Although it had not been used for many years, Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church stood in Mount Zion Cemetery until 1979, when it was torn down.
That’s a slight paraphrase of the old Isaac Watts/Robert Lowry hymn that is one of the great marching songs of the church, but it always seems especially appropriate when approaching either of Lucas County’s Zion cemeteries --- one in Pleasant Township and the other in Liberty. Both are in lovely hilltop settings --- Zion in Pleasant with a spectacular view of the Cedar Creek valley and Mount Zion in Liberty, with a slightly more modest view down the Whitebreast Creek valley.
I’ve been thinking more lately, however, about Mount Zion while updating earlier posts to this blog, the latest about Sheriff William B. Ramsey, shot to death in the line of duty near Freedom early Friday morning, June 28, 1889, and taken for burial from Chariton to Mount Zion by special train the following Sunday. You may read the updated post about Ramsey’s death and burial here. Mount Zion also is the burial place of Henry McKinnis and his three sons, killed on April 1, 1893.
But Mount Zion also was until 1979, when it was torn down, the site of Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church --- and Primitive Baptist churches are a rare commodity in Iowa. Although Primitive Baptist preachers were among the first Baptists to look upon Iowa as a mission field, their take on faithful practice did not catch on in the Midwest and most of that denomination now are found in the southeastern United States.
All that remains of Mount Zion Church today is this marker at the base of a flagpole.
We don’t know too much about Mount Zion, organized in a Liberty Township schoolhouse in 1867, in part because it had become inactive by the 1940s --- so few remain to tell its story. It seems to have had the distinctive marks of the Primitive Baptist outlook --- Self-educated (theologically, not in general) leaders who were called elders rather than pastors, absence of musical instruments in church, foot-washing as an element of communion, the use of wine (as opposed to grape juice) and unleavened bread as communion elements, and so on. The Mount Zion congregation seems also to have gathered for worship on the old Sabbath, Saturday, rather than the new --- more the mark of a Seventh Day Baptist than a Primitive Baptist Church.
Here's the view down toward the Whitebreast Creek valley from Mount Zion.
Here’s information on Mount Zion prepared by the late Elizabeth Tuttle, whose accounts of Lucas County history once were published regularly in the Chariton newspapers. I’ve removed a few paragraphs that had nothing to do with the church (Elizabeth was a delight and a good local historian, but occasionally lost her footing and was swept away for several paragraphs on waves of hyperbole).
“Mount Zion cemetery is on the hill, sentineled by a great spruce tree. There, too, stands the church. We are indebted to John Stierwalt for the use of a remarkable set of records from which we have drawn for this bit of its history. In March, just one hundred years ago (during 1867), four devout persons assembled to organize the "Primitive Baptist Church.” They were the Rev. W. S. Hughes (grandfather of the late Farrie Hughes), Mr. and Mrs. Richard Welch and Thomas C. Stone. The congregation grew and prospered and met in various places -- school houses, the homes of members and for several months in the station at Lucas until 1880 when they built the church at a cost of about $550.
"The Rev. W.S. Hughes was a preacher of great ability and was famed far and wide for that day. He was a prosperous farmer and he drove a carriage with fringe on top drawn by a pair of sleek, jet-black horses. Primitive Baptist preachers received no salaries in that day but went about as near as possible in the manner and spirit of the early Apostles 'on their own.'
"Saturday was their Sabbath as late as about 1940. Their roster of membership has such names as Mr. and Mrs. Millard Musselman, grandparents of Lois Frank of Frank's Tea Room; William and Martha Cottingham, parents of Mrs. Lewis Beem and Mrs. Roscoe Redigo; the Rev. Andrew Goforth; Mr. and Mrs. William James, grandparents of Ray and the late Delbert James; Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Burgett, grandparents of Glenn Burgett (Mr. Burgett walked from Brown County Indiana to Lucas County to make his home); William and America Skidmore from whom the four acre tract of land was bought for $1. They were the grandparents of Mrs. W.C. Evans of Lucas. James F. Baugh and wife, Margaret Byrd Baugh (a descendant in the line of the Admiral Byrd family of Virginia) were the grandparents of Burdette Conrad of Lucas.
