AN OUTLINE OF THE HISTORY
ZION HILL (PARADISE) METHODIST CHURCH
Zion Hill is the home of the oldest religious congregation in this section of the country. Since the history of Zion Hill and the settlement of the Paradise vicinity are so closely related, a brief outline of the settlement of this area is included.
Coles County is believed to have been the first settled, about 1824, in what is now Hutton Township. The first settlers in the Wabash Point area, Daniel Drake and James Nash, came in 1825 or early 1826. The Drake cabin was on the banks of the Little Wabash about a mile south of the site of the village of Paradise.
In the fall of 1826, Mr. Charles Sawyer came and settled in what is now Mattoon Township. The first permanent settlers in Paradise township were three Hart brothers, Miles H. (known as “Old Jolly”), Moses and Thomas, Jr., who also came in the fall of 1826, followed in short time by their parents, “Uncle Tommy” Hart and his wife, and two other brothers, Silas and Jonathon. The Hart families built cabins about a mile west of where the Dry Grove Church was later to be built. In 1827, ’28, ’29, and ’30 many pioneer families came here from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, many of them settling in the Dry Grove area. Among these early settlers were the following families:
Alexander, Apperson, Boles, Bryant, Champion, Cole, Coleman, Cunningham, Curry, Gannaway, Graham, Hanson, Radley, Slover, Tremble, Turner, Yocum, Young. Graves of many of these pioneer settlers are to be found in the Dry Grove Cemetery today.
For a long time the entire area, including Dry Grove and Paradise settlement, was known as the Wabash Point settlement. Wabash Point and Muddy Point were the two most populous and important settlements in Coles County in those early days.
The word “point” was commonly used as denoting a tract of timber bordering on a small stream and usually coming to a point near its source. The term “Wabash Point” to the early pioneer meant the place where the timber along the Little Wabash pointed out into the prairie. In its early state Paradise Township was comprised of three fourths woodland and one fourth prairie. Dry Grove was a tract of timber several hundred acres in extent and where it got its name is not known.
Coles County was divided from Clark County in 1830 and at that time was divided into three sections—Charleston, Woodbury and Paradise. At that time Paradise included not only its present limits but also all territory now in Mattoon, Pleasant Grove and a portion of North Okaw Townships, as well as a large part of the present Cumbersland County.
The village of Paradise was not laid out until the year 1837. In 1828 Joseph Smart had settled temporarily near what is now Paradise but did not remain there long. A post office called paradise had been established in 1830, the first in Coles County, which was, for a time, kept in the home of George M. Hanson, the first postmaster, then at Slover’s store and at other places before the village was founded. George M. Hanson, a preacher, also was influential in the creation of the new county of Coles, was a member of the first Board of County Commissioners and later served as a representative and senator in the State Legislature.
In 1836 a village to be called Paradise was laid out on the Old State Road by Mr. Charles Sawyer but nothing further came of it. In 1837, in order to procure a steam mill on the Little Wabash, Thomas Brinnegar and David Moore deeded 40 acres of land to Miles W. Hart (not the first settler, Miles H.) and Lemme Goar, who erected the mill. This was the first of its kind in this part of the country. The boiler, engine and burr stones for it were brought by wagon from Cincinnati. It burned down but through donations from the citizens of the community was rebuilt and operated for 8 or 10 years then was moved to Charleston.
But on a portion of the 40 acre tract mentioned above, adjacent to the mill site, the town of Paradise was surveyed by Joseph Fowler, with the original plot containing 54 lots, 42 of which were located south of Main Street, as it was called at the time—now the highway. There were two east-west streets, the foregoing Main Street, and another south of it called Mill Street. There were two north-south streets, the one to the west called Water Street, the other one Meridian Street. A public sale of lots was held, with $500-$600 being realized.
There are two recorded versions of how the village acquired its name but the one most frequently mentioned is that Paradise was the name of the home town of George M. Hanson, who came from Paradise, Virginia (now West Virginia).
