A Brief History of
Abernethy Memorial United Methodist Church
The Church. Situated in the center of town, Abernethy Memorial United Methodist Church is a picturesque English village style building of native fieldstone. The church was built in the late 1920’s from stones gathered by local parishioners and erected by Waldensian stonemasons. The church honors Robert Laban Abernethy (1822-1894), distinguished educator, minister, and founder of Rutherford College.
Prelude. A strong Methodist presence existed before 1850 when the village was known as Happy Home, later incorporated as Excelsior in 1872 and Rutherford College in 1881. Devout Methodist families of Colonel William L. Connelly, Daniel P. Johnson, Jacob Sides, Frances P. Glass and others worshipped in a log structure called Jones Grove Church located on the Southwest corner of the cemetery on Carnegie Drive. It may have been named for Basil Gaither Jones of Davie County, an early teacher and pastor. R. L. Abernethy a Methodist Exhorter and charismatic teacher arrived in 1853 to open Owl Hollow School. He filled the pulpit when regular circuit riding preachers were not available.
The College. A one-room white frame building replaced the log church in 1875. When that structure burned in 1902, worshipers began meeting nearby in the chapel of Rutherford College and in 1914 moved to the auditorium at the new campus on the South end of town where Valdese Hospital stands today. Thus began a long and beneficial association with the college. During its existence, hundreds of students from Rutherford College came to services here and heard some of the eminent ministers of the Gospels speak the Word of God. Future preachers from Professor M. T. Hinshaw’s “School of Prophets” sharpened their skills in our pulpit. Pastor W. Ralph Jacks wrote in 1966, “Old Rutherford, long gone these thirty years, yet casts its spell and spirit, and this church reflects its blessedness.”
The Church is built. When the Rev. M. B. Clegg was assigned to Rutherford College in 1919, the congregation had been meeting in temporary spaces for about seventeen years. David and Carrie Lee Shields donated an acre of land from their home place and with two additional purchased acres, the foundation for a permanent church was started. The first cash contribution to the building fund was from a widow lady with twelve children, Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell, who gave one hundred dollars, a substantial sacrifice in those days. The Griffin Brothers, Theo and Joe, built the foundation. Plans were to finish the church in brick but two attempts to find adequate clay to make the bricks were disappointing and construction stopped. Economic hard times fell upon the community: promised funds were not given, a local bank failed, Weaver Hall on the college campus burned, the College itself was in jeopardy, a “weed patch” grew among the stones. One writer said, “People had lost hope, many of us had little faith.” Then, about 1927 under the strong leadership of the Rev. W. L. Scott, the men of the community began hauling rocks from the fields and a nearby quarry until there were enough to finish the church. The building committee was made up of Pastor Scott, M. T. Hinshaw, S. J. Shrum, J. D. Cassels, John Roderick, and the Rev. E. P. Billups. To raise money for the church, women in the community sacrificed, saved, cut corners and did without. They cooked innumerable suppers, sold flowers, and one woman was reported to have sold her pet cats. At last, the building was finished and opened on Sunday, March 30, 1930 with all day preaching services and dinner on the grounds. (Interestingly, just two days before, the Rev. and Mrs. Scott had become parents of a baby girl.) The structure cost approximately $20,000 that included $800 for the thirty stained glass windows honoring the Saints of our church.
The Middle Years. In 1940 a new parsonage was built adjacent to the church. The present parsonage replaced it in 1971. In 1956 a project to build an educational facility was begun by the Rev. A. C. Kennedy, Jr. that featured a fellowship hall with a stage for theatrical productions. Bishop Earl G. Hunt, Jr. dedicated the new building on September 11, 1966. In this era, six exceptional paintings by local artist and member James H. (“Mr. Jimmy”) Burris were installed in the Sanctuary.
Scouting has been an important ministry of the church. Boy Scout Troop #195 holds the oldest charter in Burke County. A scout hut was built in 1946 dedicated to the memory of Hugh Conner Barnhardt who died in the service of his Country in World War II. In 1968 a new scout hut was built while the Rev. Clegg W. Avett was pastor.
For 135 years Methodist women have lead in service both at home and in foreign lands. In the early years of the women’s mission organizations, the focus was on sending missionaries and helping to change the lives of women and girls in foreign lands. They incorporated the values of home and family into public life, as they addressed issues of poverty, child labor, immigration, migrant labor, family life, racial discrimination, full clergy rights for women, and many other social ills of the day. Here at home the Rosa Lowder Circle and Sarah Lowder Circle of the Women’s Society of Christian Service were organized in 1939 to honor two of our own Deaconesses. The Wesleyan Service Guild was organized for working women. Since unification of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Churches in 1968, two circles of United Methodist Women in our church continue the legacy.
The Future. In 2005 our church will have existed for more than 150 years and our present building will be 75 years old. A maxim of our church is taken from Ephesians 3:20: “Our God can do exceedingly more than we could ever ask or imagine, according to His power working in us.” We sing it at every church council meeting. If past foretells the future, then the next decades could be extraordinary. With God’s help we can do great things.
 Rutherford, Mrs. [E. P. (Anna Laurie Abernethy)] “Rev. W. L. Scott, And The Miracle,” The (Morganton, NC) News Herald, April 3, 1930.
Living The Legacy: The Continuing Journey Of Women In Mission 1869-2002. United Methodist Church website: http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/history/legacy.html