For 300 years, a rock in Rehobeth

October 02, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN REPORTER

REHOBETH -- When Francis Makemie, the father of the Presbyterian Church in America, built a sturdy little chapel near the banks of the Pocomoke River, he intended it to be a magnet for his fledgling flock.

Three hundred years later, the austere building with brick walls that are 3 feet thick still draws the faithful every Sunday to this rural corner of the Eastern Shore dominated by chicken farms and soybean fields.

Yesterday, nearly 100 church members, friends, former members and visitors - including two from Scotland - gathered at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church for a "homecoming" service. It was part of a month of Sunday events celebrating America's oldest Presbyterian church building in continuous use, which was completed in 1706.

Some, like 52-year-old Brenda Young - one of a dozen women who slipped out early from the hour-long service to set up a traditional Sunday dinner in the church hall - have never left the congregation.

"I'm an active member who grew up in this church, and my oldest son just got married here two weeks ago," Young said. "There is that kind of continuity, but there are times when you'll see maybe 35 people here for services. It's wonderful to see the church so full."

Others hold memories of the place they rarely visit now, even though many who came yesterday have not strayed far from sparsely populated Somerset County.

Janice Miller, whose father, the Rev. Frederick L. Bremer, was pastor here from 1968 to 1979, attends her husband's church in Salisbury. She came to the homecoming yesterday when she realized that her two children, Jered, 10, and Jeremy, 9, have never attended a Sunday service in the church.

"Most of the people here now, it was their parents who were the most active members when we were growing up," said Miller, 46. "I think history is important to people here - their own history and the church's history."

The old church building, which in the Colonial era was a haven for dissident Presbyterians, Quakers and others who refused to accept the authority of the Church of England, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"I'm always amazed at everything that has taken place right here on this strip of land" in southern Somerset County, said the Rev. David S. Parke, the church's pastor. "This was one place where Capt. John Smith stopped to get water from the Nanticoke Indians. Of course, that was a hundred years before the church was built, nearly a century before Makemie arrived here in 1683."

Parke is the 38th minister to lead this village church. The 60-year-old Chicago native is listed with all his predecessors and their years of ministry in neatly folded brochures that summarize church history and Makemie's legacy - much of it researched and recorded through the years by the ministers.

Parke is fond of saying things like "our church was built before Benjamin Franklin was even born," and "Bach was a church organist when this place was new."

Rehoboth Presbyterian Church was named after the estate of the most prominent family in the area. Lost somewhere in time is why and when the spelling of the village was changed to Rehobeth. The difference in spelling still causes confusion, Parke said.

Makemie traveled widely, preaching in home-based congregations after arriving in the late 17th century from Scotland, where he attended seminary and was ordained. He fostered half-a-dozen churches on the Lower Eastern Shore.

Historians credit Makemie with organizing or supporting small congregations of Presbyterians, Quakers and other "dissenters" who clashed with the official Anglican church.

A businessman and minister who inherited significant land from his wife's family on Virginia's Eastern Shore, Makemie proved to be a successful trader who owned a fleet of ships that served his business interests in the Caribbean, said the Rev. James L. Mosley, who heads the New Castle Presbytery, also organized by Makemie in 1706.

"What's obvious is that we have persevered through all the years," Mosley said. "This is still a viable church that takes a broad view of its community and has a sense of its own history."

Much of that story is an oral history, augmented in more recent days with photographs that chronicle events at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church since the 1940s. Many are secured on bulletin boards in the church hall.

Inside, the white-washed walls of the church are augmented by four 10-foot-high stained-glass windows, added in the 1800s. The location of cemetery plots is noted on a yellowing piece of framed paper identified by family names.

The church is always open, Parke said, mostly as a convenience to visitors. The social hall next door, built in 1929 and remodeled more than 50 years later, usually is locked, but the key hangs on a hook within easy reach.

David Dryden, a chicken and grain farmer whose family goes back 10 generations to Makemie's time, has played the church organ for 30 years. He oversees the cemetery and is the keeper of church history. He says he doesn't know what compels other lifelong members, but his motivation is pretty straightforward.

"I get paid for playing the organ, but I love playing anyway," said Dryden, 53. "I love the fact that my family's foundation is all right here."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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