History of New Zion Freewill Baptist Church

1890 - 1998
Tumbleton, Alabama

by T. Larry Smith

Presented today will be short brief synopsis of The History of the New Zion Freewill Baptist Church in Henry County, Alabama.  No church records are available before circa 1922.  Early church information is difficult to obtain and is an on-going process.  Anyone with church information prior to 1922, please share it with church historians.

Taken from the Bible-From the Book of Joel, Chapter 3, Verse 17 and 21:

“So shall we know that I am the Lord Your God dwelling in Zion,

My Holy Mountain”…”The Lord Dwelleth in Zion.”

Hence the name of Zion Free will Baptist Church as was chosen by the early pioneers. Zion Church is older than the village of Tumbleton.

The oldest date found thus far regarding Zion Church is from August 1 to December 5, 1891, when nine people were excluded from the Baptist Church of Christ of Balkum, Alabama for joining this Freewill Faith.  They became members of this church.

Baptist Church at Balkum

August 1, 1891 – James W. Roney and wife, Ola Roney, were excluded from the church for joining The Freewill Baptist Church Faith.

September 5, 1891 – Sister Ida Holland, Mary Holland, Brother Jordan Holland, Sister Avie Roney and Brother William J. Roney were charged with departing from the faith by joining the Freewill Baptist Faith – where upon a motion prevailed to test fellowship with the brothers and Sisters above charged.  When this test was made, they were excluded from among us.

December 5, 1891 – Thomas J. Causey and wife, Smithie Causey, (part Indian_ were dismissed from Balkum Church to join the Freewill Faith.

Therefore, one may conclude that The New Zion Baptist Church was established during or before 1891.  This was the only white Freewill Church in the area, some 197 years ago.

The early congregation met in Bush Arbors and private homes from circa 1891, to circa 1898, when it is thought that the 1st Zion School and Church was built.  There have been three Zion Church buildings.  The 1st Zion Church was located about one mile south of the present church. The 2nd church building was built on the present site in 1905.  The 3rd Zion Church is the brick building we are in today.  The brick building was dedicated in 1957 and is the 2nd building on this site.

The following is a quote from Marquis Lafayette Shelley regarding the building of the 1st Zion Church in Mr. Shelley’s own writing.

…and as the years passed the children went to school at Balkum and the school was about 6 to 8 weeks each summer and a long way for the children to walk, so the Shelley’s and White’s and Hollands and all the Nabores met and decided to build a school house which later became Zion Free Will Baptist Church just south of present Tumbleton. I do not know what year it became a church. It must have been between 1896 and 1900.  With the community that is now Tumbleton working, cutting and hauling logs to Reuben Shelley’s saw mill, in order to get the lumber for the school house, and driving boards for the roof of the school, the school became a good part of the community. A year later, they were having preaching in the school house once in a while.

Some other family names equated with the first church were: The Reuben Shelley (#2) Family, Morris, Causey, Snellgrove, Ronie, Locke, and Messer, among others.

The 1st Zion School and Church building was on land of Thomas B. Ronie.  A small Zion Cemetery is all that is remaining of the first church site. The abandoned and un-kept little cemetery containing 36 graves still belongs to this New Zion Freewill Baptist Church.  The church still has legal access to that cemetery and the adjoining landowners agree.  It stood behind the first little one room Zion Church and School House.  Six or seven graves have been identified.  Therefore, Zion Church has two cemeteries.

q  The 1st Zion school and Church house had new glass windows installed in 1904.

q  A good prayer meeting was held at the 1st Zion Church in 1905.

q  In March of 1904, Rev. Owens preached to a large group in the 1st Old Zion Church. After preaching Mr. Tom Dykes called the audience to order and they had a fine sacred harp sing.

q  In, 1904, Mr. Fort Vann and Mr. Greely Vann preached at the 1st Old Zion Church.

q  Brother George Washington Cherry preached in the 1st Old Zion Church.

q  Sunday, May 21, 1905 – a big sing at the 1st Old Zion Church.

q  1905, in July, there was a protracted meeting at the1st Old Zion Church – five were baptized.

