The History of Mount Gilead

Nestled along one of the many twists and turns of Holicong Road, tiny Mount Gilead Community Church perches on Buckingham Mountain, a silent witness to history. This small stone church and its adjacent cemetery are beloved by local residents and historians, who cherish what it means to the community. But, no group values the unpretentious little church more than the descendants of its original builders—for whom it symbolizes their heritage and their faith.

The Nineteenth Century

Mount Gilead measures only thirty-two feet by fifty-two feet, with one room at ground level and a partial basement. It sits on less than an acre of land at an elevation of five hundred feet on rocky, heavily timbered land unsuitable for farming. How did it come to be where it is?

Encouraged by the abolitionist sentiments of the local Quakers, freed blacks and runaway slaves built log and stone cabins on Buckingham Mountain in the late 1700s and early 1800s. These residents were served by circuit-riding ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) faith. By 1822, the congregation had 15 families, but no church building, so they likely met in their homes. Given the location of the congregation on Buckingham Mountain, the earliest AME histories referred to the congregation simply as the “Mountain.”

By 1834, the congregation had become large enough to build Mount Gilead, making it one of the oldest AME churches in Bucks County. Constructed out of logs on a stone foundation, the new church served as a meetinghouse or chapel and was built in the same style as one-room schoolhouses.

In 1843, a minister named Daniel Yeomans and his wife Phillis, a free black couple who by then owned the land, transferred title to Charles Yeomans, Thomas York and John Anderson for the sum of five dollars. These three men were church trustees.

Charles Yeomans, likely Daniel’s son, appears in the 1850 U.S. Census as a lime burner and in 1860 as a laborer. Thomas York was listed as a laborer in 1850, although he did own real estate worth $500. His place of birth is recorded as unknown, but there may be a simple explanation. A newspaper article from 1874 claims that he had escaped from slavery and would never speak of where he had been enslaved. John Anderson, the only one of the trustees on the 1843 deed who is known to be buried in Mount Gilead’s cemetery, worked as a farm laborer in Solebury for most years between 1853 and 1882.

The most famous resident of that era was an escaped slave named Benjamin “Big Ben” Jones, a man of massive stature and gentle disposition. After fleeing from his master William Anderson of York, Maryland, Big Ben lived on Buckingham Mountain for eleven years, sometimes venturing forth to work on the local farms. He was out chopping wood in the spring of 1844 when his former master and four other men including a famous slave catcher spotted him. They attacked Big Ben and despite his frenzied struggles, he was badly injured, bound up and transported to a slave prison in Baltimore to await sale to the Gulf. His price was $700, but he proved unmarketable because of his injuries.

A contemporaneous account of Ben’s capture is found in a letter dated March 23, 1844. Interestingly, the writer refers to him as little Ben:

The neighborhood talk for a few days past has been concerning the capture of that giant of a runaway slave known by the cognomen of little Ben. He was chopping in the woods when he was accosted by three strangers (his master and another person remaining in the carriage out of sight) who told him that he must go with them. He refused and they fell on him. Ben fought like a hero came near cutting one fellow’s head off with his axe but was at last so disabled by their clubs that he had to give up. That notorious character Squire Bailey is generally suspected of having given information of Ben. If guilty he ought certainly to feel the Negro’s vengeance.

Source: Letter from Richard [surname unknown] of Buckingham Township to Jacob F. Byrnes of Wilmington, Delaware, MSC 472, folder 6, Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, PA.

Having heard what occurred, the local Quakers convened a meeting and raised the funds to buy Big Ben’s freedom. He was brought back to Buckingham, but never recovered from his injuries and, when he could not work, ended his days in the local Bucks County Almshouse. His gravesite remains a mystery.

In 1852, the congregation rebuilt Mount Gilead out of rose quartz and iron-veined stones quarried from the mountaintop. They made the structure slightly larger and covered the stones with stucco. Once the builders had finished, the church was dedicated on November 20, 1853.

The foundation stones and at least one beam from the original church are still visible in the basement, which the congregation used as a Sunday school room. The church was illuminated with coal oil (kerosene) lamps and heated with a wood stove.