The village was located on the Palestine-Shelbyville Road. It was also near the line of what was the old stage route from Terre Haute to St. Louis and for a time it was one of the most thriving villages between those two cities. At one time it had hundreds of citizens, four good stores, and various other businesses of different kinds. In the very early days mail came to the Paradise post office by horseback and stagecoach, but after the building of the Illinois Central Railroad and the establishment of the Etna post office, the Paradise post office became a star route out of Etna and continued thus until 1902 when it was closed. The earliest houses in Paradise were of mud.
These early settlers were people of deep religious convictions and the typical faith of the frontier was Methodist. The Methodist Church had developed a plan especially suitable to frontier conditions and historians say that this played a large part in Illinois’ pioneer history, through the influence of the circuit riders in the settlements they visited, where they exercised a powerful influence in maintaining law and order. The Methodist system of church organization was well-ordered and efficient and the introduction of such a system in a more or less disorganized community had a far-reaching influence upon the widely scattered settlements of the early pioneers.
Methodism is believed to have been introduced into Illinois near the last decade of the 1700’s. In 1800 the population of Illinois was roughly estimated at 2500, largely French. By 1809 there were settlements on Shoal Creek as far up as where Greenville now stands and the Shoal Creek Circuit was formed in 1818. In 1827, Thomas Randle, traveling the Shoal Creek Circuit, formed a class in Shelbyville.
The earliest groups of Methodists were called Classes and when a circuit of several classes was formed it was known as a Society. Many small societies scattered over a large territory would be included in one large circuit and this made possible the continued existence of small societies. Every circuit had its minister, or was combined with another circuit, and all societies were looked after. The circuit riders journeyed into the community occasionally. Several of the early settlers were local preachers, exhorters, or class leader. The classes usually chose a leader from their group, and they usually met once a week. If there was a local preacher in the group they conducted the meeting, otherwise the class leaders did so.
On October 22, 1828, from Vandalia, Illinois, Samuel H. Thompson, formerly the presiding elder of the Shoal Creek Circuit, wrote a letter to Miles H. Hart. (The original of this letter is in the Library at Springfield.) In it he referred to a discussion he had had with Mr. Hart in August of that year about the large number of Methodists in Wabash Pint and eastward. He stated that he had discussed the matter with Peter Cartwright, then the Presiding Elder of Shoal Creek Circuit, and that he and his newly-appointed assistant, William Deneen (grandfather of the late Governor and U. S. Senator Deneen) would arrive at the Hart home on October 30th and he asked that preaching places be arranged.
This visit marked the establishment of the Wabash Point Society, a part of which was, years later, to become the Zion Hill Methodist Church. Wabash Point became a regular point of call on the Shelbyville Circuit (Charleston was the east end of the circuit) and it is listed as a preaching appointment on the Shoal Creek Circuit in 1828, with S. H. Thompson and Wm. L. Denneen as co-pastors.
The Shoal Creek had become very large and in 1829 it was divided and the northeastern part of it became the Shelbyville Circuit. In 1831, Barton Randle, the preacher for the Shelbyville Circuit, closed his year with a camp meeting at Wabash Point, at which he reported much good was done.
In 1833 the Shelbyville Circuit had a mileage of 150 miles and 423 members. The circuit rider’s report and circuit plan for that year listed the following classes at Wabash Point:
Geo. M. Hanson at what is now Magnet 15 members
Miles H. Hart between Paradise and Dry Grove 24 members
Fuller’s east of Hart Home 29 members
Sawyer’s 20 members
Wm. Williams vicinity of Lerna not given
Elisha Linder near Wabash School not given
During these first years meetings were held in the woods in warm weather and in the winter services were held in the homes of class members. Homes frequently mentioned as meeting places were those of Dr. John Apperson ( the first practicing physician in Coles Couty), Deniel Bryant, Clemme Goar, Geo. M. Hanson, William Gannaway, Miles H. Hart, Hiram Tremble, and others. Two of these pioneer leaders, Clemme Goar and Miles H. Hart, were two of the first trustees of the Mattoon Methodist Church when it was established in 1855.
