The area in the bend of the the Great Pee Dee River of modern-day Marlboro County was settled by Welsh Baptists in 1736 and subsequently called Welsh Neck. These settlers, who had traveled from Pennsylvania and Delaware, petitioned the colonial government for a land grant along the river. They received a large tract along both sides of the Great Pee Dee, and more settlers arrived and formed Welsh Neck Baptist Church in 1738.
Once the church was established, the settlement flourished as a community. Welsh Neck Baptist served as a mother church for other fledgling Baptist churches in the area, and the land along the Great Pee Dee soon became densely populated. However, settling by the river turned out to be a mistake, as the land was prone to serious flooding. In the late 1740s a village was developing on a bluff on the west side of the Great Pee Dee River called Long Bluff in present-day Darlington County. It became the site of a court house and trading post by the 1770s, and the settlement attracted people from the Welsh Neck area seeking higher ground.
By 1798 the Welsh Neck settlement had dispersed to Long Bluff, which is no longer extant, and Society Hill, a new community that developed around a school – Saint David’s Academy – near Long Bluff. Saint David’s Academy and Society Hill thrived, and eventually people abandoned Long Bluff for the new community near the school. Welsh Neck Baptist Church relocated to Society Hill in 1798 and retained its name. Today the both Long Bluff and the former Welsh Neck settlement are undeveloped woods. The brick building pictured here was built in 1938 and is the church’s third structure to occupy the present site.
Welsh Neck Baptist Church is listed in the National Register as part of the Welsh Neck-Long Bluff-Society Hill Historic District:
The Welsh Neck-Long Bluff-Society Hill area is one rich in historic significance. The Welsh Neck community was an early religious center (a ca. 1738 Baptist church was established here) for the Pee Dee region, and Long Bluff served as a judicial center. The courthouse at Long Bluff, with its jail, tavern, and supporting buildings, was a center of activity for the Upper Pee Dee region during the Revolution. Few small communities have contributed more to the public in the way of culture, education and leadership than has Society Hill. It has numbered among its population outstanding leaders in religion and education, jurists, statesmen, soldiers, authors, and agriculturists.
The Society Hill Library Society was formed in 1822. This group grew out of the St. David’s Society, founded 1777 in Cheraw, which had a wide-spread influence and was a main factor in making Society Hill a center of intelligent leadership in the Pee Dee for a century and a half. This is a rural community with many fine antebellum homes in the Georgian mode. Constructed on large lots or in wooden settings, many are two-storied clapboard structures with one-story front verandas. Nineteenth century mercantile establishments still operate in unadorned frame buildings of a purely functional design. Within the entire district there are approximately 250 structures. Welsh Neck and Long Bluff, both now unoccupied wooded areas, are considered excellent potential archaeological sites.
Detailed History of Welsh Neck Baptist Church
Below is an article that was contributed to the South Carolina Picture Project by Bill Segars of Hartsville. It originally appeared in his local paper, The Darlington New & Press. It was published in July of 2015.
I don’t think that the (Darlington) New & Press has enough ink to print all of the written history that has been maintained concerning this old Baptist congregation. This congregation is not only one of oldest “Dissenter” congregations in South Carolina, but it has maintained an enormous amount of printed records. Before we go any further, I feel that I need to explain the term “Dissenter” so no one will get offended. It is not a bad or derogatory term. In the Church Act of 1706, South Carolina established the Anglican religion as the religion of the State. One of the main reasons for settling the new land away from England and the Church of England was religious freedom. Provisions were made in this act for any group to establish its own religion without persecution, but these groups were to be called “Dissenters,” and they were to worship in a “Meeting Houses”, not a church. So in this time Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians were commonly known of as “Dissenters,” meaning a person or group that dissented, or moved away from an established church, political party, or majority opinion. Now that we’ve gotten that cleared up, let’s get back to Welsh Neck.
The first religious service held among this settlement of Welsh people from Pennsylvania was on the first Lord’s Day of January 1738 by the Reverend James C. Furman. They adopted the name of Pee Dee Church, since it was on the Pee Dee River. Let’s put that 1738 date in perspective: Charles Town, the first settlement in the Carolina was settled in 1670; Charleston Baptist, the first Baptist church in Carolina, was established on September 25, 1682; Pee Dee Church in January of 1738. For backwoods people settling in an unknown area, that’s a fast time line. More importantly, the quickness of starting a church shows the great importance this group placed on religion and staying in contact with God.
