It was a cold, wintry morning on Jan. 5, 1958, when residents of Pleasantville, Indiana, woke up to horrifying news: Their beloved Methodist church had burned down. All that remained were a wooden pulpit and a church bell that had fallen from the bell tower into the charred rubble.
Church members weren’t sure how or if they could move forward.
“The world as we knew it was ending,” reflects Gayle (Cox) McCullough, who was 9 years old at that time.
It would have been easy for the small country church to close after 138 years. But members of the congregation and community weren’t ready to say goodbye anytime soon. After all, the church’s roots go back to shortly after Indiana became a state in 1816.
The Pleasantville United Methodist Church was established in 1819, with church services held inside members’ homes and officiated by a circuit riding preacher, who would travel from town to town to deliver sermons. Pleasantville’s early founders met in homes until a log cabin-style church was constructed in 1824, where the church’s cemetery is now located. A more permanent wooden church was built in 1894, with services held there each Sunday until the devastating fire in 1958.
Plans were made within days to rebuild the church and members of the congregation continued to have services — never missing a Sunday — and dedicated the church’s current building in November 1958. Some church members wished to dispose of the church’s old bell, which had been cracked in the fall.
Devoted members Archie and Vivian Cox saved the cast-iron bell, knowing the church would perhaps one day wish to bring the bell back to its rightful place atop a hill overlooking the community nestled among coal mines and the Greene-Sullivan State Forest at the end of Indiana highway 159 in the southeastern corner of Sullivan County.
Over 60 years later, current and past church members, former pastors, family members and guests reunited for a special homecoming celebration Sept. 15, honoring the church’s 200-year history. The event featured a dedication of the bell, with members gathering to hear its familiar ring.
Restoring the bell was a labor of love for Louie Bonham, Booner Mitchell, Randy Crane, Jim Taylor and Allen Bohnert. First, they had to sandblast the rust from years of being outside the Cox’s house. Then, the bell was repainted and mounted on a new metal frame, appropriately adorned by a cross, near the front door of the church.
“The church bell causes us to pause and reflect, reminding us of the vital role our faith and church play in our lives,” says church member and choir director Brenda Smith, Archie and Vivian Cox’s daughter.
Homecoming attendees continued several of the church’s longstanding traditions — a worship service, of course, along with a potluck lunch and a program featuring music, a reading of church history, and members sharing memories of growing up and being a part of the church and its community. There also was a reunion of past choir members singing a special anniversary hymn, with lyrics written by Smith.
“Sunday was always the day of service and going to church,” says Betty Bishop, the church’s oldest living member at 93 years old. “While there have been changes over the years, it’s still home. It’s always been a good place to attend and fellowship together.”
Gloria Hardisty Bonham adds, “There have been different generations come and go in the church, but the family connections have kept the church going.”
The town of Pleasantville is vastly different than its appearance in 1894. Near the church was a funeral home, two hotels, a school, a variety of stores, banks, a post office and gas stations. While these businesses and operations have closed, the church continues to unite people in the community, along with attracting members from surrounding counties.
Throughout its 200-year history, the Pleasantville United Methodist Church has continued its traditional worship service with members singing popular old-time songs from hymnals, much like their ancestors, and enjoying the music performed by a small choir. Birthdays and special occasions are recognized, and members remain long after for fellowship.
“This church is a family tree,” says David Benefiel, a historian whose grandparents attended the church. He is writing a novel about the church’s history. He continued, “Today’s church members have parents who were friends with each other, and eventually you’ll find that someone in the current congregation is connected to the church’s original members from 1819.”
It was easy to identify the family heritage among those gathering at the church’s homecoming service. Children and grandchildren of current and past members were welcomed with open arms, despite not attending church services for several years.
Pam (Hardisty) Sweet of Jasonville, Indiana, reflected, “I grew up here. I was married in this church. I think of my grandma every time I’m here, remembering right where she sat (during Sunday services).”
A special treat at this year’s homecoming was a signature/friendship quilt, handstitched by women congregation members, with the names of 320 members. It was created in 1892 and 48 names were added after 1960.
The quilt symbolizes the fabric of the church.
“This place has always been about the church and the people,” says Benefiel. “For the past 200 years, people in Pleasantville have come together with their shared beliefs. That will never change.”
McCullough adds, “There has to be something special about having a church with this longevity. The people make up this church. The atmosphere has always been the same.”
Smith seconded that remark, stating “I grew up here. I can’t see any other place other than this to come home to.”
Novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. “You can’t truly go back to a place you once lived, because so much will have changed since you left that it is not the same place anymore.”
However, that’s never been the case for the Pleasantville United Methodist Church. When you open the doors, you’re home. No matter how long someone has been away, you’re welcomed back with open arms and a warm smile.
As Pastor Dwight Gould expressed, “It’s good to come home, isn’t it?”
Yes, yes, it is. And for the past 200 years, residents of Pleasantville, Indiana and surrounding communities have always been able to call their church “home,” where there are enough memories to last a lifetime.
Writer Kasy Long is a granddaughter of church bell donors Archie and Vivian Cox, and her family members are longtime members of Pleasantville United Methodist Church and residents of Pleasantville, Indiana.