WHITE OAK CHURCH FADES INTO HISTORY - Frescoes Adorn Interior, Burns Was Hardshell Baptist


The White Oak Baptist Church is quickly fading and falling.

Frescoes adorn the ceiling and walls, likely painted about 1902

By Bob Weaver 2010

It was a short trip over the mountain for the Rev. Hugh Burns (1825-1880) from Uler, Roane County to White Oak, near Chloe. Burns was a well-known walking stump preacher and circuit rider in the late 19th century.

Burns and his son, the Rev. William Burns knew the trails and primitive roads through Roane, Calhoun, Gilmer and Kanawha counties, pastoring and establishing dozens of churches throughout the region.

By 1876 he helped organize the White Oak Baptist Church with 30 members, described as Old School or Hardshell Baptist.

Hardesty's history says the church was a split from "the Baptist beliefs" in Grantsville, with early Washington District families like Witt, Miller, Conley, Burns, Parsons, Jarvis, Bullard, and Duffield being members. C. A. Witt was one of the deacons by 1917

It was likely the elder Burn's son, Rev. William Burns (1849-1910), who was the shaker and mover in the early White Oak Church. Rev. William married Florinda Stump in 1869, of the early Stump family of Gilmer and Calhoun.

Rev. William Burns expanded the mission of his father, establishing churches throughout the central West Virginia region.

He was the first pastor of the Enon Baptist Church near Grantsville in 1900. Rev. William and Florinda had twelve children, many of whom become well-known citizens of Calhoun and Roane county.

Rev. Hugh's other son, Rev. Anderson Burns, returned to native Clay County, Kentucky to become one of America's best-known mountain preachers, establishing the Oneida Institute in 1900.

Oneida Institute was the first school to bring public education to the remote area.

Rev. Anderson Burns said, "My father, Hugh Burns, was the only man I ever knew who actually lived in accord with his convictions."

The Burns' relocated in Roane County during the Civil War days, escaping the bloody family feuds of their native Clay County, Kentucky.

The story of the Burns' coming to the region was published in "The Crucible-Burns of the Mountains," further revealed in "Dawn Comes to the Mountains," a photo book of early Clay County KY, still the most poverty ridden area in Kentucky.

Robert Conley examines documents of the churches history

Conley rests on the porch of the Billy Conley homestead on Oka Road

White Oak Church ledgers from the late 1800s and early 1900s have alphabetical listings, recording a huge membership.

Robert Conley, the grandson of Billy and Laura White Conley, early members, now lives on the old Conley homestead on Oka Road.

Conley, his sister Ann, and other family members attended the church during its' heydey, while Ann continued to be a stalwart member and leader.

Despite disrepair, the interior frescoes remain crisp over 100 years later

Conley, the son of Sam Conley, says the ornate painting of the walls and ceiling of the church was done when a second structure was built in 1902 by an unknown artist. "My folks always said it was done by carbide lights," he said.

"I've got boxes of the historic records of the White Oak church from my family," he said, a who's who of people who lived in the community.

Conley returned to his home-place in 1999 after living in Akron OH since 1960, having a career as a construction and coal company worker with a stint in the Air Force.

The White Oak-Oka Rd. area is still farm country

The last service in the church was held in the 1980s, now standing empty in disrepair, a fading monument to its' glory days.

Efforts have failed to get the church on the historic register, and the building was too large to move to Calhoun Park's Heritage Village.

Paul Webb reports there is another duplicate of church painting over the mountain from the White Oak Church at Tariff's Henrys Fork Baptist Church.

Webb said there is a house on Canoe Run near Linden that has a room painted that way, with lore saying that the traveling gentleman painted the room to pay for some room and board.

The old piano still rests in the coroner

Editors Note: Burns, the early ministers, are my great=grandparents, also written about in "Mountain Rising" by Darrell C. Richardson. - Bob Weaver