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The first religious society formed in the St. Joseph county territory was a Methodist class at Newville, in 1829; the second one was at White Pigeon village in 1830, with Capt. Alvin Calhoun as leader, Alanson Stewart, local preacher, and with Mr. and Mrs. John Bowers, Mr. and Mrs. John Coates and David Rollins as members. The first Presbyterian church was organized in 1830, the first edifice built in 1834, and from its belfry of modest proportions rang the first church bell installed in Southern Michigan west of Ann Arbor. The first trustees were Elijah White, N. B. Chapin, Dr. Loomis, Charles Kellogg, Lewis B. Judson and William Rowen.
Groups of the different denominations held their separate "meetings" and were organized several years before they were officially recorded at Centreville. The churches in the order in which they are recorded at the county clerk's office from 1830 to 1860 are: the Medthodist Episcopal church in Centreville, 1835, with Benj. Sherman, Digby Bell (or Buel) and S. Truesdale as trustees; the First Reformed church of Centreville, April 8, 1839, with Phelps R. Toll, Isaac Ketcham, John Talbot, Jacob Kline and Solomon Cummings, trustees. In 1841 the First M. E. church of Mottville was recorded; in 1844 First Congregational Society of Three Rivers was recorded: "Met at the schoolhouse, Elders - John Seckler and E. S. Moore. Trustees: Eli Bristol, E. A. Egery, Wm. Woodruff, John Lomison."
Recorded 1844: First Baptist Church of Sherman; First Presbyterian Society of White Pigeon, organized by Charles McAllister and Edwin Kellogg.
Recorded 1845: First Baptist Church, Colon; M. E. Church Centreville, organized by John Ercanbrack.
Recorded 1846: First M. E. Church Three Rivers. "Jan. 10, 1846, by John Ercanbrack, preacher. Official Board: L. L. Frost, Warren D. Pettit, Wm. Arney, Zibie Ruggles.
Recorded 1856: M. E. Church, Sturgis.
Recorded 1852: First M. E. Church, Nottawa. Official Board: Phillip Hoffman, Wm. Hazzard, Comfort Tyler, Luther Goodrich and others.
Recorded 1863: Trinity Episcopal Church, Three Rivers. Organized by Voltaire Spaulding. Trustees: Wm. F. Wheeler, John Cowling, Edwin Murphy, Samuel Chadwick, Isaac Crosette, John M. Baily, S. A. Selleck, William Chart and Thomas Clark.
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The first Presbyterian Church of Three Rivers was organized August 12, 1838, by Rev. Mr. Stanley of Mottville, with nineteen members. James and Mrs. Slote, Mrs. Sarah Snyder, McDonald Campbell and his wife Jane; John Boudman, Catherine Mowrey, John and Mrs. Sickler, E. S. and Mary P. Moore, Mrs. Elizabeth Moore, Dr. E. S. Egery, John and Mrs. Troy, Mrs. Louisa Manning, Samuel Sterling, Miles and Mrs. Bristol.
The first meeting of the sessions was held at the home of Dr. Egery, March 4, 1839. In 1849 the first church edifice was dedicated by the Rev. O. P. Hoyt and Rev. Mr. Steele. The "new" church was dedicated May 11, 1870 by Rev. W. Hogarth and the greatly revered pastor, Rev. J. Ranney.
"In the days or our country's need, the Presbyterian Church proved its loyalty to the government as well as to God, and its patriotism was sealed by the sacrifice of its sons. Eighty of those identified with the church served in the Union Army - valiant and undaunted in the face of the foe, they endured untold hardships on the march, in prison and on the field. With their lives fourteen of the eighty attested their fidelity. No memorial can honor such sacrifice. The Church was honored in having noble sons to give to such a cause".
The Methodist Church
In 1829, Erastus Felton was appointed to St. Joseph mission, which included Cass, Berrien and St. Joseph counties.
In 1830 the Illinois conference appointed Rev. J. T. Robe to the Wayne Circuit as junior preacher with Rev. Joseph Tarkington as senior, and Rev. Allen Wiley as presiding officer. Rev. Robe was the first minister of any denomination to preach in Kalamazoo.
