UTICA — The Owl Creek Baptist Church near Utica celebrated its 200th anniversary Saturday and Sunday with a full slate of events.
Saturday included an open house, supper and a “Through the Years” pageant covering highlights of the church’s history. Sunday started with coffee, juice and fellowship speakers Dr. Deborah Van Broekhoven and Dr. Larry Swain. Broekhoven is the executive director of the American Baptist Historical Society; Swain is the executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Ohio.
All of the events were well attended, but church members agreed the highlight of the weekend was the pageant.
It was Oct. 27, 1809, and the new state of Ohio mostly wilderness, when a small group of men and women gathered in the log-cabin home of John Harrod and organized a Baptist church.
The actual records of that first meeting and those for later years have been lost; but one can, with a little imagination, visualize the problems and the struggles the small group must have faced. It is known that the charter members of the little church numbered 12, and that they were assisted in their organization by the Rev. Amos Mix. The congregation took the name Owl Creek Baptist Church because of its proximity to Owl Creek — now the Kokosing River. The anniversary pageant re-created how it is believed the first service was conducted.
That first early service conducted by Mix was probably quite simple. It would have been opened with a prayer as the congregation knelt. Then the congretation would stand, form a circle, clasp hands and sing a song. After the singing, each man and woman would have stood and related his or her own Christian experience and what the Lord had done for him or her. When the last one finished, the group was ready to begin the first business meeting.
The church continued to meet at the Harrod homestead until sometime around 1809 to 1812. Church records are unclear about the time frame, but it was during this period the church was moved to its present location near Utica. Even though the church was no longer situated along Owl Creek, it retained the name.
It was also during this period that the first Owl Creek Church was built, a log church erected just inside the limits of the present-day cemetery across the road. Although there are no records indicating exactly when this first church was built, the congregation no doubt chose a summer day after the crops were planted in the spring and before harvest in the fall.
The log church had what is known as a box pulpit, built so the preacher could not be seen unless he was standing up. The pageant covered many of the highlights of the church’s 200 years of existence. Highlights included Herrod’s donation of one acre of land to the church for use as a cemetery. That cemetery still exists and Herrod was the first to be buried there.
Another plot in the cemetery hold the remains of Nehemiah Letts, a Revolutionary War veteran buried there in 1822. He was the grandfather of the Rev. John Letts, pastor of the church from 1864 to 1868.
The cemetery was administered by the church until 1902, when it was taken over by Morgan Township.
The church suffered a division in 1829 over a difference in belief on the subject of missions. Those who left the church took with them the church’s records of the first 20 years of its existence. The records were returned to the Owl Creek Baptist Church 50 years later, but over the years, many of them have disappeared. The church has full records dating from Aug. 8, 1829. Highlights of those years include:
In 1840, the congregation decided it wanted preaching twice a month instead of once. Meetings were held four times a month, but only one had a preacher present.
In 1842, the congregation decided to have a choir of singers, and in 1844 five men were appointed to lead the singing.
A parsonage was completed in February 1859 at a cost of $1,000.
The church’s first organ was purchased in 1866.
In 1959, the Owl Creek Baptist Church celebrated its 150th year of existence. A history of those years was written by Fred and Isabel Ewart. They expanded upon a history of the first hundred years written by church member Katherine Litzenberg.
In 1953, a new constitution was written and adopted by the congregation; the church was also incorporated at that time.
In 1950, the parsonage was modernized, and in 1956, the land around the church was landscaped.
“This is a very exciting time for us,” said the Rev. Bob Heizer, current pastor of the church. “We are proud of what the church means to us.”
That sentiment was echoed by Flo Smith-Heizer, the pastor’s wife.
“This means a lot to us,” she said. “We have worked on this [pagent] for a long time.”
Nearly 30 people took part in the pagent, with major characters being played by Heizer as the Rev. Amos Mix and the Rev. James Seymour; Jerry and Mary Skeen as Mr. and Mrs. John Herrod; and Tim Flanagan as the Revs. Roy Coe and John Letts. Vince Sherman played Johnny Appleseed , various members of the congregation and deacons.
The first marriage ceremony held in the church in 1941 was also portrayed in the pagent. The groom was played by Harold Hunter and the bride by Erna Wagner.