Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Church Services Weren't Always Peaceful Gatherings

In an article called "Church Fight," Ralph Arnold mentions that at camp meetings it was not uncommon for fights and brawls to break out.  Settlers took their faith seriously and sometimes mixed politics with it.  Early settlement was during the time of the Restoration Movement, when separating from the evil influences of the world was advocated and sometimes carried out to extreme. 

On July 3, 1841 the first camp meeting was held for the Methodist circuit, which included Birmingham, Winchester, Kilbourn(e) and the surrounding areas.  People attended from as far away as Farmington, and Iowaville in Indian Territory.  Elder Henry Summers employed a handsome, articulate preacher named Joel Arlington, and other preachers involved were John W. Starr and Robert Hawk.  Elijah Purdom (Keosauqua) and John Spencer (Pittsburg)  were in attendance. 

As the Civil War approached, slavery and the abolition movement were hot topics of discussion, which often made people fighting mad.  The Birmingham Methodists disagreed over the issue and divided.  Some settlers from the Old South advocated slavery while others didn't.  One dissenting group that formed their own church headed by Robert Hawk was called the True Wesleyans. 

Abolitionists packed a building to the rafters to hear Judge Joseph Foster lecture to a group, and both sides were allowed to present arguments.  Soon tempers began to boil.  William French and Elias Skinner made things lively as they came to blows, tumbling on the floor under the benches.  Others in the audience shouted and yelled and those in charge feared there would be a free-for-all.  A blacksmith from Winchester named James Caldwell jumped out of the window and ran home, afraid he would either be hurt or hurt someone in the fracas.  At the time, several Methodists withdrew membership and joined the True Wesleyans, which flourished for awhile, then died out. 

Although it is unusual for violence to erupt at church services, it is not unheard of, particularly at revival meetings.  People's zeal can sometimes outweigh common courtesy and prudence.  My aunt, Willa Fellows Hendricks (1905-2003), once recalled a much later  time when as a very small girl, she accompanied her grandmother, Lovenia Fellows, to a Free Methodist revival at the Oak Grove Church on the north side of the Des Moines River, across from the Fellows farms. 

In horse and buggy, they forded the river at Kerr's Ford, then proceeded to the church where the large crowd assembled outside under the trees.  She remembered the preacher ranting and raving about separation from the world.  Tempers flared, accusations were made, and women began ripping jewelry from off one another, stamping the worldly objects into the ground.  Some pulled the flowers from each other's hair, shouting "Harlot!" as they accused one another of wicked behavior.  She was frightened and hid within the folds of her grandmother's full skirt.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick