By CHARLEY WILKISON
On that first summer Sunday morning of 1888, the Union Hall Missionary Baptist Church of Christ congregation gathered and worshipped in song, sermon and prayer. And Sunday, July 7, it will be no different as the Union Hall Baptist Church celebrates 125 years of continuous services.
Imagine there is no five-lane State Highway 29 running east and west, or the big US Highway 183 rolling north and south. Just past Seward Junction and spreading east and south was Union Hall, Texas. The one room school and church became the center of a ranching community that was long ago lost to real estate development and settlement of small acreage homes.
In 1846, Union Hall was a tiny settlement on the bluffs of the San Gabriel River with only five families. After the Civil War ended, a few more families settled nearby and eventually a school was needed. The first public school took the name of the community it served circa 1874. The first record of the school and the church using the same facility is in 1890, only two years after the first church was organized. The Union Hall school existed until state forced consolidation with Leander and Liberty Hill. This occurred during the massive consolidation of Texas rural schools in 1949.
What remains is a historic congregation that has refused to compromise or quit. Even as the state directed the school to consolidate and even as families passed on and land was sold and subdivided, the Union Hall congregation has continued to worship and in its same location.
Rev. Robert Butts, who was featured in the Feb. 28 edition of The Independent, says Sunday’s service won’t be very different than that first Sunday service held roughly 23 years after the end of the Civil War.
“History matters,” he said. “Many of the songs we sing every Sunday were sung by the folks back then. Our service is very simple. We have a piano, we sing, we pray and I preach the gospel.”
But just as Union Hall has evolved, Butts says the fundamentals of worship have not. The new educational building began as an old-fashioned brush arbor. Although it has been built into something modern and useful to the 2013 congregation, Pastor Butts sees it as a simple continuation of a cycle unbroken by time.
“I think we sing the same hymns, songs of the past. Our congregation’s defining characteristic is tradition. We have a wonderful history here. It makes us who we are, it’s how we came to be,” he said.
Butts has taken the time to look back at all of the old pictures of the congregations of the past. The community gatherings, the weddings, the revivals, and the baptisms down in the South San Gabriel River.
He says it has awakened in him a strong appreciation for those who came before and who made the church strong. He says he imagines the stands that were taken by the fiery preachers in the black and white photograghs.
“I wish I could have heard them preach,” he says.
He quotes John 4:38, something about other men have labored and we have entered into their labors. After 125 years of preaching, praying and singing at the Union Hall Baptist Church, this seems appropriate.
On Sunday, Butts says, he hopes the Liberty Hill community will come out to help celebrate and worship. The service begins at 10 a.m. with a slideshow and will end with a barbecue next door, right there where the brush arbor revivals used to be held over a century ago.