In 1832, the Indiana conference voted Kalamazoo in the Michigan conference, and combined the Wabash and St. Joseph valley missions and had Robinson, Beesweek and Boyd Phelps as preachers.
"Rev. T. J. Robe on horseback, and with traditional saddlebags, forded streams, sometimes swimming them on horseback, sometimes mired down nearly all over, following bridle-paths and Indian trails, exploring a wild territory with only here and there a sparsely settled territory, seeking to save souls, established preaching at the following places, viz: at Bronson (now Kalamazoo), Goodrich Prairie, Comstock, Tolen Prairie (now Galesburg), Grand and Genesse Prairies, Climax and Cobb's corners, Judge Harrison's corners on Prairie Ronde, Longwells on the south side of the Prairie, Harris' Prairie (now Three Rivers), Little Prairie Ronde,
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Decatur, Young's Prairie, Diamond Lake, Cassopolis, LaGrange and Pokagon Prairies, Albrights, Hunters (in the bend of St. Joseph above Berrien) and at the mouth of the St. Joseph river, Beardsley Prairie, Edwardsburg and Indianfields, 25 in all, so arranged that each could be visited once in four weeks. He preached the first sermon in Bronson (now Kalamazoo) at the home of Titus Bronson, 1832-'33.
In 1833 Rev. T. J. Robe held a revival meeting at Judge Harrison's corners. Two members of this Methodist class refused to build a home for themselves other than their first little cabin until a church was built. This church was the first on north of the St. Joseph.
In 1838 the Michigan district was formed with Rev. John Erkenbrack presiding elder.
Methodist Church, Three Rivers
Rev. Ezra Cole, a Methodist preacher in the early church came to Michigan in 1839. He found a membership of eleven Methodists in the little settlement of Three Rivers, and identifying himself at once with them, became their preacher. He was born in Benton Center, Yates County, N. Y., November 17, 1779. His boyhood was spent in scenes and among the soldiers of the American Revolution and his whole life was colored by the valor, sacrifice and self denial of that strenuous period.
The older members of the Methodist Episcopal church tell of the conversion of Rev. Cole and of his services as a boy preacher in New York. In 1839 the travel-worn itinerant preacher made the most irregular visits to his people, at best not more than once in two weeks, and so Rev. Cole supplied when the circuit rider failed to come. "Strong men taught Rev. Cole the gospel, heroic men taught him to preach. He spoke to a plain devoted people. The zeal of the early Methodists was warm and enthusiastic, they abound in labor and sacrifice."
In an article written for the Tribune of 1884, by J. H. Pitzel, there are given the names of the original Methodist Class in Three Rivers. It included the names of Mr. and Mrs. John Arney, Charles G. Carpenter, Joseph Sterling, leader; Esther Sterling, John Carpenter and wife, Mrs. Grant Brown, Lydia Snyder, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Wescott, Simeon L. Frost, Emiline Arney, Wm. Ryder and wife, Rev. and Mrs. Ezra Cole, "Brother" Hoffman and Catherine Hoffman.
Of these early Methodist who gave a virile personality to the little settlement at Three Rivers, Rev. Pitzel pays special tribute to Rev. Ezra Cole and the Arneys. Rev. Pitzel, who was himself a Methodist minister and missionary,
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PAGE 146 is accredited to St. Joseph county as one of our earliest writers of note. Two volumes, one of poetry - "Stray Leaves" and the other, an autobiography, which gives his experiences as a missionary to the Indians in Northern Michigan, are best known. he contributed many poems to the local papers. His style is shown by one published in the Three Rivers Tribune in 1887: "A Dream of the Rolling Years." It is a life sketch of Wm. Arney. It begins with Arney's "Bye-O-Baby-Bunting days" and closes with the birthday toast:
"On this high day of three scoe, ten and five, Our warm congratulation we extend. God willing, may added years be yours. May mercies manifold attend. May your evening sun now in a golden west Rise through cloudless skies to a new day Of joy and peace and rest."(Daughters, The following reminiscences, written by Miss Annette Cowling, were read before the Abiel Fellows chapter, of the American Revolution, November 15, 1930.)
