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At old Bethel: Church records a family feud

(From The Clarke Courier dated 30 8mo 1990.)

At old Bethel: Church records a family feud

Posted: Thursday, August 30, 1990.
By Susan Bowers
Courier Staff Writer
The Clarke Courier

     Family feuds of the 1990's may end up in the pages of the National Enquirer. One hundred and fifty years ago, such family squabbles found their way into the minutes of the local church.

     Before Dr. Pete Gustin, one of the guest speakers at the fifth memorial service at Bethel Church, read details of one such family dispute, the building rang loud again with the sounds of music he lead.

     The Rev. Gustin arrived in Clarke County last month to take over the duties at Cunningham Chapel Episcopal parish. He has preached in Episcopal parishes in Alexandria, Springfield, Ashland, and Hanover Courthouse.

     Caroline McKay, a descendant of Elizabeth Kerfoot Sowers, opened the program by reading the preface of a hymnal written by Sowers for Bethel in 1849. Sowers was an active member of the Baptist congregation there and is buried in its graveyard. Sowers was also caught in a dispute between her husband and her brother over her mother-in-law's will, a dispute that ended up in the minutes of the Bethel Church.

     Guest speaker Dr. Hugh Heclo, a former professor at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke from the minutes written in the 1800s. The minutes kept back then, contained the sins of everyone in the congregation, from the wealthy land owner to the slaves.

     From the reading of the minutes, it is apparent that the people who worshiped at Bethel aired their sins in front of the whole congregation. One such dispute dealt with the will of Catherine Sowers.

     It seems that Sowers' son James had altered her will to benefit himself. He however ran afoul of his brother-in-law, John Kerfoot, who had leased some land to Mrs. Sowers and, for 23 years, had received no payment. Kerfoot thought he deserved something from the estate. His sister, Elizabeth, wife to James, was caught in the middle.

     The dispute was settled by the church committee. They said that Kerfoot's claim was unsubstantiated, however, James should voluntarily give Kerfoot $1,840 which would have covered the cost of rent for 23 years. The men were given two days to decide whether to accept the decision.

     Kerfoot announced that, although he felt that he was owed the money, he would drop the matter to heal the wounds that had been caused by this argument. James then took the money that he was planning to give to Kerfoot as restitution and donated it to the church.

     The moral obviously was that each sacrificed his own gain to make things better for the whole.

     After reading from the minutes, the Rev. Gustin said that he was thankful that people no longer kept track of their petty differences.

     After the service, the participants met on the front lawn by the graveyard and enjoyed a pot luck lunch.

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