Tucked midway between the rural hamlets of Springfield and Neeses, historic Rocky Swamp Church is home to one of the oldest congregations in Orangeburg County.
Sources differ on when and by whom the church was established. A Times and Democrat article from 1994 claims a deed located at the Orangeburg County Courthouse dates its inception to 1807 (1). However the same article also claims this particular deed was not recorded until after the Civil War (1).
A later Times and Democrat article, from 2001, reads, “The history of Rocky Swamp Church shows that on March 18, 1809, Isabella Hutto sold one acre of land for $5 to Charles Stevens, Gideon Hutton, Robert Argo, Hugh Phillips, and Henry Judy who were then trustees of the Methodist Church” (2).
Still another source says Jacob Stroman, a lumberman and farmer who developed a plantation called Rocky Swamp, donated the land, materials, and labor for the church (3). Finally, a survey prepared for the Works Progress Administration circa 1938 notes that the church was organized significantly later, in 1831, and that its first clergyman was the Reverend A. M. Chritzburg, who served parishioners until 1834 (5). The survey does say that the church was proceeded by a campground, which may account for at least some of the difference in dates (5). The surveyor, Anna Sinkler, gives Rocky Swamp’s membership as 146 and its acreage as 21, with two cleared acres surrounding the sanctuary for a graveyard (5). The value of the church is listed at $4,000 and the value of the land is listed as $5,000 (5).
Unfortunately, many of the church records burned in a parsonage fire in 1922 (5). We are actively seeking more information on Rocky Swamp’s founding, so please let us know if you have information you can share.
Regardless of its uncertain origins, it appears Rocky Swamp was successful enough by 1828 to warrant the addition of roughly 20 acres (2), purchased from Zolliah R. Hutto and Mary L. Hutto. The original church burned in 1859 and was replaced by this sanctuary the next year (5).
For approximately 30 years during the latter part of the twentieth century, Rocky Swamp Church was used only sporadically for annual or biannual services. In 2001, however, the vacant church was given a new lease on life as a ministry of the United Methodist Church. Now called the Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries, the goal of the outreach program is to combine Christian worship with Native American culture.
Today, services are led jointly by a Methodist minister and a Native American spiritual leader. They combine elements of traditional Methodist worship with Native American traditions, such as those of the Cherokee and Lakota. The congregation is composed of people who have Native American backgrounds but are also Christians. Though the ministry is sponsored by the United Methodist Church, those who attend embody a diversity of Christian beliefs.
The long drive to Rocky Swamp means services begin around noon. A typical service starts with Bible study, followed by a discussion of matters pertaining to Native American culture. It then continues with a sacred drum session. Many times the service, which ends at varying times in the afternoon, concludes with a meal.
In recent years, the Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries has partnered with Pinopolis Methodist Church, working together on service projects and attending drum sessions together.
Note: Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries is not to be confused with another nearby church with a similar name, Rocky Swamp Southern Methodist Church. The Southern Methodist Church and United Methodist Church are two distinct denominations.
Rocky Swamp Church: 2016 Storm Damage
The below photos were taken in November 2016 and show the church after it suffered storm damage in August of that year. The roof was damaged and the entrance overhang destroyed. Electrical wiring was also pulled from the church. United Methodist Volunteers In Mission Early Response Team (UMVIM-ERT) worked with Rocky Swamp Church to repair the historic sanctuary.
Native Americans Spread It ‘Round: Indian Ministries Worship Team Visits Local Church
In an effort to document the history of Rocky Swamp, we are including the following news article. It appeared in the Greenwood Index-Journal on June 11, 2007. It was written by staff writer Chris Trainor, who also took the photos which accompany the story. A full transcription can be found below.
It is possible to be traditional and non-traditional at the same time.
Take Sunday morning’s worship service at Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Greenwood for instance. The church and pastor Tommy Tucker welcomed members of the Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries Worship Team to conduct Sunday’s service in their native tradition.
A casual observer would have noted the ceremony was nothing like a traditional Protestant Sunday service. However, upon closer inspection, one would see the members of the Rocky Swamp ministry were practicing worship techniques that have been passed down for generations.