"We do not aim to canonize the worthy people of our local churches, nor do we purpose to speak lightly of their homely ways, or the times in which they lived, but we desire to express an appreciation of lives whose motives flowered into such fineness of purpose that today our churches stand as a fitting monument to their work. Of those beyond our memory's ken, we speak only from hearsay. Such ones were the Hoffman's, the Browns, the Carpenters, Sands, Wescotts, Ryders, Snyders, and the Coles - not forgetting the unique character of old Father Penfield. This good man was active, zealous, faithful, but nervous withal and irritable under repeated interruptions of the firstly's, secondly's and thirdly's of his sermons, especially during cold epidemics. In those days people were not troubled by the fear of germs, so Father Penfield preached and suffered. When unable to endure the frequent paroxysms of coughing any longer, he was wont to stop preaching and say: "Cough, cough again!" or, "Stop coughing or I'll have to stop preaching." This dire threat, however, never was carried out.
Of the pastor, Ezra Cole, a picture memory is framed in a deep set-in porch, "Pap' in his arm chair refilling his pipe. Minus coat, blue suspenders showing over a snow white shirt, feet thrust into carpet slippers, he looked the picture of content. Out from the house door came his wife bearing a lighter splinter. Taking the pipe, she applied the flame, gave two or three puffs, placed it again in his hand and withdrew
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leaving him placidly wreathing himself in an ever increasing cloud of smoke. A picture worthy of the old Dutch masters.
A piller of power in those early days was the Rev. John Pitzel, a frail, slight, dignified man, fervent in spirit and active in service, suffering no idle talk to find place in his conversation. His daughter Carrie, for years the church organist, served God faithfully with deft fingers, even as the leader of the choir, Frank Saxton, served with his voice. At that time my parents were members of the choir, and while they sang, their small daughter Eoline sat in the front pew looking with adoring eyes upon her beloved father and the little blue eyed mother, her heart swelling with pride when tones distinctively their own reached her ears.
Speaking of choirs, it was about this time that Sarah Westlake, (the late Mrs. Lewis Thoms), became a member of the choir. Sarah decided to buy a new ribbon to knot at her throat. The milliner displayed a new style and color, assuring her that it had taken well among the women of the town. The ribbon was bought, and on Sunday when Sarah entered the choir, behold! every woman member therof sat primly displaying a ribbon exactly matching her own.
And now let us turn back the wheel of life to a spot within recall of my own memory, and look upon some of the good people as they assembled for worship in our present house of God. We look with interest at the first one who comes walking down the aisle. She comes to mind with cameo like distinctness. Immaculate in appearance, well poised, serene of countenance, Aunty Bacon seemed the personification of all good. In summer dressed always in white: white silk dress, white silk shawl, white silk bonnet; in winter dressed all in brown, never varied, always the same; patterned in the same fashion and the color according to season.
Next comes Aunt Sophie Salsig, a wee mouse of a woman, timidly finding her way to the center front where, with head bent in humility, she worshiped unobtusively.
The Creveling family entered on the north side and took their places in the center tier of seats well toward the front. They were dependable, coming from the country through the summer storms or winter drifts, a demonstrable example of faithfulness. And beside them, separated only by the division of seats, are the Ruggles families - two of them - Catlin and Ziba, hard workers in the church. Mrs. Catlin Ruggles is always associated in my mind's eye with a wonderful broche shawl thrown around a pair of substantial shoulders, well fitted to carry the burdens of life capably and with tried endurance. Mrs. Ziba Ruggles and her sister, Mrs. "Dr." Choate, were inseparable in my mind as church workers. They
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were true daughters of their beloved father Ezra Cole, and as untiring in service. Always in evidence at all church functions and trusted advisors in church activities, social and otherwise, they might be styled "church mothers." Mrs. Choate's jumbles were prime favorites at the not infrequent socials, while no one could outdo Mrs. Ruggles in making coffee of delicious flavor.
