Celebrating God’s Faithfulness
A small, slightly overgrown cemetery with weathered stones surrounded by a dry-laid fieldstone wall sits along a deserted road in southern Washington County. Remainders of a stone foundation are nearby. These things remind us of our humble origins 240 years ago.
In those days, the mid-1700’s, hardy German settlers came southwestward from Pennsylvania to settle along the banks of Little Antietam Creek, bringing their religious and social traditions to a land not long vacated by the original inhabitants. A young schoolteacher named George Adam Geeting built a house that still stands at the corner of Dogstreet Road and Red Hill Road. He also built a small log cabin where he taught school. In 1760 a visiting preacher, Phillip Otterbein, used the Geeting school for a place to hold worship service.
Geeting and Otterbein had a lot in common. Both men were from Prussia, in what is now Germany, and both men were of the German Reformed Church, a sect of the Anabaptists who objected to many of the practices of the then-dominant Catholic Church, particularly stressing adult baptism over infant baptism. Geeting’s log school was small and crude by today’s standards, but Geeting was a man devoted to education and his faith. With Otterbein’s urging and guidance, Geeting began preaching to his neighbors, reading prepared sermons in between Otterbein’s visits. When Otterbein thought Geeting was ready he encouraged Jacob Hess Sr. to remove the book of printed sermons while Geeting’s eyes were closed in prayer. (This is the Jacob Hess who built the stone & frame house next to Town Hall, and the large mill which sat near where the post office is today.) Geeting hesitated, but quickly recovered and preached a powerful extemporaneous sermon. This happened before the Revolutionary War and on May 29, 1774 the minutes of the church show mention a structure and regular meetings. A church was built on Mt. Hebron road under Geeting’s direction, with much support from the community, on land owned by Mr. Snively and was called the Geeting Meeting House. Maryland Historical Society has records showing that Geeting was evidently, like many other Anabaptists, a pacifist for he was fined for not participating in the war against England in 1776. Next to his name was written “clergyman.”
He eventually became ordained by Otterbein and Rev. William Heindel on Whitsuntide in 1783, and began preaching on his own. This ordination did not specify the German Reformed Church creed and may be seen as the beginning of what was eventually called the United Brethren in Christ denomination. By 1775 old church records mention a congregation of 300 people at the Geeting Meeting House, which shows a large number of United Brethren in the community.
The log church sat inside what is now known as the Mt. Hebron Cemetery and was a simple, hand-made building with no steeple or cupola. The pews resembled school desks and a partition down the middle divided men and women, although an opening allowed peoples’ heads to be seen. The humble structure continued to host visits from Otterbein and Christian Newcomer, who lived near Beaver Creek. Whitsuntide celebrations and “love feasts’ were regularly celebrated at the Geeting Meeting House. Newcomer’s journal mentions that Whitsuntide in 1800 was rainy and the congregation adjourned to Jacob Hess’ barn as the “meeting house could not hold half the people collected… Otterbein and Brother Geeting distributed the bread and wine.”
The log church was evidently unheated as the congregation took up a collection in 1812 to purchase a stove for the building, something that was evidently controversial. Geeting died that same year, on his way back from a trip to Baltimore where he was visiting Otterbein. He was 71 years old and died of heart trouble, his death was mentioned in the Hagerstown newspapers.
By the 1840’s the log church was in need of replacement. A stone structure was raised across the Mt. Hebron road from the cemetery, its foundation can still be seen there. On May 1, 1845 the stone church was dedicated with a cornerstone which read, “Mount Hebron Church of the United Brethren in Christ, May 1st, 1845.”
The new structure was 46 feet long and 41 feet wide, had a floor which slanted toward the front of the church, a simple platform and pulpit, and plain narrow wooden pews. The old church was taken down and logs used to construct a wash house that still exists next to the house at 34 North Main Street. The Mt. Hebron Church was incorporated March 14th 1848 under Maryland law, which articles mentioned a provision stating: “Preachers of other denominations shall not be permitted to occupy the said church, except by consent of a majority of the trustees.” At that time the church was part of the Hagerstown Circuit of the Virginia Annual Conference. This circuit also included Harmony Hall, Bethel (Chewsville), St. Paul’s (Hagerstown), Mt. Carmel (Snyder’s Schoolhouse), Boonsboro, Mt. Tabor, Pleasant Hill (Eakles Mill), Benevola, Fahrney’s, and Leitersburg.
Twenty-five years does not seem like a long lifespan for a stone building, but by 1870 a lot of changes would render the new building obsolete. A new road, the Boonsboro-Shepherdstown Turnpike, was attracting development away from Mt. Hebron Road. The town added a post office which forced officials to change the town name in 1942 from Centerville to Keedysville since there was already a Centerville post office on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Civil War had taken place, with a huge battle fought nearby in Sharpsburg, and more recently a spur line of the B&O Railroad was announced to intersect the turnpike in Keedysville. The town was growing, and people no longer wanted to hitch up a horse to the carriage in order to attend church. Walking to church in the rapidly growing community of Keedysville made more sense, and the church’s official board voted to close Mt. Hebron and explore the idea of building a new church on Main Street in Keedysville.
