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Between SEARCY and center hill, ARKANSAS

Smyrna 2017 Al Fowler.jpg

Built: 1856

Property Owner: City of Searcy

GPS Location: 35.074544, -91.872990

Interests: Church History

Project Details: Replace Roof, Interior Repairs

Photo by Al Fowler.

Or you can send a check to PO Box 537, Searcy, Arkansas 72145 with "Smyrna School" as the memo

History of smyrna methodist church

"A newspaper article from the 1920s or 1930s (based on the pastor listed) as well as information compiled in 1941 for the WPA by Virginia Lightle described the organization and construction of the Smyrna Methodist Church.  Settlement in this part of White County was so sparse in the early 19th century that the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations all shared the same Union Church building, located a mile northeast of what is now known as Center Hill (because it’s a hill in between Joy Mountain and Searcy).  This Union Church was near the site of the present Center Hill Baptist Church.  The denominations took turns occupying the church, each having one Sunday a month, with the fourth Sunday reserved for those of other religious beliefs.  Everything went smoothly until 1856, when the congregations met together for a revival.  The preacher offended the Methodists in attendance by pushing his own religious views, which were different from theirs.  So one Methodist man called the other Methodists to meet at the door following the benediction, and when they gathered, he said, “I think it is time, brethren, for all of the Methodists to swarm.” 


A public collection was taken for the construction of a new Methodist church, which would be called Smyrna.  They chose a location about half way between Joy Mountain and Searcy and between two early county roads.  Also, the location along Jaybird Lane was important because it used to extend to the foot of Des Ark Mountain, where it connected to the Old Military Road, which was the route to Little Rock.  


In addition to monetary donations, people donated labor in order to construct the church.  It was completed in late 1856 and dedicated in 1857. 

A story told by the Armstrong family, whose ancestors were founding members of this church, describes an emotional homecoming in which Jacob Armstrong was in the middle of leading a prayer in the church when young men outside the building spotted his son returning home from the Civil War.  What a joyous occasion that must have been!


The Methodist congregation held regular services here until 1973, when declining attendance forced them to close the doors.  Other congregations met here briefly, but the building remained empty for most of the time (last worship service was held here in late 1980s).  But in 1998, the Batesville District of the United Methodist Church donated the building to the City of Searcy, and the White County Historical Society and the Searcy Arts Council, acting as agents for the city, undertook the monumental task of restoring the church building.


History of Methodism:

An interesting side note is the fact that the church would have been called the Smyrna Methodist Episcopal Church, South, until 1939, when it became the Smyrna Methodist Church.  You see, the largest and most divisive split in the Methodist church happened in 1844 over the issue of slavery (the Methodist Protestant Church had already split off).  The Methodist Episcopal Church, South supported slavery, while the Methodist Episcopal Church did not.  The break would not be healed until the “Uniting Conference” of 1939, where you get the formation of The Methodist Church.  The United Methodist Church was created in 1968 when the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in Dallas, TX.


Tree-Ring Dating of Smyrna Church


Dendrochronology, or the dating method used in determining the year of formation for the annual growth rings in trees, was used to pinpoint exactly when the church’s building timbers were cut.  In order for this method to work, you must have some wane left on the logs, or the outermost growth ring and possibly some bark.  The church was constructed with hand hewn oak beams, 8” x 12” in size, resting on stone piers, and the floor joists are oak logs 8 to 10 inches in diameter with the bark still on one side and the other side hewn off to provide a flat surface for the wood flooring.  As it turns out, several of the sills, floor joists, corner posts, and studs still retained sapwood and some had their outermost growth layers and inner bark.  The discovery of a well-preserved white oak stump under the building greatly increased the possibility of determining the church’s construction date through tree-ring analysis. 


So the University of Arkansas Tree Ring Laboratory was contracted to do an analysis, and they collected core samples and cross sections for study.  They found that the trees used to construct the church were felled early in the summer of 1856.  The timbers were probably allowed to cure before construction, but it is possible that the church was completed by late 1856.  These findings are consistent with the other records.


