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A History of Olive Branch

A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE:
MASON CHAPEL METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH


Mason Chapel in Virginia was the site of the first Methodist service of divine worship in America.  This occurred in early spring, 1762.  At first there was no building, only a brush arbor.  There were no ordained ministers since John Wesley has not sent any to America.  The leaders of the Mason Chapel congregation were mostly soldiers from the British army who had retired and had received land grant from the king.  These former soldiers had been converted to Methodism in England under John Wesley’s preaching.  They came to the area with their families to be farmers.  One farmer named Drumgoole called on his neighbors to join him and others on his farm for worship, which is where that first Methodist service took place.  The church closed in 1875.  The area is identified presently by a road marker on Highway 46, five miles north of the North Carolina line in Brunswick County, Virginia.  The actual original site is perhaps a quarter of a mile east of the marker, since some years ago the State of Virginia re-routed Highway 46, a short distance to the west.  Nonetheless, the worship site was still on Mr. Drumgoole’s vast land holdings.

Some years later, there was a claim by the church of Philadelphia, PA, that their location was the scene of the first service by Methodist people.  Bishop Francis Asbury investigated the claims by both churches.  He told neither what date the other claimed, so he got “untainted” dates.  Bishop Asbury’s finding was that Mason Chapel began worship services six (6) weeks before the Philadelphia church.  That settled the argument.

It is unfortunate that this matter has ne been clarified for many loyal Methodists.  It is quite true that the first site “owned by the Virginia Conference” was at Leesburg.  But Leesburg Church was not the first or “beginning location”.  Mason Chapel was!  So declared Bishop Francis Asbury!  And to dispute Asbury’s word is neither safe nor wise.  The first annual conference of American Methodism was held at Mason Chapel in 1785.  Asbury preached at Olive Branch in 1801, 1803, and 1814.  The 1803 Annual Conference was held at Olive Branch.

The above facts were researched by Dr. Marion Francis Christie.  Dr. Christie received his Doctor of Philosophy degree from Vanderbilt University in 1952.  His dissertation was on the political and economic effect of King Solomon’s reign on the countries around Israel.  Concurrent to his extensive research, which was further validated by his broad knowledge of Hebrew and other ancient languages, Dr. Christie worked overtime to deal with another deep interest.  He completed an amazing second Master’s thesis on the history of early Methodism in America at the same time.

In early spring of 1952, Emory University’s Candler School of Theology began a quest to select a young scholar to be one of its professors of Old Testament.  Chandler’s search team narrowed its focus to two extremely qualified persons:  Dr. Francis Christie and Dr. Frederick Prussner, an expert on Old Testament prophets.  Dr. Prussner was chosen but both men were held in highest regard by the search team.

Waiting in the wings was a search team representing Birmingham Southern College, a nationally (as opposed to regionally) ranked Methodist college in Birmingham.  Dr. Christie was offered a full professorship and he accepted.  He later relocated to his beloved Arkansas as Dean of Hendrix College at Conway.  He died about 1999.

It was this writer’s privilege to have several courses under Dr. Christie.  He could be a spellbinder in lectures.  One of the courses completed was a study on “A History of Early Methodism in America.”  Plentiful notes were made by everyone.

Dr. Christie believed in on-site research.  He visited southside Virginia and Philadelphia, interviewing many knowledgeable people at a number of places.  My impression is that the record of Bishop Asbury’s decision as to which place was “first” was based on some historical records found in Philadelphia.

Dr. Christie smiled as he described some of the several “offshoot” churches from Mason Chapel.  He called at least four names, one of which was Olive Branch Church, founded possibly in 1768, located “across the creek” to the west, but sill on Mr. Drumgoole’s estate.  He humorously talked about why Olive Branch was formed, “The creek would rise and the people could not get to the services.  So those west of the creek did what would be expected; they formed another church!  They were Methodist and not about to be Baptists”.  His students applauded and then laughed for several minutes.

Something stranger that fiction happened in my life.  After B.S.C. and Chandler, where I also experienced the outstand Dr. Prussner, I served as a pastor in the North Alabama Conference for a total of 43 years.  In 2001, my wife and I moved to Virginia to live near our son and his family.  Before departing from Alabama, a phone call was received from Dr. Tony Layman, Superintendent of the Petersburg District.  He had an urgent need for an interim pastor at South Brunswick Charge.  Events passed that produced a “match”.  (It turned out to be one of the five happiest appointments of my life.)  The interim lasted seven months.

The main church on the South Brunswick Charge was Olive Branch.  For the first three months there, I had the repetitive question in my mind, “Where is it that I have heard of a church named Olive Branch?  I know I have!”

One Sunday after kneeling at the chancel rail, and then while walking up the four steps to the pulpit level, I remembered!  It was in Dr. Christie’s course at B.S.C.  I was rather overcome and exhilarated.  After a pause, I said to the large group, “It has just come tome about the name ‘Olive Branch’.  You all can recall me previous sharing about it.”  Then I took ten minutes and gave a terse summary of Dr. Christie’s references to their church’s history.  It was a very emotional moment for both pastor and congregation.

G. Brown O’Quinn
September 16, 2006