The 1st Zion School and Church house burned to the ground in July of 1905. The recounting of the burning of the 1st Zion School and Church as described to me by Marquis Lafayette Shelley, goes like this:

A family named Skinner and a family named Miller lived nearby. One of these families had an old milk cow that was aggravating. The old cow was getting into a corn patch and causing trouble. One of the young men was sent near the 1st Zion School and Church House to run the old milk cow home down the road a  ways to the barn. Most of the area was still woods and brush. While the old milk cow was eating in the barn, the young boy upset by the cow, tied a bundle of dry fodder to the cow’s tail and set it afire.  The old cow ran out of the barn and into the nearby woods and caught the brush and woods on fire. The fire burned a large portion of the area along with a mile or two of wood railing fence. This blaze also burned down the  1st Zion School and Church house in July 1905. A little road once ran down the fence row by the 1st Zion School and Church and the little cemetery.

A new larger Zion School House was quickly built on a lot purchased just east of Shelley’s Crossroads (now Tumbleton) about where Mrs. Ola Shelley’s house now stands in July of 1905.  This lot was purchased from Mr. Warren Shelley and Viola Morris Shelley by Mr. W. L. (Billy) Shelley, who was the trustee of the Zion School.  The new Zion School was completed in three weeks and was the 1st painted school in the area.  In late August of 1905, graduation was held in the new Zion School with 500 people attending.

The new Zion School house was soon changed to the Shelley School in honor of Mr. W. (Billy) Shelley, so the Tumbleton Jr. High School and Shelley School originated from the first little Zion School and Church House circa 1890’s.

A brand new, 2nd Zion Church house was also constructed in 1905, on an acre of land where this present church now stands.  Meetings were held in Bush Arbors just below here until the 2nd one room Zion Church house was built.

It is only speculation as to the time the word “New Zion” was added to the church name.  Some say it was at the building of the 2nd church that the name “New Zion” came into use.

An acre of land for the 2nd church site, that is where we are today, was deeded by the daughter of Thomas B. Ronie – Mary Jane Ronie Shelley and her husband, Mark Shelley, on June 18, 1906.  The 2nd new church building was already built on the acre.  Some people in the first meetings in the 2nd church were: Bud Holland, Pete Messer, B. L. Locke, Ben Shelley, Jim Snellgrove, Henry Snellgrove, John Danzey, Bert Causey, Sam Causey, Charley Morris, Sam Miller Morris, their families and others. The deacons in 1906 were Benjamin Locke and Pete W. Messer.

Bert L. Causey and Sam Causey were carpenters.  They did a lot of free work on the 2nd Zion Church.

q  In 1906, a ten day scared harp singing school was held in Zion Church.

q  In 1908, Brother J. C. Ingram was a pastor.

q  On the 5th Sunday in March, an all-day sing was held.

Zion Church has a long history of singing.  This church has been recognized throughout it’s history for making a Joyful noise with and for the Lord.

Zion Church went for a period of 12 to 15 years without an active cemetery.  Why the first cemetery was abandoned is not known at this time. The present Zion Cemetery was started in November 1924. Mr. James P. Snellgrove was the first person buried in the 2nd New Zion Cemetery.  Zion families had been burying in family cemeteries, Balkum Cemetery and Tolbert Cemetery before 1924.

During this period, the Holy Spirit was evident among members.  The would praise the Master by shouting, by bodily movements in the isles, by falling on the floor and speaking in so called “unknown tongues.”

Many fine pastors have served Zion Church during the past 102 years – too many to name due to the time this morning.  Other good church members served Zion well as deacons, officers, clerks, treasurers, superintendents, singers, and others performed other tasks; also, too numerous to mention.

In 1914, Mr. John Harper Oates came to Tumbleton. He joined Zion Church and became a deacon. He was referred to as “Mr. Tumbleton” and “Mr. Zion Church”.

Mr. Gene Bostick stated, before he passed away – that the best thing to ever happen to Tumbleton and Zion Church was Mr. J. H. Oates.  He (Mr. Oates) held this church together financially and spiritually by teaching and preaching, helping to start the new cemetery, and he even preached funerals. Mr. Oates even preached the funeral of my great, great grandfather, William J. Roney (one of the members excluded from Balkum Church in 1891). He also preached the funeral of Annie Mae Morris Shelley and infant daughter in 1922 (1st wife of John Shelley).  She had requested Mr. J. H. Oates.  He was a civic and church leader in Tumbleton.

