LEXINGTON, SC — More than 200 years ago, settlers of German, Swiss and Scots-Irish descent settled near the Saluda River in the northwestern corner of what is now Lexington County and began holding church services in a leafy brush arbor.
Worshippers expanded to summer camp meetings through the 18th century and into the next as they established their rural outpost amid woods and rolling fields. On March 20, 1813, they formally organized the congregation that would become today’s Old Lexington Baptist Church.
March 17, the red-brick country church on Batesburg-Leesville’s Old Lexington Road celebrates its bicentennial with a special 11 a.m. worship service and dinner, one of a number of events this year that will highlight the contributions of this small, but resilient congregation. Last week, a reception drew 200 from the community to tour the church, the oldest Baptist congregation in Lexington County.
The Rev. John H. McKeown, Old Lexington’s pastor, said heritage and faith has ensured the survival of the congregation over the centuries.
“Their heritage is a commitment to the church and they go back many, many years,” McKeown said. “There is a strong desire to keep the church as active as they can as long as they can.”
The early settlers expanded from a brush arbor to a small log cabin on the Saluda River, then, in 1852, to a white-frame one-room church. Today’s modern red-brick sanctuary, built in the form of a cross, was constructed in 1953 on land donated by the Langford family. It was renovated last year and a steeple placed atop the church.
Born during the tumultuous period when America was once again in conflict with the British in the War of 1812, the church has survived slavery and the Civil War in the 19th century, the Depression and two World Wars in the 20th century. The church’s oldest member, Alice Crapps, is 100. Her nephew, the Rev. George Koon, will preach the homecoming service.
The lovely old frame church, used from 1852 to 1953, still bears the marks on the wide-plank wooden floor of the wooden corner set aside for slaves to sit and worship. One former slave held her membership at Old Lexington church until her death in 1912, McKeown said.
After emancipation, Daniel Drafts, a local Lutheran, donated an acre of land for freed slaves to establish their own church. St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church still operates today and joins with Old Lexington in the annual community Thanksgiving service.
The church went through a succession of names – Saluda Baptist, Lexington Baptist, Saluda-Lexington Baptist – until finally settling on Old Lexington, a nod to its heritage.
Early church members were pragmatic about their limitations, McKeown said. “Old country churches used to meet every other Sunday,” he said. “This one met on the first and third Sundays.”
Longtime member Ray Shealy was a baby when his family joined Old Lexington. Baptized in Lake Murray in 1939, he attended Sunday School and church two times a month. His late mother played the piano and pump organ for services, last playing a hymn when she was 100 on Mother’s Day.
“At first we only had services twice a month in the afternoon because we couldn’t afford a pastor,” Shealy, 87, recalled. Sunday School classes were held in each corner of the old one-room frame church, “so you can imagine what that was like.”
When they did not have access to a Baptist minister, the church welcomed Lutherans and Methodists to the pulpit or joined them at their churches. That community affection has extended to modern times.
“They were really a community that worked together,” said Dianne McKeown, the pastor’s wife, who has worked on the church’s history.
McKeown, the retired pastor of Westside Baptist Church in West Columbia, came to Old Lexington in January 2005 as an interim pastor thinking he would fill in temporarily for the Rev. Bryan Jeffcoat, who had been hospitalized.
Before McKeown stepped into the pulpit, Jeffcoat died, plunging the congregation into mourning.
“The day that I preached was the day of his funeral,” McKeown recalled. “And you talk about a challenge.”
But even though McKeown had his own health challenges, he agreed to stay on and learned a lot about “the lives of the people and the crises they face.”
Along the way, he found the congregants of Old Lexington to be a busy, committed congregation willing to step up and lead.
“Here everything falls on lay people,” he said.
Shealy confirmed that tradition of service. “The members really pitch in and really work a lot on the grounds,” Shealy said. “We’ve got a group that just went to Georgia on a mission.”
Like many small, traditional congregations, Old Lexington faces the challenge of staying vital even as its members have aged.
“One of the real struggles we face is we don’t have a lot of young couples,” McKeown said. “They are looking for a variety of worship experiences, including contemporary worship.”
Even with only 225 members on the rolls, and an average Sunday attendance of 75, Old Lexington gave 17 percent of its undesignated offerings to the state and national Baptist convention to go toward missions in 2011.
The church is actively involved in prison ministries and in the Christian Ministry Center in Batesburg-Leesville, an outreach to families in crisis.
Shealy has full confidence the congregation will thrive into the 21st century and beyond.
“Well, I never had thought about it not,” he said. “I’m under the impression that it will go on.”