SMYRNA ASSOCIATE REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Information from the article was drawn from several sources. An excellent history of the church, entitled “Through Heritage,” was written in the early 1980s by Rachel McGill, Mary McGill, and Sara McGill Oille. Information is also included from the Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (1904) and the Sesquicentennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (1951), both published by the denomination. Compiled by and contributed to R&R by Paul Gettys – 2017
Smyrna is located is western York County, near the Cherokee County line. Although it is incorporated, it is more properly called a village than a town. Incorporated in 1895, Smyrna has the distinction of being the smallest municipality in South Carolina, with a population of 45 reported in the 2010 Census. The village grew up around Smyrna Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church, which predates the incorporation of the town by some sixty years.
About 1832, several families moved into the area now known as Smyrna. The general area was called Kings Creek for a stream west of Smyrna. Among these early residents were William McGill, Esq. from the Crowders Creek community in northern York County and three families by the name of Black who moved from Abbeville County. The McGills and Blacks had been members of ARP churches in their former communities, and they began plan for services in their new home. In 1834, Rev. Thomas Ketchin preached at the McGill home. A native of Scotland, Ketchin held several pastorates in the Carolinas, including Neely’s Creek in York County, Shiloh in Lancaster County and Bethel (Winnsboro) in Fairfield County. Smyrna was on the northern outskirts of the Sharon ARP congregation, organized in 1796, and seven families from that church began attending worship services. A stand or brush arbor was used at first. In 1835, John Darvin, a generous member of the Presbyterian Church, donated land for the Smyrna church, and a small log church was built. This building was on the land which still houses the church. It had no heat. Parishioners came to church on horseback and warmed themselves around a fire built in the yard. During the first few years, preaching was provided by various ministers from surrounding ARP churches, including Revs. Thomas Ketchin, Eleazer Harris, John Pressly, David Pressly, Joseph McCreary, L. C. Martin, R. C. Grier, and J. H. Boyce.
The church was formally organized in 1843 in a service led by Rev. R. C. Grier. No list of charter members has survived. Elders elected at the organization were Robert Whitesides, Thomas Faulkner, Thomas McGill, and Captain John F. Oates. At the first communion service, there were 48 communicants. No mention is made in histories of the selection of the name Smyrna. The church was probably named for one of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, mentioned in Rev. 2: 8-11. The modern city of Izmir, Turkey is on the site of ancient Smyrna.
Soon after organization, the Smyrna congregation, in conjunction with the Sharon and Olivet ARP Churches, called Dr. R. A. Ross as minister. He was paid $162 a year by Smyrna. Joint pastorates were common, due to a shortage of ministers and the small size of the congregations unable to support a full-time pastor. The minister would divide his preaching between the churches, so the congregations would have services only on designated Sundays. In the early days, church members came on horseback or on foot. There were no buggies or carriages in the area until around 1850. Each family brought its own Psalm book. In the early years, ARP congregations sang Psalms exclusively, and without musical instruments. Slaves were provided with seating, and were expected by many masters to attend church and become members.
Dr. Ross began to build up the young church. He was pastor from the organization in 1843 until his resignation in 1852. Robert Armstrong Ross was born in Cabarrus County, N. C. in 1817. He attended Union Academy in Mecklenburg County, Jefferson College in Pennsylvania (later Washington and Jefferson), and Erskine Theological Seminary. The pastorate at Sharon, Smyrna, and Olivet was his first. While serving here, he married Nancy E. Kennedy. He also served as Moderator of Synod in 1851, the highest leadership position in the denomination. After demitting the Smyrna section of his charge, he continued as pastor of Sharon.
The second pastor at Smyrna was Rev. J. R. Castles. He served in conjunction with Sardis Church nearby in Union County. James Robinson Castles was born in Fairfield County, S. C. in 1823 and graduated from Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, S. C. His pastorate began in 1854. During his pastorate, a new and larger church building was begun in 1860 and completed about 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. In December 1860, the Sardis congregation was dissolved and most of its members transferred to Smyrna. Additional elders elected during the pastorate of Rev. Castles were Thomas Wylie, J. D. Wylie, Calvin Whisonant, and Thomas Whitesides, who transferred from Sharon. Rev. Castles resigned in 1862 because of an illness which prevented his preaching.
