decade of the church but there is a remaining list of early members, recorded between Jun 1840 and Dec 1840. The original is with the State Archives and at one time they had it up on their Florida Memory site but I’ve not been able to locate it again. I know the list was created between Jun and Dec 1840 even though the document isn’t dated because Martha SENTERFITT, who was an early member along with her parents Jesse and Mary, is listed with her maiden name. She married my 2nd Great-Grandfather Richmond BARROW on 15 December 1840 in Andalusia, AL.
The extant minutes from the church begin in September 1850. It is unknown whether this is when they decided to start keeping minutes of their “conference” meetings after church services or whether the first decade of records was lost at some point in the past. This early set of records, from 1850 until 1893, have come to us as loose pieces of paper that were jumbled together inside of a book they had never been a part of. In studying the records, I quickly figured out that the few pages included with the church records, some of which were still attached to the front and back covers, were totally unrelated to Yellow River Baptist Church but included some notes from a Farmers’ Alliance in Laurel Hill, a few notes concerning Magnolia Baptist Church in Laurel Hill and some personal records of a J. J. MOORE. After talking with Yellow River’s pastor about these other records and their unrelated status to the church records, I made an effort to find a descendant and was able to do that and return those records to one of Mr. MOORE’s descendants. I had a lovely sit down with her and in talking figured out how the two sets of records had come together. The last Yellow River Church clerk who we know had these early records was Nancy MOORE BARROW, wife of Malcolm Taft BARROW. She was a daughter of J. J. MOORE. When the records went to the next clerk, they went together to the new clerk and when she passed away unexpectedly, the church did not retrieve the records. They were missing for about 30 years. The miracle of their return was a few years ago and since that time I’ve been scanning them, trying to put them in order using the digital records, and putting the originals in archival boxes for storage.
The early church records were notes of meetings, with some scattering of membership lists, one set from the 1850-1870 period and a second set that is generally from the 1870-1890 period. The member records were two pages for each letter of the alphabet, with white members listed by surname and the black members prior to 1865 listed by their first names but also listed with the surname of the family who claimed ownership of the enslaved member. These two pages for the most part had been separated from each other over the years and took some of my best puzzle solving skills to get back into place. Some of the letters for both sets of membership are missing. The second pages don’t provide much detail other than possibly when they joined and whether by baptism or letter and when they left the church and whether it was by letter or because they were excluded. A few people have a death date but most just have “dec’d” after the name. This was a Missionary Baptist Church. You were not considered a member until you had a personal experience of God and declared that before the church and asked for membership. Therefore, there are no records of births and deaths for children of members and the men are separated from the women until the later records so even figuring out marriage relationships with the records is difficult.
The minutes are often filled with “charges” against a member for some infraction that broke the church rules. Sometimes a committee met with the person and sometimes the person(s) were asked to come before the church and acknowledge their sin and ask for forgiveness from the church. If they didn’t do that they were excluded from membership.
The current church location on Yellow River Church Rd. occurred after the church purchased that piece of property around 1908. Prior to this the church was located to the east of the current location, probably where the Old Yellow River Cemetery is located and near where the Oak Grove School was located until it burned down in 1923. There was at least one church building at the original location based on indications in the church minutes, and possibly two. In early 1861, there is reference to a building committee they were having difficulty keeping members on. Understandable given the events of early 1861. We have no idea what these early churches looked like and aren’t sure where they were located though I believe they were likely in the same section that the federal government had set aside for schools in each community and when these sections were turned over to the State for management in support of the schools, the church needed to move, hence the purchase of property at the current location. There is occasional notes about the men retiring to the school to discuss a financial matter or other issue so I don’t think the original church location and the Oak Grove School were too far apart.
Which brings me to a quick aside. While the Oak Grove School that burned down was likely built in the 1890s (according to Mabel Peaden in a newspaper article from 24 February 1985), there were school sessions well prior to that and mention of a school house in the church records in September 1859. There were black school teachers listed on the censuses so they too had school after 1865 but I’ve not been able to find any evidence that they had a dedicated schoolhouse, though they could have used the one schoolhouse at a different time than the white students. School may have been in the schoolteacher’s house for the black students.
We have a photo from an early local newspaper of the church congregation in front of a building and the date is 1917. I’ve looked at this photo with magnifying lens and on my computer blown up as big as I can make it without it being a blurry mess. Comparing it to the poor newspaper photo I have of the schoolhouse from 1914, I believe the congregation may be standing in front of the schoolhouse unless the church building at the old location and the school were built to look very similar. The records from that time period mentions using the school for church and for meetings while they were re-locating and building a new sanctuary so it seems reasonable to assume the photo is in front of the schoolhouse. The church building completed around 1919 was a two-story building. The Masonic Lodge used the upstairs for their meetings. After the schoolhouse burned in 1923, my Great-Grandfather William Franklin King taught school in the upstairs until the county moved the students to Blackman. I have a photo of the Blackman students in 1929 and most of the students I would expect from Oak Grove are there so the move occurred probably between 1925 and 1928. The two-story church building was remodeled between 1938-1941 by taking the upper floor off and making some other changes to the bottom floor. That building lasted until 1960 when a new building was raised. It was burnt by an arsonist in 1981 and the current church building was raised in the same location.
Yellow River Baptist Church will celebrate its 180th year this month. Its history has not always been smooth. While it was in a vibrant community for many years, it was a farming community which meant money was not always available though member labor was. It was deeply impacted by the Civil War (War Between the States, War for Southern Independence). There were more than a few gaps in services in 1863 and 1864 and as one of my ancestors remarked when asked to report absentees (he was church clerk at the time) they were not being recorded on account of the war “flustrating” [sic] the people so much. The period of the Great Depression also proved problematic in having more than sporadic church services, though my Mom remembers they always did celebrate homecoming in June.
The digitizing and organizing of pages in as close to the original order as possible and the storage of all the church records in archival tissue and boxes is complete. I have spent many hours with these records and I’m currently reading each entry and extracting any useful information from a community or church history perspective and beginning to research some of the members. Coupled with my research on the community of Oak Grove (more on this in an upcoming post), in which Yellow River Church was an integral part, I’ve truly gotten to know both my ancestors and their neighbors much better. For me, that is the most important aspect of these records sent down to us by our ancestors.
Until Next Time