Therefore, the Smyrna Methodist Church is the oldest documented church building remaining in Arkansas.  It is one of only 5 antebellum churches believed to survive in the state—others include the 1858 Philadelphia Methodist Church north of Melbourne (Izard Co.), the 1860 Washington Methodist Church (Hempstead Co.), the Rockport Methodist Church (Hot Spring Co.—which claims to date to the 1830s, but is not documented & has been altered with modern windows, siding & roof), and the 1852 Hunter’s Chapel UMC (Dallas Co.—has modern windows & date undocumented).  In addition, a log church at Maxville in Sharp County dates at least to the 1870s, and may be older, but no studies have been conducted on this building.   


Architecture and Evolution of Church Appearance


As the church appears now, it is a vernacular (using local design & materials) one-room church with some restrained Queen Anne-style details.  These Queen Anne-style elements would have been added during the circa 1890 remodeling of the church, and that makes sense because the heyday of the style was been 1880 and 1900.  The cresting or ridge cap, bargeboard in the front gable end, and patterned shingles are all characteristics of the style.


You see, when the church was originally constructed, it was side-gabled with a door in the center of the north wall as well as a door in the west wall (and it is not known if there was originally a door in the east wall because of the vestibule).  The three 9-over-9 windows would have been on the south side, and the north (or front) elevation would have had the main entrance flanked by the two windows.  This configuration would have been more reminiscent of the Federal style of architecture.


Then between 1890 and 1900, the church was remodeled.  An entry and vestibule was added on the church’s east side, and the north door was replaced with a 9-over-9 window (you can see the door outline from the outside).  The west door was converted into a window and two other windows were cut into the west wall on either side of the door (you can still see where they were from the inside).  A central wood burning stove was placed in the center of the building with a flue leading up to a brick chimney.  The brick chimney was easily constructed during this remodel because they replaced the entire roof structure, including the rafters and roof covering (wood shakes).  Decorative elements like the imbricated shingles, inverted picket siding, bargeboard, and cresting were likely added at this time as well.  Also, wood plank skirting was added around the foundation to keep animals out.  And since the belfry appears in a circa 1915 photo of the church, it may have been added during this remodel. 


The belfry was removed soon after 1940, the wood shake roof was covered with corrugated metal, and a stone skirting was added around the foundation.  The church got electricity for the first time in 1948.  You can still see one of the drop light fixtures.  Later, maybe circa 1950, the ceiling was dropped using some of the boards from the original vaulted ceiling.  Modern wood paneling, which has since been removed, was added to the walls, and it is likely that the three windows on the west side were closed in at that time.  It was also around this time that the present wood floor was added and the raised altar area constructed.  The original pews were replaced, but it is believed that one of the original pews remains as a modified bench seat.  If you look closely at the floor, you can see the imprints of ladies’ high heels, which were popular in the 1940s and 1950s.


Restoration of the church


The Smyrna Church is being restored to its circa 1900 appearance, and most of the exterior work is completed.  As you can see, there is more work to be done on the interior.  Once completed, the building will be used for a variety of social functions. 


The restoration has been financed by private donations and grants from the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, funded by General Improvement Funds provided by the 86th General Assembly and secured with the assistance of Senator John Paul Capps. 


So far, the restoration has involved raising the building up off of its foundation to reconstruct the stone foundation piers and replace rotten and termite-ridden beams and joists, replacing pieces of the wood siding with specially milled pine siding to match the original boards, removal of the sheet metal roof and installation of a new cedar shake roof, rebuilding of the brick chimney, installation of the cresting or ridge cap (made to look like a piece of the original that was found under the building), reconstruction of the belfry (complete with an old church bell from the Fredonia Church that was donated by Patrick and Avalyn Parker and Judith Moseley), sanding and painting of the exterior wood siding, the bargeboard was reconstructed for the gable end, the wood-frame windows were restored and broken panes replaced, and wood plank skirting replaced the crumbling stone skirting around the foundation.  Whew!


Attention will now be turned to the interior.  The church will be rewired, and central heat and air will be added with the unit installed behind the church.  The arch truss ceiling, floor, and baseboards will be restored.  The pews will be cleaned and refurbished as well.  The rear door will be reopened to make the building ADA accessible with a ramp."

- Taken from the transcript of the Walk Through History lead by Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program on December 5, 2009


Project Updates


Replaced front doors.

National register of historic places form
Smyrna Methodist Church

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