Bethesda Methodist Protestant Church | Halifax County, NC | c.1853
On August 4th, 1809, William Henry Wills was born in Tarboro North Carolina. In his 79 years on this planet, Wills would find work for himself as a merchant, a reverend, a prominent clergyman, an educator, and eventually as a plantation owner.
In 1830, Wills joined the Methodist Protestant Church and later that year became licensed to preach. In 1831, he preached his first sermon in Edgecombe County. In 1835, he married Anna Maria Baker Whitaker and for about 10 years, he stepped away from ministry to work for the R & S.D. Cotten mercantile business, based in Halifax and Tarboro North Carolina.
His new wife Anna was a niece to the Cotten’s and when Cotten died in 1837, the newly married couple would inherit a portion of the sale of the company in 1841 (1). In November of that year, Wills bought an $870 acre property east of Brinkleyville North Carolina, in Halifax County. Previously owned by Sterling H. Gee (2), the property was located on Rocky swamp and sold to Wills for $2,700. He named his new home Rocky Hill.
The plantation, which contained around 225 improved acres, was operated using enslaved labor. According to the 1850 census, the principal crops here were Indian corn, wheat, oats, peas, beans, sweet potatoes. Their livestock holdings included horses, mules, oxen, cattle, sheep, swine.
Williams prominence was rising and at some point in this decade, he felt called back to ministr and in 1853, helped to found Bethesda Methodist Presbyterian, near his Rocky Hill home.
In 1854, this 30×40 structure was erected and originally included a back partition for enslaved people. (3) Services were held here on the second Sunday of every month throughout the rest of that century. According to local tradition, the builder was James Boseman, (4) a local farmer. But there is certain architectural evidence that suggests that the work might have been done by highly skilled enslaved carpenters who had trained in the shop of noted North Carolina architect, Jacob Holt.
In 1855, Reverend Wills and his son-in-law Reverend Jesse Hayes page opened the Halifax Male Academy at Brinkleyville. Shortly after, they also established the Elba Female Seminary. (5) That same year, Wills served as a trustee of the Lynchburg Virginia Methodist Protestant college and served during the short period it was open prior to the Civil War. During this period, he used Rocky Hill as his base while he traveled around North Carolina to preach in the Roanoke circuit. (6)
By the 1860 census, he had added cotton as an agricultural asset on his plantation and production had increased from six bales to 16 from the previous report. In the 10 years between 1850 and 1860, the population of enslaved persons here increased from 21 to 32. They lived in seven houses on the property. This shift in his prosperity moved him from the merchant to the farmer category. His real estate holdings were valued at $15,220 and his personal assets at $29,725. (7)
William and Anna Wills would have nine children who were born and raised at Rocky Hill and during the Civil War, their second son George served as a lieutenant in the Confederate Army. He was killed in battle on September 19th of 1864 in Winchester Virginia. Another of their sons, Edward, also fought in the Civil War but returned home. (8) At the end of the Civil War, the Reverend was invited to meet with President Andrew Johnson at the White House along with a contingency from the church’s clergy. (9)
In 1868, they closed both of his schools and by 1870, his 800-plus acre farm was valued at $3,350 with his personal assets listed at $830. But despite the financial impact, Wills was able to keep most of his landholdings intact. In the years between 1870 and 1880, he hired enough farm labor to increase cotton production and subsequently planted a 6-acre 200-tree apple orchard. (10) The farm made enough money to hire more laborers and by 1880, the value of the property had doubled. (11) But in this decade, Williams health had begun to decline and he began to limit his ministry. He turned his focus to his home church of Bethesda and modified the design, moving the pulpit from one end to the other. This required that the separate partition for enslaved persons be removed as the church congregation moved into the reconstruction years.
In September of 1884, while Wills visited the Lagrange mission in North Carolina, he was stricken with paralysis. He would not regain function and passed away at his Rocky Hill home in June of 1889.
But Bethesda would continue on in his tradition and in the Fall of 1889, modifications were made to the church: “at an expense of about $450, the room was remodeled by enlarging the windows and making them 12 instead of 24 light, new and more comfortable seats put in, new pulpit and altar, and pulpit furniture, a recess for the pulpit, neat lamps, walls calcimined, etc. so that we now have one of the neatest rooms in the section.”(12)
As the 1900s arrived, things shifted for this rural community as people passed away or moved to other parts of the state. By the 1920s and 30s, the local Home Demonstration Club had taken control of caring for the church. They made a few upgrades to stabilize the foundation, modifications to the stoop, and planted azaleas and shrubs around the building. Stained glass windows were also added. (13)
In 2007, the United Methodist Church sold the church and its property to three descendants of Benjamin Hunter family, who helped Wills to found Bethesda Methodist Presbyterian Church. In 2012, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The graveyard on site is a contributing asset to the National Register listing and contains approximately 85 burials. You can find a list of those interred here on Find A Grave.
Nothing remains of the plantation home or of the housing for enslaved persons who used to live here. For this reason, Bethesda Methodist Protestant Church is an important historic asset that allows us to interpret the time period more fully.
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- 1) 6 “Auction Sales,” Tarboro Press, October 23, 1841.
- 2) Letter to W. H. Wills from J. W. Cotten, April 18, 1842, William Henry Wills Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH
- 3) “Bethesda Church,” Our Church Record, June 23, 1898, 8.
- 4) Taves, Historic Architecture of Halifax County, 64-65.
- 5) Memoir of Rev. Jesse H. Page,” Journal of the North Carolina Annual Conference Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1904, 28-29
- 6) “Memorial of Rev. William Henry Wills, D. D.” Minutes of the North Carolina Annual Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church, 1889, 37-38.
- 7) U. S. Census, population schedule, Halifax County, N. C., 1860
- 8) Wills, “Southern Sulky Ride in 1837, From N.C. Alabama,” Southern History Association, November 1902, 6:471-472.
- 9) Rives, “William H. Wills,” Dictionary of N. C. Biography, 6:223-224.
- 10) U. S. Census, 1870, Population and Agriculture schedules, North Carolina, Halifax County, Brinkleyville Township
- 11) U. S. Census, 1880, Population and Agriculture schedules, North Carolina, Halifax County, Brinkleyville Township.
- 12) “Bethesda Church,” Our Church Record, June 23, 1898, 8
- 13) Taves, Historic Architecture of Halifax County, N. C., 94-95, 148-149
- Hunter-Wills Family Papers