An Ozark journey: The M.E. Church in Gainesville
When my wife, Doris, and I acquired the commercial buildings at 434 and 438 Third Street in Gainesville, we never expected them to take us on an Ozark Journey, but they did.
The journey began when Mary Ruth Sparks, who compiles the Times Past column for the Times, recently shared with us an interesting photo of a church that once stood where these two buildings now exist. A few years ago, one of these newer buildings served as the former license bureau office that operated directly across Third Street (formerly High Street) from Leeton Luna Lane, which runs behind the businesses on the west side of the square. This was once the site of the Methodist Episcopal Church on High Street, more commonly referred to in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the M.E. Church. Although it was a landmark back then in the center of Gainesville, nearly a century later neither the church nor High Street exist today. Fortunately, some of those footsteps of time have been preserved in the media and photographic records of their day.
The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was the largest Methodist denomination in the United States from the days of the Revolution to the brink of World War II. At that time, several branches of the Methodist faith merged to form the United Methodist Church. Historically, the M.E. Church drew people from the working class and those who were financially or socially impoverished. In fact, it consciously renounced upper class values and lifestyles. The M.E. Church in America, formed under the leadership of John Wesley, was an evangelical movement that stressed the necessity of being born again in the faith.
In the early 19th century, when Ozark County was still very much a wilderness, the M.E. Church was the largest religious denomination in the United States. Adherents to this faith were typically anti-slavery, and in the days leading up to and following the Civil War there was a considerable migration of them from the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to places like Ozark County. Indeed, some of them came here and fought against the Confederacy.
The Methodist Episcopal congregations of the middle 19th century were split during the Civil War, as was the entire nation. Although some congregations in the Deep South remained loyal to the Confederacy, no single denomination supported the Union more actively than the M.E. Church. The aftermath of war was as hard on the MEC as it was on the rest of the country. The period of reconstruction for all was long and difficult. It was during this post-war period, probably in the 1890s, that the M.E. Church in Gainesville was founded.
Although we don’t know exactly when the church was founded here, the Ozark County News on Oct. 15, 1892, mentioned that “memorial services of Prof. W.F. Holland will be held at the M.E. Church at Gainesville October 23 at 11 o’clock a.m. All of his students are earnestly invited to attend.”
In October 1893, the News reported that the Rev. E.J. Dunaway had returned from the M.E. Church district conference at Bolivar. In April 1897, a short news item reported that “Easter services will be observed by the M.E. Church on the 4th Sunday in April.”
For the next decade, the Ozark County News and the Ozark County Times reported a long string of varied events and activities in the M.E. Church. Many of them announced the arrival of visiting preachers and church officials from Missouri and beyond. A short news article in the Sept. 4, 1908, issue of the Times lauded the “untiring energy” of its pastor, the Rev. Will T. Walker, as the church retired its outstanding balance of $150 to become “free of debt.” That amount in 1908 would equal about $4,200 today; money was hard to come by in the Ozarks then – as it is still for many today.
The April l6, 1909, edition of the Times reported that “Capt. Sallee will preach at the M.E. church, at this place [Gainesville], next Sunday night. Everybody invited.” Capt. James Sallee was the commander of Company B, 16th Missouri Volunteer Cavalry, during the Civil War and was an Igo/Thornfield-area minister who traveled widely as a preacher in Ozark and Taney counties.
The proximity of the M.E. Church to the Ozark County Courthouse was fortunate for one local couple. The Times of April 28, 1911, reported that “Erestes Pendergrass and Miss Cora Breece, of Dimock, arrived in this city Saturday afternoon and at once proceeded to the Recorder’s office where a marriage license was obtained. While the recorder was making out the license Rev. Bivens of the M.E. Church was called and in a very few minutes performed the ceremony. Quite a number of people who happened to be on hand, witnessed the ceremony.” Rumor has it that a repeat of this event in 2019 is unlikely.
In 1915, Earle W. Ebrite was the owner and publisher of the Ozark County Times as well as a deacon of the M.E. Church. He was also a Junior Warden of the blue lodge of Masons and secretary of the local lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Missouri the Center State: 1821-1915 (published in 1915 by Walter Barlow Stevens) described him as “unusually broad-minded and [someone who] holds intelligent views in regard to all questions of life…”
Ebrite, a strong conservative, likely played an important role in one broad-minded decision of that time. In February 1916, Mrs. Anna E. Hockensmith moved from Ava to Gainesville to take charge of the M.E. Church. This was an important early action in the general movement for the emancipation of women. At that time, as now, some religious groups opposed women in the ministry as being “against scripture.”
The last reference to the church that Mary Ruth was able to find in the Ozark County Times was in 1929, when it was reported that “O.J. Breeding was moving into the old M.E. Church for a dwelling and a business.”