Newspapers in the 1850s and 1860s contain references to camp meetings, bush meetings and harvest homes, events to which both blacks and whites were invited and which served as fundraisers—including the one that financed the new church building. At one of these meetings, an inter-racial fight broke out, prompting the local newspaper to editorialize for tolerance:

The colored people assemble peaceably to worship, in their own way, at a place far out of the reach of any whites who do not purposely go among them. They extend no invitation to any but of their own color. They desire quiet and peace. The law says they shall be protected. And any interference with them is an outrage entirely unjustifiable, and worthy of severe punishment.

Source: The Doylestown Intelligencer, 1854.

Although historical records are sketchy, oral tradition holds that the little church was critical to the Underground Railroad. From Mount Gilead, which was used as a staging area, desperate people seeking refuge were led to the nearby caves on the mountain and given food and clothing. From there they either stayed to become part of the community of freed slaves working on local farms and quarries or resumed their journey north across the Delaware River and perhaps into Canada.

Mount Gilead embodies the paradox of a thriving church that on one hand made no secret of its existence and on the other hand facilitated the highly clandestine Underground Railroad. As if to illustrate this paradox, a fundraiser from 1863 was held on property belonging to the Trego family, known to historians as Underground Railroad conductors.

The obvious problem with attempting to provide a detailed history of the Underground Railroad is that the activity necessarily had to be carried out in secret. After all, congregation members were sheltering runaway slaves on the very mountain where the church stands. The explanation may lie partly in the determination of local farmers to guard the route to the mountain from slave catchers.

The geography of Buckingham Mountain was an asset to the escapees and the people who helped them. The rocky terrain provided caves and outcroppings useful as hiding places. Even today, the road over the mountain and past the church is lightly traveled.

For many years after the Civil War, the worship leaders continued to be itinerant preachers who served various congregations in the area. Historic records show that on April 7, 1890, the AME Steward Board paid its pastor sixty-seven dollars (a considerable amount) for his services, but he also served Mount Moriah AME Church in New Hope and Bethlehem AME Church in Langhorne. In 1892, however, the church acquired its own pastor named Thomas Tobias.

The church services were lively affairs. Walter R. Lewis, whose parents had been members of the congregation, recalled in a newspaper interview from the 1960s that people “got the spirit” and “pranced” up and down the aisle between the pews. Two services were held each week: one on Sunday plus a prayer meeting on Wednesday. Lewis also recalled the lively camp meetings that attracted white people to the mountain.

Based on census records, the black men who lived on Buckingham Mountain from 1850 to 1900 were mostly laborers, but some were farmers, servants, craftsmen such as tinsmiths and blacksmiths, merchants, barbers and school janitors. The women were usually listed as housewives. The population had a high literacy rate, which fit with the ethos of the AME church. The community was close-knit. The census records for those interred in the churchyard reveal multi-generational households and the adoption of kin as well as the children of other community members. Oral tradition places the population at one hundred families at its height.

However, by the end of the nineteenth century, migration to other towns such as Bristol, New Hope, Newtown, Langhorne, Solebury, Wrightstown and Doylestown caused the congregation to dwindle.

The Twentieth Century to the Present

By 1920, most of the old members of the church had died and many of the young people had either enlisted in the army or gone off to find better jobs. Church services were suspended and the building was abandoned.

In the 1930s an ordained Methodist minister named Reverend William Ruth was allowed to hold services at Mount Gilead in return for maintaining the structure. The white revivalist congregation members were known as “Wolf Rockers” after a nearby stone formation. One of those services proved to be a turning point in the history of Mount Gilead because Walter R. Lewis showed up—the same man whose parents had belonged to the congregation years before—and learned that the church was looking for someone to be its caretaker.

The year was 1936. By then Mount Gilead had been virtually abandoned and was in sorry shape. Mr. Lewis answered the call for a caretaker and volunteered. What he found was appalling. As Mr. Lewis recalled: “the door was off its hinges, windows were broken and weeds had completely covered the graves.” He proceeded to have a new roof installed, plastered the interior walls, put in new windows and locks, and tidied the graveyard.

Lewis also became the president of the Mount Gilead Association, which was formed to look after the church. Other members were Margaret Johns, Alvin Peaker and Ernest Johns of Philadelphia, Mildred Hopkins of Forest Grove and Irene Case of Lambertville.

