Twenty years before the start of the Civil War, settlers began arriving in the Socrum area of North Lakeland, traveling in covered wagons and on horseback to reach a beautiful but wild area teeming with swamps, fertile land, game, panthers, bobcats and bears.
By August of 1851, William T. Rushing and his wife and Belinda Futch Rushing began hosting baptisms in a spring-fed pond on their property, called Indian Pond because of the Seminoles who had once lived along its shore. The congregation was serviced by circuit-riding ministers at the time, including Rev. J.W Hayman.
In October 1863, the congregation at Indian Pond was formally recognized as Bethel Baptist Church, with 19 members from families with names still familiar in Polk County. Early congregants included the Sherrouses, Raulersons, Rushings, Costines, Wilders, Laniers and Friers.
On Sunday, the church— arguably the oldest in Polk County — will celebrate its 160th anniversary.
“One hundred sixty years — you think about it. How does a church last that long?” asked Bethel Family Pastor Kendal Sherrouse, 36, who grew up attending the church at 3125 West Socrum Loop Road. “They came to a place they didn’t know and one of their first priorities was to establish a church. I think that has a lot to do with why we’re still here.”
The families spent their days raising cattle, sugarcane, citrus, strawberries and other row crops. They spent their Sundays gathered in a white clapboard schoolhouse and later sanctuaries, singing hymns and listening to pastors like the Rev. E.L. Todd and S.C. Sloan. The church was the center of their social life, as well as the heart of the spiritual community.
In 1862, Belinda Futch Rushing donated two acres of land to serve as a cemetery, with her son the first person buried there. Today, it is dotted by the grave markers of prominent Socrum families. The church and cemetery is multi-generational and the cemetery is a whose-who of early pioneers and Polk County leaders. Enoch Mizell was the Polk County Property Appraiser, tax collector, and census taker. The Bryants and Sloans were county commissioners and state legislators. Thomas W. Bryant, after whom the Lakeland High School football stadium is named, was a prominent Lakeland lawyer and was raised in Socrum. Robert Bryant donated land to build a sanctuary.
On special occasions, members climbed down the slope to the pond, where a pastor fully immersed congregants. The pond baptisms stopped in 1951, when a font was built inside the church. However, concrete steps with a railing still lead down to the waters, which is now fenced off with signs warning of alligators.
Between 1927 and 1929, the third sanctuary on the site was built, an imposing red brick structure with a grand staircase that still stands today. It is used as the youth worship center after the fourth sanctuary was built in 2006.
Sherrouse said the church used to be surrounded by citrus groves and he remembers the smell of Orange blossoms at Easter.
Pastor Clint Miller was appointed to lead the flock of about 300 after the much beloved Wayne Roberts died of COVID-19 in August 2021. Miller said Thursday that pastoring the church has been a joy.
“There are truly good people here who love the Lord, love the church and love the community,” Miller said.
The church’s sermons don’t end at the pulpit or on Sundays. Bethel Baptist partners with several North Lakeland elementary schools to provide supplies, clothing and even meals at Christmas.
“We utilize those relationships,” Sherrouse said.
In 2017, the church was recognized with an historical marker.
“The community of Socrum and its centerpiece, Bethel Baptist Church, was designated as a Polk County Heritage Site at the time with a ceremony and other activities to unveil the marker,” said Lois Sherrouse-Murphy, presidentof the Kathleen Area Historical Society, a museum assistant at the Polk History Museum in Bartow and a descendant of early Socrum pioneers. Pastor Sherrouse is her nephew. “It is hard to separate out the community from the church, as they are so entwined.”
Her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and brother were all deacons, trustees and served in other positions of leadership.
On Sunday, members will gather for 8:45 a.m. Bible study, 10 a.m. worship service, and then a traditional “dinner on the grounds” to celebrate the church’s 160th anniversary. The community is welcome to attend.
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