Liberty United Brethren Church celebrates 150 years of service

Photo by Michael Kelly Members of the Liberty United Brethren Church in Wesley Township stand outside the church Friday morning. The church celebrated its 150th anniversary Sunday.

CUTLER — A small country church at the edge of Washington County marked 150 years of worship and service this past weekend.

You won’t find the Liberty United Brethren Church by accident. Hidden in the hills north of Bartlett, it sits at the top of a rise, surrounded by forest and, as is usual for rural churches, flanked by a sizable cemetery.

Established three years after the end of the Civil War, Liberty United Brethren was one of many small churches that dotted the rural countryside in days when the congregation had to be within walking distance or a horse ride of its place of worship, church historian Mike Turner said.

Turner and his wife, Sandy, have attended the church for 34 years, plenty of time for him to assemble documents and records of the church’s history.

Gene and Marlene Russell have been members for nine years, but Marlene’s memory goes back well before that.

Photo by Michael Kelly The Liberty United Brethren Church in Wesley Township held its 150th anniversary celebration Sunday, which included a visit from the denomination’s bishop.

“I remember coming here as a 9-year-old child,” she said, sitting in the sanctuary Friday morning. “Florence Hodgin would pick us up in her truck, she’d pick up many of the kids and take them to church.”

Hodgin is an iconic figure in the church’s past.

“They say that when the people in the church got to be fewer and fewer, she sat down on the stoop and prayed to God to save the church, and people began to come after that,” Marlene said.

The church has survived a decline in local population, social changes away from traditional worship, even a fire.

Like many buildings of the late 1800s, the original church used coal or wood for heat and kerosene for light, but unlike most others destroyed by fire, the Liberty United Brethren was ignited by a lightning strike during a storm in the summer of 1912. A year later, a new building had taken its place, with the $234 in debt to build it wiped out in a single offering the Saturday before it reopened in 1913, Turner said.

“We still call it ‘the new church,’ even though it’s been here for 105 years,” he said.

Turner said that when the church was established there were 25,000 people living in Morgan County, a short distance away, but now the population is about 14,000.

“Back then, they say, you could see the lanterns as people walked through the fields to come to church,” he said.

The congregation numbers have waxed and waned, but a revival held in 2009 doubled the number of regular churchgoers, which now stands at about 40 every Sunday, enough to nearly fill the padded pews. Unlike its original congregation, they now come from far and wide, with people attending regularly from McConnelsville, Stockport, Veto and Little Hocking.

Pastor David Jarvis said the church’s prayer request line gets calls from as far as Florida. The United Brethren denomination is headquartered in Huntington, Ind., and includes scores of churches in 18 states. Liberty was among the top 10 in growth during the past decade, Turner said.

An extension was added to the back in the 1950s, and an outdoor shelter with tables built later after the church acquired some land behind the building.

Although like many traditional churches the congregation at Liberty is aging, Turner noted that young people still join.

“We’ve had two baby showers in the past year, the first in a long time,” Turner said. Every summer, the Bible school is well-attended, Jarvis said.

When asked what keeps people coming back, all five said at once, “The spirit.”

“You can feel the love and the spirit when you walk in the door,” Marlene said.

“Everybody who comes in the door is welcomed and loved,” Turner said.

On Sunday, United Brethren Bishop Todd Fetters attended the daylong festivities, which included Sunday school, worship service, a carry-in dinner and a homecoming service. J.R. Mayle came from Galloway, W.Va., to provide live music in the afternoon.