More from the series
Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches
At least 97 S.C. churches have closed since 2011. Other churches are dying slow deaths, losing thousands of members. What’s happening to the Bible Belt?
When Margaret Gardner’s parents married, one of the first things her father did was buy her mother an upright piano. It still sits in Gardner’s living room.
That was where her mother, Kathleen DuBard Eargle, would practice the hymns she’d play every Sunday at Cedar Creek United Methodist Church near Blythewood. Whenever a thunderstorm came up, Eargle would gather her daughters beside her on the piano bench and play to keep them calm.
Eargle taught Gardner those hymns she played — although, at 96 years old, Gardner can’t remember them now.
Gardner’s long life has been intertwined with Cedar Creek’s, although, there’s no life left in the church now. In 2017, after 274 years, Cedar Creek Methodist breathed its last breath and closed. Gardner was one of only four members left.
Most of the people who once filled the small, rural church lie behind it.
Gardner does remember, and loves to recall, how her family would pile into her uncle’s car and drive to Cedar Creek Methodist every Sunday.
While her mother was a member of Cedar Creek, her father was a member of another Richland County Methodist church. Neither of them would ever switch their membership to the other’s church, Gardner said.
The daughters would most often go to Cedar Creek, where one of their ancestors, John Frederick DuBard, had been the first preacher.
They’d wear their Sunday clothes, which were never to be mixed with their everyday clothes. Gardner’s grandmother, Maggie Fairey DuBard, would teach the young adults’ Sunday school class and cook a fried chicken lunch back at home for the family and preachers.
“You didn’t miss church unless you were sick in the bed,” Gardner recalled. “Every time I walk in there, I see my mother playing the piano.”
A yellow-keyed piano still sits in the little Cedar Creek sanctuary where Gardner’s mother played, where restless boys used to carve their names in the backs of wooden pews, where the youth group would host speed-dating events, where generations of families grew and died.
A long life
Kathleen and her husband, Boyd Eargle, share a headstone in the scraggly graveyard; Maggie and her husband, Adam, do, too. Gardner’s sisters Mary Frances and Hazel are buried with them, along with their uncles, their cousins and generations of families — the Hinnants, Fridys, Turnipseeds, Fowlers and a handful of others — who grew up at Cedar Creek with them.
Over nearly three centuries, Cedar Creek saw the birth of a country, the birth of Methodism and the birth of South Carolina’s capital, about 15 miles south of the church. The church and its people lived and died through a revolution, a civil war, world wars, the Depression and recessions, ages of protest and progress.
It was born as a German Protestant congregation in the upper part of Richland County in 1743. Before the turn of the century, the congregation was converted to Methodism by the famed Bishop Francis Asbury, an original deputy of Methodist founder John Wesley.
Legend has it — and it’s likely legend only — Asbury’s impassioned sermon at Cedar Creek in 1791 was fueled by a gallon of homemade wine from his local host. His vigor apparently persuaded the congregation to convert from Presbyterian to Methodist.
The story is recorded in at least one local history and recounted, with a grain of salt and a smirk, by the Rev. Alice Deal.
“People in these areas are very close,” said Deal, who retired this summer as pastor of Cedar Creek’s remaining sister churches, Bethel and Monticello, in the Fairfield Circuit of the United Methodist Church. “It’s a close-knit family, and they’re steeped in tradition. And that’s what they want. And that’s what they care about. They love Jesus, and they know their Bible, and they are a praying community, praying churches.”
Cedar Creek stopped holding regular services in 2010, a few years before Deal took the charge. In 2017, it was one of 13 churches closed by the United Methodist Church in South Carolina. Only four members, Gardner included, remained.
Earlier this year, the church reopened its doors for a final celebration of its long life. The Methodist conference now cares for the church building and cemetery.
Life runs out
Cedar Creek’s fate represents an increasing trend of church closures across South Carolina, where major Protestant denominations are losing members by the thousands each year.
“Jesus said that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the church,” Deal said. “The church is forever, and we believe that. But it’s been written that individual churches have life cycles, starting out perhaps in a small way, and kind of like a bell curve, coming up and being very active and well-attended, and then over time diminishing. A life cycle.”
There were times when dozens of people filled the Cedar Creek sanctuary.
Gardner and her family would sit toward the middle of the church.
“Everybody had the same pew, I think, every Sunday,” she remembers.
Then came times when the younger of the Cedar Creek families, many of the children who were raised in the church, moved away from the countryside. They drifted from the ways of life their families had lived for generations, and they no longer filled the pews of Cedar Creek.
There came a time when the remaining lifeblood of Cedar Creek Methodist began to age, began to run thinner and eventually ran out.
When Gardner learned the church would close, “well, it felt terrible,” she said. “It felt like they cut off part of your life.”
But, she said, “as long as I live, that’ll be my church.”