“Old Pisgah” | Pisgah United Methodist Church
Next to the home, the church played an integral role in old Florida history, serving as the foundation for faith and fellowship. Getting to church often took several hours, as members had to travel on foot or by horse. For that reason, Sundays at the church were more than just services. They were all day events, complete with lunch on the grounds and time to socialize with others they hadn’t seen in a month.
Many of these old churches still dot the rural landscape. Some of them are abandoned, while others still open their doors every Sunday.
One such church is Pisgah United Methodist Church in northeast Tallahassee, one of the oldest Methodist churches in the area. A winding canopy road that bears the name of the church leads to the church and its cemetery – two pieces of Florida history that have withstood the test of time.
Fortunately for me, my trip to Old Pisgah included a personal tour of both the church and the cemetery, and provided me with a deeper and more meaningful snapshot of the history. My guides, Robert and Cindy Smith, have been members for 20 years and have a deep affection for the church and the early pioneers who came before them.
In 1825, land, in what would later become the Centerville community, was selling for $1.25 an acre and resulted in an on-rush of planters from the Carolinas and Virginias. Large plantations began to emerge with cotton as the major crop. Along with these settlers came the need for spiritual growth. They named the site they selected for that growth Pisgah, after the Biblical mountain in Jordan.
The exact date of the beginning of Pisgah United Method Church is not known. However, according to the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, there is evidence that indicates the congregation first formed in the 1820s, when provisions were made at the South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church (January 20, 1825) for a circuit preacher to serve in the vicinity of Tallahassee. The Centerville community was included in the district.
One of the most important dates in the church’s history is May 3, 1830, when 34 charter members officially organized as a Methodist Episcopal Church.
The existing church is believed to be the third in this location. The first was a brush arbor – an outdoor “structure” built by early settlers using trees and branches to protect themselves from the wind and sun. The second structure was made of logs and was a great improvement to the brush arbor. It is said to have had a sawed out opening for a door, pews to sit on, floors, windows with shutters, and a roof.
The third church, still in use today, was constructed during the summer and fall of 1858 on seven acres of land deeded to the church for $125. With a construction cost of $5,200, the church was officially dedicated in May 1859.
The church is regal, yet simple. From the moment you walk through the main door, you can’t help but be impressed by the architecture of the time. Every board used was cut on the property. Large pine trees were stripped and placed under the church as part of its foundation.
Four elongated celestial windows adorn the east and west sides of the church and – prior to air conditioning – allowed air to flow in a circular motion, providing worshippers with relief from the heat. The windows also allowed light into the sanctuary. A plain wooden cross hangs behind the raised pulpit.
Additional evidence of the craftsmanship can be seen in the storage spaces in the church’s entry way.
Sitting among the hand-hewn original pews, you can almost hear the voices of the early worshippers singing the hymns of old, with the lights from oil lanterns casting a glow over the sanctuary. The lanterns remain in the church but were upgraded to electric in the 1990s by order of the fire marshal. Overhead hanging lights were added in 1880 and later converted from gas to electricity following World War II.
The pews themselves speak of the customs of the time. There is no center aisle to the church. Instead, the center pews are flanked by aisles and additional pews on both sides. By design, a wooden centerpiece runs through the middle of the pews and was used to separate men and women. This practice held until the 1920s when, as stories go, a young lady in the church chose to sit with her boyfriend. The balcony (once used by slaves) is no longer open for worshippers because of safety codes.
A visit to Pisgah United Methodist Church is not complete without a walk through the cemetery. As someone who works on my own family history and has visited many old cemeteries, I often wonder about the stories behind the names. My tour of the Pisgah Cemetery came with that information and more. The Smiths, who were caretakers of the cemetery up until a few years ago, were curious about those who buried here and researched the names. Just like they have done for groups and individuals before me, the Smiths provided a narrative of the cemetery unlike any I have heard.
Under the hot Florida sun, with rain clouds building and birds chirping, Robert and Cindy took turns talking about the graves. As we walked through the cemetery, the Smiths shared stories of some of the individuals. Calling the deceased by their first names, Robert and Cindy explained the relationships among those in the cemetery, shared diary entries of one of the eight Confederate soldiers buried here and pointed out the inscriptions on the tombstones:
The Smith’s untiring work in the cemetery included cleaning the headstones, repairing some when possible, and replacing other stones when only pieces to the originals were found. Their labor of love has meant the stories of those buried here will continue to be told.
One interesting feature of the cemetery is it is the final resting place for some of the victims of yellow fever. Pisgah Church had the only cemetery in the area during the epidemic of 1841. When the disease raged across Leon County, it caused hundreds of deaths and the cemetery became the common burial site for about thirty residents of the Centerville community. A small plaque identifies the open field where these individuals are buried. Ground penetrating radar identified four straight rows with what appear to be graves 39 inches apart. Who they are may never be known, but they will not be forgotten. The graves are now marked with rebar driven into the ground and a silver cap on the end with an inscription that reads:
“Pisgah United Methodist Church. Unknown soul. Sleep with the angels.”
There is much more to the history of Pisgah United Methodist Church. Today, the church and its members continue to serve the community through outreach, fall festivals, Easter egg hunts and fish fries. Sunday dinners, once held inside with plywood laid across the pews, have been moved outside and are common events. At various times throughout the year, church members place wreaths and flags on the graves of veterans.
- Old Pisgah was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It is also on the National Register of Methodist Structures and Florida Historical Markers.
- Families who have been instrumental to the church since its inception include Roberts, Bradford, Gramling, Bradley, Felkel, Switzer, and Baum to name a few.
- A “hitching post” used by early members who rode up on horses still stands in the brush to the side of the church.
- The oldest grave in the cemetery is for J.D. Hodges who died in March 1817.
- A culvert that runs between the cemetery and the Moore Memorial Garden once served as Centerville Road.
- The church has a seating capacity of 400.
- One of the former pastors of Pisgah was William C. Collins, grandfather of LeRoy Collins, the 33rd governor of Florida. Governor Collins’ father, Marvin, was born in the parsonage on Pisgah property in 1877.
From its humble beginnings to present day, one thing has remained constant at Old Pisgah: family. And for that family, Pisgah is home.