Ross Baptist Church celebrates bicentennial

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 23, 2004

ASKEWVILLE – Ross Baptist Church will celebrate its bicentennial from 10 a.m. to noon this Sunday, Sept. 26.

Located on the Bull Hill Road near Todd’s Cross, the Ross Baptist Church congregation invites all former members and individuals with ancestral ties to the church to attend the 200th anniversary celebration.

Services – which will include remarks from former pastors, special congregational singing and highlights from church and community history – will begin at 10 a.m. and continue until noon.

After the benediction, about noon, a catered lunch will be served. No one is required to bring food.

This is a huge event for the entire community – a stable, rural, farming community that is centered on Ross Baptist Church. Like all rural communities, many former members have left the region for other climes and other churches, but the congregation hopes everyone with a connection to Ross will attend this unique celebration of stability, longevity, and faith.

The church has a rich history that dates back almost to the beginning of the nation. According to documentation, Ross Baptist Church was organized in early 1804, but the story of its &uot;birth&uot; begins a few years earlier. About 1800, two clergymen from Martin County, Elder Martin Ross and Elder James Ross, began a crusade to establish a &uot;new religion&uot; in the area known as the Baptist Missionary Society. According to traditional stories, they began to meet in the old Indian Graveyard at Cucklemaker Creek where they held &uot;camp meetings&uot; periodically.

Converts were baptized in a designated area of the creek. The same area was used for over 100 years as a baptismal site for Ross Church, and is still known today as the &uot;Baptizing Hole at Cucklemaker Creek.&uot; The most prominent names among the early converts were Cowand, Oxley, Pugh, Yeats, Hughes, Newbern, Mizelle, White, Mitchell, Castellaw, and Freeman.

Soon after the area crusade for a missionary society began, James Ross moved to Bertie County and became a member of the Cashie Meeting House in Windsor. Traveling from the Windsor location, James continued to hold &uot;Divine&uot; services at the old Indian graveyard. Thomas Newbern, during the year of 1803 deeded a plot of land to the Baptist Society on which a &uot;meetinghouse&uot; would be built.

During the year of 1804, people of the area worked together as they cut trees, hewed logs, and hoisted them into place to build the first house of worship. The building was completed in 1804, and was described in the minutes of the Kehukee Association as the &uot;Log Meeting House of Bertie County.&uot;

The same year, 1804, the building became an established place of worship. Contrary to traditional stories, Ross Church was not named in honor of Elder Martin Ross. It was named in honor of Elder James Ross, and was known for many years during the 1800s as the &uot;James Ross Meeting House.&uot;

Ross served the church over 50 years – 32 years as the first pastor. Only one other pastor exceeded this record. Thomas Hoggard served 38 years as the second pastor. They preached to a membership that shared traits of a mixture of English, French, and American Indian ancestry. Many of the members, male and female, were &uot;hard drinking, undisciplined, and disorderly&uot; individuals. For over 100 years the church maintained a tough policy in an effort to discipline its membership. Some of the many charges brought against the members included intoxication, absenteeism, rioting, fighting, failure to support the church, fornication, adultery, and disorderly conduct in conference.

When charges were brought against a member, a committee of several men was appointed to investigate. If the committee confirmed the charges, the accused was &uot;cited/ordered&uot; to appear at the next church conference for a &uot;trial&uot; Many members were &uot;excluded,&uot; or &uot;excommunicated&uot; from the church when they were tried.

During church services women were segregated from the men, and were not permitted to vote or express their opinion on church policy, unless asked to do so. But the women were subjected to the same ”judicial type proceedings&uot; and disciplinary action as the men.

During the year of 1921 the church relented, and permitted women to vote and participate in the decision-making process. Women’s participation in church policy was a major factor in terminating the ”judicial proceedings,&uot; trials, and exclusions that the church had enforced for over 117 years.

For many years, Ross Church met on &uot;Saturday before forth Lord’s Day&uot; of each month for business conference, followed by &uot;Divine Services&uot; on Sunday. If there were many misconduct charges pending, or to be tried, the meetings would begin on Thursday, or Friday, and continue until all the cases had been heard. In 1829, midweek prayer services began. Services were held once each month on the Wednesday after the third Sunday.