Tucker, who visits the Rocky Swamp Ministries in Springfield – which is near Orangeburg – several times a year, touched on how he came to know the American Indian worship team.
“We did a Salkahatchie Native American ministry down in Holly Hill,” Tucker said. “This being the only Native American ministry in South Carolina, one night we went to their church and they prepared dinner for the whole Salkahatchie camp, and we worshiped in their tradition.
“When I met these people I saw their hearts were great and their ministry was Christian, though different than the way you see worship in a Protestant church. It is certainly a Christian worship service, just with a different slant.”
Before the service began, members of the congregation observed the practice of “smudging,” in which Rocky Swamp team member Jennifer Mitchell used a feather to fan ceremonial smoke on any member of the congregation who wished to participate. The smoke was burned from a mixture that includes sweetgrass, cedar, sage and tobacco.
As the ceremony continued, the men from Rocky Swamp — all of whom are of American Indian ancestry — gathered around in a circle around a massive drum that is central to their worship.
Worship leader Keith Hiott said it is American Indian custom for the men to take places around the drum and for the women to stand behind them in support.
Hiott also said everything in his group’s ceremony runs clockwise around the circle. Even when the collection plate came around, special efforts were made to see it went around the drum clockwise.
As the Rocky Swamp team sang numerous traditional and newly modified songs, the men pounded thunderous beats on the drum, chanting and singing in powerful cadence. Translations of Native American words were shown on a video screen above the pulpit.
The group even sang a popular praise hymn, “(Our God is an) Awesome God,” which took on a different milieu set against the drum’s pounding rhythms.
The women of Rocky Swamp led a dancing line, as men, women and children alike fell in line and danced up and down the aisles.
Tucker said the drum is the center of American Indian worship. Hiott told the congregation things really aren’t that much different than a traditional service.
“We are all one in Christ,” Hiott said. “But in your own communities, it is very important to have that circle. Come be with us (at Rocky Swamp), and we appreciate you letting us come here.”
Tucker said he hopes Sunday’s visit, which was Rocky Swamp’s second to Bethlehem UMC, will become a regular event.
“It is all about remembering and honoring these native traditions,” Tucker said. “Their ministry actually reaches people who may not feel comfortable coming to a traditional worship. But perhaps with these guys they may feel more comfortable and come to know Christ. That is the goal of a minister.”
The caption under the photo at the top of the above article reads, “Members of the Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries Worship Team, front, beat the drum and sing as congregation members from Bethlehem United Methodist Church, background, join in.”
The caption of the photo in the center of the above article reads, “The Rev. Tommy Ricker, front, of Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Greenwood, addresses the congregation Sunday as members of the Rocky Swamp American Indian Ministries Worship Team wait to begin their ceremony.”
Rocky Swamp: What a Journey!
The following article appeared in the November 2013 edition of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church’s Native American Newsletter. It was written by Tracy Pender, Chairperson of the Native American Committee, and it provides a detailed look at Rocky Swamp’s weekly services.
Over the years, I have written on several different perspectives with my chair’s corner. With this article, I wanted to write about an incredible, challenging journey that I have been on. This journey has made me grow as a person, in my faith, in my commitment, in my ability to help others, and in my knowledge. In December 2009, I was asked by the Bishop and Connectional Ministries to become the supply pastor for Rocky Swamp, an outreach Native American ministry located in Neeses, South Carolina.
Rocky Swamp is a Native American outreach ministry where a congregation meets on Sunday reflecting American Indians from various heritages. Many call themselves mixed bloods. Their Indian heritage includes Cherokee, Muskogean Creek, Lakota and others. Their normal attendance ranges from 10 to 30. Keith Hiott is the group’s Native spiritual leader, similar to a medicine man, and he leads them in the Lakota traditions that were taught to him, reflecting Lakota sacred ceremonies. They are all Christians, but come from many denominational backgrounds such as Pentecostal, Baptist, Catholic, non- denominational and more. There are people who just pass through and visit for a Sunday or two. There have been pastors and ministers from other faiths who have come and participated from time to time. It is very unique to watch this occur.
