As it does every year at this time, the historic Beecher Bible and Rifle Church in the small town of Wabaunsee will have its “Old Settlers’ Day” program this weekend, recounting the contributions of free-state settlers who came to the area 163 years ago.
“Old Settlers’ Day” services will begin at 9:45 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 27, with the church’s pastor, the Rev. Lynn Roth, 89, officiating.
A basket dinner will follow at noon.
Then, a program on the Underground Railroad will take place from 1:30 to 3 p.m.
People are welcome to attend any or all parts of the day’s activities, said Don Whitten, 85, a longtime member of the church.
“They’ll find out about history that’s not recorded in history books,” Whiten said. “There’s going to be a lot of good information for people who are really interested in history.”
Zona Galle, of North Newton, will be the guest speaker for the Sunday afternoon program. Galle is a descendant of the Platt family, which was instrumental in the early settlement of the Wabaunsee area in the mid-1800s, including the Underground Railroad.
The Beecher Bible and Rifle Church was founded in 1857 — 160 years ago — by free-state settlers who came to Kansas from Connecticut.
The church traces its history to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which stipulated residents would determine whether Kansas entered the Union as a slave or free state.
Anti-slavery proponents mobilized in New England, and moved in 1854 to what was then Kansas territory, prepared to fight for the cause of bringing Kansas into the Union as a free state.
Prior to leaving Connecticut for Kansas, the group met in the North Church in New Haven, Conn., and listened to the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Beecher announced if the congregation would purchase 25 Sharp’s rifles to send west, his church would buy another 25. Within a few days, funds were raised to purchase the rifles, in addition to 25 Bibles.
The rifles were placed in large wooden crates to accompany the Connecticut settlers on their way west. The crates were marked “Bibles,” so as not to arouse suspicion as the group trekked across pro-slavery lands on its way to Kansas.
The rifles were to be used by the settlers from New England to defend the free state cause, should the need arise. The Bibles were used for spiritual purposes.
Thus, the church was named after Beecher and the Bibles and rifles that the settlers packed for their trip to Kansas.
The congregation met in several locations around Wabaunsee after the original settlers arrived from Connecticut before settling into its present building, which was completed in 1862.
Wabaunsee became a stopping point along the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves from Southern states reach areas in the North where they could be free.
The Beecher Bible and Rifle Church — which is nondenominational — became a fixture in the community and continued long after the Civil War ended in 1865.
Services took place only once a year, on Settler’s Day, for several decades. Weekly services began again about 60 years ago.
“Old Settlers’ Day” started in 1932 as a program sponsored by national and state Granges, which sought to keep early American history alive.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971, the church is located about 45 miles west of Topeka.
To find the limestone church, take Interstate 70 to K-99 highway, then go north about 6 miles to K-18 highway. Take K-18 highway west for about 3 miles. The church can be found at Elm and Chapel streets in the southern part of the town of Wabaunsee.
Contact Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/.