In 1837 the first West Paradise School building was erected and it is recorded as having served thereafter as a place for class meetings also.
In the early part of the 1830’s, as the number of settlers increased, they began to have camp meetings in the summer or early fall, to which people came form miles around, bringing their families and camping out as long as the meeting lasted. Circuit riders, when passing through the community, would stop for a few days at such meetings. Camp meetings had originated about 1800 in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The earliest place established for worship in Paradise Township was in a woods midway between the present Camp Ground Cemetery and the Dry Grove Church site. It consisted of a heavy wooden pulpit (built by Local Preacher Hiram Tremble), which in early pioneer days were made high above the congregation, under a clapboard roof and surrounded by wooden tents. This served as a summer meeting place from 1831 to 1833.
A few years later a wooden tabernacle was built about one and one-half miles northwest of the first building. It was about 50 feet square, with a log house adjoining. Here also wooden tents were built. Until 1855, thousands came here annually from spring until fall. Just across the ravine on the west side of the river was the site of a second camp ground which for several weeks each year, for many years, was a tented city where services were held under the auspices of the Methodist Church.
In the course of these meeting some deaths occurred and a few graves were placed in an adjoining plot of ground known as “God’s Acre.” This is now known as the Old Camp Ground Cemetery.
The services at these early meetings lasted two to three hours, depending on the preacher. They did not have any song books so a leader would read two lines of a hymn in solemn, monotonous tones, and lead the congregation in singing two lines, then read and sing two more lines, until the hymn was finished. They sang all verses, no matter how many there were.
In 1846 the Wabash Point Society was on the Charleston Circuit and Rev. J. C. Rucker, the preacher, referred to it as a “good Society of about 60 members, among the leaders being Hiram Tremble, a local preacher, Dr. Apperson, Geo. M. Hanson and Miles H. Hart.” He continued that “Methodism was strong at Wabash Point in militant spirituality and knowledge of Methodist theology.” At that time the Charleston Circuit membership was shown as 287, with 10 local preachers and 7 Sunday Schools.
Eventually, because the settlers were so widely separated, the original Society at Wabash Point divided into three congregations and each organized churches in their own neighborhood. One of these became the Paradise Methodist Society, later to be Zion Hill, and another became the Muddy Point Church.
The Methodists began organizing churches about 1850-1852. A Baptist Church was built in the Paradise vicinity about 1840 a short distance northwest of the present Zion Hill Church, Samuel Pullen being the first minister. The first Methodist Church was built in Paradise in 1853. It was located across the road south and slightly east of the present home of Wesley Easter. It was constructed from bricks which were made on land adjoining the church site.
A parsonage was built in Paradise at the same time. In 1874, when the Wabash Church and parsonage were built, preachers went there to live and the parsonage in Paradise was sold for use as a residence. It is presently the home of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Matthews.
It is not known just when the Sunday School was organized. But there is in existence a Secretary’s Book of Paradise Sabbath School (as it was known at that time) dating back to 1855. From that book we give the following typical report dated April 4, 1858. W. Adams was the secretary at the time.
“This morning the Paradise Sabbath School met for the first time in the year 1858. The school was opened with prayer by Bro. Wm. Gannaway. Closed with prayer by Bro. Richard B. Tate.
This being a beautiful day, quite a congregation of children and parents were present. The children all behaved well and manifested a great desire to learn and a willingness to be taught. We hope the number of scholars may rapidly increase in order that the precious youth of our country may become wise in that wisdom, the beginning of which is the fear of the Lord.
Parents, encourage your children by taking them by the hand and leading them to the Sabbath School.”
In 1869, W. F. Lowe, the preacher at the time, assisted by Peter Wallace the Presiding Elder, started a movement to build a new church on the hill west of the village. The old church was torn down, the mortar scraped off the brick, and the bricks carried to the new site and used in the present building. The cost of the new building was $3,000.00.