Rev. Monroe Oates was the next pastor, serving from 1863 to 1868. He was born at Crowder’s Mountain in Gaston County, N. C. and grew up in the Pisgah ARP Church. He graduated from Erskine College and Seminary, and spent several years preaching at small churches in Arkansas, Virginia and Georgia. He accepted his first pastorate at Smyrna after having preached there as a supply for a year. It appears that he was the first pastor of Smyrna to serve the church full-time, which indicates that it had grown in numbers sufficiently to provide full support. His salary was $200 per year, and the church provided a home and farm for the minister. The ladies society provided feather beds from their geese and made quilts for the minister’s family. Oates briefly served in the South Carolina militia during the Civil War. He left Smyrna in 1868 to serve the Pisgah ARP Church in Pope County, Arkansas. He served here until his death in 1900.
In the unstable years following the Civil War, the church was provided with supply pastors, including Rev. Robert Lathan and their old pastor, Rev. R. A. Ross. Lathan was serving as pastor in Yorkville and Tirzah, and was one of the leading historians of the denomination. Ross had continued to serve the Sharon church since he gave up his first pastorate in Smyrna in 1852. In 1871, Rev. R. A. Ross became pastor of Smyrna for the second time, in a shared pastorate with Sharon. During his pastorate, the church was burned by an arsonist in 1873. The arsonist carried the pulpit Bible out of the church and placed it on the cemetery wall. The congregation raised $600 and built a new church building. During this time, the membership of Smyrna had grown to 33 families with 80 communicants. In 1875, an epidemic of diphtheria swept through the area, and at least seven children in the Smyrna congregation lost their lives. During his second pastorate at Smyrna, Dr. Ross received a number of honors. In 1874, he received honorary degrees from Washington and Jefferson College and Erskine College. In 1875, he was selected to meet in Baltimore with a delegation from the ARP Synod to discuss a potential merger with the United Presbyterian Church (the merger did not take place). In October 1890 the meeting of the General Synod took place at Sharon, and part of the meeting agenda was to celebrate Dr. Ross’s fiftieth year as pastor of Sharon. The Smyrna congregation joined in the celebration. Shortly after, Dr. Ross resigned due to age and infirmity.
One important event during the pastorate of Dr. Ross was the formation of a new church at Hickory Grove. This occurred in 1888, and all 29 of the charter members were from Smyrna.
In 1891, Rev. J. P. Knox was installed as pastor of Smyrna in a joint pastorate with the new Hickory Grove church. John Patterson Knox was born near Davidson, N. C. in 1860. He studied at Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary and was licensed to preach in 1889. Shortly before coming to York County, he married Miss Louisa Julia Brice. He preached for a short time in Virginia before accepting the call to Smyrna and Hickory Grove. Rev. Knox started a Sunday School class for young men in the congregation. The Knox family lived in a new manse which was built in Hickory Grove. Rev. Knox was called in 1899 to begin a new church in Columbia, S. C. This resulted in the founding of Centennial ARP Church.
Rev. J. L. Oates was the next pastor, who served both Smyrna and Hickory Grove. James Leroy Oates was born in Gaston County, N. C. and later the family moved to the Neely’s Creek section of York County. He studied at Erskine College and Seminary, being licensed to preach in 1897. His first pastorate was at Unity and Gill’s Creek in Lancaster County. He arrived at Smyrna in March 1900. He married Miss Lee Crockett of Troy, Tennessee in 1898. He served until 1909, when he resigned to accept the pastorate of the church in Yorkville. During the pastorate of Rev. Oates, the elders at Smyrna included Thomas McGill, R. M. Plaxco. J. B. Whitesides, W. M. Whitesides, J. A. McGill, J. E. Castles, and J. W. Quinn. An organ was installed in 1904, indicating that the old traditions of non-instrumental worship had been abandoned. The Rock Hill Herald reported on August 1, 1907: “The ARP church at Smyrna has raised about $1,300 for the purpose of remodeling the church. Smyrna is one of the oldest ARP churches in the county.” The project actually was the construction of an entirely new church building. During the construction of the new building the congregation worshipped at Canaan Methodist Church. The Yorkville Enquirer reported on July 21, 1908 on the dedication of the new church. The service attracted a large crowd from Smyrna, Hickory Grove, Bethany, Yorkville, and other areas. Rev. J. P. Knox, the former pastor, preached a sermon. Rev. J. S. Grier of Sharon ARP Church spoke on Dr. Ross and his important role in the history of the area. Also speaking were Rev. W. C. Ewart of the Yorkville ARP Church and Rev. S. D. Bailey of the local Methodist circuit.
