A Historic Mississippi Church Saved After Lightning Struck

Bethel Presbyterian Church | Claiborne County, MS | c. 1824

Upon first glance, Bethel Presbyterian Church appears to be simple- so much so that I almost convinced myself to keep on driving the first time I passed. But how grateful I am that I stopped to learn more about it.

Besides the history it represents for the early state of Mississippi and its early communities, the church played a significant role in the expansion of Presbyterianism into the Old Southwest. But the church would find itself at the literal crossroads of Federal Troops just before the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863.

Early Church Days

A congregation was founded in either 1824 (or 1826) and the original membership was drawn from the Bayou Pierre Church, which had been organized in 1807 about 3 miles west of Port Gibson. In 1828 the Mississippi Legislature granted a charter to the “ Presbyterian Congregation of Bethel ” and named William Young, Lewellin Price, John Magruder, and Smith C. Daniell (owner of Windsor Plantation, now Windsor Ruins) as trustees.

Sometime around 1840, the congregation moved to this site and the current Greek Revival style structure you see here was built on 3 1/2 acred of land which had been donated by Lewellin Price in February of 1839. But, according to the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson, in the period just before the Civil War, as well as after, many changes in the community and in the life of the church took place. It appears that Bethel Church became inactive for a number of years.

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During the War

During Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign to take Vicksburg, he landed his troops east of the Mississippi River just a few miles from Bethel Church at Bruinsburg. The Union army moved from Bruinsburg Road onto Rodney Road, passing by Bethel Church, on a moonlit march that one soldier described as “romantic in the extreme.” There are reports that passing troops used the steeple for target practice.

This was the beginning of the Battle of Port Gibson which was one of the turning points of the War between the States, since this defeat of the Confederates led to the capture of Vicksburg. This strategic battle was fought eight miles west of Bethel Church on May 1, 1863.

Post War

Like many rural communities and congregations across the South, the years after the war were difficult and Bethel was no different. According to church records, the congregation didn’t resume regular services until 1884 under Rev. George G. Woodbridge, who served the church until 1887. Rev. W.B. Bingham took leadership and served the church until 1896 when the church became inactive for nearly 35 years.

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In the 1930s, there was a renewed effort to bring the church back to life. Under Rev. T.B. Hay from the Port Gibson Church a Sunday School was organized, services were started, and new elders, deacons, and trustees were named.

And for nearly a decade, the community came here to worship, celebrate and mourn together. Until November 6, 1943 when a devastating tornado struck the church and, destroying most of it.

But the spirit of the congregation hadn’t been devastated and between October 1944 and March 1945, the church was reconstructed. During the rebuild, the building was shortened. There were originally 4 window on either side of the church, but upon reconstruction, 3 bays were built in order to save more of the bricks to rebuild the steeple.

The pointed steeple and slave gallery were removed, and the wooden floor was replaced with concrete. Bethel Church was rededicated on April 1, of 1945. By 1950, there were enough local congregants that preaching services were scheduled for the second and fourth Sundays of each month.

Photo c. 1940s courtesy of The First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson
Photo c. 1950s courtesy of The First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson
Bethel Presbyterian as it looked in the 1950s

Services continued to be held at Bethel on the second and fourth Sundays until the Fall of 1974.  At that time, services were held quarterly until they were finally discontinued. The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson continues to oversee the preservation of the building. Worship services are now held at Bethel in the Spring and the Fall.

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Bethel Presbyterian Church is one of the few remaining landmarks associated with the battle of Port Gibson The sunken road behind the church was where federal troops passed in 1863 can still be seen today.

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3 thoughts on “A Historic Mississippi Church Saved After Lightning Struck”

  1. Thank you for article in Bethel Church near Port Gibson. Though I have lived in Virginia for over 50 years I still visit my home state of Mississippi. Discovered Bethel after a visit to Rodney but didn’t find a lot of info. Thanks again.

    Norma Woodward Fredericksburg VA

  2. Love looking at old homesteads and churches , I just stop and try to amagine how it was back in there time , those days were the good old days !

  3. My husband stumbled upon this gem 4-5 years ago when visiting the Windsor Ruins. We walked around the grounds and peered into the windows and lo and behold the door was unlocked and we walked inside. It was a beautiful, serene moment for us!

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