The church itself is United Methodist property. The church was part of the Springfield charge and in discontinued status. As a result, repairs were needed in order to reopen. Ironically, when initially opened, one of the walls was literally flowing with honey, as there was a large bee’s nest in the wall.
A typical Sunday morning at Rocky Swamp requires explanation. The congregation worships in a very Native manner. You can find a large cross, mounted at the front of the church with a sacred circle reflecting the four colors of the medicine wheel. The Native drum is in the center of the church with the pews arranged in a circle around the drum. The congregation begins to arrive usually around 11:30. The person with the shortest drive is at least 20 minutes away. Thus, they communicate with each other via cell phone about when everyone will arrive. As a result, service may start somewhere between 11:45 and 12:30. There is a definite social exchange with members as they arrive and wait for everyone, much like an extended passing of the peace.
Once everyone is called to gather for worship, service is started with a discussion involving a spiritual topic, the Bible, a Bible verse, a Christian act, a Native issue, etc. It is similar to having Sunday school and the pastor’s message rolled into one. Yet, nobody stands up to preach per se. Everyone is free to share and jump into the conversation. Again, this would reflect traditional Native culture, with each person listening to what another one is sharing and waiting to add their thoughts if desired. To me, it embraces the “talking stick.” Time is not an issue. When it is done, it is done. The service is never rushed.
After the discussion, they may take a short break. Then they gather at the drum. The male drummers take their place at the drum and the drum is blessed with prayer. Women gather around the drum to sing or rattle. Yet, one can remain in a pew, seated, if desired. The Native drum is the centerpiece of Native worship. It represents Mother Earth and the circular shape represents our connection to the Great Spirit and Christ. Its voice calls for the Holy of Holies to join the worship, lifts our prayers to Creator and then offers a thank you for time and consideration of all that was done during the service. The drum music usually starts with Christian praise songs. Then Keith leads the congregation in the sacred, ceremonial Lakota songs.
Afterwards, the congregation usually eats together. This involves someone cooking at the church or some bringing dishes. After eating, there is more time for fellowship among the members. Again, time is never an issue. When it is over, it is over. I admit that my wife and I are usually some of the first to leave around 3 or 3:30 PM. Yet, nobody looks down on anyone if they need to leave early or only can stay 30 minutes. They are thankful that you simply made it to church. Additionally, their motto is, “Come as you are.” They live by that. It was an adjustment for me to wear jeans to church. Regardless, everyone is welcome.
This journey has had some incredible lows and some even more incredible highs. Yes, it has been difficult and not easy at times. At first, my wife and I were outsiders. We represented “them” in the “them vs. us” mentality. Today, I am very pleased to say that my wife and I are accepted as part of their family – a tiyospaye (extended family). One of the unique things about this congregation is that you become part of their tiyospaye. There are hugs and welcomes every single Sunday. This acceptance did not occur overnight; it took many trials and tribulations to build their trust. Their greatest fear was that United Methodist church would simply come in and take over, forcing them to change their Native ways without even taking the opportunity to learn who they are and how they do things. Yes, it is a reflection on the old “missionary” style approach. It is one of the reasons that we call Rocky Swamp an outreach ministry instead of a mission. However, rest assured that nothing that they do violates any of our principles as United Methodists.
I learned more about my faith and United Methodism than I would have ever imagined. I have been United Methodist all my life. Now, I faced a challenge of how to explain what it means to be Methodist to a group of people, some of whom have never been Methodist. What are our practices, principles, rituals, and routines? Are we rigid or flexible? Is tithing mandatory? Do you receive a bill in the mail for this? What does it mean when we say, as Methodists, that we treasure our “connectionalism” as a denomination? Why do you say “Holy Catholic Church” in your Apostle’s Creed? “I didn’t think you were Catholic.” And the list goes on. I found myself having to do research and exploring my own faith and denomination. I read The Book of Discipline more than ever! I was surprised that Keith had already read that book, had a great understanding of it, and actually approved of what was written in it.
