Memories of the Original Bridgewater Church of the Brethren

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Garber's Meetinghouse of the Cooks Creek Congregation - 1878 Photo Property of Naomi M. West - Used with permission (photo from Brethren in Bridgewater, by Roger E. Sappington, 1978, originally from D. H. Zigler, History of the Brethren in Virginia, 1914)
Garber’s Meetinghouse of the Cooks Creek Congregation – 1878 Photo Property of Naomi M. West – Used with permission
(photo from Brethren in Bridgewater, by Roger E. Sappington, 1978,
originally from D. H. Zigler, History of the Brethren in Virginia, 1914)

What gave rise to the building of a Brethren meeting house in Bridgewater? There were two prominent businessmen, Rev. S. F. Sanger, a druggist, and Peter S. Miller, a carriage manufacturer, who had become citizens of Bridgewater. It was largely through their influence that a building was erected at the north end of town. Samuel Miller (1815 – 1993), my great-grandfather, donated a portion of his farm for the construction of the building.

What was this building like? According to records the building was sixty by eighty feet in size and was said to seat twelve hundred people but on August 25, 1878, during a heavy downpour of rain, three thousand persons were estimated to be in attendance at the dedication.

It was a one floor white weather boarded building with green shutters at the windows. At one time, there was a picket fence around the church. A couple years later, in order to improve the appearance, a stone wall was erected in front of the churchyard. When surreys and buggies would turn off the main road to the church, the driver would drive close to the stone wall in order for the women and children to step from the vehicle onto the stone wall. There were three brick walkways from the wall to the steps that led into the church. The women entered the West door to their left. After the men would drive to the side and back of the church where they would hitch the horses, they would enter the East door, which was to their right. Anyone could enter the middle door.

The kitchen was built on the Northwest corner of the church. The East door from the kitchen let to the cistern, the source of water. A tin cup was kept close by so that anyone passing could stop to rest under the trees and find refreshment. The door on the opposite side of the kitchen opened into a yard where the “outhouse” for the women was located. The facility for the men was further up in the woods.

Will you go into the church with me? On the wall on each side of the middle aisle was a strip of wood with hooks or wooden pegs on which women could place their bonnets and shawls and men could hang their hats and overcoats in the winter. The floors were bare except for the aisles and the one step pulpit area. The carpet there was woven and rough heavy cord that would hurt the feet of the children who were barefoot. Remember, men sat on the right and women sat on the left!

On each side o the middle section were several levels of floor with benches facing the middle section. Where there was an overflow crowd or a Communion Service, the tables and benches on the first level nearest the kitchen were reserved for those women who helped with the preparation for the service and for the mothers of young children.

On cold winter days the heat from the big wood burning stoves, one on each side of the church, was so welcome. Who could forget the coal oil lamps! The communion service began while it was light, but after the foot washing it was beginning to get dark. Men who were designated, would go to the side aisle, or to the middle aisles where they were assigned. A lamp was pulled down, lit and pushed up so that a man at the side aisle could pull it down and light it and then push it into position. A chain connected the two lamps. This was repeated until all the lamps were lit including side lamps at the pulpit, and elsewhere.

Floor Layout of Original Bridgewater Church

The pulpit stood one step up from the main floor. Here is where some of the Sunday School items were kept, lesson cards, tickets and papers. (This pulpit now stands in the Lantz Chapel at the Bridgewater Home.) There were long tables on each side of the raised platform. Here is where the ministers sat, especially visiting ministers at the time of Communion Service.

Some people carried their own Hymnals to services. About the turn of the century Kingdom Song Book I was used for the opening of Sunday School. The 1901 “The Brethren Hymnal” was being used for the “preaching” service. There were no pianos or organs. The song leader used a turning fork to get the pitch to sing the hymns and the singing was beautiful.

All Sunday School classes met in the different sections of the church with the exception of the young children. Cloth curtains strung on wires were finally installed to separate the classes. One could not see the people in the other classes, but they could still be heard. By the side of the door that let to the kitchen hung a chart with the names of each baby that was a member of the Cradle Roll Department, which was organized in 1909.

The kitchen was primarily for preparation for communion and for children’s Sunday School classes. There was a big fireplace and in it was a low iron stove with a frame that helped a huge iron kettle in which the neat was cooked for the Love Feast. On each side of the room, there were big tables where the women worked. Communion bread was made in homes. During the class period, the children sat on a low backless bench in a row. The only teaching aid visible was a very large chart of pictures, one for each Sunday. Each child was given a small card that showed the same picture and told the Bible story. A small ticket was given each child for attendance and another ticket for each Bible verse that could be said from memory. When enough tickets had been accumulated, they could return them and be given a new book. The first year that a child had perfect attendance for a year, a Bible was given. After receiving the Bible, each succeeding year of perfect attendance, a book was given. Reading of good books and the Bible was encouraged.

The 1878 church building had served the Bridgewater Brethren well but as time went on the congregation began thinking of relocating and building a new church. A committee was appointed to study the situation. The committee recommended to Council that a brick church should be built that would provide space for classrooms and that it should be “on or near the College grounds.” “The congregation unanimously accepted this report at Council Meeting. Sub committees were appointed to carry out their assignments and the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren was built on College Street and was dedicated on January 17, 1915.

For a while after the dedication of the new church building, Communion services and funerals were conducted from the 1878 Church building. When the building was no longer need, everything that was not needed in the new church was sold at auction and in 1936, the 1878 building was town down. The corner of the property where the church stood was reserved for parking at the time of funerals. In 1997, the wall of stones on which the women and the children had stepped from the surreys and buggies was removed, but memories live on.

Naomi M. West
February 2002

Credits: Floor Layout of Original Bridgewater Church by Naomi West