The approach of the bicentennial of the founding of this nation and all that it stands for is causing Americans to become more aware of the need to preserve our historical and religious heritage. Texas has a uniqueness all its own--and Rock Springs Church has a unique place in the cultural and religious history of Texas.
Our Texas ancestors won their independence by conquering a frontier, subduing hostile Indian tribes and by overthrowing a tyrannical government all within a short period between 1821 and 1836--and by sheer audacity, determination, courage and devotion to the principles of liberty and trust in God, and independent nation was born and so remained for ten years until these same pioneers presented Texas to the United States as the 28th state of the Union. This church was organized in the midst of this turmoil and religious restriction. These pioneers believed in religious freedom and were willing to suffer the risk of worship. The settlers met in the Hayter home in May 1834 and organized the Watkins Settlement Presbyterian Church. (Part of the home has been restored and is still the home of Mrs. Sam Sitton.)
Spanish law in 1820 stipulated among other things as a principal requisite that colonizers should be or agree to become Roman Catholics. Mexican law succeeded Spanish rule and sustained the religious restrictions. Despite this, the will to pioneer was strong. Many settlers neither observed nor believed in the forced religion of Spain and later Mexico. Many Protestants joined the Catholic Church to comply with the law, Sam Houston among them, and those who did not were afraid to openly worship their faith until after the Battle of Nacogdoches in 1832, and the expulsion of Mexican troops. Religious law enforcement was relaxed somewhat and settlers worshipped more openly. Even so, there was still opposition from the Mexicans.
It is easy to imagine that on that day in May of 1834 a great deal of secrecy was necessary in the Hayter home as this first Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Texas was orgainzed. And it is believed that the itinerant preacher, Sumner Bacon had an inspiring part in the formation of the church.
Bacon merits our attention and admiration, for he was one of the outstanding pioneers of Protestantism in Catholic Texas. He sold Bibles and tracts and preached as far away as San Felipe. Meetings were usually held out of dorrs under trees, since people were fearful of opening their homes to Protestant services, and certainly they could not prevent capture by Mexican officials.
The man that preahced the first sermon in this church was Richard Overton Watkins, who on November 27, 1837 was received as a candidate for the ministry, and in 1840 at Fort Houston was the first Protestant minister to be ordaind on Texas soil.
The first church was built of logs and used as a fort also. This building was a six-sided log church, with what was described to me as a "bird-trap" roof of logs covered with boards. The floor and seats were of split log oak and the door was home-made. The walls had a port hold on each of the six sides. The church was on the east side of the old Hayter Road which was actually the old Douglas to Linn Flat Road and faced wast, about 100 yards west of the present church. The road ran behind the church, between the chruch and the springs.
When the settlers came to church they stacked their guns in the corners and appointed two sentinals to watch for the Indians. When they saw the Indians coming they would stick their guns out of the portholes and could tell right away whether they were friendly. Often the Indians came inside the church and listened. But when they were on the warpath, church broke up in a hurry. If the Indians had trouble in breaking up the services they would throw fire brands on the roof to set the church on fire. The six sides of the building gave the settlers a good shooting range in all directions.
The second building was built in the same location as the first church and used the same rocks for the foundation. The men held prayer meetings at these old rocks while the new church was being built in 1868. This second structure was a plain oblong log building. The pews were made of split logs with peg legs.
After the second log church fell into bad repair, the members transferred to Linn Flat, went in with the Masons and built a two story building, the Masons used the upper story and the Church used the ground floor, This went on for some time until the Rock Springs community realized the need for a school. Some of the children had been taught by private tutors or by their parents or had to walk several miles to school. Some of the older children were sent to Henderson to school, and in the 1870s went to Rusk College and later to Linn Flat Academy.
Mr. Clemens Means preached at Rock Springs from 1848 until his death in 1880. He met A.S. (Andy) Hayter in Tennessee and was influenced by him to come to Nacogdoches. Mr. Means had joined the church at the Rock Springs Camp Ground in Overton County, Tennessee and sometime during his ministry this church was renamed Rock Springs. He was pastor for over thirty years.
Around 1880 the community built old Twilight School for the use of school and church. G.W.C. Self was pastor of the church at this time and for almost 30 years. During these years that the church was located at Linn Flat and at the Twilight School it retained the name of Rock Springs Church, and the cemetery remained at this present location. Once a year the families of the community met here and brought hes, rakes and brooms to clean the cemetery. With the work done, the women spread "dinner on the ground" and all gathered around to eat and visit, sing songs and hold a memorial service. This "grave yard working and dinner on the ground" was a annual affair--on Friday before the first Sunday in July until recent years, when it was changed to a homecoming held on the first Sunday in July.
Around 1900 the congregation voted to build a new church here on the original site of the old log church building. The ruins of the second church were still there at the time.