The key to building the relationship was trust. I was open and honest. I didn’t always agree with either side. Yes, at times I felt stuck in the middle between our conference and their congregation. Over time, I learned to resolve and balance this position.
Today, the relationship between Rocky Swamp and our conference is stronger than ever. We are on the right path, the Good Red Road, in walking together as two peoples learning from one another and becoming one – a tiyospaye.
The church has been broken into several times. Even after placing a deadbolt on the back door, someone kicked in the door. On one occasion, someone stole the stove. The stove was vital as it was used to cook meals for the congregation on Sunday. Rev. Mary Green and her adult senior group adopted Rocky Swamp as a project. They were able to replace the stove and the broken refrigerator along with other repairs and painting. With tears in their eyes, Rocky Swamp members recounted the arrival of the stove and fridge. They said nobody had ever done such a thing like this for them before. The appliances were brand new and not previously used. The congregation is largely a congregation of limited means. The days that the United Methodist adult group spent with Rocky Swamp were an incredible relationship-building experience for all. The project ended with a meal and a traditional Native worship service on a Wednesday evening.
This past weekend, Pinopolis United Methodist Church partnered with Rocky Swamp. Rocky Swamp had a definite need for an industrial weed eater to maintain the cemetery. They had damaged three lawn mowers. However, they did not have the money to purchase one. Pinopolis wanted to experience a Native Drum as part of their Native American Ministries Sunday celebration. As a result, Rocky Swamp agreed to drum and Pinopolis made a significant contribution towards the purchase of the weed eater. For the Rocky Swamp people, it was their first time participating in a worship service within the United Methodist church. They felt warmly welcomed and appreciated. You can be Indian and Christian inside of the church with Native music, prayers, and focus being honored by all. We asked that all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of race, join us in the sacred circle. The church valued the experience as well.
On November 17th, Sara White (SC Conference Director of Congregational Development) and the Native American Committee members have been invited to participate in a worship service at Rocky Swamp.
Thanks to all of these efforts, the willingness to continue regardless of the circumstances, and the determination to overcome our barriers, we are moving forward with our relationship. We are in discussions about how to move forward with Rocky Swamp becoming a true United Methodist Native American Ministry (Mission) Church. We are talking about long-term plans including a local pastor. After everything that has happened, I cannot tell you how well it does my heart to see where we are at today. The progress has moved forward on a level that has never occurred before. It is just so great to see. Although I had my doubts, I am very privileged to be a part of this effort. I’ll say this again and again, when it comes to the United Methodist Church and Native peoples, there have truly been open hearts and open minds leading to new open doors. You can be Indian and Christian at the same time!
Rocky Swamp: Our Sources
1. Through the Test of Time, The Times and Democrat, Karl Burgdorf, August 28, 1994, pps. 1C, 8C.
2. Rocky Swamp UMC Church reopens Sunday, The Times and Democrat, Sonja Gleaton, June 16, 2001, pp. 2A.
3. Rocky Swamp Cemetery, Neeses, Orangeburg County, South Carolina, Interment.net, Archived June 29, 2019.
4. Trustees Hold M. E. Property: Titles Affecting Two Churches of Southern Branch on Record, The Times and Democrat, March 31, 1939, pp. 1A.
5. South Carolina Historical Records Survey, Anna L. Sinkler, Works Progress Administration, 1938.
Alan Keatts says
I was wondering how to obtain a picture of the Rocky Swamp Church. I am a family member of Jacob Stroman. My great-grandfather was Henry Walter Stroman. I love family history.
I have a much more detailed and accurate report about the history of Rocky Swamp that I’m happy to send to anyone who is interested.
SC Picture Project says
Hi Mary, we have tried to reach out to you in the past. If you know of information we have that should be corrected or expanded upon, please let us know. You may reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Troy Varnado says
Heir of Leonard Vernadeau and Sarah Hutto … I am deeply interested in this and anything related to the church and community.