The United Methodist Church in the historic village of Bagdad, Florida, did not "just happen!" It was born of human need and of the faith and foresight of dedicated men of God who rode hundreds of miles on horseback to found churches and to proclaim their message of "Grace and Freedom". Its story is a heartwarming account of lay people, too, who dreamed of a Methodist congregation in their own community and dared to give of themselves in prayer, in sacrifice, and in love to make their dream a reality.
Though local worshipers were included in the initial Methodist begun in Pensacola in 1821, members were unable to establish an active congregation in Bagdad, known then as Blackwater, until 1830. With a moss covered brush arbor for his sanctuary, Dr. John Wesley Talley, a former missionary to the Choctaws, delivered his sermons beside the Blackwater River. He baptized the converts within sight and sound of the waterfront church and happily accepted a salary of thirteen dollars for his first year's work.
In 1837, a small wooden building was erected near the site and served as a house of worship until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1880s. Members of the congregation then worshiped with the local Presbyterians and prayed for God's guidance as they planned for the future.
The present sanctuary was begun in 1885 on the site given for that purpose by W. H. Sindorf, H. W. Thompson and W. A. Watson, who were members of the church and also partners in the Bagdad Sash and Blind Factory. The first worship service was held in the unfinished building in September of that year when seventy members and their families joined Reverend E. E. Cowan for a great day of Thanksgiving.
Charles H. Overman drew the unique architectural design for the new house of worship, and the building, made of choice lumber from Bagdad mills, took shape under the direction of A. J. Brown. The structure remains a source of pride for those who worship within its walls today, more than a century later. Visitors, too, note that the shiplap pattern of the outside boards is held in place by square cut nails, and the underpinning is held securely by wooden pegs. The delicate, lacy woodwork around the porch and eaves was cut by hand and put in place by those who also lifted the huge brass bell to its place in the latticed tower. Oil lamps gave light for evening services, and a huge wood-coal heater provided warmth from its place between the pews.
As the congregation began its ministry in the new church, Mr. Brown, the carpenter, became the first Sunday School Superintendent. Mr. Henry Thompson succeeded him and served in that position for forty years. Miss Jane Andrews, the first organist, was also the first bride to be married in the sanctuary. She and Everett Green were wed on January 29, 1887. The next wedding took place on Valentine's Day of 1893 when Mr. Brown's daughter, Fanny, became the wife of John Tinsley.
In 1909, the little sanctuary was wired for electricity with power supplied by a small dynamo engine in the Gang Mill of the local Simpson Company. Money to finance the project was earned by women of the Ladies Aid Society who sold their handmade quilts for three dollars each.
When lightening struck the church on July 7, 1912, considerable damage was done to the steeple and bell tower. The bell itself was cracked, and since repairs could not restore its tone quality, a new bell was purchased from a West Virginia foundry. That bell has since summoned worshipers to services each Sunday for almost eighty-nine years.
The only addition made to the original building was a room (fifteen by twenty-seven feet) constructed at the rear of the church between 1917 and 1919, for use by the growing Sunday school classes. Construction was accomplished by men of the congregation and the women again raised needed funds. Some of the small tables and chairs purchased then for the new room are still in use by the children today.
For a period during the great World War, no pastoral appointments were made for the Bagdad Church, but laymen and volunteer ministers kept the doors open and faithfully served the congregation. When the war ended and prosperity was enjoyed once more, the church experienced great growth. Between 1923 and 1927, when the Bagdad Sawmill was operating at full power day and night, membership in the church was doubled.
The good times quickly came to an end with the onslaught of the Great Depression in the 1930's, and conditions became critical in 1939 when the Bagdad Land and Lumber Company closed its mill. Many families moved away to seek work in other areas, and soon after, many young men again became part of the wartime armed forces. During World War II, the Methodist congregation dwindled, but the work and ministry of the little church continued as pastors and people joined hands to keep the flame aloft.
When the war ended, families were reunited in their hometown, and newcomers, too, sought the quiet of the tree-shaded community. Soon the church became a busy center of activity once more, and leaders made plans for the future. In 1955 and 1956, a much needed educational building was erected behind the sanctuary for use by a large youth group. It was dedicated as the Ella Lee Cobb Building on the first Homecoming Day in October 1956 and made possible social events and projects not enjoyed before.
That same year, the Alabama Conference separated the Bagdad and Milton churches, which had previously formed a charge with one minister serving both groups. Bagdad was now assigned a pastor of its own and needed a parsonage home in the community. An "impossible dream" came true when Mr. And Mrs. Leo Davis, Sr. gave a beautiful lot on Allen Street for the proposed home, and dedicated people saw that the parsonage was ready for occupancy in 1961. A large addition about fifteen years later made it more suitable for a growing family.
In 1973 and 1974, after the Bagdad-Mae Edwards Charge was formed, members again stepped out on faith and committed themselves to an extensive project of renovation.
As our 110th Anniversary approached in 1995, the church busied itself with plans for the September 24 celebration. The great day arrived during the lull between hurricanes Erin and Opal. Both storms caused much damage to the sanctuary, bell tower and steeple. Workmen spent all night replacing the ceiling in time for the anniversary service; however, Opal challenged our expertise once again a few weeks later.
Celebration services conducted by Bishop and Mrs. Morris, Dr. and Mrs. Garrison, and a host of former members and friends made us forget all the work which had gone on before. We were mindful once again of our rich heritage and of God?s great goodness to us. The following Spring, we were proud to learn at conference that our church had been selected for the 1995 Conference Heritage Award and also for the District Small Membership Church Award.
Several faithful members went out on faith and opened the doors of our church to the community senior citizens in 2002 by providing a monthly luncheon in addition to entertainment and fellowship. This ministry has grown by leaps and bounds and has even been the topic of many newspaper articles. These precious times together have been a blessing to those who attend and to those who serve in this way.
The year 2003 was full of planning and fund-raising in preparation for our building project which would include a fellowship hall, kitchen, restrooms, classrooms and storage areas. God blessed our efforts in December 2003 as we were able to begin enjoying this wonderful new facility. The building was officially dedicated to our Lord with a special dedication service which included Bishop Larry Goodpaster and our District Superintendent, Dr. David Chunn.
Despite much destruction in the Bagdad area on September 15, 2004 due to Hurricane Ivan with many of our members being displaced from their homes or losing their homes, our church family grew closer in fellowship with each other and with the Lord. The Bagdad UMC Church family reached out to those in need in the church and in the community. Ivan damaged the roof and bell tower, but our steeple stood tall while several other churches lost their steeples. The church yard was full of destruction, but faithful members pitched in helped get things back to normal.
Bagdad UMC Church consistently is recognized as one of the Five-Star Churches in the district due to our prompt and full payment of our district apportionments, our service to the community, and our continued membership growth. God continues to bless the little white church and we are so very Thankful to Him for our rich heritage born of "a people's faith and a Father's blessing."