Our Church History

They shall ask the way to Zion, With their faces toward it, saying, ‘Come
and let us join ourselves to the Lord In a perpetual covenant That will not
be forgotten.’   Jeremiah 50:5 (NKJV)

The history of Mount Zion is rooted deeply in the past and as this account unfolds, we note with grateful hearts the many contributions of the living and the dead to the facts herein.

The Mount Zion Baptist Church had its beginning a few years following slavery.  Our forefathers saw fit to organize a church of their own so that they and their posterities might be able to worship God under their own vine and fig tree.

Shortly after the days of slavery, a number of fathers and mothers of this community who believed in God felt the necessity of doing greater work for God and so began to hold weekly prayer meetings from house to house.  Soon it was found that the dwelling houses were too small to accommodate the crowds.  So, in the spring months of 1871, a selected place was chosen which appeared to them to be appropriate to take care of the crowds.  This was in a pasture on the Old Shell Plantation (across from Laurens District 55 High School).  They used old rail fence corners for an altar where the preacher could stand and preach.

In the early summer of 1871, in the old rail fenced corner, this church was organized by the late Reverend June Kennedy who was elected as pastor.  The church received her charter in 1873.  The pastor and church proceeded immediately to consider a place to buy.  As a result, on March 17, 1874, the congregation purchased 2-1/2 acres of land at the present site from A.V. Eichelberger, a white citizen of the community.  The congregation erected a brush arbor  on the site as a place to hold prayer meetings and worship services.

Attendance grew rapidly, but changes in the weather adversely affected services, so brethren began to seek materials to build a more permanent church.  Having recently emerged from the shackles of slavery, acquiring building materials for the church was very difficult.  After much prayer and searching, they purchased the abandoned Old Grove Methodist Church from a white congregation, tore it down and reassembled it on the present site.  The congregation purchased more land from Kitty Eichelberger on July 29, 1881 and from W. L. Gary on November 21, 1893.  The people in the community were ready to do even greater work for God and named the new church Zion.  The new name, along with the keener desire to develop a religious program, led the congregation to prepare themselves to perform the duties of the church.


The pastor and deacons organized a Sunday School, and not understanding what type of literature to use, they chose the Blueblack Elementary Speller to use as their Bible (or textbook).  After a short time, they found that the speller did not serve the purpose too well; so, they secured the Bible Catechism which was very popular in those days.  Through its use, many obtained a splendid knowledge of the Bible, enabling them to become acquainted with the work of the Sunday School.  They also concluded that the children as well as the adults should receive instructions.  During this time an order was sent to the American Baptist Publication for Sunday School books.  Three classes were formed.  The Sunday School later began to use books from the National Baptist Publishing Board in Nashville, Tennessee. Then four classes were formed.

The church connected itself with the Tumbling Shoals Association, which was established in 1879.  Mount Zion also connected itself with the Sunday School convention and the Union.

On the third Saturday night in July 1905,  tragedy struck.  The church burned to the ground.  The  church had no insurance, but was blessed with members who loved God and had the courage and stamina needed to rebuild.  A new and larger edifice was built with a bell that became known as the “Five Mile Tone” because it could be heard from five miles away.  Additional land was purchased from Fred S. Bishop on March 2, 1929.  For twenty-six years  “Five Mile Tone” rang for morning worship and funerals.

Then on Sunday, March 15, 1931, another fire engulfed the church.  Members were able to save the pews and the “Five Mile Tone” which rang three times before falling.  This time the church was partially covered by insurance.  The church was rebuilt in five months and was debt free upon completion, thanks to the generosity of members and friends.  Although “Five Mile Tone” had cracked in the fall, it was salvaged and once again rang for morning worship.

Several pastors served Mount Zion between its conception and the 1930s; among them was Reverend J. W. Mathis who served the church for twenty-six years.  Under his tenure the first Missionary Society was organized in 1937 and the Layman’s League was organized in 1948.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the pastors serving were Reverend T. R. Tolbert and Reverend L. C. Sanders.  Among the improvements implemented during that time were: a well was bored and equipped to supply fresh water to the building; a modern drinking fountain; an educational annex consisting of five new classrooms, an assembly room for Sunday School; two restrooms; a pastor’s study; an enlarged pulpit; a remodeled front entrance; a sidewalk and new steps; brick veneer on the outside and redecoration on the inside; and the installation of a new gas heating system.