In the late 1930s, the Hopkins family participated in an annual camp meeting at the church every May ahead of what was then called Decoration Day, the precursor to Memorial Day. The people who came laid flowers on the graves, cleaned up the grounds and picnicked. Meanwhile, their children played—including a little girl named Ethel Hopkins (Mildred’s niece), the great granddaughter of Moses Hopkins, a runaway slave who helped found the church. That little girl, now Ethel Quarles, vividly remembers the camp meetings, including the fundraising bake sale by Margaret Johns that benefited the church.

Services ended with the death of Reverend Ruth in 1955, but were revived in 1958 by the Reverend Jesse J. Roberts, a black minister from Hatboro. Unfortunately, by 1963 there were not enough interested members to continue regular services. Sadly, the church was reduced to holding the occasional funeral.

Through it all, for at least 37 years, Walter Lewis continued maintaining the church and repairing vandalism to the structure and the cemetery.

Since it was built, little has changed in the outside appearance of the church, although a vestibule was added to the front in approximately 1940. The stucco was removed in the 1950s and the stones were repointed by a skilled mason named William Hopkins in the 1980s. John Quarles, who married Mr. Hopkins’ niece Ethel, recalls him stubbornly declining any assistance and working on the stones bit by bit whenever he had spare time off from his job.

A non-functioning privy still stands alongside the building. An adjacent third of an acre, donated by Sandy and Tom Barford in 1991, serves as a parking lot.

The church remained unused until 1971, when William and Mildred Hopkins introduced an Easter Sunrise service led by Reverend Barrett. Three years later, they added a Memorial Service led by the Reverend Alberta Lee, a black evangelist from Langhorne.

Reverend Lee presided over the weddings of Moses Hopkins’ great-great-grandsons Bruce Quarles in 1984 and John Edward Quarles, Jr. in 1986 at Mount Gilead. Even more touching, on April 7, 1985, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the church, she baptized John’s son John Edward Quarles III (known as Little John or LJ) at an Easter Sunday sunrise service. This means that the seventh generation of the Hopkins family—the great-great-great grandson of a slave—became part of the living history of the church.

At the Easter sunrise service held at Mount Gilead in 1994, Reverend Lee spoke movingly of God’s calming presence in a world whose values often seem at odds with people of good will.

Reverend Robert Jacobs from the Forest Grove Presbyterian Church subsequently joined Reverend Lee. After Reverend Lee retired in 1997, several local pastors have led services including Reverend David Jackson and Reverend John Toller, both from the Second Baptist Church in Doylestown, and the Reverend Lillian Gail Moore of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Newtown. Reverends Jackson and Moore are currently the co-pastors of Mount Gilead. A number of the descendants of the church founders still live in the area, including some who serve as ministers at the church services. They gather to remember the struggle for freedom embodied by Mount Gilead.

The services incorporate prayer, preaching, hymns and special music provided by local soloists and musical groups from area churches. For many years, choirs from the Macedonia Baptist Church in Newtown and the Conover Sisters (Ruth and Glenice Conover and Grace Jackson) and the Langhorne Trio participated in the services. As the attendance at the Easter and Memorial Services increased, additional services were offered: a Giving Thanks service in the fall of 2002, a Christmas Eve service in 2006 and a Hymn Sing service in 2008.

After Memorial Day services, those in attendance assemble outside the church to listen to a reading of the Gettysburg Address outside the church. For the last few years, the reading has been done by Harold Vereen, the Chairman of the Operating Board of the Mount Gilead Community Church.

Awful as it is to contemplate, starting in the 1970s the church was repeatedly beset by vandalism, which forced caretaker William Hopkins to make frequent repairs. One thief was low enough to steal the original bible.

William Hopkins did his very best. Here is how the church looked when a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer stopped by in April 1992:

Inside, all is spotless. The walls are painted lime green; Hopkins paints a wall or two each year. A bedside table lamp sits in each of the four windows; red runners line the wood floors. Next to the white wood altar stands an old piano. A rug depicting the Last Supper hangs in the vestibule. Hymnals, piled high in the pews, date from 1948.

