Seven Pioneers Formed Church In 1812

     In 1812, seven Wyoming County pioneers stepped out from a small cabin into the breezy June air to a place under a snarled beech tree. Nearby, a small stream gurgled and trickled along, partly shaded by the tree. There, under the tree, those seven stalwart men and women laid the plans for establishing the first church in Wyoming County, the Guyandotte Baptist Church. That was in June 1812. And those stalwart pioneers, and charter members of the Guyandotte Baptist Church, were Ellen Riggins Cooke, David Morgan, Catherine Stewart Cooke, William Cooke, Daniel Shumate, Samuel Morgan, and Capt. Ralph Stewart. Some five months later, on Nov. 9, 1912, another meeting was held at the same small cabin and the formal organization of the Guyandotte Baptist Church took place. The small cabin was that of Thomas and Ellen Riggins Cooke and the snarled beech tree is the one known today as the “Old Baptist Beech.”

     In 1812, Wyoming County (then Giles County, Va.) was wilderness — there were no towns; settlers, with few exceptions, lived miles apart; travel was tedious and difficult; communication was only as fast as the travel. And with these difficulties, it is a remarkable tribute that they not only sang the praises of God in their own hearts, but also wanted to establish and build a temple to sing the praises of God to everyone. It was with strong awareness of the problems, but with an equally strong hope of success that Guyandotte Baptist Church began its existence. With the organization of the church on Nov. 9, 1812, the Rev. James Ellison (1778-1834) became the first pastor. Rev. Ellison was a son of Capt. James Ellison of Monroe County, who too, was a Baptist Elder. James Ellison held the pastorship at Guyandotte until at least 1829 and possibly until 1834, the year of his death. Rev. Matthew Ellison succeeded his father as pastor and served on a regular basis until about 1854. He preached at Guyandotte again from about 1856 to about 1859.

     Daniel Shumate was selected as the first church clerk, and he held the clerk’s post until August 1819, when he was succeeded by Richard Toler. Shumate and Toler were largely responsible for some of the extraordinary church records still intact. The dedicated work and long tenure of these early officials contributed immensely, no doubt, to the early maintenance of the church, since the congregation — in those early times — was not really a strong one. Ellen Riggins Cooke (1784-1850), the wife of Thomas Cooke Sr., and the daughter-in-law of Wyoming County’s first settler, was the diligent, dedicated spirit behind the church’s organization. Much assistance in her efforts came from Elder John Alderson, a circuit rider from the Greenbrier Valley Baptist Church. Ellen Cooke’s home was a stopover for all of the circuit riders passing through the county. Since Ellen Riggins Cooke died in April 1850, we do not know much about this remarkable woman. We do know, however, that she was the daughter of David and Priscilla Oden Riggins, her father having served in the American Revolution. She was known as a religious woman of strong character, dedicated to her faith, her home, and her 11 children. Ellen Cooke lies buried within sight of the cabin home and the old beech tree which we commemorate as the birthplace of the church she so sorely wanted and worked for. Of the other charter members, brothers David and Samuel Morgan, early settlers of lower Wyoming, later sold their lands and left the county, and Daniel Shumate, whose  home was used many times for meetings, resided in present Raleigh County. Capt. Ralph Stewart (1749-1835), second settler of Wyoming County, lived out his remaining years in Wyoming County where many of his descendants have been outstanding citizens. William Cooke (1784-1853), son of the first settler, and his wife, Catherine Stewart Cooke (1789-1888), donated the land for the first Wyoming County Courthouse and thus founded the town of Oceana in 1850. The descendants of these charter members have made many social, political, educational, and religious contributions to the county and state.

     The congregation of the Guyandotte Church raised a “log meeting house,” date unknown, on a section of land near the present site of the Oceana Methodist Church. Because it failed to secure a good title, the site was lost in litigation before 1850. Following the loss, the congregation met in homes, in groves, in schoolhouses, and — after 1852 — in the courthouse at Oceana. Some meetings of the church were held in present Raleigh County and at Logan. In 1859, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the church roll contained 57 names. During the Civil War, however, services were suspended completely, and the appointment to the Guyandotte Baptist was abandoned. In 1866, with the war over, Rev. James L. Marshall, Rev. Matthew Ellison, and Rev. T.L. Peters were sent into Wyoming County to recognize the Baptist churches. This was done principally through the efforts of Green M. Cooke (1830-1919), who was loyal supporter of the Guyandotte Baptist Church. Before the three ministers left Jesse — where Green M. Cooke lived — arrangements were made for regular monthly preaching services for the Guyandotte Baptist Church. The services were to be held in homes until other suitable arrangements could be made. To continue the reorganization and to provide needed leadership, Rev. Marshall remained in Wyoming County to pastor not only the Guyandotte Baptist Church but also the Huff Creek Baptist Church (established 1844) and the Rockcastle Baptist (established 1858).

