A Brief History of the Big Cove Cumberland Presbyterian Church
Organized as the Mount Pleasant Society in 1816
by William Sibley
The Big Cove community is located at a point beginning about four miles south of Huntsville, Alabama, which serves as the county seat of Madison County, Alabama. The main traffic through Big Cove is by way of Highway 431, which runs the Huntsville-Guntersville route.
Big Cove is bounded by Monte Sano Mountain, Green Mountain and Flint River.
The writer of this article has in his possession several family histories of early settlers of Big Cove. One family had a surveyor working in Big Cove as early as 1792 while Big Cove was still a part of the Georgia Territory. Later, this family settled in Big Cove. Other families claim to have ancestors in this area as early as 1804 or 1805. But, it was in 1808 when some of the settlers came to Big Cove to claim land that had been given to them for their service in the American Revolutionary War. These early settlers came mainly from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and were of Irish, English, Scottish, and Welsh descent.
After 1810, a flood of immigrants came to Big Cove, making it very evident to these former American colonists that a church was very much a priority. However, almost all of these settlers were farmers and found that it was very difficult to let go of farming while row crops were in the fields and animals had to be fed all the year. This was the case in 1816, when a young minister named Rev. Robert Donnell came riding a horse through the Big Cove countryside. He was stopping at farmhouses and explaining that he was wanting to establish a church in the community. These farmers were very pleased that Robert Donnell had come to their community because many had heard him preach sermons in the Huntsville, Alabama area earlier. Some records indicate that he was preaching in Huntsville as early as 1806, but other records say that it was 1809 when he first came to the Huntsville area.
Rev. Donnell discovered that the men found it was impossible for them to leave their fields of row crops and other necessary farm chores long enough to start a church. This did not deter two women of the community, Margaret Pickens, a middle-aged woman, and Jane Middleton, a teenager, who became the two founding members of the Mount Pleasant Society in 1816, the church that would later be called the Mount Pleasant Cumberland Presbyterian Church and in the middle 1950s, would become known as Big Cove Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Also, 1835 session minutes refer to the session's convening at Cedar Grove Meeting House. It is possible that this could have been a name that the church used for a while.
The Big Cove Church was founded three years before Alabama would achieve its statehood in 1819. At the time of its founding, the church was a part of the Mississippi Territory. The earliest members at Mount Pleasant had James Madison as their President of the United States. Also, Abraham Lincoln was only seven years old. Cars, radios, television, and other inventions that are taken for granted in 1995, were many decades away at the time of the Mount Pleasant Chruch's founding. The earliest pioneers of the faith in Big Cove persevered during hard times and established a strong church, one which still stands in 1995.
The first membership roll was not furnished for many years, however the first available roll shows that there were probably 69 charter members. This still may not be the exact number because many members whose names appear in the session minutes do not appear on the membership roll.
The first elders were Joseph Pickens, son of founding member, Margaret Pickens, Silas Brazelton, son-in-law of Mrs. Pickens, John H. Dickson, William Wright, and James Poor. The first session members and elders of succeeding times held tight reins on the members of Mount Pleasant Church, disciplining members several times and also disciplining members of the session itself. Members were either forgiven, suspended, expelled, or cut off from the privileges of the church for not acting or behaving as a child of God as viewed by the session.
During the 1830s and 1840s, the session notes consistently read, came forward and gave an account of his/her experimental religion and was received. Baptism would follow. During one service on September 10, 1839, twenty-eight new members were received into the fellowship of Mount Pleasant Church, with five additional members on September 15th of the same year. One record says of members of that era, Five came forward and gave a relation of their experience in religion, were received by the session and baptized.
One of the early session minutes read in 1852, A.D., Sept. 18, that the Rev. Robert Donnell revisited the church at Mount Pleasant and delivered an appropriate address on infant baptism, after which, six families had their young children baptized in infancy. The names of the families are given in the notes of 1842.
From 1849 to 1851 a new church building was under construction and the church held services in a nearby school. This would have been the Drake School, which was built for the descendants of Captain John Drake of the American Revolutionary War, who had two grandsons who were circuit riding ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. One of these grandsons, Rev. John Henry Drake, served as pastor at Mount Pleasant Church during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, but not continuously. The other grandson was Rev. Thomas Benton Drake. Rev. John Henry Drake named three of his sons for the founding fathers of the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, giving each son a surname of the founders. As a footnote to the Drake School--the school was in session from 1845 to 1892 and served other children of Mount Pleasant Church.
Mount Pleasant had a public school located on its second floor. It is believed that the church began operation in 1854 when Madison County began operating its first public schools. One of the Mount Pleasant elders was serving on the first public school board of education in Madison County in 1854, serving also in the Alabama legislature. Another elder from the first five served as a school trustee in the latter part of the 1850s in a nearby public school of Madison County.
Mount Pleasant Church found itself involved in a very touchy situation when the U.S.A. Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church officially became one church body in 1906. The session had votes for and against the merger. Relatives were serving as elders and voted differently. The majority voted for merger, but the community would not accept the vote as being official. Communication was slow, and also, many of the members did not understand the issue. The result was two churches, which were located only yards apart. For awhile, the groups alternated meeting in the morning and afternoons. Then the Cumberland group met for awhile in the Campground Public School, which had originally been the Mount Pleasant Public School which met on the second floor of the Mount Pleasant Church.
In 1913, the Cumberland Presbyterian group began meeting in a building that it had constructed on land that was donated by John Broad and his wife, Ollie McGaha Broad and the F.M. Cowley family. This was about 60 to 100 yards from the meeting place of the U.S.A. Presbyterian group. In 1948, the Cumberland Presbyterian group constructed a new building on Highway 431, south of Huntsville, Alabama, on land that was donated by Worthem Drake, his wife, Nora, and Worthem's mother, Ruth Lyle Drake Cowley. That 1948 church building had had many additions since its first construction, but remains as the place of worship of the present (1995) congregation.
Mount Pleasant has always changed with the times to meet the needs of a contemporary society. This is evidenced by the fact that Mount Pleasant (Big Cove) has many ladies serving on its session. Elderesses and Deaconesses have served Big Cove for many years. Also, a lady minister, the Rev. Evelyn Brodeur, has pastored Big Cove for several years. This is in keeping with the Cumberland Presbyterian tradition, which had ordained a lady minister in the 1880s and ordained lady elders in the 1890s.
Today, Big Cove has a membership that is less than it had in the 1816 era, but it maintains a regular ministry that is open to everyone. The Big Cove community is one of the fastest growing communities in the southeastern United States, and the church that was established as the Mount Pleasant Society of 1816 stands ready to serve the Big Cove community in 1995 as it did to serve the people of Big Cove during the James Madison administration.