SABINE COUNTY, Texas (KTRE) - Nestled among a mature forest in rural Sabine County, the congregation of McMahan Chapel pre-dates most of the pines surrounding the church.
Sunday marked an important day for the oldest Protestant church in Texas with continuous service. Reverend Stephen Smith was installed as their new pastor, joining a long line dating back to 1833.
History is one of the reasons that originally drew members John and Judy to be married here in 1989. They first learned of the chapel after seeing it on a postcard.
"We looked at each other and right away we knew that this is where God wanted us to be," Judy said.
They’ve been making the hour-long drive from their home in Lufkin for three decades.
"You just enjoy the beauty of nature getting over here every Sunday," John said.
A similar calling has led so many others to this so-called "shrine in the pines." Sharron Mills is one of the among the congregations dozen or so members.
"It is my foundation, my religious foundation. My beliefs are so strong because of this church and because of what God is doing in this church."
Mills helps organize lunches, reunions, and opens the church each day in the absence of a caretaker.
"God is very present here," Mills said. "It doesn't matter what your background is. It doesn't matter what you've done and what you haven't done in your Christian life. We are here with open arms and we are here to learn the word of God. We hold each other accountable."
Services at the chapel are held on the first and third Sunday of the month. A potluck lunch gathering typically precedes the afternoon worship service. The current members are as much a part of McMahan Chapel’s history as its founders.
Displays inside an event center adjacent to the sanctuary contain artifacts and personal belongings of founder Samuel Doak McMahan, who moved his family to Texas from Tennessee in 1831.
Protestant preaching was allowed inside Mexican territory, so a ‘religious society’ organized in McMahan’s home.
"Then we gained our independence from Mexico," Mills said. "And the (Methodist) conference up north sent down circuit riders. They sent down Littleton Fowler."
After a few months, the Methodist missionary from Kentucky oversaw construction of a 40-by-30 foot pine log sanctuary.
"(Fowler) said, 'Okay guys, I'm gonna tell you. I love this place so much.' And he said, 'When I die, I want to be buried under the pulpit."
In fact, eight of the congregation's pastors are buried in a cemetery across the street.
Honoring Fowler’s wish, the three subsequent church buildings, including the current 1949 chapel, have been situated over his grave site. Behind the pulpit, a massive marble headstone serves as McMahan’s first pastor.
"The very first moment I walked into the sanctuary, I felt the spirit of God move in my heart. And you have a peace and a calm that you know you are in commune with the Holy Spirit and you are in the presence of God," Judy said.
This has become a spiritual oasis, both figurative and literal.
Just feet away from the church is the same natural spring where McMahan first stopped to let his horses drink 188 years ago.
A sign marks the ‘Wellspring of Protestantism’ in Texas, where the water is bottled and given to clergy.
"What they have told us you don't have to have it blessed to be used for baptisms because it's coming from sacred ground," Mills said. "So that right there tells you what people think of the history and what went on here."
This community of faith is embracing generations of lessons from the past as they pursue an eternal future.
"God was first and foremost in our life and he had a plan. And his plan has been perfect. His plan has been a fairy tale," Judy said.
McMahan's Chapel United Methodist Church is open to visitors every day.
One of their oldest annual traditions, McMahan Chapel Day will be held on Saturday, October 12 at the Jack and Charlsie Maund Event Center. Worship, guest speakers, food, and music are planned. All are welcome.
Learn more about McMahan Chapel by visiting their Facebook page.
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