It seems fitting to begin this excursion into history with that of the Masonboro Baptist Church where my mother, a set of grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, great-great-great grandparents and my great-great-great-great grandmother are buried.
History of the Masonboro Baptist Church
Crockette Hewlett, October 1, 1950
As one leaves the Wrightsville Beach Highway about three miles east of Wilmington, North Carolina, and turns right onto the Masonboro Loop Road, he soon sees the fields and interlocking woods of the community of Masonboro. Here and there appears a small white frame house under the spreading branches of a giant live-oak, and inside the scrubbed kitchen the housewife is busy with her baking or canning, while the young children run and play in the yard. In the fields nearby the farmer will be seen plowing with his mule or riding a well-used tractor. Here and there in the yards will be stretched fishing nets still damp from the waters of the Sound. And if one turns into one of the little oyster-shell roads which lead down to the water, he will see smoke rising from the chimney of some oyster-roast shed and catch a whiff of the delicious aroma rising from the roasting oysters.
The community of Masonboro is cupped between the arms of two creeks, Hewlett’s Creek on the north and Purviance (or Whiskey) Creek on the south, though it refuses to restrict itself just to this area and claims much of the populace beyond each of these boundaries. Masonboro Sound, threaded by the Inland Waterway, carries off the waters of these creeks and fills them up again with the flow of the tide. Faintly across the wide stretch of Sound and beyond a long thin line of sandunes one can hear the roar of the tumbling surf. And over the whole quiet scene of green woods, productive fields and deep blue water settles a strange feeling of timelessness and a beautiful serenity, which may be prophetic of the eternal peace to come.
The community took its name from the fact that among the first settlers along the Sound-front was a group of Masons who held their lodge meetings on the upper floor of an old house known as the old Lewey house (which stood not far from the old Cassady house, later the Williams house, now occupied by the Crows). For many years the old Lewey house remained unoccucpied and was generally reputed to be haunted.
Masonboro, at one time written Masonborough, is rich in early American history. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, William Hooper, had a home here. So also did Major William Purviance, who was on General Washington’s staff. Thomas Godfrey, while living here, wrote the first drama of American literature, entitled: “The Price of Parthia”. He also wrote a poem, in about the year 1780, which begins:
"O come to Masonborough's grove.
Ye Nymphs and Swains away,
Where blooming Innocence and Love
And Pleasure crown the day."
As one travels southwardly along the Masonboro Loop Road, he will see just off to the right a small brick church set back among some trees; and if it is Sunday morning, the clear tones of the church bell will be heard far across the fields. This is our church—The Masonboro Baptist Church.
The church has been the focal point of the community for many years and has drawn unto it most of the people who live in the surrounding countryside. On Sundays the scattered neighbors gather for Sunday School and Church service, to sing heartily the old gospel hymns which our fathers loved. And when the benediction is given and the church members pour out of the building to stand about on the grass and under the shade of the old trees, we exchange with relish the little topics of interest among us which have accumulated during the week. It is our favorite method of visiting, and it is a long time before the last little group breaks up and the last automobile drives homeward.
The history of our church goes back a long way. It would be impossible to give an accurate and complete account of it because of the few records which are available. Most of the church records were destroyed in the fire which consumed the home of J.R. Hollis on December 15, 1938.
The organization was founded in 1856, before the Civil War, and about a decade before there was any house of worship, though we find that as far back as 1848 and 1850 preaching services were held at a private residence by Rev. A.B. Alderman, a Baptist preacher, who, by the way, was the father of the Chairman of the Historical Society of the North Carolina State Convention, J.T. Alderman, of Henderson, NC.
During the early years of our country, Masonboro Sound was relatively inaccessible, since it was about seven miles from town and reached only by deep sandy roads which went around the heads of the creeks. As there was no church in the community, many of the residents attended the First Baptist Church in Wilmington and held their memberships there. It was one of these members, Captain John Hewlett, who became the founder of the Masonboro Church.
Feeling the need of a worship service for the people of his community, John Hewlett invited them to his home, which was located a little back of Mr. John Capps’ store, within sight of where the present church building stands. When a preacher could not be obtained, John Hewlett led the services himself. soon the people began to come in such numbers that there were not enough chairs to seat them. Some long boards were brought and placed on round wooden blocks, and these cared for the seating of the congregation. In cold or wet weather and at night the seats were erected inside the house, while day services were held under the trees in the yard.
Sometimes the services were conducted by missionaries who traveled about in those days preaching at first one place and then another. One of these itinerant missionaries was Mr. John B. Barlow, a cooper by trade, who made turpentine barrels. Often he would walk twenty-five or thirty miles to fill an appointment.
