WHITE CO., Ark. – In the year 1856, James Buchanan was elected the 15th president of the United States, Georgia was the first state to regulate railroads and in Arkansas Smyrna Church first opened its doors. Still standing tall today, while simple, the church is a steeple of Christianity in the state.
Sitting in the center of the bible belt, Arkansas is rich in religion with a church on just about every corner. Just west of Searcy, tucked along the intersection of Highway 36 and Jaybird Lane, sits a single-story, wood-framed building that is the foundation of that holy history.
Built in the 19th century, just 20 years after Arkansas became a state, Smyrna Church is older than the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower and it has served generations.
“My grandparents went to church here and that means my aunt, uncle and my dad did as well,” White County Historical Society President Shelly Churchwell said.
Churchwell said her family was one of the last attending services there. The first walked through the doors more than 150 years ago, when a group of Methodists decided to leave another church and start their own.
“They did so halfway between Searcy, which was kind of like a mere village at the time, and Joy which is west of Searcy,” Churchwell said.
They bought three acres for $15 and built something simple but serene.
“At that time, they would’ve had circuit rider preachers so a preacher would ride his horse here on Sunday morning and do the service and then go on to the next church the next Sunday,” Churchwell said.
Inside, instead of stained-glass windows and intricate sound systems, you’ll find weathered wood and creaks in the floorboard. What some consider flaws actually tell the story of how this church came to be.
“You try and save as much of the history as you can,” Churchwell said.
To preserve the building and give a sense of what life was like when people first filled the pews, they needed to figure out exactly when and how that history began. That’s where White County Historical Society member Scott Akridge comes in.
“I crawled under the building,” Akridge said.
He has a background in archeology and decided the best way to determine a timeline was to work from the ground up.
“I’m on my hands and knees and there’s a stump right in front of me, and I just say, ‘Hey Bill there’s a stump under here’ you know it was certainly a surprise,” Akridge said.
He called in a tree ring dater from the University of Arkansas who said the stump was cut in 1856. Members actually used the lumber to build their place of worship.
“Usually, you clear the land, and the logs get used for other things, but we feel certain they were incorporated into this church,” Akridge said.
For more than a century, the church has had a front row seat to countless historical events, including the Civil War and desegregation. Searcy Parks and Recreation Facilities Manager Will Walker says from inside to the grounds, turning each corner is like flipping to a new page in a history book.
“When I first walked into it, I was pretty much in awe,” Walker said.
It took a few weeks before he stumbled into one of the biggest chapters.
“Whenever the church was built and after, the cemetery was segregated,” Walker said.
Walker found the African-American cemetery off to the side of the church.
“It started out as a slave cemetery where the slaves were buried,” Walker said. “They wouldn’t have tombstones. A lot of times they would have field stones set at the head of the grave.”
The few headstones he could find could barely be seen through the trees and brush. It was a stark difference to the cemetery sitting just behind the building.
“After integration it seemed like over the years it was forgotten about,” Walker said.
From the slave cemetery to the church itself, in 1973 the word of the Lord and hymns that once filled the sanctuary went quiet as the congregation moved to a newer building in town.
“It was rented out to independent groups and then it ceased to be anything at all,” Churchwell said.
Falling into a state of disrepair, the congregation decided to donate it to the city of Searcy in the late 90’s and that’s when the historical society started work to restore it. It began with small changes like replacing the bell, adding pews and plaques dedicated to those who used to attend services every Sunday and cleaning the grounds around the graves.
“We need to remember those that are gone and those groups that might not be taken care of as much,” Walker said.
Over the years, Smyrna Church has gone through renovations, but lessons can be found everywhere.
“We never want to lose that and lose our heritage,” Churchwell said.
From the two pieces of wood nailed together to form a cross to the sun gleaming through the windows lighting the sanctuary, each piece gives a glimpse into the last 167 years when this became holy ground, and the church was purely the people.
“This is kind of a beacon of Searcy and White County,” Walker said.
No services are currently held in Smyrna Church, but people can use it for events like weddings. There are more plans for renovations in the future while keeping the integrity of the building.