The road to Damascus is rich with history in Butler Associationcomment (0)
November 21, 2002
By Anthony Wade
Like the century-and-a-half old interracial cemetery next to it, the history of Butler Association’s Damascus Baptist Church is rich with Baptist heritage.
The church still sits on its original site on a small hill that grades down toward the intersection of Highway 10 and Damascus Road. The church is nestled amid farm and timberland a few miles south of Greenville and was built near a creek so that pastors would have a convenient place to baptize new converts.
Segregation in those days was twofold. Not only did it mean that slaves sat in one part of the sanctuary and whites in the other, but the same rule applied for women who were also designated to sit in certain sections of the sanctuary.
The segregation rule of bygone years even applied after death, evidenced by the adjoining cemetery that sits within three feet of the church. There once was a burial division in the cemetery that separated the graves of whites on one side of the property and blacks on the other. Today that is no longer the case, according to pastor Pat Ozement who explained that the church gave the cemetery to the Damascus Cemetery Association, which now administrates and maintains it for the community.
Ozement, who has been pastor of Damascus Baptist Church for two and a half years, discovered some interesting facts about the early membership. When the church was founded 21 years before the Civil War, 39 of its 94 members were black individuals. Interestingly, of these 39 black members, not one slaveowner to whom they belonged could be found as church members, Ozement explained.
According to the early records of Damascus, the church was constituted in 1847. However, a marker on the building states the founding of the church as 1840.
This was the year a member from Mount Zion (Primitive) Baptist Church gained permission to hold church meetings at the new site — thus establishing Damascus Baptist Church. “The old church was white wood with no steeple; it resembled in size and shape a large old barn with windows.”
Ozement speculates that there was probably a children’s, women’s and men’s class all held in different areas of the big open room. “That would not have been unusual back then,” he explained. Based on new laws enacted during the period of Reconstruction, the freed blacks were allowed to create their own churches. In 1872, which was midway through the Reconstruction years, the black members of Damascus formed their own church, and as a body asked for letters of dismissal. Damascus members formed a committee to help their black members form their own church — Bethlehem Baptist — which still sits about five miles south of present-day Damascus Baptist.
Open to all races
Although today there are no black members at Damascus, Ozement says they are welcome and pointed out that some do visit occasionally.
“We are open to anyone regardless of race,” Ozement said, adding, “When we had our 9/11 memorial service, members of Bethlehem Baptist joined us for that occasion.”
Damascus, one of the 31 churches in Butler Baptist Association, has grown to considerable size during different historical periods, but currently there are a little more than 100 members.
There have been times when the membership numbers climbed to several hundred.
The majority of today’s members are senior adults, but a handful of children and younger couples are emerging.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do is develop a church that would appeal to people of all ages. We’ve started children’s church which now has 10 children who attend,” he said.
For at least 100 years Damascus has been the site of the fifth Saturday night sing, a communitywide, sometimes tri-state gathering of people who love old-time gospel music. Volunteers from many different Christian churches come and sing for several hours in the evening. We’ve had people from Florida and Mississippi,” he said.
Hymnbooks used at the singing are books printed in the early 1900s, which use shaped notes rather than modern musical notes. In earlier days of Damascus Baptist Church, its members’ source of livelihood and nourishment came from their hard work on their cropland. This livelihood made them dependent on sufficient rainfall.
Ozement told an interesting story which he refers to as “documented tradition,” based on information from “Butler County Historical Quarterly,” “History of the Butler County Baptist Association” and “The Damascus Baptist Church History.” The chronicles describe a particular third-Sunday Damascus homecoming/big meeting event that was held in July.
It was during a year prior to the 1940s when devastating drought plagued the area. Crops were nearly wiped out and people were running out of options to work or live.
At this faith-filled rural church the people knelt at their pews and prayed for the Lord to send rain for their crops. That afternoon a severe thunderstorm rolled over the land, bringing salvation to the crops and the people’s way of life.
“For many years after, there was rain on the third Sunday in July and the afternoon meal would have to be moved inside. It is said that this third-Sunday-of-July rain ended in the 1940s, coinciding with the deaths of the last of those who knelt and prayed on that long-past Sunday,” according to church history.