"Today in our age of skepticism, cynicism and unbelief, it is refreshing and reassuring to read the pages (and between the lines) of ordinances and ritual of these devout people. They practiced the ritual of the washing of the feet. In the dawn of Christianity, the followers of Christ used the Jordan River as their baptismal font. In like manner, these Primitive Baptists used Whitebreast flowing nearby. There is an entry in their record of June 1943 stating that a baptismal ceremony was so performed by Elder J.W. Vincent.
"On the first Saturday and Sunday in June of each year, there was a conference of several churches of this denomination as far away as Grinnell, Iowa, and other distant places. They came in buggies, spring wagons and carriages for a week-long convention. These were honored guests. Hospitality during these happy times was graciously extended in all homes round about regardless of church affiliation. There would be twelve to fifteen or more in each home and since no house was large enough to accommodate so many, the men would take blankets and comforts to the hay mow, sometimes to the corn crib, to sleep while the women and children were billeted in the house. This was enjoyed by all because guests brought news from outside in a day when communication was scarce."
Here’s more about Mount Zion (no source indicated) that may be found on the Web Site of the “The Primitive Baptist Library of Carthage, Ill," where all sorts of other information about Primitive Baptists is available.
"Mt. Zion Church was organized in 1867 at the school house in section fifteen, Liberty township, Lucas County, Iowa. The original members included Elder W. S. Hughes, Richard Welsh, Elizabeth Welsh, Isaac Renfro, Thomas Stone, Melvina Davis, Elizabeth Davis and Elizabeth Callon.
"In 1880, they built a place of worship at a cost of about $550. D. E. Musselman, William James and William Skidmore were leaders in the construction. The meeting house stood about one and a half miles north of Oakley, in Liberty township, on a hill, surrounded by the Mount Zion Cemetery.
"Elder Hughes was a minister of great ability, and was known far and wide. He drove a carriage with fringe on the top, drawn by a pair of sleek, jet black horses.
"Names of some of the members down through the years that appear on the records of the church include William and America Skidmore, who sold the four acre tract of land for the church and cemetery for $1. Also Mr. and Mrs. Millard Musselman, William and Martha Cottingham, Elder Andrew Goforth, Mr. and Mrs. William James, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Burgett, James F. Baugh and wife, and Margaret Byrd Baugh, a descendant of Admiral Byrd of Virginia.
"Elder Hughes was followed as pastor by Elder Andrew J. Goforth.
"The church practiced feetwashing, and baptisms were performed in Whitebreast, a stream flowing nearby. The record indicates a baptism was performed by Elder J. W. Vincent as late as June 1943.
SURNAMES OF MEMBERS:
"Baugh, Boylan, Burgett, Callon, Chappel, Conrad, Corwin, Cottingham, Davis, Dodd, Exley, Fread, Goforth, Hughes, Humphreys, James, Jordan, Keeney, Leach, Lester, McCollum, McFane, Moss, Musselman, Newell, Renfro, Roberts, Rodgers, Rogers, Runyon, Shelton, Skidmore, Stamburg, Steirwalt, Stewart, Stone, Threlkeld, Vincent, Welsh, Young (incomplete list due to loss of records)."
The only story I've heard personally about Mount Zion may or may not be true, so take it with a grain of salt. But I was told that some years after regular services ceased at Mount Zion, an older resident of the neighborhood decided to build his own coffin of native lumber.
His wife discouraged him from storing it at home, so he asked surviving Mount Zion members if he might store it in the unused church until it was needed --- since Mount Zion was where he planned to be buried --- and was given permission to do so.
Some time later, a cemetery visitor decided to peer through the windows of the closed church and spotted the coffin and decided he'd better call the sheriff. Which he did, and every one involved was relieved to discover during the investigation that followed that the coffin was unoccupied.
Mount Zion, because it is in such a pretty spot and has plenty of available real estate, still is a popular Lucas County burying place. Zion Cemetery in Pleasant Township, however, is plumb full --- so if you're looking for eternal rest with a view there you'd best already have acquired a lot.