Sitting behind these good people is quaint little Mrs. Wood. There were plenty of pillars in the church, but for strength in chinking, this little woman is foremost in the rank. Of like quality, also, is Auntie May; while for reserve strength and upright living there were none more influential than Eunice Cowgill. Nor must we forget Mrs. Sally Hiles who worked with her needle early and late for the building of her beloved church. To her often fell the duty of publicly asking God's blessing. Calmly, and with wonderful poise and sincerity of manner she conversed with the Lord, making of Him a veritable presence.
An example of humble saintliness and fearlessness in denunciation of wrong was found in the person of Grandmother Graybill, coming in now on the south side of the church leaning heavily on her cane. Once when an evangelist had made very decided accusations against the so-called evils of card playing and dancing, the dear saintly old lady rose to her feet and quaveringly announced: "I don't want to be found a dancing my way to heaven, a carrin' on with cards and sech. I just long to be good."
The dignified, business like Jacob Slenker and family now find their accustomed seating in the center of the church, followed closely by the Waltons, the Throps and John Cox. I can still remember my feelings of awe as these people appeared, for were they not able to keep the church running smoothly in a financial way with their - to my mind - stupendous wealthy? Did not Mr. Walton must be the possessor of Aladdin's lamp, which to rub only and to wish, would bring every thing desirable. And what more desirable than to be able to furnish songs of praise for the Lord's house.
No less wonderful to me were the pledges bestowed upon the church by John Throp and family, and John Cox. Church debts - will they ever be wiped off the slate? - were a fruitful vintage then, as now, and pledges were almost as much a part of church activities as the quarterly meeting or the yearly conferences. When, after a long time, and to restless childhood, a tedious season of begging, a goodly sum still remained unpledged, it would come to an end with this announcement:
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"Mr. John Cox promises to become responsible for the balance". Or this: "If ten persons will give five dollars, Mr. Cox will give an equal amount". And when, on the death of Mr. Cox, it was found he had left $1,000.00 to yield annual interest for its needs, my respect for the coffers of the rich was considerably heightened.
Mr. Throp was a sort of silent partner in church affairs; quiet by influential. The old time tribute to Sir Philip Sydney may be fittingly applied to Mrs. Throp:-
"A sweet, attractive kind of grace,
A swift assurance given by looks,
Continual comfort in a face
The lineaments of gospel books".
A fine type of protective guardianship of Methodism now approaches -Arthur Silliman, his wife, son Frank and diminutive daughter. Refined in bearing, unostentatious in manner - commanding respect. Of Mr. Silliman's relationship to the church we quote his own humorous explanation to a stranger when asked if he was Brother Silliman. "As a matter of fact, Sir, I may be more properly addressed as brother-in-law, a brother-in-law to the church.
"Listen! A modest little sneeze attracts our attention. It comes from the Arnold pew. At some time or other during the service, this smothered sneeze never failed to punctuate the firstly, secondly or thirdly of the oftimes long drawn out sermon. As soon would I part with my choicest memories of childhood as fail to recall that little stir in the otherwise quiet service, or the almost imperceptible nod or shake of the jet bonnet as the owner agreed with the preacher's viewpoint pro or con. Kindly, charitable, Mrs. Otis Arnold always represented to my child mind a picture of a Mother in Israel.
"Look now, at the rugged charm and simplicity of the next couple who enter the church. I can never forget the tall gaunt figure of Joseph Sterling, or his near-sighted little wife without recalling an impression of the strong and weak; of protection and reliance. Here they come, he, strong, muscular, with an abundance of wiry gray hair, she with air of timid apology for her presence. They stand very close together during the singing of the hymns, Mrs. Sterling holding her book in close proximity to her eyes, while Mr. Sterling towers head and shoulders above her, eyes lit with holy fervor, timing the lines of the song mechanically, his book held high as he turned his eyes upward, and down as they sought the printed page. With every upward glance assertive chin whiskers rose up in unison, and joy unspeakable flooded his countenance, till I, watching in the simple faith of childhood, wondered if the angels looking over the battle-
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ments of heaven did not shout hallelujahs from very joy of this saintly man. "But now comes quick, staccato-like steps, pit-pat, pit-pat down the aisle, and one knows without turning the head what worshiper nears. Down to the entrance of the pew we hear her come, then pause - now a light side-stepping to the extreme end of the seat, and we know Mrs. George Graham is in her place.
