Submitted by Nelle Price Epps
Bethabara Baptist Church
by E. Keith Jones, Pastor
We don’t know whether the founders of Bethabara Baptist Church in northern Oconee County were students of Hebrew when they chose that name for the congregation, or if they simply liked the sound of the name they ran across while reading a favorite passage in the King James version. Whichever is true, Bethabara is an appropriate name. It means “house at the ford” or “place of passage” the church is located between the old pioneer ford of the Appalachee River (now US 78 bridge) and the crossroads of the Hog Mountain Road. The shallow water at the ford was used from the earliest days for baptismal services. Records note many members who were “received by experience” (i.e. converted) while attending a baptismal service for earlier converts.
The name Bethabara is found in John l:28.“This theme was continued when the present worship center was built in 1913, with one of the four main windows being a copy of a famous painting of Christ’s baptism.
Official church minutes, 1844-1855, were destroyed in a house fire, and the minutes for 1913-1919 were “borrowed” and never returned. There is also little concrete historical record of the community. The minutes of the Appalachee Baptist Association have been essential to the reconstruction of part of the history of the church.
There is dispute about the exact date of the formal constitution of the congregation as a church. In November 1882, at the death of a charter member, the founding date is given as September 4, 1844; however in August 1894 the church planned a special service September 3 to celebrate the church’s “semi-centennial’. Neither date holds with the Baptist custom of the day, which scheduled formal business for meetings for Saturday, and worship on the “Sabbath” or Sunday.
In the 1944 centennial history account of the church recounts how Miss Lucy Jarrel (later Hayes) rode horseback to area homes, soliciting help in building a brush arbor at the southwest corner of Hog Mountain Road and Athens-Monroe Road. She also rode over 150 miles to South Carolina to obtain an evangelist for the revival meeting. During or at the conclusion of the meeting, Bethabara wads formerly constituted with twelve charter members, nine white and three blacks. The ministers serving as the presbytery for the organizational meeting were Rev.’s John Hendricks, Hartwell Jackson, Sr., Samuel Churchill, and William Wright. The next day, several more members united “by experience.”
The same month it was constituted, Bethabara was admitted to the Appalachee Batist Association, meeting in 1844, with Sharon Church of Walton County. Their minutes record, “On application made, Bethabara and Pleasant Grove were regularly received as members of this association.” Rev. S. B. Churchill, who would be called in November as pastor of Bethabara, worked 50 days in 1843-44, as a “domestic missionary” for the Association, at 75 cents per day. He probably had encouraged the formation of Bethabara.
In 1844, the split between Missionary Baptists and Primitive Baptists was almost complete. The next year, North and South would split into separate denominations over the issue of whether or not to appoint slave holders as foreign missionaries. The controversy was already boiling in 1844. “No blame can attach to the South,” declared the assembled body. “The time has come when Southern Baptists should try to walk alone ad no longer submit to Northern dictation.”
Other concerns of the association (and presumably Bethabara) that year included preaching to “the blacks.” Mercer University, the “state of religion” in the area promotion of ”full time” or every Sunday preaching, the declining of Temperance, and Sunday School work, and the promotion of missions giving for the association and state convention. Next year, the establishment of the Southern Baptist Convention and its agencies was reported favorably. Mercer University was reported to have “five professors and a tutor.”
The church showed growth during its first dozen years, with some large numbers of converts due to revivals. Total membership in 1856 was 121. In that year, a deacon election was held, probably the first one since deacons were chosen soon after the constitution of the church (first deacons’ names missing due to burned records.) Two men, after some reluctance, agreed to serve. They were D. W. Jackson and G. E. Griffeth. It us not clear whether the former deacons had moved or died, or whether church growth justified more deacons.
In 1856, James S. Griffeth was elected “chorister” and twelve hymn books were bought. This is the first mention of the musical life of the church.
A conflict between a farmer and a widow on the neighboring farm led to formal charges and controversy in the late 1850’s. After several months of wrangling, the church lost several members. The January 1857 minutes plaintively Note: We as a church know to our Sorrow that there has been conflicting opinions among church members which we regret and now we as a church feel to invite all of those members to come back and take their seats again and let us try to bear each others’ Burdens and if we have done wrong let us forgive each other. (sic)
However, the next month, those who had withdrawn were accused of attempting to “constitute in the midst” (i.e. start another church), and were warned that if they tried to reunite with the church, they would be required to “make acknowledgement” (confession of this alleged wrong).”
By June 1858, most dissidents had “returned their letters” to the church, becoming full-fledged members once again. The contemporary practice of Baptists in that day was to grant letters of recommendation to members who requested them, with the idea that the members would almost immediately join another church of “like faith and order.” However it was a form of protest to ask for one’s letter, and hold it rather than uniting with another church. This practice continued in some areas of Georgia up into the living memory of this writer.
