One of the most beautiful and most photographed small church buildings in rural Alabama is the Sears Chapel Methodist Church on Highway 231 two miles North of Rockford in Coosa County. It is a pretty building, but people in the community, the church, still meet there in that place since the 1800’s to comfort the bereaved, to unite couples in holy matrimony, and to praise the Lord. Now a Global Methodist Church, Sears Chapel has regular services with Andrews Chapel and Rockford Methodist every fifth Sunday, and there is a Homecoming the first Sunday in August.
The Sears Chapel Church was started by John A. Sears who in 1859 moved from Troup County, Georgia, to Elmore County, Alabama, and then to Coosa County, Alabama, and settled in the community now known as Sears Chapel. It is a beautiful story recorded in A Coosa County History of how George Washington McEwen became John Sears’ son-in-law. McEwen was traveling to Coosa County with his folks on the Turnpike Road when he saw a young woman of sixteen, Mary C. Sears, sitting on the front seat of a wagon, traveling to Coosa County to establish a home with her parents. After admiring Mary from a distance, George rode his horse quickly back to where his father was and told him that he had met his future wife. They were married in 1850 and later had twelve children.
John Sears was a prominent millwright and built several mills, and in the late 1850’s built a mill where the Turnpike crossed Hatchett Creek. A Birmingham News article of February 3, 1922, gives us another piece of history about John Sears: “He built the old grist mill which was later enlarged and known as the McEwen Old Mill, and in 1860 Mr. Sears enlisted a few helpers in the task of building a Methodist church in his community.” Twelve people gathered to begin the Church. It was troublesome times, the 1860’s, the eve of the Civil War, and they made a commitment to have a worship house.
I like the way the Goodwater Enterprise reported it Thursday, October 12, 1932, in an article written by local historian, John K. McEwen. It compared the establishment of this church to the covenant Joshua made with Israel at Shechem (Joshua 24) and the ephod which Aaron directed In Exodus 10 when he wrote, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness to us all.” McEwen went on to say, “In the year 1860 a small group of neighbors assembled on a little hill -top two miles north of Rockford on the Turnpike Road and organized Sears Chapel Methodist Church. They pledged themselves and did there and then write a record on paper, and those twelve charter members lived true to their pledge until death.” They were: John and Tabitha Sears, George W. and March C. McEwen, S.B. and Elizabeth S. Waldrip, Martha T. Sears Waldrip, Tabitha Sears Smith, Mrs. Hawkin Phillips, Joe Busby, Wesley May, and. Mrs. Catherine May.
That first building was used as a church and a school and was located about fifty yards behind the current building. According to church records, “The log structure was split pines 18 inches wide, hewn smooth and notched to be put together without nails. The pews which had no backs, were supported on the same kind of 18 inch split pines. They too used pegs instead of nails. Three inch wood strips were between the logs to form seals.” There were no glass windows, but wooden shutters could be opened and closed to keep our rain and cold.
The names of those twelve charter members are on a marble book, weighing about 400 lbs. at the entrance of the church cemetery. In his account in the Goodwater Enterprise, October 27, 1932, Mr. McEwen writes about a visit he received from a lady in 1931. She said, “You man not remember me as Essy Mae as we left Alabama 58 years ago to make our home in Texas. My father was the one who hewed the logs to build the original church.” At that time she visited with Mr. McEwen and went on to say, “Here’s where my mother used to shout and praise God, and I, being quite small, would be all excited, but it’s all over now. Mother has gone on.”
Establishing a covenant with a rock was not an original idea, but apparently, John K. McEwen born in 1856 and died in 1939, was a humble man who knew the importance of commitment. Inez Warren writes in Rockford Notes and revisited by George Wright Howard in the Sylacauga Advance, Nov. 14, 1982, “ In the family McEwen plot at Sears Chapel Cemetery is this epitaph, “With our face to the light and with perfect respect for our Creator, our fellowman, and our country…we rest.” If I might interject a thought here, all who live in the 21st century would most certainly rest better while we live if we looked to the Light, respected our Creator, our fellowman, and our country.
The current structure was built about 1895, and the vestibule, steeple, bell tower, and the memorial windows were added later. It was John McEwen who once operated a general store right beside the Courthouse in Rockford who traveled to France and brought back the glass for the 10 glass windows that are in the church. They are in memory of John and Tabitha Sears. Frank McEwen built the steeple. This small congregation tries hard to keep the legacy of this wonderful church intact, but the siding is old and winds and storms require constant vigilance on its upkeep so they would be grateful for any donations toward that purpose from anyone who appreciates their history of Christian commitment and the beauty of a church that has lasted and been there for people of this area for many years.
Karen Hammond is the church trustee who cares for the building and cemetery now is a descendant of McEwen. She remembers worshipping there as a child when the pine pews had been replaced with opera chairs. The other trustees are John McEwen, Scott McEwen, J.T. McDonald and Chuck McEwen.
With special thanks to Catherine and Samantha at B.B. Comer Library, to Rev. Tim Childers for his original photo, to Karen Hammond for her historical pages, and A History of Coosa County. With the Marble Festival looming, I am looking forward to visiting that lovely church and perhaps providing more information about the impressive cemetery, built by faithful hands, not so long ago at that.