Writers of the Bible such as Matthew and Luke listed Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Jesus was a first-century preacher, miracle worker, and religious leader. He is the central figure in Christianity, one of the world’s major religions. You might say that it started in Bethlehem. Jesus was baptized by John at the start of his ministry. To help with his work, Jesus selected a dozen helpers with names such as James, John, and Matthew. John, much of what we know about this man from Bethlehem came from the firsthand accounts of writers such as Matthew, Luke, and John.
Again, we can say that it started in a place called Bethlehem. Centuries later and thousands of miles removed our community was inhabited by masters and slaves who attempted to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ despite their different stations in life. Slaves were members of their master’s church. One such church was located on the Gapway Road in Salters. I had the privilege of writing about this church in “Our Other Heritage” in the June 11, 1997 edition of The News.
After the slaves were freed the two races began to go their separate ways religiously. In 1873, the church was reorganized and transferred to the black members who established Bethlehem Baptist Church.
The Rev. Benjamin Gordon is the name most prominently associated with Bethlehem in recent years began preaching as a teenager. He was the pastor of Bethlehem and Moderator of the Williamsburg Missionary Baptist Educational Association and Ministries. Gordon became the first black from Williamsburg County to be elected to the state legislature since Reconstruction in 1973.
During the 1930s, the Workers Progress Administration chronicled the histories of churches in our community including, Bethlehem. The deed for the property was made by Dr. William Sims Boyd and his wife Laura Nelson Boyd, prominent whites from the area. Mrs. Boyd was the daughter of Rev. John Covert, a New Yorker who served as pastor of the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Kingstree.
Limus Woods, the father of the many Woods of African-American descent in this area was one of the original members. His descendants played a significant role in the religious life of our community up to the present day. Benjamin Salters, a farmer who lived from 1811 to 1877, was the first minister. Rev. Salters is buried in Salters Cemetery. Much like the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem sought to spread its influence far and wide and its success in this endeavor is beyond question.
Bethlehem Baptist Church was one of the first black churches in our community. The tragic burning of Bethlehem is truly an earth-shaking event for a mother and her family. A catastrophe provides an opportunity for reflection. Mother Bethlehem has suffered a blow. So let us look at some of her children.
Members of the future Bethlehem founded St. James Baptist Church in Greeleyville around 1869 when Carolina Montgomery and others organized a new church. Caesar and Cinda Montgomery, John and Adeline Murray, as well as Stephney Murray, were at St. John at the beginning.
Dr. Isaac Nelson Boyd, a white doctor who practiced medicine for half a century was a member of Union Presbyterian Church in Salters that sprang from the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church during the Civil War. In the late 1870s, several members of Bethlehem formed a black Baptist church in Salters on land bought from the young physician who was the son of Laura and Dr. William Sims Boyd who were involved in the land transaction for Bethlehem in 1863. The black church in Salters was named Union Baptist Church. John Shaw, J. E. Carolina, and E. Carolina organized Dicky Chapel Baptist Church. This church grew out of Bethlehem in 1880 and was founded by Friday Montgomery in a pole building near the present-day Highway 52 and Mulberry Road.
St. John Baptist Church on the road to Manning also grew out of Bethlehem in 1880. This daughter of Bethlehem soon produced a granddaughter. In 1884, the Murrays and others who established St. James Baptist Church left and started Mount Zion Baptist Church near Greeleyville.
Bethlehem members formed Marion Baptist Church around 1886 on land given by Jack and Sallie Gordon. The Rev. Henry Peoples, the Moderator of the Pee Dee Baptist Association which was formed in 1881, served as pastor of Marion for many years.
In 1887, Calvin Chandler and others from Bethlehem started Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church located on Old Gapway Road between Bethlehem and Salters. The Rev. Joe Chandler was the father of Lawrence Chandler. Lawrence Chandler has been a deacon at Oak Grove for decades.
In 1887, Bethlehem pastor the Rev. James Campbell Pawley founded St. Matthews in Salters as a branch of Bethlehem. In recent years the church was without a pastor and in a state of disrepair. The Rev. Charles Johnson become the pastor in 2015 and has renovated and revitalized the church.
In 1896, Oak Grove Baptist Church was started by a dozen members of Bethlehem. Joe S. Montgomery was one of them. He later served as minister of Oak Grove and St. Luke. The Rev. Caesar W. Green was pastor of Oak Grove for 35 years. I was present at the meeting when Rev. Green was elected around 1967. The meeting was presided over by Deacon Paul Murray. Limus Woods was a deacon at Oak Grove during the 1960s. His father of the same name was the grandson of Limus Woods who was present when Bethlehem began. Richard Driffin was a deacon at Oak Grove for decades. His son Richard Milton Driffin, Jr. was a deacon at Cedar Branch Baptist Church in Loris.
As the 1800s turned to the 1900s, Antioch Baptist Church was founded near Lane. The church is located on the present-day Broomstraw Road. In 1905 a group of Bethlehem members organized Central Baptist Church on land bought from Mrs. T.E. Salters. The Rev. Delmon F. Evans was appointed the minister of Central Baptist Church in 1922 and the Rev. James Council served as pastor of many churches including Central and St. Matthews in recent years.
In 1906, 12 members of Bethlehem formed Laurel (Laws) Swamp Baptist Church on land purchased from Maria Boyd.
In 1911, St. Asia Baptist Church was founded by members of Mt. Zion including Adam Nelson and his wife Celia and several other members of their family. Adam Nelson served as pastor of St. Asia Baptist Church from 1911 to 1937. In 1938 Stepheny Nelson became the pastor. The Rev. Enoc Nelson served as pastor of St. John and St. Asia for 35 years. He died at the age of 96 in 1984. Frank Nelson, grandson of the founder died in 2017 at the age of 90. The Rev. Eddie Shaw is currently the pastor of St. Asia located on Nelson Hill Road.
John Woods, the grandson of Limus Woods, one of the charter members of Bethlehem organized Black River Baptist Church in 1912. John Woods was a minister like three of his sons. Rev. Woods served as the first minister of Black River. His son Rev. July Woods succeeded him. In 1929, the Rev. John Woods and members of Black River founded New Bethel Baptist Church at the intersection of Covington Road and the Manning Highway. Elijah Woods, Mattie Woods, David Woods, and Ida Prince were charter members. The Rev. July Woods also served as assistant pastor of Bethlehem and was a member of Mt. Zion when he died in 1975.
There were some extraordinary records of service to these churches. Johnnie “Coonie” Nelson was the sexton at Black River for over 30 years. He served as church secretary for more than 50 years, recording much of the history of the church. He was a deacon for more than 54 years. It is impossible to attend an event at that church today without hearing the beautiful singing of a Nelson.
Kit Matthews and members of St. John founded Promiseland Baptist Church near Greeleyville in 1916. My father, the Rev. Carl Shaw, has served as pastor of this granddaughter of Bethlehem for three decades.
James Boykin was a deacon at Bethlehem and his wife Nancy Nelson Boykin became the mother of the church. She co-founded the Williamsburg Missionary Baptist Deacons and Laymen Union. Deacon James Boykin died in 1992 and Nancy Boykin died in 2009. At Mrs. Boykin’s funeral in 2009, the Rev. Levern Brown, pastor of Bethlehem spoke of a woman that so many loved. He said that even her chickens loved her as they followed her around. In contrast, he said that there were people who were so mean that the dogs ran as soon as they walked on to the porch. On Saturday I visited the charred remains of Bethlehem. The Boykin’s son Bennie and others were there preparing for Sunday services in the churchyard.
The degree to which Bethlehem, its daughters, and its ministers were and are part of the social fiber of the community can be illustrated with the following passage. My mother’s cousin Mary Lou Nelson joined Black River Baptist Church at a young age when the Rev. July Woods was the pastor. Mary Lou married James Carraway in 1946. My father and the Rev. C.W. Green spoke at Mary Lou’s funeral at Oak Grove Baptist Church in 2000. My father said “I met Mary Lou and James in 1944. About a dozen of us walked to New Bethel on the first Sunday of each month. On the second Sunday, we walked to Black River and Bethlehem on the third Sunday. On the fourth Sunday, we went to Oak Grove. In 1946, we began to marry each other and Mary Lou’s funeral was the fourth one of the group that I have tried to preach.
The Carraway’s son, the Rev. James Carraway, is the pastor of Mount Carmel United Missionary Baptist Church in Plantersville, in Georgetown County. Rev. Carraway has been involved in a successful effort to reunite two churches that split apart decades ago.
James and Mary Lou Carraway were not the only ones infected by the marriage flu in 1946. Over 170 days of that year, my parents and two of my father’s siblings were married. All were members of the gang that walked to Bethlehem and her daughters. The Rev. July Woods performed the weddings of my parents in the spring of 1946. They have been married for 73 years even though Rev. Woods signed my father’s name in the space on the license that should have had his signature. In the summer of 1946, the Rev. July woods married my father’s sister Adell Shaw and Henry Woods. Emma Jane and Wilkin were married by the Clerk of Court rather than Emma Jane’s father the Rev. Joe Brown who joined Black River Baptist Church when he moved to the area and the Rev. July Woods who married so many couples in the area must have been unavailable. The Rev. July Woods’ son Thomas Woods was a deacon at North Kingstree Baptist Church and his grandson, Thomas Woods, Jr. was a deacon at Bethlehem.
Joe Gamble was a long-time deacon of Oak Grove Baptist Church. His daughter Rosina Gamble and Paul Murray were married by the Rev. July Woods in the summer of 1942. Paul Murray was my Deacon when I joined Oak Grove in the 1960s. I recently met their son Paul Murray, Jr. of Charlotte. He and his wife are ministers. Their son John Murray of St. Petersburg, Florida is a minister also. Their son-in-law James Oneal Gamble is a deacon at Bethlehem. Deacon Joe Gamble’s grandson Willie Gamble is now Deacon Willie Gamble at Oak Grove.
So it started with Bethlehem and now has spread to so many other places. You, Mother Bethlehem, have given birth to so many strands of inspiration. We pray for you while you are down but we look forward to your rise. We have faith that the Bethlehem story is still being written.