By the end of the decade, the church had once again had a healthy increase in members, with a total up to 208. The first seventeen years of Bethabara’s church life showed the start of concerns with a mission larger than the local area, a maturing process of dealing with the internal disagreements and membership discipline, the acquisition and improvement of a meetinghouse, and the conducting of at least three very successful revivals. The church seemed poised for a period of further expansion and ministry. However events of the Civil War/Reconstruction intervened, and not for thirty-five years would the church again attain the membership levels of 1859.
“May the 4th 1861…Unanimously adopted the following resolution, to wit: Resolved as we believe that these Confederate States are now Contending in a just Cause & believing that the Battle is not to the Strong but to them than fears and serves God; Therefore, we do appoint the Sabbath and Saturday before in June for fasting and praying and se do invite all Gods People to come and be with us on those day…(sic)”
Soon eight, “Bethabara Boyes,” as they signed themselves, would be writing home from camp in Portsmouth, VA. Confederate records show that two died of disease before serving 18 months, one each died at Malvern Hill, Fredricksburg, and Spotsylvannia; one, the pastor’s son and namesake, died of wounds at Gettysburg, and two were discharged, the first on disability in 1862, and the other following Spotsylvasnnia (1864), when his right arm was amputated. Other members, including the church clerk, would also serve in the Confederate forces.
At home, church life went on. Oct.5, 1861, the church asked former members to “bury the past” and return to active membership. They cooperated with Gov. Brown’s 1862 plea for a day of fasting and prayer. Fall, 1862 brought a special offering to raise funds for “colportrage among our soldiers.” In July, 1863, before news of young David Moncrief’s wounds or subsequent death could reach his father, the church was deciding to provide Rev. D.H. Moncrief with a suit of clothes for use in baptizing converts.
Following the war, a change in attitude toward black members had to take place. In August, 1865, three converts were still referred to as being “the property of…” despite the Rebel defeat. By January, 1866, however, a member is referred to as a “freed woman.” Across the south, black churches were formed over the next several years due to several reasons— first, some blacks now desired to take control of their own religious affairs; secondly, because most whites refused to share any real fellowship with in the churches on the basis of equality; and sometimes, because the active antipathy of whites led to blacks being forced out of churches. There is no evidence that this last reason was active at Bethabara. In fact, Appalachee Association minutes still showed at least one Oconee church with black members as late as 1885. As far as is possible to determine, the last black members dismissed by letter from Bethabara was in 1877. It is possible that other black members remained on roll until their death, but no concrete evidence exists for this. The race issue faded into the background for Bethabara until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, when the church by formal vote decided to welcome all persons who desired to worship.
Membership in the thirty years after the Civil War ranged from 113 to194. Items of interest gleaned from the minutes include: purchase of a pulpit Bible; 1871, construction of a new building and appointment of the first church Trustees; 1872, weekly prayer meetings on” Sabbath evening;” 1873, establishment of a Sunday school; 1878, committee for a church discipline; 1879, hosting statewide Sunday school Convention; 1880, building debt retired; 1882, establishment of Sunday school each Sunday, with the accompanying with that the church would soon follow with “full time” worship—a hope that only took 68 years to fulfill. The church continued to worship only one Sunday each month, most often the first Sunday. Other Sundays, members would visit in other areas churches, including the Christian and Methodist churches. Their members also attended Bethabara, accounting for the huge crowds at worship remembered by some older members.
The 1860’s brought a time of controversy over ethical matters. Members were prohibited from the manufacture, sale, or use of “ardent spirits” and from visiting the “dram shop.” However, not all members went along with this Victorian attitude: Charges of betting and dancing, though true, were rescinded against Bro.—and for the sake of harmony, dancing charges against two sisters rescinded.
In August, 1885, the church decided to take a quarterly offering specifically for mission causes. $10 was also raised to help support a ministerial student at Mercer. In 1891, the church, short of cash, sold the wood pickets around the graveyard to raise money to support a student at Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
In the early 1890’s, financial records of the church become more complete, with lists of how much each member was “assessed.” The writer wonders what reaction would result today if the church sought to “tax’ its members! It must have worked to a degree in the 1890’s for no protests are formally entered in the minutes. The last decade of the 1800’s and the first of the 1900’s showed an acceleration of progress, growth, and evangelism. One of the church’s pastors, Rev. H. R. Bernard, left to work with the state convention on an early systematic program of raising mission gifts. A new covenant and articles of faith were adopted by the church. Women of the church, probably under the leadership of the pastor’s wife, Mrs. W. S. Walker (a former missionary to China) began a Women’s Missionary Union. However, the pastor had to read the report of their work to the church conference, leading modern readers of the minutes to suspect that women were not allowed to speak in church.
