Utica Baptist Church, MS
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"Utica Baptist Church Celebrates 175th Anniversary" [1825-2004]


By: Mary Collins Landin, Church Historian
3084 Tom Collins Road, Utica, MS 39175 (Click on Redball for More Info.<--- LandinMC@aol.com)
E-Mail to this writer Dated: 30 Apr 2004, At: 7:13:14 AM Pacific Daylight Time

Utica Baptist Church, Street View - Click on Thumbnail for Larger Photo! Utica Baptist Church
220 W. Main St, Utica, MS 39175
Phone: 601-885-8806
     Utica Baptist Church will be 175 years old on April 26, 2004! Our church minutes and State Convention records reflect that our church has a long and colorful history, and many distinguished and faithful members have been in its congregation during parts of three centuries. It all began when a few families began settling in the Cane Ridge area just south of the Natchez Trace in the late 1700s. By about 1800 there were enough families in the area to feel the need to establish churches. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Christians all settled here, and congregations older than Utica Baptist in this area were Big Black Presbyterian (1800), which became Bethesda Presbyterian in 1826, Cayuga Methodist in 1826, White Oak Baptist in the edge of Copiah County also in 1826, and Palestine Baptist in 1827.

     By 1815, settlers in the Cane Ridge immediate area were meeting as a non-denominational congregation, and in 1829, the Bethel Baptist Church was organized under the leadership of Rev. Van Brock at Cane Ridge. Rev. Brock lived at Cane Ridge and owned a plantation south of Utica on what is now Reedtown Road. Settlers in those days carried handwritten letters they had gotten from their old churches in South Carolina, Georgia, Southwest Mississippi Territory, or wherever they had moved from, and they presented these documents at their new churches for acceptance. Those settlers who did not want to be Baptists soon thereafter in 1829 organized into what became the Utica Methodist Church under the leadership of Rev. Thomas Nixon, a well-known Methodist circuit rider whose plantation was located between Utica and Bear Creek. The Utica Methodists will also celebrate their 175th Anniversary this year, on May 23!

     Based on the records in existence, our founding families were couples, children, siblings and relatives of: Mr. and Mrs. Moses Brock, Mr. and Mrs. Mathew Broome (his first wife–his second wife was Methodist), Mr. and Mrs. John Wise, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Easterland and their parents the Joel Easterlands who moved from the White Oak Baptist congregation, Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin H. Beauchamp (his first wife—his second wife was Christian), Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Magee, Mr. and Mrs. William Brown, Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel P. Mimms, Mr. and Mrs. Pulaski Dudley, Mr. and Mrs. William Cessna, Mr. and Mrs. John Frost Kelley (his first wife), and Rev. and Mrs. Van W. Brock.

     The first location of the Baptist church was a small wooden (log) building at the tanning yard near where the old Utica School once was located, but by 1843 the congregation had moved closer to their present location, now the corners of Main, White Oak, and Southview (once named Church Street) Streets in Utica. Time marched on, and a few more families moved into the area. In 1832, a congregation of Christians organized on plantations outside town, and in 1847 moved into town to their present location to become Utica Christian Church. In 1836, both the Methodists at Bear Creek and the Presbyterians at Lebanon organized into congregations named Penial or Pisgah Methodist which became Bear Creek Methodist about 1857, and Greenwood Presbyterian, which became Lebanon Presbyterian in 1854. In 1837 this tiny congregation of Bethel Baptists found themselves living no longer in Cane Ridge, but in a place called Utica, so-named by the U. S. government when they established a post office in the village. The name change was at the suggestion of the post master at Cayuga (Ozias Osborn) after his hometown of Utica, NY, and there is no record to know if the people in Cane Ridge were consulted first or not!

     In that same year of 1837, the Mississippi Baptist Convention was organized not far away at Palestine Baptist Church, which is, sadly, a church no longer in existence. There was another Bethel Baptist Church in the Convention, and confusion reigned for a short while until in 1845, our Bethel congregation decided to change its name to Utica Baptist to end the problem. There were no more than 20 houses, a few stores, a livery stable, a tanning yard, and a cabinetmaker in the village prior to the Civil War, but Utica Cemetery came into use at least by 1818 on the farm of the John Chappell family. The oldest headstone known there is of Major John Cook, a Revolutionary War soldier who was a native of Virginia, and a direct ancestor of a number of people in the community.

     In 1843, Rev. William H. Taylor became the church's second pastor, and that same year, a new building was constructed beside the town cemetery. Rev. Taylor had come to Utica to establish a school for young ladies called the Utica Female Institute, which he located on the north side of the Grand Gulf Road, now Main Street, and next door to what is now the Horne home, on the spot where the Walker home now stands. Rev. Taylor was also instrumental in the organization of Jackson Baptist Church in Jackson, a small village at the time, and Jackson Baptist became a mission church of Utica Baptist, with the deacons and pastor of Utica helping them establish. Mississippi Baptists will recognize that congregation as the huge First Baptist Church on State Street in downtown Jackson! Rev. Taylor also began publication of a small Baptist paper in 1846 called The Mississippi Baptist which was printed in Utica until 1849. It was the forerunner of the current Mississippi Baptist Record, Mississippi's largest circulation newspaper. During his years at Utica the congregation grew to 102 members. He moved to Jackson in 1850, and his school continued to operate until 1855.

     Utica's first public school was begun in 1852 by Click on Redball for More Info.<--- Mrs. Frances (Brown) SARRETT, wife of H.J. SARRETT [a.k.a Harmon Jackson SARRETT] who became Utica's first mayor, on land purchased from Mathew Broome.

     In 1850, Rev. T. D. Armstrong served as pastor for one year, and that was also the year that Utica was hit by its first yellow fever epidemic, a recurring and horrifying event that passed through Utica several more times until the early 20th Century. Over the next few years through the Civil War, Utica Baptist had six pastors.

     Rev. C. S. McLeod served during the war years and no minutes of the church were kept from 1862-1865, the only time that happened in 175 years. In May 1863, Union General U. S. Grant sent over 12,000 of his troops under General McPherson through Utica in a 3-pronged attack on Jackson with intent to double back on and isolate Vicksburg. These soldiers stopped in Utica for water and rest and to forage the countryside long enough around our churches and cemetery to damage a lot of old gravestones before moving on to the Weeks and Roach plantations on the Utica-Raymond Road to camp and continue foraging, then on to the Battle of Raymond—there were still bullet holes in the old antebellum Christian Church building when it burned. At the time of McPherson's march, there was not an able-bodied man left in the village or surrounding countryside to defend it because they were all off fighting in their own Confederate regiments!

     In 1866 following the Civil War, Utica reported to the State Convention that it had 125 members. That included white and black members, as it always had from the days of its founding. The pastor at the time was Rev. W. W. Bolls, who also pastored churches in Warren County and later at Salem Baptist. He helped organize and was the first pastor for St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church in 1867 and trained its first deacons. It was established for any black members who wanted to move their memberships, but Utica Baptist's church minutes reflect that it continued to have black members as late as 1880 when it no longer reported membership to the Convention by race. Approximately 35-40 members moved to St. Peter, which is now the oldest active Missionary Baptist congregation in Hinds County. Utica Baptist minutes documented the names of the first deacons and mothers, as well as congregation names of St. Peter. The first local trustees of the Utica Institute for Colored Children, established by William Hotzclaw in 1902 (classes began in 1903) came from the old congregation at Utica and St. Peter, and the Institute's first treasurer was Bank of Utica president and Utica Baptist member William J. Ferguson.

     In 1870, also under the leadership of Rev. Bolls, a new frame church was built on our present location. According to church minutes Utica Baptist's membership varied following the war years through 1900 from a low of 61 after the worst yellow fever surge in 1878 to a high of 181 in 1887, when still another yellow fever surge came through the village, dropping membership to 117 in 1888.

     Our first official Sunday School was established in 1846 under Rev. Taylor, and the Women's Missionary Union (WMU) was established in 1891 under the leadership of Rev. C. L. Lewis. The first Baptist Young People's Union (BYPU), forerunner of "Sunday night church" for Baptists, was begun at Utica under the leadership of Rev. R. A. Cochran in 1905.