The first Sunday school was established in July 1859. The members of the school met the first Sunday of each month until about 1900, when they began to meet each Sunday. Sunday school consisted of two non-graded classes until 1930.

Ross Church began worship services the second and forth Sundays of each month about 1915. The church shared pastor duties in a field with various other churches until 1975. Since 1975 the pastor’s duties at Ross has been a full-time position.

Probably, the most memorable events witnessed by some of the members of the old James Ross Meeting House were the &uot;protracted (extended) meetings&uot; that began in August of 1840, and were repeated for about 100 years thereafter during the month of August or September. Ministers from various churches were invited to participate in the worship services that were conducted afternoons and evenings. Some of the meetings continued for two weeks, and produced over 50 candidates for baptism. The church recorded record numbers in attendance during that time in its history.

During the church conference of November 1853, Josiah, Henry, and John Mizelle were appointed to &uot;measure the building for new benches.&uot; The committee reported during the next conference on December 1853 as follows: &uot;20 benches 13 feet long, and 22 benches 10 feet long will be needed for the building, and they will have backrests.&uot; Since the committee specified backrests for the pews, we can assume that the old benches had none. Those 42 pews are the only information in the old minutes to aid us in approximating the size of the old log church building. The building was probably 36 feet wide by 70-to-80 feet long.

In the business meeting of December 1858, the church appointed a committee to replace the &uot;old log meetinghouse&uot; with a new building. By May of 1860 the new building had been completed. The new building was described as modem, with &uot;weather boarded&uot; exterior walls. The interior walls were surface plastered. Galleries with stairway access were located on each side of the sanctuary at the entrance. The galleries accommodated a large membership of slaves until slavery ended in the mid-1860s. According to traditional stories, and some documentation, the old log meetinghouse was probably used as a schoolhouse for a few years before becoming a country store.

Joseph E. and Penelope Cale Hoggard deeded additional land to the church in 1889. In 1904 the church building underwent extensive renovations, including an addition to the rear that was referred to as the &uot;kitchen.&uot; During the same time, the galleries were removed and replaced with a large balcony. The plaster was replaced with strip paneling installed in diagonal patterns on the interior walls and ceiling, and new stained glass windows were installed. The windows and paneling are still in place today. Some of the work was not completed until 1906. The renovated building was not elaborate compared to today’s standards, but the membership, including some written history during that time described it as a &uot;Temple of Beauty.&uot;

During the early 1900s the Ross Church building was a &uot;hub&uot; of activity as the members hosted many events. The events included conferences held by the Bertie Union, West Chowan Baptist Association, West Chowan Pastor’s Association, West Chowan WMU Organizations, Bertie County Educational Association, Ross Music School, performances by the Ross Singing Class, and school at the Ross (also known as Hoggard’s) Schoolhouse.

The laymen of the church organized Bible classes and Sunday Schools that were held in various schoolhouses in the area, including Brown’s, Ray’s, Fulcher’s, Exter’s, Ward’s, Hoggard’s, Elm Grove, and Cobb’s. Sunday school enrollment was 835. After the Ross/Hoggard School was consolidated with Askewville School, the school building at Ross Church was sold to Mr. S. C. Bryant. The sale included over one acre of land upon which the building was located, and became final December 1928.

The church &uot;kitchen&uot; was renovated in 1931 and divided into eight Sunday school classrooms. Walter Miller, William David Hoggard, and Alonzo Hoggard served on the renovation committee. George W. Burch was pastor. William D. Hoggard rebuilt the pulpit platform in 1932.

Interestingly, 130 years after Ross Church was organized, it was discovered in November 1934 that the church had never been dedicated. The church was finally dedicated the fourth Sunday in June 1935.

A parsonage was built during the year of 1948, and occupied by Rev. Roy V. Young, Pastor of Ross, Elm Grove, and Bethany Churches. The financial burden for the parsonage was supplemented by funds from the estate of Mrs. J. T. Newbern.

A front porch was added to the church building during the mid-1950s, including new concrete steps at the entrance. The pulpit platform was enlarged during the summer of 1958. Two additional classrooms and two restrooms were built at the rear of the church building in 1959. The restrooms were the first with plumbing fixtures.

A new building with a barbecue pit was built in 1960 for outdoor activities. New pews were installed in the sanctuary in February of 1963, changing the seating arrangement from three rows of pews to two. When the building was built in 1860, two separate front entrances were used, and two isles in the sanctuary were in alignment with each entrance. When the building was renovated in 1904,one central entrance was installed leaving the aisles out of alignment with the door.

This awkward arrangement was used until 1963. Eventually, the old wooden exterior walls weathered until paint was no longer effective. In 1970 the exterior walls were covered with brick.

During the 1970s the church reached its peak in organized programs for children, youth, men, women, and athletic organizations and activities. In 1974 a Community Center/Educational Building was built by the membership. The building consists of the pastor’s office, five classrooms, nursery, utility room, two rest rooms, kitchen area, and a fellowship hall.

In 1982, 178 years after the church was organized, a steeple was erected, and a baptistery was installed. During 1990 a concrete athletic court was installed on church property that had been donated by Mrs. Doris Miller Dailey, a former member. Cost for the court was supplemented by funds from the estate of Mr. Howard Harrison.

In October of 1991 an outdoor children’s playground/family center was dedicated to God, and in memory of four and one-half year old Samantha Ross Hoggard. Playground equipment was donated and installed by Samantha’s family. During November 1991, Ross Church agreed to become treasurer of the Samantha Hoggard Memorial Fund, and administer the Samantha Hoggard Memorial Scholarship Program that had previously been established. Funding for the scholarship program is through memorial contributions that are still received in memory of loved ones.

A metal utility building was erected in 1998 for housing and storage of church equipment. The building is also equipped with cooking and dining facilities. Funds from the estate of Mr. C. Owen White supplemented the cost of the building. A benevolence fund was established in 1999 to provide emergency relief to destitute families. The benevolence program was established through funds donated to the church by Mr. Albert B. Tarkington, and is supported through monthly offerings.

The church completed the second floor of the Education Building during the year of 2003. The project added six new classrooms, entrance and exit stairways, heating and air-conditioning, and electrical upgrading.

The pastors that served in the late 1800s and early 1900s boasted of congregations that frequently exceeded 800 members. Due to the establishment of many area churches, the membership at Ross declined and stabilized at about 230.

Little information is revealed in the old minutes about music in Ross Church until the early 1900s. The first recorded purchase of a music instrument was July 1906, which was an organ. The first organist is believed to have been Professor J. M. Perry, a music teacher and member of the church.

According to stories from members now deceased, that was the first permanent music instrument placed in the church building. The church purchased another organ in June 1920, and sold the old organ for $30. The organ was replaced with a $200 piano in October 1934. The old organ was sold in November on Thanksgiving Day. W. R. Lawrence donated an electric Conn organ to the church in 1964 in memory of his father, James H. Lawrence, a former life-long member at Ross. The church purchased a piano and an electronic organ in 1981, and moved the old instruments into the Fellowship Hall for choir rehearsal and other events.

Traditional stories inform us that Mrs. Penelope Hughes Harrison &uot;led the singing as she walked the aisles&uot; for about 50 years during the middle-to-late 1800s. According to church records, James &uot;Jim&uot; Hughes was director of the choir and &uot;Ross Singing Class&uot; as early as April 1890. W. S. (Scott) Hoggard was elected chorister April 1929, and served until his retirement in 1963. Joseph &uot;Shine&uot; Hoggard was elected in September 1963,and still serves as chorister as of March 2004.

A cemetery was established on church property when member Lewis W. Miller was &uot;laid to rest&uot; on March 7, 1937. Mr. Miller requested that privilege before he died. Many have followed him.

The early members of the church were buried in many of the old &uot;graveyards&uot; in the general area. Some of the burial sites will probably never be found, or identified again due to the forest growth that covers them. But the legacy of the early members still lives through the history of the old Log Meeting House, and the events that occurred through the years that shaped our membership into what we know today as Ross Baptist Church.