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"It's a remnant of what used to be. The fact that it sits out there by
This story appeared in Charleston's Post
and Courier and is used here with the consent of its
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
family worship hall still preached in by a "circuit rider" minister one
Sunday in every four, a practice that dates back to the wilderness
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
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.
Conference of the United Methodist Church. When a church can no
longer support a minister, the practice of the conference is to
the trust, take over the property, sell it or turn it over to another
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.
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
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
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
heritage and our history. This is part of the character of rural South
Stiltz made his career circuit-riding -- moving church to church
"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.
among smaller congregations each week -- so he
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
"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
"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
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Vintage Postcard of Mizpah Church
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Pat Sabin (with permission of Bo Peterson)
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