         Obtaining a church building appears to have always been an obstacle in the way of the Guyandotte congregation. At one time, there was an attempt to build a church at the Mouth of Laurel — the Hatcher section of Oceana. The church record reveals that Green Cooke had his family timber and prepare logs for the construction of the church. The construction was contracted to Banister Meador, who started the building but never finished it. According to the church record, the materials were “carried off” and were never recovered by the church. The exact location of this proposed building is not known. About 1870, the congregation moved from Oceana to the Jesse area. Later, Green M. Cooke, a faithful and supportive member of the Guyandotte Baptist, donated a parcel of land on which to build a permanent meeting house at Jesse. The church was completed and first used for services on Aug. 24, 1895, but it was renamed the Laurel Bridge Chapel. The name was not favored, so on Feb. 19, 1900, the church was officially renamed Cook’s Chapel. The name found little favor either, and the name Guyandotte — the old, traditional name for Wyoming County’s first Baptist Church — remained.

     Much of the history of the Guyandotte Baptist Church has transpired under the long tenures of four ministers. Rev. James Ellison served from 1812 to 1829, or possibly 1834; Rev. Matthew Ellison pastored from 1834 to about 1854. Rev. James L. Marshall, who reorganized the churches following the Civil War, served as pastor from 1866 to 1874. In 1874, Rev. W.H.H. Cooke — grandson of two charter members, William and Katherine Stewart Cooke — became pastor and served almost continuously for about 30 years. Other pastors include Rev. Benjamin F. Cooper, Rev. Bee Cooper, Rev. G.P. Goode, Rev. A.H. Perry, C.H. Cook, Rev. J.C. Cline, Rev. Bruce Cook, Rev. T.J. Day, Rev. Dewey A. Wilson, Rev. Wirt Hatfield, Rev. Ted R. Cook, Rev. J.D. Sexton, Rev. Phillip Graham, Rev. Orville Lamb, Rev. Wiley “Stacy” Brooks Jr., and Rev. Harrison Abbott Jr. Moreover, much of the history of the Guyandotte Baptist Church — especially the early history —  has come down to us in large part because of founders of the church, in their wisdom, saw the necessity and importance of recording the church’s activities (and thus the church’s history).  Except for a long period from Feb. 1836 to Dec. 1850 — for which the records are missing — many of the early records of the church have been meticulously preserved. Members who have served in the clerk’s capacity included Daniel Shumate (1812-1819); Richard Toler (1819-1827); Charles Hutchinson (1827-1834); Tollison Shumate (1834-??) Josiah Cooke (1866-1874); and William Canterbury (1874-??). Other clerks include Banister Meador, Isaac Bailey, Iverson Bailey, Allen Workman, Zachariah T. Workman, Wooster Cooke, W.S. Workman, Powell Brooks, G.B. “Bill” Workman, Helen Brooks Cook, and Anita C. Lusk. The early church records reveal that, through the years, the church fulfilled not only the religious needs of its members, but also acted on other matters as well. The record states, for example, that one member “confessed that he had received $60 of counterfeit money with an intention of passing it, but, on reflection, seeing the sin he would commit resolved not to pass it. Asked forgiveness and it was granted.” The record also tells the interesting story of a grievance over ownership of a hog was aired before the congregation.

 Many  of the Baptist churches in Wyoming County trace their beginnings all the way back to the little cabin of Thomas and Ellen Cooke and to the “Old Baptist Beech,” for, from its beginnings in 1812 as the first church of Wyoming County, the Guyandotte Baptist Church also became the Mother Church.

[Wyoming County Report, 9/17/12. Paul Ray Blankenship. Transcribed by Candace J Robinson. Picture courtesy of Deborah Sims]


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