Old book of scripture treasured by Kingston congregation

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

At 154 years old, you might excuse people for not remembering who you are or where you came from. After all, anyone able to remember your beginnings has since come and gone. Such, it seems, is the fate of the large, heavy Bible sitting open on the center podium of Kingston United Methodist Church.

The Bible has given its witness to the small congregation as far back as anyone can remember, maybe even since the construction of the church in 1856, but no one knows for sure.

Its origin is a mystery and its history barely known, yet the Bible is highly revered by the congregation.

“Nobody knows muchabout it, not that I know of,” church member Dot Foster said.

“I know it’s an old fella,” 83-year-old Julia McIlwain said before a recent Sunday morning service. “It’s been recovered once, but that’s all I know about it.”

“I don’t know anything, and I don’t think anyone else in the church does either,” the Rev. Frank Davis said. In the nearly six years that Davis has ministered to the church he has discovered that little is known about the Bible.

Yet, there is one thing the members of the tiny neo-classical church in rural south Adams County will tell you they do know — that the Bible is staying right where it is.

“I hope it stays in the church,” McIlwain said. “It belongs in this church. I hope it doesn’t disappear.”

Several years ago Davis discovered the church’s attachment to the Bible when he closed the book and put it aside on a side table to prepare for worship. It didn’t take long for one of the church members to approach Davis and politely, yet sternly, suggest he put the open Bible back on the podium where it belonged — where it had always been.

These days, Davis uses his own Bible. He places his New Revised Standard translation on top of the 1856 King James version each Sunday morning. He leaves the old Bible right where it is.

McIlwain’s daughter Debbie remembers from her childhood flipping through the book and reading the messages of dedication and witness inscribed in its pages.

“The writing was so interesting to look at as well as what was said,” Debbie said.

Many of those messages celebrate landmark anniversaries or the dedications.

“To God be the glory for the joy of preaching in this historic place and dedication of this fellowship hall,” Bishop M.L. Meadors wrote on May 9, 1999.

Others notes were left as prayers for a brighter future, such as the one left by F.L. Whitman on Nov. 19, 1950. “Came here to preach tonight. No one was here. God please don’t let this happen again,” Whitman wrote.

The note on the front of a business card tucked in the pages reads, “Gave my witness here 8/11/68.”

Those scribbled notes have become a thing of legend, church member Ella Young said.

As trustee chairman for the church, Young thought the many messages inside needed to be recorded in some way and decided to copy them down.

She thought there would be lots of historical information but was surprised to discover there were fewer messages than she remembered.

“There is actually very little history there,” Young said.

Yet over the years the story about Kingston’s Bible has become in many ways a mythical story.

Debbie McIlwain remembers hearing stories of the Spanish traveling up the Homochitto River threatening to convert Protestant congregations to Catholicism. The Rev. Samuel Swayze, convinced his Bible and religious works were at risk, hid the books in the hollow of a Sycamore tree.

As a child, Debbie imagined the Bible she played around was the very same Bible hidden from the Spanish. Yet Swayze’s attempts to hide from the Spanish happened nearly 100 years prior to the construction of the current church.

“For all of my life, I really thought it was that Bible that was hidden in the tree,” Debbie said. “In my mind and heart it still is.”

Davis said such memories have transformed the church’s Bible into something more than just a book of Scripture.

“Within that Bible we now have the (congregation’s) historical memory of the church and their feelings about the church,” Davis said. “It has become a symbol with more historical value than religious value.”

Young agrees. “For me, it’s not about what is in the Bible or about the Bible itself,” Young said. “It’s about the history of the church.”

“It’s tradition,” Young said. “It’s been a part of my childhood and my adult life too, and I just like it to be there.”

Still, Debbie McIlwain says that there is something more to that Bible than just its history.

“For me it’s always been there. It’s always been open,” Debbie said.

“It closes but the lock doesn’t work anymore,” Debbie said. “I think that is such a beautiful image for the Bible.”