Home | Research | Visitor's Center | Cemeteries | Surnames | Towns | Queries
Bamberg County SCGenWeb


This story appeared in Charleston's Post and Courier and is used here with the consent of its author, Bo Peterson.  

Story last updated at 11:38 a.m. Tuesday, July 8, 2003

'Labor of Love' 

                Descendants of founders strive to preserve historic Mizpah Church 

                BY BO PETERSEN 
                Of The Post and Courier Staff 

                ULMER--The church is so old the red clay mortar that caulked it no
                longer can be found. Its congregation is so tiny it fits on one of the
                hand-hewn wood pews. Sherman's troops burned the town for which it
                was built to the ground.

                All except for Mizpah Church. 

                The heart-pine church is one of the last of its time, an antebellum rural
                family worship hall still preached in by a "circuit rider" minister one
                Sunday in every four, a practice that dates back to the wilderness
                Colonial days.

                Marauding Union troops during the Civil War spared   
                the church while razing the town of Buford's Bridge around it.
                As the story goes, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman 
                ordered it spared because he was a Methodist.

                Now, the old survivor is about to outlive itself. The five families who
                joined hands to build it in the mid-1800s have kept it running for years.
                Most family members have long since moved from the Bamberg
                County countryside along the Salkehatchie River.

                Its congregation has dwindled to eight members, and they are getting
                old. Its board of trustees holds the property in trust for the S.C. Annual
                Conference of the United Methodist Church. When a church can no
                longer support a minister, the practice of the conference is to dissolve
                the trust, take over the property, sell it or turn it over to another church.

                But in a harkening to the past, the descendants of those five families
                have joined hands to keep Mizpah in service -- this time to history. They
                have restored the old sanctuary to a luster and taken on the task of
                keeping it in service as a conference historic church. 

                "We have great-great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers buried
                here, along with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,"
                said David Sojourner, the St. George mayor whose maternal Brabham
                family was one of the five founders.

                "There is a great heritage at this place that cannot be exchanged for
                anything in the world," he said.

                The church is one of the "fewer and fewer" surviving examples of the
                rural meetinghouse that was part and parcel of the settlement of South
                Carolina, said Andy Chandler, state Archives and History architectural

                         "It's a remnant of what used to be. The fact that it sits out there by itself
                         is remarkable.  You wouldn't think that a small frame church in an
                         obscure place would be that significant. But this is really a part of our
                          heritage and our history. This is part of the character of rural South Carolina,"
                          he said.
                "It's amazing that it's still there and still relatively intact. I'm
                amazed at the effort they made, the talent they had -- particularly
                woodworking talent, and the time they took."

                One day soon, the church's retired, part-time minister won't be
                able to serve any longer. Then Sojourner will submit the
                paperwork he's readying to ask the conference for the historic

                With the designation, the church could be assigned to the
                trustees of Trinity church in Bamberg, where many of the Mizpah
                descendents are members. Services would be held at Mizpah
                four times per year.

                The name Mizpah means, "The Lord watch between me and
                thee, when we are absent one from another." 

                On a recent Sunday, with the sun stretching like a palm through
                the arched white pane windows, the Rev. Ed Stiltz called the
                congregation to service. The guests spread sparsely through the
                pews outnumbered the members.

                The olden chime of the piano reverberated in the heart pine of
                the walls. The few voices were clear on the high notes, and the
                nearly empty sanctuary welled with the sound.

                "Dear Father, as we listen to the melody of that old hymn, we
                need to pay more attention to the words. It says, 'More love to
                thee,' " Stiltz preached.

                           Stiltz made his career circuit-riding --  moving church to church
                           among smaller congregations each week --  so he was     
                           comfortable coming out of retirement to divide Sundays 
                           among four tiny churches in the region.
                Circuit preaching remains customary among the smaller
                Methodist churches in the state, those that have fewer than 200
                members, said James McGee, conference district building board
                chairman. Still, the size of these four churches is unusual.

                They have maybe 75 members total, Sojourner said. Mizpah has
                the smallest congregation among them. 

                Antique lanterns hang outside the windows behind the pulpit.
                The rumpled old window glass casts burnished sunlight in the

                Iron crosses of honor rise from the tombs of Confederate
                veterans in the church cemetery. One of the Brabhams buried
                there signed the state's Order of Secession.

                Around it was once the town of Buford's Bridge -- post office,
                boarding house, shoe shop, tailor shop and Masonic hall. It is
                now woods.

                "In the wintertime sometimes you can see where the foundations
                of some of these things were," Sojourner said.

                Each year for generations, extended members of the five families
                have held a reunion at Mizpah that draws as many as 300
                people from across the country. By the 1990s, the
                century-and-a-half old floor beneath them was rotting away. 

                There already had been talk of what would become of the
                church when it lost the last of its members. The reunion families
                decided to try to save it. They raised more than half a million
                dollars with contributions and the trustees' sale of lumber from
                400 acres deeded to the church in 1900 by James M. Brabham.
                They volunteered labor and expertise.

                Led by grounds committee chairman Clyde Kearse, they
                restored the 19th century sanctuary down to the old hand-cut
                nails. They preserved it so authentically that on the backs of the
                pews in the rear of the sanctuary are scrawled signatures and
                dates apparently penciled more than a century ago by
                mischievous children. 

                "Sweetpea O'Neal, June 25th 1881," reads the flowing script of

                In 2000, the restored church was placed on the National
                Register of Historic Places.

                Sojourner has attended the reunion all his life. His grandmother
                carried him when he was younger. He carried his children when
                they were young enough to stand on the pews.

                When there was nobody left to fill a vacancy on the church
                board of trustees, he was asked to step in because he is a
                Brabham, and because he is an active conference member, a
                board member of its Methodist Home in Orangeburg.

                When they needed cypress to replace the balustrades around the
                pulpit, they razed an old barn on the Sojourners' family farm in
                Demark and pulled the beams.

                "We don't want to see the church fall by the wayside. It's still of
                such value, family value," Sojourner said.

                "We're preserving history with family because we couldn't
                preserve it without families," said Kearse, who is now the trustee
                board chairman. "It's a labor of love."

                Bo Petersen covers Dorchester County, Summerville, St. George and 

                              Copyright © 2003, The Post and Courier, All Rights Reserved.
                             Comments about our site, write:   webmaster@postandcourier.com 


See Photos of Mizpah Church & Cemetery
Vintage Postcard of Mizpah Church

This file was contributed for use by the Bamberg County SCGenWeb Project  by:

Pat Sabin (with permission of Bo Peterson)

USGENWEB NOTICE: In keeping with our policy of providing free information on the Internet, material may be freely used by non-commercial entities, as long as this message remains on all copied material, AND permission is obtained from the contributor of the file.

These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit or presentation by other organizations. Persons or organizations desiring to use this material for non-commercial purposes, MUST obtain the written consent of the contributor, OR the legal representative of the submitter, and contact the listed USGenWeb archivist with proof of this consent.