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Bethel Friends celebrating 200 years Sunday

ASHEBORO — From log cabin to modern brick sanctuary, Bethel Friends Meeting on NC 42, southeast of Asheboro, has come a long way during its 200 years.

The congregation will celebrate its bicentennial on Sunday, Oct. 31, exactly 200 years from the first service. Jon Reece, who was pastor when the latest meeting house was built, will be the guest speaker.

Roger Stout will be appearing dressed in period costume as George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Stout has researched much of the history of Bethel.

“It started with a log cabin in the 1821 time frame,” Stout said recently. “That burned in 1855 and they built another log structure. They stayed there until 1887, when they built a more modern (frame) building.”

As it turned out, the 1887 structure, at 20 feet by 30 feet, wasn’t large enough to accommodate the growing congregation, according to Stout. An addition in 1904 doubled the size to 30 feet by 40 feet.

Bethel began when members of Holly Spring Friends Meeting petitioned for their own meeting, due to the hardship of traveling several miles over rough terrain and across streams. The new congregation was approved as a preparative meeting under Holly Spring, holding that designation for 100 years, Bethel’s centennial.

Holly Spring had been a preparative meeting under Cane Creek in Alamance County.

History shows that Fox had visited the Albemarle Sound area of North Carolina in the 1670s, where there were some Quakers being organized. Stout said that two women from Alamance County eventually rode horseback to Perquimans County to request a monthly meeting at Cane Creek. For that reason, Bethel traces its origins not only to Holly Spring but also to Cane Creek and Perquimans County.

Stout said history shows that from 1830 until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, visiting ministers urged Quakers to get away from slavery. It’s believed that Randolph County Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad, which assisted runaway slaves on their way to free states

During the Civil War, Stout said, Quaker men “of age were in jeopardy” of being drafted into the Confederate army. The Society of Friends is a pacifist organization that believes its members shouldn’t take part in warfare. As recorded by Seth Hinshaw, the late historian from Holly Spring, many local Quakers tried to hide out from roving Confederate groups looking for resistors. Some were found and either sent off for hard labor or enlisted in the army against their will.

As Stout said, “The women had to fend for themselves.”

At least one Quaker sued successfully for relief, according to Stout: “William Stout was a doctor and the Confederates were after him. He took out a lawsuit against them and won, maybe the only one to win, and he stayed home.”

During those days, Stout continued, “Levi Cox cut wheat for 30 days straight for the needy. He was a minister at Bethel and was told (by authorities) that he needed to give the wheat to the Confederates.”

After the war, there was a public school where the current church building stands. It was called Bethel School and operated from 1888 to 1950.

Meanwhile, the 1904 structure was full and talks began in 1930 about rebuilding. Those talks were tabled as World War II was looming. Talks resumed in 1942 and a building committee found that they could build if they received enough donated materials. Bethel had to receive government approval to proceed, resulting in a brick building in 1943, which is still standing.

Growth continued in 1957 when a fellowship hall and kitchen were added. In 1970, it was decided to build a parsonage.

Construction on the latest building started in 1986 and was dedicated in 1988. It was built and paid for as they went. Quakers, after all, are known for their patience.

Over the years, Bethel has become known for its annual Pig Pickin’, held this year on Oct. 16. It’s the latest of more than 50 years of the event.

“It started as a youth project when a Sunday school class wanted to raise money to go to the beach,” Stout said. “It grew to involve the whole church. Now the funds are for the needy in the community and for projects within the meeting.

“We’ve talked about a shelter for years,” he said. “We had tents for the Pig Pickin’ and a permanent structure was postponed by COVID. We had drive-in services with services on an FM system. The shelter was under construction while we were sitting in our cars.

“The building has become our brush arbor for services when we started meeting together. That was a lifesaver. It was built for barbecue but God had other plans.”

As the annual Pig Pickin’ shows, Bethel is about more than just buildings. The members are involved in the community as well as mission work, according to Sarah Cox.

“Bethel does a live Nativity for three days each year before Christmas,” she said. “We have soup for the people who come. We have a lot of fun with it.”

Cox said the church also places three crosses out in front of the building facing NC 42 during the Easter season. “And we have had hayrides at Halloween, with hot dogs,” Stout added.

The bicentennial celebration will have photos and artwork on display showing the meeting houses over the years as well as Bethel School. Artists include Nella Fae Cox and Charles Byrd.

Cox said 200th anniversary ornaments created by Lori Ann Owen will be on sale, with proceeds to be used for mission projects by the United Society of Friends Women.