Following is a copy of the minute of a meeting of the Society prior to the erection of the new church:
“TO ALL WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: At a meeting of the Society known as the Methodist E. Church held in Paradise in the County of Coles and State of Illinois on the 31st day of May A.D. 1869 for the purpose of electing the trustees of the said Church, Richard Champion, Miles W. Hart, Michael Rominger, Calvin Mayhew, John H. Wood, Adam W. Hart, and Joseph B. Hart was duly elected trustees of said Church for the term of three years. This election is held prior to the erection of a new house of worship (or Church) which said Church is named Zion Hill Church. James Sawyer, Chairman; A. Y. Hart, Jr., Secretary.”
There is a tradition that the name “Zion Hill” came through the singing of the hymn, “Were Marching to Zion” by the congregation on their way to the new church. However, the foregoing minutes give evidence that the church was named prior to its erection. Notes of the late J. H. Deckard (who became a member in 1867) state that the name was selected by Adam W. Hart.
In the early days there were two amen corners. The pulpit was in the center, on a platform. There were rows of seats on either side, with two aisles, and two tiers of seats down the center, with a partition between. The men sat on one side of the church, the women on the other side. During early days, tallow candles served as lights, then wall lamps took their place. Originally, there was a vestibule which was removed about 1900. At one time there was a balcony, believed to have been added not long after the church was built. The roof was raised, presumably at the time the balcony was put in. The church was remodeled in 1882-3 but whether the balcony was removed at that time is not known, however it did not remain long. The church was papered for the first time about 1901, the work being done by Ed Chamberlin and Joe Williams. This was the first project of the newly-organized Ladies’ Aid Society. Prior to that time the walls were whitecoat plaster.
For many years there was a stile in from of the church. There were no trees except native trees for many year.
In the early 1900’s a basement was put in, a furnace was installed, a new floor laid and new seats put in. In 1931 a new roof was put on and a few years later, electricity installed. A new oil furnace was acquired in 1952. This year the interior of the church and the basement have been completely redecorated.
Camp meeting were held in the grove by the church in the early 1870’s. After the building of the Wabash Church in 1874, annual camp meetings were held at the Wabash grove.
Various methods have been used through the years to raise funds for special purposes. One, about 1885, was what was called a “Jug Breaking.” To raise funds to purchase an organ, little brown pottery jugs, four inches high, were given to the children who went around and got the jugs filled with coins. When the jugs were broken there was a large laundry basket of coins. Prizes were given to the children having the largest collections. There was a large Sunday School at that time.
At about this same time, there were held annual picnics with the other churches of the Circuit, at the Wabash Grove, with prizes given to the Sunday School with the largest attendance and the best singing. Prizes won by Zion Hill at these event were for years displayed.
The picture of John Wesley which presently hangs on the church wall was painted by E. Cavins, an instructor at Illinois Wesleyan College, formerly a resident of this vicinity.
When the first organ was purchased for the church there was a division of opinion among the members, some of them not wishing to have any kind of instrument in the church. The first organist was Miss Alvaretta Tremble.
In the year 1910 on of the Mattoon variety stores held a contest, with a piano as the prize. Each purchaser of goods was allowed votes in proportion to their purchase, which votes could be cast for anyone they wished. Several organizations worked for this prize. Many of the Zion Hill members worked diligently, speaking to the people as they left the store and asking for their votes if they had no other preference. Zion Hill won and in this way a fine piano was obtained for the church, which has given excellent service during the past 45 years.
The Ladies Aid Society, now known as the Women’s Society of Christian Service, was organized in August, 1901, with Mrs. Robert Mayhew taking a leading part in this organization, assisted by the Rev. C. W. Casely. Always an enthusiastic organization, they observed their 50th Anniversary on August 21, 1951 with appropriate program.
A week’s celebration , for the 106th anniversary of the founding of the church, was held August 13-19, 1934, with daily services conducted by visiting ministers and singers. Rev. Robert Evans was the minister at that time. Trustees at that time were; George Alexander, Ernest Chamberlin, J. H. Deckard, John Dieffenbaugh, Zack Fox, John Hart and Frank Payton.
