Come to Church! The Legacy of Jefferson UMC
By: Sherri Gragg
Jefferson UMC has been a vibrant part of its community since 1844, and though its mission has changed throughout the years, the church’s history is never far away.
Circuit Riders and a Silver Bell
Jefferson UMC has a long and distinguished history. Circuit riders first sowed the seeds of the Gospel in Jefferson, Texas when steamboat traffic fueled its growth, turning it into one of the most important towns in North East Texas. The church grew along with the town, worshipping first in a log building and then, in 1860, a brick building built by slaves. The structure, which seated more than seven hundred people, was considered “the most imposing brick building west of the Mississippi.” A sixty-foot steeple cradled a bell, cast with 1,500 Mexican silver dollars.
Structural defects doomed the brick building before the 25th anniversary of its dedication. In 1883, faithful church members constructed a beautiful white clapboard chapel, the same building that is home to Jefferson UMC today, on the same property where the brick building once stood. The same silver bell, cast in 1858, still rings each Sunday.
A Legacy of Service
“My father, Milton Bass, rang the bell for more than 80 years,” said life-long Jefferson UMC member, Paula Youngblood. “He taught all his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandson to ring the bell. When it is rung correctly, it peels out, “Come to Church.”
Bass was also a life-long member of Jefferson UMC, and a dedicated servant of the church. In addition to his role as bell ringer, he served as an usher and Sunday School teacher. He went home to heaven his past July at the age of 96, but his legacy lives on in his family. “My great grandfather moved our family to Jefferson. He was very dedicated to this church,” said Youngblood. “My great grandson is the seventh generation of our family at Jefferson.”
Changing Mission, Changing Times
The mission of Jefferson UMC has grown and changed during the many years Youngblood’s family has called it home. Today, both the town and the church are quieter. When the steamboats left Jefferson, many of its residents and much of its wealth, drifted away along with them. Modern Jefferson is a small town of less than three thousand where tourist come to walk quaint brick-paved streets lined with perfectly restored historical homes. And, perhaps, to hear a ghost story or two.
Ministry for Jackson UMC is all about loving their neighbors. They volunteer at the local food pantry and lead their community on the National Day of Prayer. They feed the football team before each home game.
“I am most proud of the fact that our church is the most loving and welcoming church,” said the Rev. Brenda Lucas. “We welcome everyone. We are just excited to be here and serve God where we are.”
Each Sunday morning, as Lucas prepares to lead her congregation in worship, one of Milton Bass’s descendant grasps the rope of a silver bell. One long pull, two short ones. “Come to church! Come to church!”
Some things remain forever the same.