This article is not intended to be a complete history of this congregation. But for those interested in learning more, there is a 69-page book written about the complete history of Welsh Neck Baptist Church that was compiled in 1988, the source of much of this information. Let’s fast forward to the year of 1928. By now the name of Welsh Neck Baptist has been adopted, March 17, 1785, and the congregation has moved from the Northern bank of the Pee Dee River to the Southern bank, in the town of Society Hill, where they built a wood frame building in 1843. All was going well for Welsh Neck and the town of Society Hill. They were now located on high ground, somewhat away from the low lying land of the rising and falling Pee Dee River. The rail road had come to town; they had survived The War Between the States, jobs were available, the economy was looking up.
Until July 5, 1928, when lighting struck Welsh Neck’s beautiful 85-year-old worship center. On that Thursday night during a tremendous storm, a single bolt of lightning struck the wooden building and within an hour their beautiful building, with most of its precious memories, was a pile of smoldering ruins. So quick was the massive destruction that little was able to be saved. Several brave souls did attempt to salvage some items. Risking their own lives, they entered the burning building several times to bring out the 80-year-old Bible, the piano, one set of the organ pipes and a few pieces of the pulpit furniture. Take a moment and think about what “things” would you risk life and limb to save from a burning building? I hope that you are never faced with that question, but think about it.
From all over South Carolina came an outpouring of support and strength for the congregation of Welsh Neck in this small hamlet of Society Hill. The famed architect from Hartsville wrote in The State newspaper, “the building itself bore all the marks of those master builders who contributed so much to the stability and charm of our colonial work and later gave us the stately architecture of the Antebellum South.”
The closing portion of a resolution that was written by A. H. Rogers and Miss Helen Coker and was read near the ruins on the Sunday following the fire exemplified the faith of this congregation. “Let us expect great things from God, and in His name let us be willing to attempt great things for Him. Therefore, we accept this as a testing time and we dedicate anew our lives to our God that we may be led of His spirit to carry out His plan for us in the erection of a new Welsh Neck Baptist Church.” Again I’ll ask a question, would you be willing to have this positive of an attitude in the face of such a devastating loss?
Even before the ruins were cleaned up, the congregation began making plans to rebuild their house of worship. Bennettsville native Henry Dudley Harrall was hire as the architect for the new building. Fundraising began and money begins to flow in, slowly, but money was accumulated. Enough money was in hand that construction could begin with a ground breaking ceremony on July 8, 1929, almost exactly one year after the fire. By November of 1929 $18,000 had been collected and expended on the building; the only problem was it wasn’t finished. The exterior was completed and it did certainly appear to be a finished building, but nothing on the inside had been done. When I say nothing, I mean nothing, no floor, no walls, nothing, but the outside looked good and everyone seemed to be pleased with the progress.
With construction spanning the time of July to November of 1929, that time frame encompasses October 24, 1929. For those who may have forgotten the significance of that date, does the Stock Market Crash of 1929 ring a bell? Times were hard, there was simply no money available to continue the building process at the pace that the members desired. Cut backs were necessary, even the pastor, the Reverend C.E. Stevens’, salary was cut and he was allowed to seek other side work and become a “half-time preacher”. What didn’t waver was their dedication to completing their building and giving to missions. Even facing hard times and a strong desire to finish their building, Welsh Neck continued to send 25% of any money that was taken in to the Baptist Convention in support of mission work.
Little by little progress was being made inside the building. On July 19, 1931 the anxious congregation couldn’t wait any longer; it held the first service in the unfinished building. The interior was far from finished, no heat, sub flooring only, handmade benches and no painting, but it was theirs, their home. It was the spur they needed to push on to the final completion. Progress continued to be slow; most everyone realized that there just wasn’t enough money available.
By June of 1935 a small group of ladies of the church had had enough. The “Ladies Aid Society,” a group of 15 ladies, banned together to make plans for the upcoming church’s 200th anniversary in 1938. They were determined to hold that service in a completed building. “It can’t be done” was not an option. They were going to see that completion was achieved and achieved by January of 1938. Completion to this group of headstrong ladies was not just painting the interior of the building; they wanted it be completed with new pews, new pulpit furniture, and a new organ. Making a long story short, their endeavor can summed up over the next two and a half years as “No” is not an acceptable answer. They did it; the new Pilcher Pipe Organ was dedicated on October 3, 1937, and the bi-centennial service was held in the completed sanctuary on April 3, 1938.
As with most churches, its history is a series of peaks and valleys. As exhibited with Welsh Neck Baptist Church’s 277 years, it has experienced its share of peaks and valleys. Its strong-willed faith has driven this congregation up the hills of adversity to be a strong guiding light not just for Society Hill, or Darlington County, but as an example to all who now know the real story of what can be done through faith if you believe in God and set your mind to it.