A new state clay road was build in front of the present church in 1924.  It was called the Tumbleton Highway and helped put Tumbleton and Zion Church on the map.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s there was an organization for the ladies of the Church called The Ladies’ Aid.  This function was later changed to the Women’s Auxiliary. Other functions for various members included a training serviced called League, later called C.T.S., Wednesday night Prayer Meeting and Bible Study, Vacation Bible School and a program for the young people called Y.P.A. Some of these services are active at this time.  Also for a brief time the men had a program called Master’s Men.  Zion had Men’s Fellowship Breakfast on a monthly basis.  Other features of Zion’s history, is the 1st Sunday afternoon sing that was held each month for several years.  These singing events were first held about 1925.

In February 1952, a building committee was elected by the church for the purpose of starting the 3rd new Zion Church building.  More space was needed and the existing building had been damaged by storms. Something had to be done, but there was fear of not being able to pay for a new church. Elected to this committee were Willie Shelley, Edd Oates, Fletcher Brackin, Wilton Culp, Jack Shelley and Shelley Wood.  Willie Shelley served as chairman.  The 2nd Zion Church had stood since 1905 and was leaning from several cyclones.  As the committee worked on plans for the church, everyone got busy starting a building fund.  The members pledged and friends donated (a lot of work, patience and prayer). All of these were a part of the faith evidenced by the people that it would be accomplished.  They launched out on faith that proved to be real.  This was further evidenced by the groundbreaking that soon took place.  Mrs. Ella Roney, known to her friends a Ma Roney, the oldest member, was the one selected to turn the first shovel of dirt in preparation for the new building.  The youngest member at this time was Rennie Oates, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Ralph Oates. The process was slow as the old church was moved. Mr. Harvey Taylor, a contractor from Pansey, Alabama, was hired to do the moving and things were underway. (Mr. Harvey Taylor’s house was on the highest point in Houston County.)

There were records of a Sunday school class from as far back as the early 1900’s.  There were times when weather did not permit church attendance because of the lack of lights and heating systems.  Also, transportation was not as much a part of the average person’s life as it is today.

The present church, with new pews, was dedicated in June of 1957.  Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Herring provided additional church land for the churchyard expansions.

Zion church has been used for many public functions.

q  In 1925 – when the 2nd Zion and later Shelley School House burned in Tumbleton, Zion again served as a public school along with Balkum Church until the new Tumbleton Jr. High School was built.

q  Lizzie Oates was the Zion teacher and Alice Oates was the Balkum teacher.

q  In the 1950’s Zion Church served as the location for area people to receive polio vaccinations.  Mrs. Ruth Oates was the nurse.

q  In the 1970’s Zion Church served as a public meeting place to discuss the bringing in of a county water system.

Since then Zion built a parsonage, got a full-time pastor, had a good Sunday School attendance and an adult choir.  The church has a program for the youth and Children’s Church. Zion added a new Sunday School wing on the back of the church and paved the parking lot.

Many conveniences have been added to the church since those early days. Zion has a wonderful church family and fine community.  We can also be sure that “it is no secret what god can do!”

Ashley Culp has served as Youth Pastor since September 1996. Since that time, the youth attendance has continued to increase to about 40-50 young people who attend on Wednesday night and many of them are now attending on Sunday.  In September 1997, the first Youth Sunday with all services being conducted by the youth including the preaching was held.  As the Youth program expanded Zion purchased a van in 1997, and in 1998, the church started a complete Children’s Church ministry every Sunday with Ashley Cup and Niki Beakon leading from Sunday School through preaching.  As a sign of church growth Zion put up a lighted church sign in 1992.  In 1995 Zion re-carpeted the church and put in new pew cushions.  The church reworked bathrooms, adding cabinets, plus additional cabinets in the hallway and fellowship hall.  In 1997, Zion purchased a new electric piano and have installed a new sound system.  Also a portico was added over the hall door.  The greatest achievement of all is that God has blessed Zion with the addition of 19 new members during the last year.

In August 1998, Zion voted to incorporate the church as a non-profit corporation - a very wise move. Those elected to the Board of Trustees were Gary Shelley, Roy Dean Smith, Mae Shelley, Cleveland Shelley, and Edna Whitehead.

Zion welcomes you to this Church Homecoming and thanks you for sharing this event – as Zion ads another page to our History.  A longer version of the History will be available at some future date.  Zion Church has survived early meetings in Bush Arbors, has survived through fire, cyclones, hard times, human frailties, and other almost disastrous events.  But the Church of Zion stills stands and is thriving.  May God Bless each one here and God Bless New Zion Freewill Baptist Church as we enter the next millennium!!

The End