In 1902, my grandfather Brit T. Burk took one of his colored men, old Joe McGowen, to help him dig and cut more rocks for the foundation. These rocks are blue Marl and are still the foundation of this church. Oxen teams pulled the rocks out and granddaddy and old Joe sawed and cut them in sizes needed and put them out in the sun to dry. They had to be cut as soon as they were dug up before they hardened. Then grandfather Brit went to Mr. Branch at Linn Flat to buy the lumber. He paid 10 cents a cut for the lumber, no matter how wide or how long, from that he selected the middle grain or top lumber. After it was cut by Mr. Sam Sitton, grandfather and Joe McGowen stacked it to have the church built. (This is the present building which faces south on the Hatchett's Ferry Road, and was built by a carpenter named W.T. Carter.
Some of the choice lumber was saved to make benches. The lumber was taken into Nacogdoches and Mr. Ireson made the benches and they were ready for the first services after the church was built. These benches were in use until recently.
A few days before the first service was held, men and women met to have a yard cleaning and dinner on the ground. They cut and cleaned the brush and burned the old logs of the second church building.
The present beloved pastor Nunnally Burk has preached here for over 40 years, holding services once a month.
Four years ago the membership had died down and services were no longer being held. There was talk of the church being sold for a hay barn. Mrs. Helen parmley called our home and wanted to know if this was true, my husband said not as long as I am alive. We talked it over with my sister Sally and called Nunnally and asked if he would accept us as members. He said "You're an answer to my prayer.
The church was reactivated with the three members and for the first time services have been held ever Sunday. We tackled the job of rebuilding this church with the same zeal that our pioneers had. Others have joined us. You see what we have done and you see what we still have to do.
1. We painted the church.
2. We have bought a new piano with the help of Lora Neills family and friends and dedicated it to her memory.
3. Mrs. Sam Sitton made the beautiful altar hanging.
4. Mary Bates of Houston donated the old Chruch organ.
5. Milton Davis gave the Georgian lights in memory of his mother and honoring his father.
6. Billie Sanders of Houston donated the 150 year old altar chairs in memory of cousin Charlie Watkins.
7. We have added central heating and air conditioning.
8. The 100 year old church pews were donated by the family of Lola and Harlan Burk in their memory.
9. Mrs. Self's son and her son-in-law, Hollis Weatherly and his sons and three of my brothers gave material, time and labor to build the kitchen and bathroom.
10. We have purchased new song books dedicated to Nunnally and Louise on his 75th birthday.
At this time we decided that we had gone as far as we could go without professional help. We called in our friend Rayford Stripling of San Augustine who is a noted restoration architect. He said that this church building had more natural charm than any church that he had ever seen. The floors are tongue in groove center cut pine which cannot be replaced. At his suggestion we have had the floors sanded and waxed. We have added the carpets. We have replaced the front doors with old doors that Garland and I had bought when the old Langston Nelson house was torn down and they date back to 1888. Lera Thomas has donated an antique door for this side.
We have ordered Plantation blinds and they will be put up when we have the money, as well as a new wood shingle roof. Some day we hope to have stained glass windows and cushions for the pews.
This church is small, but this church is alive and a memorial to our pioneer ancestors. This church that means so much to Texas, to Protestantism, and to you and me will continue to grow but we need your prayers, your encouragement and your support.
[Source: typed manuscript by Mrs. Garland Roark, July 6, 1975]
Rock Springs Church was organized in a log house two years before the Texas Revolution, at a time when Protestant worship was illegal. The folks who gathered in the two-room house, which still stands near the present church building, worshiped in secret for two fateful years.
One historic personage to preach at this site in the Piney Woods of deep east Texas was Sumner Bacon. Bacon was an itinerant Bible and tract seller. His life's tale, including his ordination in our Church, is narrated in a historical novel by Garland Roark, entitled "Hellfire Jackson." The fictional Jackson, like the real-life Bacon, wore animal skins and lived off of the land while telling early settlers and Indian neighbors about the Lord Jesus Christ.
The present church building was erected in 1902. Like the preaching of the gospel, the work was never completed. Only now has the steeple been added, a tribute to the late Garland Roark, author of the aforementioned tale about Sumner Bacon, and two benefactors of the Rock Springs community, the late Adlai T. Mast, Sr. and his wife Lois.
As a Reformed Church is always reforming, it is appropriate that the church continue growing. The crowning glory of Rock Springs physical growth is the three-tiered steeple with a Celtic cross.
The lower two sections were built by C.A. Buchanan. Deacons Bill Campbell and Leo Nelson oversaw much of the work, even as a 2-man crane crew raised the sections into position. Leola Roark, widow of the author, and John Mast, son of the benefactor, provided encouragement and guidance along the way.
The Celtic cross, chosen for its Scottish, and therefore Presbyterian, heritage, joins the arms of the cross of Calvary with a circle. The circle suggests the completeness of God, that God is from beginning to end, the Alpha and the Omega.
The circle also reminds us of the crown which Christ will wear upon His return as King of kings and Lord of lords. As a crucifix holds a dead Christ and a Latin cross, without a body, tells of the resurrection, the Celtic cross takes us a step further. Christ is not only risen; He shall return in glory.