In June 1992, after vandals smashed the door, overturned headstones, ripped screens and broke windows, the Buckingham Township Civic Association decided to help out. Under the leadership of then-president Laurie Baker, ten or fifteen volunteers came to renovate and paint. They spent four days over the course of two weekends. Former Buckingham Supervisor Janet French fondly remembers how grateful and appreciative William Hopkins and his wife Mildred were—they even surprised the volunteers with lunch.

In 1998, the church was electrified in order to accommodate an alarm system. With the installation of this system, donated by the Croce family who owned Holicong Alarms and Locks, vandalism was reduced substantially and has remained low. As a bonus, electric lighting replaced the coal oil lamps, an oil-fired hot air furnace replaced the hand-fired coal stove, and electric fans were installed.

The church has no funding except for donations and offerings at the worship services. It survives with this modest amount of money and significant donations of labor by volunteers. In 2011, the whole interior of the church was refurbished just in time for Christmas Eve services. Estimates from painting contractors were in the five thousand dollar range. With the help over thirty volunteers, the work was accomplished for slightly over five hundred dollars.

Under the guidance of the Operating Board of the Mount Gilead Church formed in 2014, the church will continue holding services and may eventually host small weddings and receptions, provided that chemical toilets can replace the privies. The wooden floor, now painted, may be restored to polished wood. The church is in caring hands.

Generations of Stewardship

In the nineteenth century, a runaway slave named Moses Hopkins who had sought sanctuary on the mountain helped found Mount Gilead and became its caretaker. After Moses died in 1886, he was buried in the adjacent churchyard, where he was later joined by at least sixteen of his descendants. That will not be the end of the lineage, however. The Hopkins family still holds the deeds to six more plots.

For many years, the Hopkins family was critical to the maintenance of the church. Moses’ duties were assumed by his son Perry, who died in 1930. Care of the church then fell to Moses’ grandson, and—later in the twentieth century, after Walter Lewis could no longer do the work—to Moses’ great-grandson William “Bill” Hopkins. In fact, it was William Hopkins who had a gravestone installed for Moses.

William and his wife Mildred watched over the church and maintained the structure for decades. After William died, Mildred carried on his duties, working with a man named John Reinhardt and his Men’s Club friends from Forest Grove Church and the mountainside. Mildred made sure to collect dues every year to support Mount Gilead. She ultimately turned over the maintenance to Mr. Reinhardt in the late 1990s. Mr. Reinhardt was filled with gratitude for the Hopkins’ work, writing that they “cared for the church with unselfish and loving efforts” and that it was his “honor and privilege to follow after them.”

With the support of his family, John Reinhardt served as caretaker for the next fifteen years. He was proud to give tours of the church and the churchyard and often recalled how he had met a freed slave when he was just a little boy. Mr. Reinhardt’s grandson created a quaint plywood marker with wood burned text that informed passersby about the history and significance of the building. The sign stood mounted on a post outside the church for years until it weathered away.

When John Reinhardt died on November 2, 2014 at age 79, his obituary requested that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions in his name could be made to Mount Gilead Church, thus reflecting one last kindness to the community by his family. After his death, Macedonian Baptist Church in Newtown assumed Mr. Reinhardt’s caretaking duties.

The Buckingham Township Civic Association noticed the loss of the plywood sign. After working with a committee from the Macedonian Baptist Church to design a new sign with removable letters to publicize upcoming events, the Association paid for it to be created and installed. Set in place in 2015, the sign proudly proclaims the building to be the Mount Gilead Community Church, a reflection of outreach and inclusion.

The dedicated caretakers of Mount Gilead—in particular, the multi-generations of the Hopkins family, Walter R. Lewis and John Reinhardt—have saved it from the sad fate of a neighboring AME church in New Hope, which dates from the same era. That church, Mount Moriah, descended into ruins in the 1950s and now exists only as a small cemetery in a private backyard. By contrast, Mount Gilead continues to function as a church with devoted followers, both black and white. It currently has an Operating Board led by the Macedonia Baptist Church to watch over it, and it has received historical recognition as part of the Historic Buildings of America Survey of the Library of Congress.

The church also benefits from its neighbors on the mountainside, who quietly keep an eye on it on a daily basis.

Mount Gilead Community Church remains a potent symbol of community struggle and redemption. Little wonder that so many people treasure this small sanctuary.