On May 21, 1967, Reverend B. T. Sears, Jr. was installed as the nineteenth pastor of Mount Zion.  Under his leadership, the church began holding regular church services twice a month.  Shortly thereafter, services were held every Sunday.

During the 1970s, physical improvements made included air conditioning, a new piano, an organ, new carpeting and pews, pulpit and communion furniture, a public address system, a steeple and installation of stained glass windows.

Also organized during Reverend Sears’ leadership were the Deaconess Board, Hospitality Committee, Young Women’s Auxiliary and Children’s Church.

Mount Zion continued to grow and spread the Gospel and in March 1979 more land was purchased from Marigene Cleveland.

On November 30, 1980, Mount Zion called her twentieth pastor, Reverend Samuel B. Neely.  He accepted the call and the challenge, and presented his first pastoral proposals in December 1980.  These proposals included the basic concept which enabled the congregation to lay the groundwork for the building program which resulted in the June Kennedy Fellowship Hall; a church organizational chart; a unified budget-centralized treasury; a stewardship training and tithing program; the establishment of a church council; a revitalized program of evangelism and Christian education; the prison and nursing home ministries; and the publication of the first church newspaper, “The Zionette.”

On a cold afternoon on October 24, 1982, groundbreaking ceremonies were held.  Eight months later, June 26, 1983, the June Kennedy Fellowship Hall and newly remodeled sanctuary were dedicated to the glory of God.

On December 7, 1985, Reverend James H. Cokley was elected as our twenty-first pastor,  preached his initial sermon on December 15, 1985 and was installed on April 13, 1986.  Some of the programs initiated during Reverend Cokley’s tenure included the purchase of a new public address system, weatherizing and sealing the stained glass windows, resurfacing the parking lot, repainting the church, installing a new heating and air conditioning system and a new steeple with chimes.  He also instituted an audiotape and radio ministry to the sick and shut-ins and a van ministry, which provided transportation for members to get to church; a Senior Citizens group; a scholarship fund and a scholarship and incentive awards program; and tutorial help for students.  Youth outreach and retreats, as well as adult retreats were also initiated.

During Reverend Cokley’s leadership the congregation purchased a new church sign, a piano, an organ and built the “To God Be the Glory Recreational Park and Facility.”

In 1987 Mount Zion was incorporated by the State of South Carolina under the name Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

Reverend Cokley remained pastor until 1998.  Reverend Curtis Ingram served as interim pastor for one year and reestablished the Nursing Home and Prison Ministries.

On April 11, 1999, Reverend Stephen S. Lomax was installed as our twenty-second pastor.  During this period, a series of changes occurred in both the spiritual and physical aspects of the church:  increase in membership, lecture ministry during revival, restoring and reactivating many ministries of the church, reactivating Children’s Church, Pastor’s Aid Committee, Tuesday Bible Study and Fellowship, Wednesday Fellowship, Family Life Center building fund, scholarship committee, extending the parking area, installing new carpeting, and forming the S.S. Lomax Inspirational Choir.  Also, the Senior Citizens Ministry and After-School Program were added to the church activities.

Then in the early hours of  February 24, 2002, fire completely destroyed the church for the third time.  On that Sunday Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church opened its doors to Mount Zion members for morning worship service.  The next Sunday service was held at Beasley’s Funeral Home Chapel.  Thereafter, service was held at the Laurens District 55 High School Lecture Theater until May 2002, when it moved to Sanders Middle School until the rebuilding of the church.

First United Methodist Church graciously donated their facility to us for Tuesday and Wednesday Bible Study and Fellowship, as well as the Annual Revival services in August.  Tuesday Bible Study and Fellowship later moved to the Tumbling Shoals Baptist Center.  That year the Mount Zion church family and First United Methodist combined their Vacation Bible School

On May 4, 2002,  Mount Zion members and friends broke ground for a new sanctuary and construction began in September 2002.   Eager congregants watched with great anticipation as the building took shape.  On April 24, 2005, Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church members and friends held the first worship service in the new sanctuary – celebrating the 134th church anniversary. One of the most challenging experiences for the congregation and Reverend Lomax was the construction of the new Sanctuary and Family Life Center.