     In 1877, Utica Baptist minutes showed that it lost almost 40 members, this time to Salem Baptist Church, which it helped organize in the Lebanon Community about five miles away. In the days of travel by horseback, wagon, and buggy, it was very difficult to travel all the way to Utica for church. The Jacob family and others moved their memberships to the new church, and in 1878, Salem's new cemetery was established with the burial of its first yellow fever victims.

     In 1876, the year after Federal Reconstruction ended, the Learned family, prominent timber industry owners in Natchez, decided to build a narrow gauge railroad from Natchez to Jackson (later expanded to standard gauge in 1919). By 1880 they were approaching southwest Hinds County with their construction, and in 1880 Utica decided to incorporate to be sure the railroad did not miss their village. Its first mayor was Click on Redball for More Info.<--- H.J. SARRETT. [a.k.a. Harman Jackson SARRETT]

     In 1881, the " Little J" was constructed east of the Civil War-era village (but west of the churches and cemetery), and business people moved their businesses and later their homes to the railroad track on what is now Depot Street and Main Street. Utica became a railroad boom town, with numerous industries, almost 100 businesses, an opera house, and other signs of progress, and by the 1900 census had about 1000 residents. Carpenter and Learned owe their existence to the railroad, for Lebanon and Auburn residents "moved" to the railroad to what became Learned in 1882 and countryside citizens in north Copiah County moved to the railroad at what became Carpenter.

     In 1899, church member, local farmer and cotton gin owner, Thad Biggs was tasked with constructing a new church on the location of the old church, and he and his foreman Alex Scott and others did so. A proud new church was dedicated in 1900 and when the furnace had to be lit for the first time, the church burned to the ground! Thad Biggs turned around and built another church building exactly like the old one in 1901, and it is the same church we still have today, modified and remodeled several times in 1928, 1953, and in later years.

     In 1906, prohibition was the talk of the nation, and the church's pastor Rev. C. W. Knight, was in favor of it (and also perhaps in favor of closing some of Utica's several saloons, although the church minutes are not that specific). Anti-prohibition arsonists burned the Baptist parsonage to the ground. The next parsonage for the church was on White Oak Street just behind and not far from the church. In later years due to its great age and declining condition, it was named "Utmost Fortitude" by the Rev. Owen Williams family who lived there. In the 1967, the church constructed a new parsonage on Carpenter Street that is still in use today.

     The Spanish American War didn't cause a decline in reported members, but the combination of World War I and the influenza epidemic that accompanied it caused a drop in members from 131 in 1917 to 103 in 1918! In 1920, Rev. H. H. Hargrove became pastor, and under his leadership through 1922, membership grew to 154.

     In 1923, Rev. Owen Williams became Utica's pastor and served longer than any other, retiring in 1951. During those 28 years, the church minutes show that membership increased from 154 to 384, but statistics don't really tell what was going on. Rev. Williams led through the Depression, World War II and Korea, when Utica had many young men and women away at war. During the Depression, the church was in such dire financial straits that he refused to accept a salary, although he had a wife and 6 children to raise and support! They all took jobs in Utica at the packing sheds after school and on Saturdays to get by. About the same time, church trustee and clerk Zachariah Wardlaw, owner of Utica's newspaper and a prominent businessman in the village, passed away and left money to the church that rescued it from potential ruin. Wardlaw's beautiful old home stood beside the church at the corner of White Oak and Main from 1875 until 1987, when it was torn down and a parking lot for the church built in its spot. In later years, it was the home of the Reeds, but when it became church property, it was named the Williams Annex in honor of Rev. and Mrs. Owen Williams. Our Baptist Bible School at Utica began under Rev. Williams in the 1930s, and all the community's children were welcome to come for Christian fun and instruction. Since almost every family in the community was kin to everybody else, and different branches of each family belonged to the different churches, most of the community's children would just go to all of the churches' Bible Schools—it was Utica's version of summer camp, but good for the children.

     In 1931, a grass fire broke out in the Utica Cemetery and burned the Christian Church to the ground. In 1932, another fire also took the Methodist Church across the street. Rev. Williams changed the schedule of meeting times at the Baptist Church and invited both congregations to hold services in the Baptist church building until the Methodists and the Christians could rebuild, and in our close-knit community, they did! When Rev. R. Y. Gerrard came to the church in 1952, the old building was in need of remodeling, and a major reconstruction under the leadership of members Ruel Traxler, Whitfield Simmons, Aron Stubbs, and other men of the church was carried out from 1952-1955. The building front was changed, one steeple removed, and the exterior was bricked. Major interior changes were also made, including closing the church's basement meeting rooms and old baptismal, which were both located under the church. They remain there today, sealed away but carefully inspected on occasion to be sure that all is well. During Rev. Gerrard's years, membership rose to 432.

     Rev. William T. Dixon Jr. was pastor from 1956-1966, and he and his family lived at "Utmost Fortitude". Membership increased to 451, and many activities for young people increased. When Rev. Dixon was called to another church, Rev. J. E. Snell came to Utica in 1967, and at the same time, the congregation gave up on its old parsonage and built the new one on Carpenter Street. The Snells stayed 2 years, moved to Louisiana, then came back in 1977 and remained until 2002 (26 years).

     Some of the milestones during those days included the Vietnam War (1963-1973), and a number of congregation members were affected. But church activities continued, and in 1972, Utica Baptist became affluent enough that it hired its first paid music director under the leadership of Rev. Howard Brister. He was followed in 1974 by Rev. Jack Albritton, who began the church's first mailed newsletter and also oversaw the purchase of the Wardlaw home and dedication of it as the Williams Annex. There was a major bicentennial celebration and all day party at the church in 1976, complete with pioneer dress and all the men growing beards!

     Rev. Snell returned in 1977, and under his 26-year leadership church membership rose to over 700, with many new families moving into the area and joining our congregation. In 1979, the church hired its first paid combination music director-youth director, Mrs. Judy Hegwood Walker, and she is still very active in that role today. Until that time youth activities had been handled by volunteers.

     In 1982, the church began raising money to construct a Family Life Center, and it was completed and totally paid for in 1985. It has been a blessing to our church, because it gave a better place for the young people in the community to gather. When the youngsters are, their parents will also be and attend church because this is where our hearts and souls intertwine. This is one of the primary reasons for the increase in young families with children in the church. Our Young Marrieds Sunday School class is the largest in the church with well over 50 members. The other reason, in this author's humble opinion, is the youth and music leadership of Judy and Coach Walker and the other wonderful music talents our church has been blessed with over these many years. Musicians such as Callie Dudley, Elizabeth Biggs Berry, Wilmot Gibbes Goodwin, Debbie Ellis Strong, and in later years Jack Hollingsworth, Jan Smith-Lyon, and Terrica McBride have been hugely positive influences not only at our church but in our community. We don't know how we could have done so well without them.

     Utica Baptist Church is both humbled and challenged to know that it is the largest congregation of any denomination in Southwest Hinds County. It has helped found other churches and schools, and sent a number of young men and women into the ministry and mission work.

     In our past two years, we have welcomed a new young energetic pastor and his lovely talented wife, Rev. and Mrs. Ben James (Laura Leigh). We are delighted to have them in our church family and community, and look forward to many years of growth and service in the Utica community with them.      We welcome former and current members and their families and friends, members from our sister churches, and the Utica community, to our 175th birthday celebration on April 25, beginning at 10 a.m. The program will include a recognition of our church's history by the Mississippi Baptist Historical Commission, a recognition of former pastors and members, a brief presentation of this history, and a video presentation of photographs and memories of the church, including photos as old as 103 years ago!

     Bring a covered dish for our dinner on the ground following church. Tea, water, and some meats including a whole roast pig will be provided—you all know Baptists like to eat! The video presentation will be repeated several times during the day, and our church's history book, second edition, and a color collage made of 9 old church photos will be available. The day's festivities will be crowned by a special recognition ceremony for our community veterans and dedication of our new flag and flag pole. As our dear friend Katherine Worrell says, "Meet me there!"
Mary Collins Landin, Click on Redball for More Info.<--- (LandinMC@aol.com)

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