Other visiting ministers who preached in the Hewlett home were Rev. Reuben Grant (a Methodist minister); Rev. A.D. Betts (another Methodist minister, and Rev. Joe E. King (a regular Missionary Baptist).
Among the early members of the church, besides Captain and Mrs. John Hewlett, were Mrs. Ellen Curtis (better known to the children as Aunt Nellie), Comfort Johnson (an aunt of Miles C. Walton), Annie Wilson, Serena Hewlett, Rebekah Beasley, Catherine Farrow, Annie Walton (mother of Miles C. Walton), Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Hewlett, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Farrow, Mr. and Mrs. John J. Wagner (Mr. Wagner was the first church clerk), Mr. Charles Thorpe, Mr. Eliza Orrell, and Mr. and Mrs. Alonza Hewlett.
The influence of these good people has been a blessing to our community through the years. Many thrilling incidents in the life of Captain John Hewlett, better known in the neighborhood as Uncle Jackie, could be related. At the beginning of the War Between the States when there was a call for volunteers, many of the Masonboro boys responded to the call and fell into ranks. Uncle Jackie went and shook the hand of each of them and said, “Boys, I don’t know where you will be called upon to go, or how long you will be compelled to stay, but remember, wherever you are and however you fare, that I am praying for you that God will send you all back home again to assist me in building up the Kingdom of Christ in our neighborhood.” These brave fellows marched away and more than once faced the enemy’s fire. They were seen at such places as Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, in front at Petersburg, and that most terrific bombardment at Fort Fisher. Some of them were badly wounded, but all came back after the four years of struggle were over and assisted in doing the thing Uncle Jackie said he wished them to do—the thing that made possible the church building erected and dedicated by them to the service of God.
Another incident in the life of John Hewlett will be well remembered. Mrs. Annie Walton, mother of Miles C. Walton (who later became a pastor of this church), was stricken very ill, so ill that little hope could be held for her recovery. One day she asked her husband to send for Uncle Jackie that he might pray for her that some change might take place in her condition. The appearance of Uncle Jackie as he rode on his horse up into the yard is unforgettable. His black hair, which he wore long, was flowing out from beneath a high beaver hat, and he was wearing a long-tailed coat, like the old statesmen of the type of John Calhoun might have worn. He alighted from his horse and took the hand of each of the children and carried them into the house and had them all kneel in prayer with their sick mother, and Miles Walton said that while he knelt there at his mother’s bedside, he was just as certain that God would hear the prayer of this man and that his mother would soon be well again as he was sure he was kneeling there, so much faith had he in this man and what he said. In a few days, Mrs. Walton began to improve and soon was able to go to the home of Captain Hewlett, where the church was still holding its meetings, and there she united with the church and was afterwards baptized into its fellowship by Dr. Elwell.
It was about this time that a great spirit of revival began to be manifest in the group, and a more definite organization was affected and more members were added, some by baptism, others by letter, and still others by experience, until a strong sentiment prevailed in favor of building a House of Worship.
It was then that Dr. Edwin A. Anderson (father of the late Edwin A. Anderson of the U.S. Navy), who had a home on the Soundfront, gave them the land on which to build their church. It was the land on which the present church building stands, and the deed was made out to the trustees of the church: Elijah Hewlett, John G. Wagner, and John J. Beasley, and bears the date of February 11, 1869.
Earnestly the members set about drawing plans and gathering materials for the construction of the church. Persons who do not know of the hardships of those days of Reconstruction cannot appreciate the difficulties to be overcome in this undertaking, but these were hardy men returned home from the fields of battle, well-seasoned and anxious to make a better world. When they inquired about obtaining lumber at the mills, most of the mills agreed to donate their work if the church would be responsible for the hauling. So the young men went out into the nearby woods and cut down tall straight trees and hauled them to the mills in “carrylogs.” Everyone who could wield a hammer went to work on the church. Mr. Henry Risley, a local contractor, was in charge of building operations, and Mr. Frank Hewlett was a supervising carpenter.
Some records have it that the building was completed in the summer of 1867, though this was two years before the deed for the land was made out. Still there is no reason why this may not have been so. The building was made of white clapboards and faced on the road which ran by it on the south. It consisted of a large assembly hall with a pulpit and a vestibule.
It was many years later that the steeple was constructed to house a church bell bought with money provided for that purpose in a will left by Mrs. Catherine May, one of the church members. The bell was purchased and lay in the church yard for quite awhile before they could get the steeple built. Mr. A.G. Call constructed the steeple, and it was Mr. Alonza Hewlett who rang the bell on Sunday mornings.