"Across on the north side of the church, the much respected colored man - Bird L. Weaver - appears, a true replica in looks, manner and life of the storied Uncle Tom. Gone now to his last grand adventure, as has the wonderful, homely old soul, Dr. Kroh, the once well known herb doctor and healer of ills, spiritual as well as physical.
"Some one has said, "Fretting is like a rocking chair. You can do a great deal of agitating in it without getting anywhere.' Such a one was the ever present Mr. Newman, seated in a front pew, shaken always by a frenzy of religious fervor, praise God in tremulous tones, rising in his excitement, shouting 'Amen' ! always being extremely thankful that 'Religion is free.'
"Father Arney, one of the early workers, a just, and a highly spiritual one, while taking up the offering, left the impression of gathering tithes for the storehouse,, so impressively did he perform the office. And his wife left in my mind a phrase, oft repeated in her prayers: 'Snatched as a brand from the burning,' giving me a wholesome fear of wrongdoing.
"Ziba Ruggles comes in late, and as he makes his way to his place beside his wife, I am reminded of his fervent petitions in prayer meeting, prayers which, beginning in low, even tones, grew in ascendency in volume as his intensity of feeling increased, until with one last heartfelt appeal, his voice suddenly subsided to an almost indistinct 'Amen', and then silence.
"Now the church is rapidly filling, but while there is still a moment's time, there comes others belonging to the church's galaxy of notables in the persons no less faithful than the ones previously mentioned. The qualities of gentleness, goodness, meekness, and faithfulness can be summed up in the characters of the Cushmans, Armitages, Cooks, Klines, Perrins, Holtoms, McMurtries, Pealers, Brokaws, Freeses and the Thoms. Uncle Jimmie Thoms seemed a blessed link of perpetual peace in the sometimes anxious hours of momentous happenings. Then, linking the past with the more recent labors in church life, there comes at this time Dr. and Mrs. L. O. Miller with years of service, Mrs. Miller in Sunday school among her girls and Dr. Miller in the church choir where he proved himself a
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competent leader of song. Those two hold a large place in the continuance of the church's welfare, begun so long ago.
"The seats are filled. Still one more comes in to fill his accustomed place - Nathan Snyder - our patriarch, and one well versed in the book of Revelations. Often have I listened to his pronouncements concerning the angel with the seven vials of wrath, and he never failed to awe me into noncommital respect for the glassy seas and paved streets of paradise. Here, too, was one associated with the tithes for many years afterwards, this familiar figure was seen counting the Sunday school offerings, after having gathered them up from each class in his hat."
The interesting paper closes with the hush which precedes the service, as Miss Cowling visualizes again the two worshipers who encompassed her world, her father, John Cowling, of English birth and inherited French traits; and her mother of English and Yankee ancestry, to whom Miss Cowling pays loving tribute as "bulwarks in the path of Christian living".
The Harmonical Society
In 1858, the Harmonical Society of Sturgis built a Free Church, which was dedicated to religious liberty, where each individual could worship as he chose. A gray granite monument now stands at the intersection of U. S. 112 at Madison Street, Sturgis. On it is a bronze tablet with the inscription:
"The Harmonical Society of Sturgis built on this site a free church dedicated to religious liberty, The first of it's kind in the world. To perpetuate the memory of its founders, this ground is granted to the City of Sturgis, to be forever maintained as 'The Free Church Park.' In accordance with agreement filed with county register of deeds. Founders: Jonathan G. Wait Balsar B. Gardner Harrison Kelly John B. Jacobs James Johnson Nathaniel E. Hutchinson Benjamin G. Buck Wm. H. Osborn Granted in year 1920 by trustees; Frank W. Wait, Pres. Joe D. Sturgis Frank Gilhams Harrison W. Kelly Arthur H. Wait Bert H. Parker".
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