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Missouri churches share roots, but not the ones of legend Fred Koenig, Feb 29, 2012
Pleasant Hill UMC was founded in 1888 by members of Center Chapel near Joplin, Mo. New Hope UMC was founded in 1899 when remaining members of Center Chapel decided to start a new church in a new location.
By Fred Koenig Special Contributor
JOPLIN, Mo.—Legend has it that as tempers flared during the Civil War, things got so hot in one church that the congregation literally split the building in two, and took half of it down the road to start a new, separate church. The churches are still there, and have been split ever since.
“It makes a good story, doesn’t it?” said member John Fredrickson.
It’s a story that Mr. Fredrickson and others in the community say they have heard all of their lives. But Mr. Fredrickson knows enough about the churches’ history to know the story isn’t exactly true. Actually, it’s not even close to being true.
The churches in question are New Hope UMC and Pleasant Hill UMC, near Joplin.
Although they are not quite two miles apart, they never were one church. “How can you say something was split, when it never was together?” said John’s wife, Sue Fredrickson.
Of course, no one is around to tell the tale now, but Sue Fredrickson has a pretty direct connection to the history of New Hope. She’s been there all of her 76 years, and her mother was a lifelong member, and her grandmother for that matter.
Maybe it’s that kind of strong matriarchal loyalty that keeps the church going. And maybe love is a bridge that can cross divides. Sue did marry John, a Pleasant Hill man. At least he was until he got married—now he’s been a member of New Hope UMC for more than 50 years.
There are bits of truth in the legend. According to the available written histories, New Hope United Methodist Church was cut in half, although you could never tell it by looking at the trim, white country church today. The church being cut in half wasn’t due to division among the congregation though, it was due to engineering.
At the time of the cleaving, the church wasn’t splitting at all, it was just relocating. Land had been donated for a better location at what is now known as 12874 Kafir Road in Joplin. But this was 1899. There weren’t cranes, semi-trucks and flat-bed trailers to move the church. It had to be moved on a wagon pulled by a team of horses. Therefore, it had to be cut in half.
Before it was over, the movers were probably regretting that they hadn’t cut it into three or more pieces. One half made it to the new location. The other half got mired in the mud, arriving at the new location about two months tardy.
Perhaps seeing half a church sitting on a lot, awaiting it’s mate, or seeing the other half of the church nearby stuck in the mud, is what first gave rise to the rumors of the “split” that have now persisted for more than a century.
Flashback to Civil War
Then again, like most churches in Missouri that can date their history to the 1800s, there was division related to the Civil War. The division occurred long after the split between the Methodist Episcopal Church, North and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1844). It also occurred well after the Civil War was over (1865). In 1884, members of Garden Dell decided to split off and form another church called Center Chapel. It was members of Center Chapel that started Pleasant Hill in 1888.
It was about a decade later that the remaining members of Center Chapel decided their church needed a new location, and they moved their building (as described previously) and started a church in their new location, with a new name: “New Hope.”
New Hope may have had its struggles while attempting to move its building, but Pleasant Hill members had their challenges after they settled into their new building. The church burned to the ground from a lightning strike on May 11, 1903. It was built back, but on Aug. 12, 1925, the church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground again.
The cornerstone for the third and present building of the resilient Pleasant Hill church was laid on April 29, 1926, and the church was dedicated on April 29, 1928. Also on that day, it was approved to put lightning rods on the new church.
So Rebels and Yankees didn’t pull out their saws in church one Sunday morning, cut the building in two and go their separate ways.
It is possible that political conflicts may have given rise to the start of the new congregations, as Pleasant Hill was established as a Methodist Protestant Church, and New Hope was established as a Methodist Episcopal Church. But no matter what was behind the inspiration or founding of the congregations, both remain as vital parts of the United Methodist connection today.
Mr. Koenig is editor of the Missouri Conference Review, where this story first appeared.