From 1907-1911, several references in the minutes pointed up the need for either drastic renovations to the church house, or a new structure. Nov. 30, 1907, a committee was appointed to “cover” (i.e. roof) church: March, 1910, one to “fix leaks”; finally in December 1911, the three brothers J. Y., R .L., and H. A. Carithers proposed to build a new church building, with work to begin in 1913. The building committee was officially appointed in June 1912. Generally, the church members furnished labor (hauling sand for mortar, carpentry, etc.), while the Carithers brothers furnished most of the materials and furnishings for the meetinghouse. The stained glass windows and walnut pews which are still in use were installed at this time.
Membership had climbed to 331 by 1915. All time peak membership for the church was 1923, with 387 members. A correction of the records in the 1920’s plunged to the level of 218, and then in 1929, to 175, where it remained plateaued throughout the Depression.
Following the building of the present building (Cost $12,000!), the original building was used for school classes, some people are alive today (1989) who actually attended the school in the” old church.” It was sold in 1929, with the proceeds of $87.00 going to the church treasury. In 1931, a generator was purchased, but electric lights were not installed until mid-1938. In May of 1939, the church voted to have the Trustees install windows behind the pulpit area, but this was never done. Probably the Trustees did not have the money.
In 1941, the Baptist Young People’s Union (BYPU) a forerunner of the Discipleship Training program, held its Georgia statewide meeting at Bethabara. Later the Sunday school Convention was invited to meet here as well.
The church celebrated its Centennial a little early August 6, 1944, with Homecoming. A short history of the church was inserted in the minutes.
In 1949, plans were made for additional Sunday school space. This was paid for by the sale of timber from church property. The addition, dedicated in December, added eight rooms.
February, 1959 saw the church finally begin “fulltime” preaching. Vacation Bible School and Church Study Course programs were also mentioned that year.
In early 1956, the church voted to build a two story, 62’ by 30’ annex. Work was done mainly by volunteers, and continued several years. It was completed, along with a house to serve as a pastorium, by November, 1962.
The church had hired its first paid choir leader, Ms. Carolyn Langford in 1959. She was compensated the grand total of $6 per month for travel expenses.
The church parking lot was paved, a pictorial directory was produced, youth teams in various sports were organized, and various improvements to the buildings were carried out in the 1960’s and 70’s. The church was concerned with the widening of U.S. 78, but fortunately, the efforts of the church and historic preservationists saved the old pioneer well near the church from destruction, and the church was not adversely affected by the project.
Pastors of Bethabara have included: 1844 S. B. Churchhill, 1846 Bedford Crawford, 1848 J. G. McNorton, 1849 Hartwell Jackson, 1851 J. L. Loudermilk, 1854 J. G. Montcrief, 1866, Gus W. Nunnally, 1877, J. W. Butts, 1881, T. J. Swanson,1885, J. W. Butts, 1886, W. A. Brooks, 1888, W.A. Overton.1890 W.S. Walker, 1891 W. S. McCartey, 1892 H.R. Bernard, 1896, T.E. McCuthins, 1904 J. W. Mc Whorter, 1914 E.A. Fuller, 1918 W. H. Faust, 1921 C. W. Henderson, 1922 J. A. Crunkelton, 1924 J. W. McWhorter, 1929 J. B. Grizzle, 19332, W. H. Wrighton, 1934 J. W McWhorter, 1937 J. N. Saye, 1938 R. E. Carter, 1951 C. F. Tidwell, 1960 D. R. Fuller, 1967 J. C. Glenn, 1970 J. H. Davidson, Jr., 1976, Fulton
B. Bryan, 1982 Kerry K. Walker, 1986 Keith Jones.
In addition, several pastors have served as interim or supply preachers for short periods of time. Pastor Carter, who led the church from quarter-time first to half-and the full time status, had the longest continuous service as pastor. J.W. McWhorter, with an aggregate of eighteen years of service in three terms, had the longest total pastorate.
Buildings the church has occupied include the brush arbor at Hog Mt. Road and Athens Highway; a log cabin located near the back of the present cemetery, donated by James Griffeth, Sr.; the frame structure built in the 1860’s, used until the present brick building with the dome was built in 1913-14.
Recent church activities and ministries have included: the start of a tape ministry and one of Georgia’s largest Homebound ministries; acquisition of temporary educational space; adoption of a long range growth and ministry plan; complete renovation of the building and facilities including handicapped access; conversion of the land-based trust to capital-based for the purpose of building; and cemetery perpetual maintenance; mission trips; an enhanced Music Ministry under the leadership of Mrs. Robin Drewry (served 1978-1989) and Rev. Lamar Willis (1989-present); donation of nearly five acres of land to Georgia Baptist Children’s Home and Family Ministries for the construction of a Developmental Disabilities Home for six mentally retarded adult men; and plans fore expanded evangelism, educational ministry and membership growth as the area’s population swells in the near future.