ATF rules church fires arson - 'an act of persecution'

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Trinity United Methodist Church in Brownsville, Tennessee, was completely destroyed by arsonists Jan. 7. | ABC 24 Memphis/screen capture

MEMPHIS (Christian Examiner) – The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonists responsible for two church fires near Memphis, Tenn., in January.

At the time of the fires, one church pastor said if ruled an arson it would be considered "an act of persecution."

On Jan. 7, fires occurred at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Brownsville and the Cowboy Non-Denominational Church in Henning, both roughly 40 miles from Memphis and on the same rural highway. Trinity United Methodist was completely destroyed. The Cowboy Church suffered $20,000 in damage.

The ATF said May 1 that samples taken from the scenes were sent to the ATF laboratory for analysis. "The ATF Laboratory determined the presence of ignitable liquids from the samples taken from the church scene. The laboratory reported combined with the scene examination concluded the fires were intentionally set," the statement said.

Trinity UMC was organized around a Methodist camp meeting in 1822, according to the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church. The church's cemetery was established in 1859, though a historian for the Conference said the earliest headstone there dates to 1837.

John Bonson, the church's pastor, said the church would recover.

"The buildings were destroyed, but the church was not," Bonson said after the fire. "We will rebuild and be part of the community and show Christ to the community."

Bonson has also said the fire was "an act of persecution" if arson was found to be the cause.

A third church in the area – Springfield Baptist Church in Ripley – may have also been a target. Investigators said the church was the site of an attempted break in the same night.

On April 25, authorities in northwest Harris County near Houston arrested and charged a 20-year-old man with setting fire to a church there earlier in the month. Brandon Hancock was seen running from the church into the woods nearby after the fire started. Following his arrest, he confessed to setting the church on fire. The John Wesley Methodist Church suffered significant damage.

Church arsons are not uncommon. In December 2014, the Epiphany Byzantine Catholic Church in Roswell, Ga., was set ablaze. Police arrested the man suspected of setting that fire. A month earlier, the Carswell Grove Baptist Church in Millen, Ga., was also burned to the ground. Fire marshals said arson was also the cause of that fire.

A litany of church arsons in the late 1990s led the U.S. Justice Department to form the Church Arson Task Force.