After several meetings the United Brethren purchased a lot in the center of Keedysville from Christian and Mary Ellen Keedy for $150. Local clay was baked to furnish the bricks to build a new church, the construction supervised by Benjamin Zimmerman. The roof was wooden shingles and Bishop Russell and his wife donated a large bell, which was cast in Baltimore. In an ironic twist, the first time the bell was tolled it was for Bishop Russell’s funeral. A new corner stone was created, with a new name. Because they were no longer at Mt. Hebron, the name selected was Salem Church of the United Brethren. The church was 40 feet by 60 feet, with a sanctuary of 36 by 48 feet, and heated by two stoves. There was a room underneath which eventually became a Sunday School room. The windows were clear glass, and had shutters. The large capacity was useful when the next year, 1871, the Boonsboro station was consolidated with Keedysville. They separated again a few years later, and the Keedysville station was to include Rohrersville, Mt. Carmel and Pleasant Hill. Also in 1873 the church records of July 25 show the congregation was debt free, and “a large stone step has been procured for the front door.”
In 1878 a Sunday School for children was begun in the downstairs room. Mrs. Agnes Stevenson, a local teacher, was the first teacher. That same year a large furnace was placed in the lower room, with a register cut in the floor above, thus replacing the two stoves upstairs. A large space “under the front pavement” was created to store fuel and coal for the furnace. The door to this room was later closed over. Meanwhile the old stone church at Mt. Hebron was still there. Initially, a Dunkard congregation used the space, but by 1880 the church and the road to it, were overgrown and nearly abandoned. In 1881
the church was sold to Elias Snively for $100 on the promise that he would build a wall around Mt. Hebron Cemetery. The minutes noted the wall was already two-thirds complete. Snively evidently used the stone from the church for the wall, or perhaps another purpose. In 1887 Salem church hosted the Virginia Annual Conference and the Conference split to Virginia and Maryland Conferences, the latter descending to the lower room to organize. Thus Salem has the unique honor of hosting two annual conferences simultaneously.
In 1890 Rev. L. O. Burtner called for a Young People’s Union for the church. This group has continued up through current times but under several different names. After 25 years of renting a parsonage for their ministers, on March 24, 1894 the church moved to “purchase a property already improved.” By January 5 1895 the parsonage purchase was “completed, for $2,150, with a deficiency of $350.” About this same time the church acquired a Moller organ for the sanctuary. The German Reformed Church turned down an offer from Mr. M.P. Moller and he then made an offer to Salem that was too good to refuse. Still at least one older member attempted to block the doorway when the first parts of the organ were unloaded. Pastor J. B. Buckingham had to personally intervene before the member would move.
The church moved in 1899 to purchase more land to add to the original deed, desiring to add a small building but put off that action, and the next year decided to expand the original building. The remodeling included adding a Junior room and putting a furnace underneath the Sunday School room. They painted and carpeted the sanctuary, and installed a metal ceiling, new pulpit and furniture. New pews were purchased, and stained glass windows were added, at a cost of $20 per window.
An interesting story occurred in 1904. As the new renovations were taking shape it was noted that the cornerstone of the stone Mt. Hebron Church had been removed when the building was razed, and placed in the basement of Salem. When the parsonage at Main Street. and Antietam Drive was purchased the stone was placed in it backward so no writing appeared. It eventually was moved to the church and installed with the new cornerstone.
Electricity came to Keedysville in the early 1900’s and in 1909 the church council voted to have electric lights installed. Eventually, five hanging lights were installed in the sanctuary and the old reflector chandelier was sold to the Lutheran Church in Rohrersville for $18.50. Under Rev. Kohler’s term, the organ was electrified and is still part of the current organ. Funding for this came from a $500 gift of Mrs. Eugena Neikirk.
More remodeling took place in 1930, with new carpet, painting, and other renovations. Soon afterward, on Saturday, October 16, 1943 at about 6:45 a.m. Salem Church caught fire. Five fire companies did their best to stop a fire that originated in Henry Zimmerman’s store, probably in a refrigerator. Spreading rapidly the fire consumed three dwellings and spread to the church roof. The dry wooden shingles, long ago covered with tin roofing, took fire and spread to the sanctuary. When extinguished the fire had caused the ceiling to collapse and everything inside was charred and soaked. Gathering the next day at the WCTU Hall at 40 North Main Street the next morning, Salem members were surprised to hear the church bell tolling. The congregation pulled together and vowed to rebuild the structure. Rev. Kendall declared the fire was the “best thing that ever happened to Salem.” He knew it would unite everyone to a common purpose and commit to keeping Salem alive and vibrant in Keedysville.
Families each pledged to take home a church pew and clean it. A new roof was installed and the Bishop Russell bell soon called everyone back to Salem Church. The United Church of the Brethren over the years became the Evangelical United Brethren Church, with Salem recognized as a founding congregation of that denomination. In 1968 the EUB Church married the Methodist Church, creating the United Methodist Church, with Salem still recognized as a founding congregation of the combined denominations. Mt. Hebron Cemetery is recognized as a historic site of the United Methodist Church. Salem has remained the church at the heart of the community with the community at heart.
We have faced many challenges, seen many changes and still kept to the path Rev. Geeting laid out over two centuries ago. We have reached out to our community and beyond in many ways; church missions to places overseas, and outreach efforts locally are just a few of the things we have done. We have expanded the building to include more Sunday School rooms and a kitchen. We have remodeled several times since 1943.
In 2006 the Ku Klux Klan held a rally nearby and Salem took the lead in sponsoring an alternative activity stressing love not hate for our fellow human beings. As face, the challenges of the future, the members of Salem continue to annually return to the weathered stone of Mt. Hebron Cemetery to celebrate our history and to recommit to our mission. We eagerly look forward to another 240 years in Keedysville, and more…