A bronze plaque in the church bears this inscription: "In gratitude to God for Garland Roark and Adlai T. Mast Sr. and his wife Lois, this steeple was erected AD 1986." The maker concludes with the lines from Acts 7:55, "Looking up to heaven, he saw the glory of God and Jesus at the right hand of God."
Dr. Walker is pastor of the Rock Springs Cumberland Presbyterian Chruch and the Trawick Presbyterian Church, USA, in Nacogdoches County, Texas.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, October 15, 1986, page 17]
Deacon Leo Nelson stood before the congregation to say, "We've sat on the building fund long enough. Let's show the community that we intend to erect a fellowship hall and a place for Sunday school classes. Let's show our concern for the next generation by beginning to build." Deacon Bill Campbell agreed.
Unknown to most of the parishioners of the Rock Springs Church, they were echoing the admonition of Thelma Bedinger, widow of the well-known cleric who often preached in this place. Had Mrs. Bedinger not promised that if we began to build, the needed money would follow?
Deacon Nelson, the recently-widowed US Navy retiree, volunteered to oversee the project, to act as contractor without pay. The task would be therapy for a grieving sailor.
The $4500 in the building fund, Mr. Nelson said, would be enough for the concrete slab and to stub in the plumbing for the 1650-square-foot structure. But none of the Rock Springs' members anticipated how the Lord blesses even those of little faith. After all, it took a decade to bank the $4500. Before the concrete "set," over $9000 new dollars were deposited in the account.
Passersby stopped to see what Mr. Nelson was doing at the rear of the historic structure on the site of the ordination of the first Protestant minister in the old Republic of Texas. Soon, two gifts of $5000 each were sent by members of the Burk family, friends of the church who grew up in the rural community and who had moved to "the city" for a livelihood, and a loving son sent a thousand dollars "in appreciation for my mother," Lera Martin, an elder in the congregation.
Caddo Presbytery took an enterest. Its Missions Committee allocated $50 a month to help the wee kirk over its doldrums. The session deliberated but briefly whether to use the gift for a student helper for the tent-making minister or to add the grant to the building fund. Unanimously, the latter won out.
A team of carpenters and helpers from across the presbytery in East Texas and Louisiana descended on the site for an old-fashioned barn-raising style Saturday. Women fed the crew while the men erected the walls and sheathed the roof on the prefabricated rafters.
The fellowship hall includes modern restrooms, a kitchen, chairs and tables for 72, and--above the wood wainscoat--wall lights. These scones were the gift of a Chicago artist who insisted they were aesthetically essential.
A beautiful piano, provided by Elder Cyril Campbell in memory of his wife, Inez, was graciously transported by a commercial mover who tore up the church's check.
Fiberglass siding that matches the sanctuary exterior's heartwood pine boards, milled from timbers logged from the virgin forest nearby in the early 1900s, covers the insulated walls of the air-conditioned and centrally-heated building.
With Leo Nelson's shrewd stewardship of the Lord's money and Bill Campbell's cost-accounting, the move-in price amounted to under $40,000. Not a penny was borrowed, nor was a penny spent before it was banked for the 18-month-long project.
When Mr. Nelson fell from a ladder, seriously damaging his back and damaging an arm, he didn't let this hinder progress. From his hospital bed, instructions were given to others to keep the project moving. Happily, we report the answer to prayers with near-full recovery.
The final touch was the dedication of the building at a stated meeting of Caddo Presbytery. No records indicate that a stated meeting of the church court had ever been held at Rock Springs. The Rev. Drs. Marvin Leslie and Loyce Estes, past and present presidents of the Mission Board, officiated in the ceremony that presented this facility to God.
From the early 1830s, the "whosoever will" gospel has been preached from behind the sanctuary sacred desk. Unless the Lord returns, Rock Springs folks trust that the fellowship hall will serve as a place where the next generation will raise high the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, March 15, 1989, page 15]
Two new signs tell of the Rock Springs Church in rural Nacogdoches County, TX.
An attractive roadside sign alerts passersby to the historic structure several hundred feet from paved Farm Road 698.
Affixed to the exterior corner of the sanctuary wall, a bronze marker now recounts the story of the church. The monument, cast in New York, reads: Oldest continuing Protestant church in Texas. Near this site is the A.S. Hayter log house, the Watkins Settlement Cumberland Presbyterian Church was organized in May 1834, the first Protestant church established in Texas territory. Richard Overton Watkins preached in secret meetings because Mexican law prohibited worship except by Roman Catholics. In 1840, Watkins became the first Protestant minister ordained on Texas soil.
The first church building was a 6-sided log structure with port holes through which sentinels watched for Indian attacks. The second building, erected in 1868, had pews of split logs and peg legs. The present structure, of virgin pine, dates to 1902.--Laurence C. Walker, Reporter
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, September 15, 1989, page 14]
This congregation was dissolved by Trinity Presbytery in 2010.