In its early days, the Paradise Church was on the Paradise Circuit, other churches being Muddy Point and Kickapoo Point. The Paradise Circuit ended about 1865. For years it was on what was known as the Five-Point Circuit, with Wabash, Dry Grove, Etna and Gays. About 1901 this was made a three-point circuit, with Dry Grove and Etna. Undoubtedly many people will remember the annual Four of July picnics which these three churches held in Baker’s Grove, between Zion Hill and Dry Grove. Zion Hill was again put on the circuit with Gays in 1922, and on with the Lerna Church in 1933. In 1934 the five churches on the charge were Zion Hill, Lerna, Trilla, Farmington and Mt. Tabor; at present, Zion Hill, Lerna, Farmington.
In 1876, Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose Hart sold one acre of land to the Wabash Masonic Lodge at Etna, to be used for the Zion Hill Cemetery. In 1892, the lodge conveyed the Cemetery to the Trustees of Zion Hill Church. Additional land has been acquired from time to time. In 1906, the cemetery was incorporated as the Zion Hill Cemetery Association, at which time the trustees were: J. Z. Butler, D. W. Chamberlin, J. H. Deckard, A. W. Hart, D. A. Michael and R. T. Mayhew.
August 28, 1955
Following are the preachers who have served Paradise—Zion Hill Church since the first church building was erected in 1853.
1854/5 Allen Buckner (a presiding elder living in Paradise) and assistant, Bradley
Hungerford. Mr. Buckner was a Colonel in the Civil War.
1856/8 W. R. Howard (The late J. H. Deckard recorded this preacher and the year
as his first recollection of camp meeting preaching.)
1859 Stephen Huckstep (Captian in Civil War, killed in 1862.)
1860 William C. Blundell
1861/2 Joshua C. Baker
1863/4 Benjamin F. Lodge
1865/6 Isaiah S. Aldrich. Last preacher of Paradise Circuit.
1867/8 Daniel E. May
1869 W. F. Lowe. With the assistant of Peter Wallace, Presiding Elder, he
started the movement to build new church west of the village.
1870 William Rutger and Richard B. Tate
1871 J. H. Holloway. Held camp meeting in the grove around the church.
1872 P. F. Thornburg. Held camp meeting in the grove around the church.
1873 Arthur Bradshaw
1874 William Mitchell. Built Wabash Church.
1875 G. R. S. McElfresh
1876 Uriah Warrington. Held a camp meeting at Wabash Grove.
1877/8 George S. Miller
1879/81 William M. Poe. Held a camp meeting at Wabash Grove.
1882/4 Mitchell H. Ewers. Remodeled Zion Hill Church.
1885 Ezra J. Dunham
1886 J. Wesley Miller
1887 Thos. L. Hancock. Built the Etna Church.
1888/90 Thos. H. Fierce
1891 H. H. Goad
1892/3 Jacob E. Scheer
1894 Albert G. Blunk
1895 D. V. Gowdy
1896 J. W. Hill
1897 J. P. Morton
1898/9 Jesse Thorp
1900 Charles L. Caseley
1901/2 George L. Burton. Built second Etna Church and Parsonage.
1903/4 E. L. Darley
1905 C. L. York
1906/7 J. L. Bell. 1 ½ years.
1907 Walter Ewing. ½ years.
1908/9 Harry E. Crane
1910 David T. Black
1911 George E. Pennell. ½ years.
1912 James E. Reynolds
1913/4 Samuel F. Balch
1915/6 Alvin R. Wassell
1917 Charles W. Haney
1918 W. D. Russell
1919 Charles E. Hogue
1920 Rupert A. Illk
1921 L. James Kindig
1922 W. A. Schell
1923/4 W. H. Stephens
1925 Frank H Byrne
1926/7 M. Louis Cooper
1928 J. T. Hendrix
1929/37 Robert Evans
1937/9 Paul Meredith
1939/42 R. N. Montague
1942/4 George McCumber
1944/5 Edward Nickerson
1945/7 Frank Nestler
1947/50 Gene Gehres
1950/53 Rueben Tingley
1953/ James E. Reynolds