The History of Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church
In late March/ early April of 1513, Ponce de Leon landed on Florida’s east coast and claimed the land for Spain. He called it Florida because the it was the season of “Pasqua de Flores”, or Easter. For the first 200 years of Spain’s control there was no religious freedom, only professing Catholics could enter Florida legally.
In 1763 Spain ceded Florida to England which allowed other faiths to enter. The first written record of a protestant service was in 1784. It was held by a group of black anabaptists in a shanty church in St. Augustine. Around this time, England gave Florida back to Spain but the protestant settlements were allowed to stay.
On March 30, 1822, more than 300 years after Spain’s
claim, Florida became a U.S. territory. A census estimated the
population of the entire territory to be approx. 14,000 people,
less than in our community today. The Florida wars, also
known as the Seminole Wars, were underway. Settlers,
brave enough to risk the climate, swamps, wild animals,
and insects, and possible attack, began to arrive. Missionaries
were sent to Florida by churches in states to the north.
In 1845 Florida became a state. That same year the Southern Baptist Convention was established and Marion County came into being. In 1848 a colony from Horry County, South Carolina began the move to Florida. It took many months to complete as transportation was primitive and roads non-existent. It must have resembled a wagon train to the West. The families of Holly, Chalker, Long, Sellers, Marlowe, Stanaland, Graham, and others made the move.
Willis Sellers and Samuel Thomas Stanaland were pastors.
However, there was no established church in the community,
so residents would travel to Indian Springs church near
Anthony, for services. This was an hours long ordeal at best
due to the distance and modes of transportation.
In 1854, after all the Wm. B. and Mary Holly family arrived
and settled along the Ocklawaha River near Sharpe’s Ferry,
they decided to build a church for the community. It was
located on government land on what is now 125th Terrace
Road (Cemetery Road). The Hollys were slave holders, so
with the help of family, slaves, and neighbors a church was
constructed. It was built of hand-hewn timbers, rived (hand-
split)cypress boards, and hand drawn cypress shingles. If it
wastypical of the rural churches of its day, it had support posts
down the center, with women and children sitting on one side,
men and boys over 12 on the other. The slaves would have been divided by gender as well and seated in the rear. The first service was held in 1855.
There was no regular pastor at that time, but circuit riders paying scheduled visits. S.T. Stanaland, armed with a rifle and a Bible, rode a circuit from his home on North Lake Bryant to the St. Mary’s rive north of Jacksonville. Numerous other circuit riders also conducted services.
Moderators, selected by the church members, were in charge of meetings and conducting church functions, while laymen delivered lessons or sermons depending on their ability. There were no regular services during the Civil War. Many of the young and middle-aged men were killed or wounded during the conflict. The church went through a number of changes as result of the war. In 1867 OBBC was accepted into the Alachua Baptist Association with 23 white members and 3 black. Joe Stanaland, great nephew of S.T. recounts riding to the church for services with his father in 1868 when he was a boy. They rode their mule bare-backed and upon seeing the church for the first time, Joe was awe struck. The church had glass windows! Something he had never seen before. Also, gathered together in one place, were neighbors including the Hollys, Hendersons, Perkins, Randalls, and others.
In 1875 the Church called its first full-time pastor, Rev. J.T. Parker, who served
until 1882. During his pastor-ship, the church grew. In 1881 the Alachua
Association meeting was held on the grounds. A brush shed was built to take
care of the crowd.
Following Rev. Parker in 1883, was W.J. Hughes. Brother Hughes, who started the First Baptist Church of Leesburg at just 19 years old, was 34 when he came into an uncommon situation. In 1883 the government land where the church stood was deeded to Samuel Blodgett of New Hampshire. He arrived to find about 5 acres of his land occupied by a church and cemetery. A committee of 5 men of the church was selected to meet with Mr. Blodgett. In order for the church to remain, he expected that a picket fence be constructed around the cemetery and the fence and church kept white-washed. This was not feasible so a new location had to be found. A committee was then challenged to find another site.
Edward Marion Henderson had purchased land in
1883 on the north side of Mothershed lake, now
called Church Lake. He offered to give 5 acres for
a new home for the church. The old church was
dismantled. Parts were used in the new building,
but much of it was sold to the members for small
sums. Mr. Henderson had a sawmill and used it to
cut and mill the lumber for the new structure, hauling
it to the site with his oxen. The building was
constructed facing the lake. Some of the re-cycled
items from the 1855 building may have been the
double front doors, and the 12 tall 6-over-6 pane
windows.It was recorded that a youth, Mann Griggs,
was asked to lead prayer-meeting. He was so excited
he could hardly read. Even though he “wept as he read” he didn’t quit. He became one of leading men of the church. Rev. Hughes served at OBBC until 1889.The Sunday School, formerly held in the Waterman School house, later called the Henderson School, was moved to the new church. A library was provided for the use of the Sunday School. Mamie Waldon, a public-school teacher started the school, and was followed as director by Peter Durisoe, B.I. Hull and others. In 1911 W.C. Henderson was asked to be Sunday School Superintendent. He was 15 years old. He was mentored by Joseph Stanaland and R.C. Fort, who felt young men should be taught to take responsibility in the church.
A number of other pastors followed Rev. Hughes. The 1885 building burned in 1923. Pastor at that time was J.C. Boatwright, a carpenter and block mason as well as a minister. He led the church through re- building and renewed growth, holding services under the oaks until the cement block sanctuary could be used. This third building was in use until construction current sanctuary began in 1969. The history of Ocklawaha Bridge shows that it has survived and thrived in times of hardship and adversity. Let us strive to follow the example of faithfulness shown by those before us.