Several ministers served Smyrna and Hickory Grove during the next two decades. These include Rev. G. L. Kerr (1910-1912), Rev. B. G. Pressly (1914-1924), Rev. R. M. Bell (1925-1944), and Rev. S. A. Boyce (1945-1950). During Rev. Pressly’s ministry, a new church was started in Blacksburg. Rev. Pressly led in the effort, was present at the organization, and served as the first minister for Blacksburg. In 1938, the Smyrna church was remodeled at a cost of $1,200. On June 28, 1942, the building was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Plans began immediately to replace the building. There were delays due to materials shortages during World War II, but the new building was completed in May, 1943. During construction, the congregation used the Smyrna School for worship services. The pulpit for the new church was made by Rev. Bell from timbers saved from the old building. Much of the labor and timber for the new building was provided by church members, with the total cost being $13,000. The pews and other furniture were delayed because of war shortages, and were received in April 1944. The new building featured a kitchen, which was a popular feature with the ladies of the church.
In addition to the daughter churches in Hickory Grove and Blacksburg, Smyrna also supported mission work at Cherokee Falls, and Sunday School classes were held at Broad River School and King’s Creek School.
In 1952, Smyrna called Rev. Jack Heinsohn as pastor. He had a very different background from most of the previous ministers. The son of circus performers, he was trained as an aerial performer. While the circus was wintering in York, he learned about Erskine College, and a local family helped him attend. He went on to have a long career as a minister and evangelist. In the mid-1950s, a multi-purpose room and rest rooms were added to the church. The new multi-purpose room could be used for recreation, divided into two classrooms, or used for meals and assemblies. The church also supported a missionary in the ARP mission in Pakistan.
After Rev. Heinsohn left in 1955, Smyrna decided to support the next minister full-time, and the sharing arrangement with Hickory Grove was ended. This meant that a new manse was needed, as the previous ministers had lived in the Hickory grove manse. The manse was built mostly by members of the congregation, who also donated most of the lumber. Rev. Robert Elliott was the next minister. He and his new wife were guests of Mrs. O. W. Carmichael while the manse was being completed. The Elliotts served from 1958 to 1962. The next pastor was Rev. Dwight L. Pearson, who served from 1963-1966. Subsequent pastors were Rev. John R. Thompson (1966-1972), Rev. Edward F. Franz III (1972-1974), Rev. Frank W. Stewart (1975-1976), Rev. R. Marshall Wilson (1977-1983), Rev. Michael D. Chesser (1984-1988), Rev. Andrew K. Putnam (1991-1996), Rev. Kyle E. Sims (1998-2004), and Rev. James Frank Mitchell (2006-2011).
The Smyrna Cemetery has graves from the pre-Civil War period to the present. There are a number of tombstone styles and materials, including soapstone, granite, and marble. About 1850, the well-known stone worker Richard Hare moved to Yorkville and began selling polished marble stones. He sometimes paid local men such as John Caveny and William Crawford to complete the lettering and set up the stones in the Smyrna Cemetery.
Many of the pastors who came to Smyrna during the middle and late twentieth century were recent Seminary graduates. They often stayed for a few years and then went on the larger and more prosperous churches. As the role of agriculture declined in western York County, many rural areas began to lose population as younger people moved into larger urban areas to find employment. The Smyrna congregation has gradually dwindled as this population drain has occurred. Today it is a small but vital congregation continuing its ministry in the western section of York County.
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