On February 12, 2006, Dr. Jefferson Nathaniel McDowell was installed as the twenty-third pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.  Giving all glory to God, Dr. McDowell’s vision for the future continued the legacy of faith, love, salvation, and fortitude in service to God, as set by the predecessors of Mount Zion.  Dr. McDowell  established new ministries and committees to better meet the needs of the congregation and community.  The Debt Retirement Pledge Program was established to reduce the principal of the church mortgage.

New ministries include preaching staff, marriage, fitness, media, transportation, and greeters.  Each ministry plays an integral role in ministering to God’s people.  Greeters are the hosts and hostesses of Mount Zion.  They know that first impressions are lasting impressions.  Therefore, they appreciate and welcome all who enter, and invite them to come again. Dr. McDowell licensed three associate ministers: Minister Cynthia Dorch, Minister Henry Anderson, and Minister Angie Harris.  They, along with Minister Carolyn Gibbs, compose the Preaching Staff Ministry.  Pastor McDowell served as their mentor and teacher.  The Marriage Ministry facilitates Christian workshops and Bible studies on relationships and provides opportunities to fellowship.

It is open to couples as well as singles considering marriage.  The Fitness Ministry educates believers about building better bodies to serve the Lord.  Its goal is to motivate, inspire, and educate participants to take a holistic approach to creating a more healthful and balanced lifestyle.  The Transportation Ministry provides a means for members and friends to attend Sunday School, worship, and many other events.   The Media Ministry began with cassette recordings, but under the guidance of Dr. McDowell, grew to include CD and DVD recordings of Sunday worship.  The ministry had also incorporated a presentation program that allows quick access to different versions of the Bible, as well as worship lyrics and background videos displayed on a screen for easy reading and enjoyment.  On Sunday, March 13, 2011,  the Sunday Morning worship service became available for viewing on Charter Communications Public Access Channel 15 twice weekly – on Sunday evening and on Wednesday morning.

A grant-seeking and grant-writing committee has been established to explore grant opportunities for the church.  A bus committee was also formed to generate funds for the purchase of a new church bus.  The bus committee exceeded its $20,000 goal for the bus within a year and is currently in negotiations for the purchase of a bus for Mount Zion.

In an effort to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the youth of the community during the summer, the Summer Enrichment Program was expanded and now serves nearly fifty students – free of charge.  The program is staffed by volunteers who provide academic and recreational activities, as well as breakfast and lunch.  The church has upgraded to a wireless internet connection which provides access to another educational tool for the Summer Enrichment Program.   Mount Zion also hosts a youth basketball league during the summer.  Approximately 140 youth from several churches in the surrounding area participate.

Dr. McDowell also established a Leadership Team consisting of all ministry coordinators, along with the church secretary and other church leaders.  The Team meets the first Tuesday of each month to report and discuss activities for the month.  This exchange of information allows ministries to be more effective and better able to support each other.  He also established a Youth Council to give the church youth a voice in church leadership as members of the Leadership Team. Last Wednesday Worship is another worship opportunity implemented by Dr. McDowell.  Members, friends, and community gather to worship at Mount Zion on the last Wednesday of each month.  Last Wednesday Worship continues to grow and attract more and more worshipers.

On February 24, 2011,  Dr. John T. Berry, Sr. and the Church and Community Human Relations of the Upstate honored Dr. McDowell as an “Unsung Hero.”    The award read “We salute & honor Reverend Dr. Jefferson N. McDowell as an Unsung Hero; for your excellence in leadership, commitment, dedication, inherent dignity, untiring labor and your unique perspectives in making a difference in bringing about a beacon light of hope, love, opportunities and perseverance to activate and promote goodwill and better quality of life for all people.  

Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church is a “Word-Oriented Church” and  Dr. McDowell taught worshipers to “Watch the Text” for themselves to know what God’s Word has to say.  He taught that it is God’s Word that we should use as the foundation for our daily lives.  It is this same Word that in 1871 compelled the founders of “Zion” to preach the gospel from rail fence corners in the pasture of a former plantation.  An American philosopher, George Santayana, once said, “We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.”  In 143 years the Word of God has not changed and will never change.  We are God’s people, doing God’s work, from God’s church.

Truly, the Mount Zion Church family has come a long way from the rail fence corners of 1871.  We honor the memories of Reverend June Kennedy and the men of vision who saw fit to organize this great church.  We honor their memories by dedicating the new edifice to service and edification of Almighty God.

We the members of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church pray that God will let us continue to carry on His work and dedicate ourselves to be a light upon a hill that may serve as a guide to Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour.