Earle’s Chapel: The Church Part 2

After its organization, membership grew under the leadership of pastors Albert Little (1877 – 78), L. C. Crans (1879 – 80) and T. P. Smith (1881), with R. W. Thompson and John Adams as Presiding Elders.  W. W. McAnally was listed as a member of the church on the 1881 membership roll and then as its pastor (1882 – 83), with the designation L. P., or Local Preacher.  The 1884 membership roll indicates that in 1883 the Rev. Mr. McAnally “…joined the Conference” and his wife and children were “lettered,” indicating that he had probably taken a position in another church.  By the time J. J. Booth assumed the pastorate in 1886, the membership had grown to seventy.  Such membership growth may account for the decision around 1889 that a new church building was necessary.  Charles F. Smith was the pastor at the time that members Jeff Skelton and Bob Tatum constructed the church building that still serves the Earle’s Chapel congregation today.

              Following the pattern of the community’s growth, the membership grew to more than 100 members shortly after the turn of the century and remained at that level until around the time of World War I.  Membership then gradually declined over the years until the present official records of the church indicate about the same number of members as the original society, with about half that number active.  Among its present membership are fifth and sixth generation descendants of the early pioneer families.

              During most of its history, the Earle’s Chapel Church has been served by a circuit preacher, responsible for several of the small churches in the area.  The pastor was often a ministerial student at Lon Morris College in nearby Jacksonville who combined his pastoral obligations with his study for the ministry.  Such pastors have included Monroe Vivian, B. R. Shelton, Asbury Lenox, Walter Kllingle and Bob Waters, among others.  In the 1950s and 1960s, “student pastors” tended to be trainees from Perkins Theological Seminary at Southern Methodist University.  Pastors who served during their seminary training included Bill Raines, Connie Winborn, John Derr and Norman Johnson.  Dr. Glendell Jones, a faculty member at Lon Morris College, served one of the longest pastorates at the church in recent years, from 1973 until 1977.  John Woody (1986 – 88) will be remembered by the community for his leadership during the crises caused by heavy tornado damage to the church in 1987.  The present pastor is J. D. O’Donnell who has the joint appointment of St. John’s United Methodist Church – Jacksonville and Earle’s Chapel.

              The circuit format has generally meant that formal church services were not held each Sunday.  One or more Sundays each month were designated as “Preaching Sunday,” a time when the circuit preacher would hold a regular church service, often morning and evening.  He would have Sunday dinner with one of the congregational families and visit in the community in the afternoon.  On other Sundays, the congregation, in a manner very close to the early Wesleyan traditions in America, met for Sunday School which included an opening worship service of hymn singing, Scripture reading and prayer before the classes were dismissed to their teaching sessions.  P. C. Ragsdale was the first Sunday School Superintendent.  Carson Brittain served in this capacity for many years during the 1930-1940s.  Homer Ragsdale led the Sunday services for several decades, and the present Sunday School leader is Neil Earle, a great grandson of Elijah and Mary Elizabeth Earle.