A HISTORY OF
Bethesda Baptist Church
Union Point, Georgia 30669
About the Author
Richard Noegel is a native of Augusta, a graduate of Richmond Academy and the University of Georgia, and a veteran of the United States Army. Employed as a writer and editor by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of his chief avocations is studying the history of his beloved native state. He is the father of two children.
I've always had an affection for trivia and historical facts. So it was not unusual for me after arriving at Bethesda to want to know her history. Surprisingly, most of the members knew little except what they had read in Ellis Sorrow's book "A History of Bethesda Baptist Church."
After reading this book many questions surfaced: "Where was the plat which showed the Bethesda Spring on church property?" "Were the iron rods near the ceiling an original part of the building?" "Where was the Bible given by Jesse Mercer?" "What were the emotions of the Church during the War Between the States?" These and other questions I felt would be answered if I could only find the time to read all the minutes! But year after year went by, and the time did not come.
During the spring of 1995, a very gifted man by the name of Richard Noegel showed up at Bethesda. He was writing a history of old church buildings in Georgia and wanted to get some information about Bethesda. Not only did he request permission to use a picture of Bethesda's meeting house, but after reviewing Mr. Sorrow's work, he volunteered to write a history of Bethesda Baptist Church. He immediately enlisted me as the research person and borrowed the church's copy of "A History of the Georgia Baptist Association", co-authored by Dr. Waldo P. Harris, III.
About two weeks later, much to my surprise, I received Richard's first correspondence, 18 pages of questions! Many hours of research were spent not only finding these answers but also in condensing the years 1970-1996 for inclusion in his work.
Our work did answer some of my early questions but not all of them. With this in mind, I pray that future leaders of the church will remember that today's current events are tomorrow's history. I encourage them to make the necessary provisions to ensure correct posture. recording, and safe-guarding of the Church's records. This will allow future generations to not only know but understand our current events.
Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this effort.
Penfield Christian Home
Union Point, Georgia
Towards the end of the American Revolution, people began migrating to Georgia in large numbers, mainly from Virginia and the Carolinas, and settling, for the most part, in the Piedmont region. This migration continued unabated even after the Revolution ended. Indeed, the first Census of the United States, taken in 1790, found Wilkes County the second most populous in the state, after Chatham. After the success of the Revolution, new counties began to be formed: Columbia, Lincoln, Greene (where Bethesda church is located), Hancock, Warren, Oglethorpe, and others. New settlements sprang up in the sylvan fastness of the Georgia frontier: Louisville, Greensboro, Sparta, and Lexington, among others. Moving to Georgia in those days was considered "going west," and speculation in real estate was fast approaching a fever pitch. The 1790s would see the infamous Yazoo fraud and scandal in Georgia and throughout the country and would see the country come to the brink of civil war as Georgia's General Elijah Clarke forded the Oconee River and set up his Trans-Oconee Republic, with himself as its leader. The Great Awakening was only just ending, and the effects of such a great spiritual revival were being felt throughout the fledgling republic.
Although not all the new arrivals in Georgia were Baptists, all alike were faced with the necessity of organizing themselves into regular, functioning congregations and of constructing not only dwelling houses for themselves and their households but also houses of prayer--places set aside for "the public worship of God." Bethesda Baptist Church has its origin in this turbulent and exciting period.
One of the new arrivals was the Reverend Mr. Silas Mercer, who came to Georgia from his native North Carolina. It was a major part of Mr. Mercer's calling to organize the Baptists of Georgia into regular congregations. To that end, the venerable saint labored tirelessly in the Lord's vineyard and had the joy of seeing Providence crown his efforts with repeated successes. One of those successes was Bethesda Baptist Church, which was organized in 1785 under the name of "the Baptist church at Whatley's Mill." (The name would be changed to Bethesda in 1818.) Mr. Mercer became the congregation's first pastor.
A veteran of the Revolution, one Samuel Whatley, is said to have donated a small plot of land for construction of a meeting house in memory of his parents, who had been killed by local Indians. Services
may have taken place in a log church building originally, but it is likely that services were held in a local grist mill that belonged to Samuel Whatley.
Virtually no records at all survive to illuminate for us today the congregation's life from its founding in 1785 until 1817. Nobody knows why. But it is interesting to note that when they were restoring the window shutters in the mid-1980s, church members discovered evidence of fire damage on some of the shutters, which could indicate that they had been salvaged after a fire and used in the present building, which was completed in 1818. Moreover, the congregation's earliest existing record dates from 1815, the same year in which the congregation began planning to build the present building. Thousands of bricks were needed for construction, and since the bricks were made on site from clay that was dug on site--a time-consuming process--then construction must have begun in 1815 or 1816. It is possible, however, that the congregation may have had more than one building before the present one, and the records may, therefore, have been lost in some other way. For example, if the clerk or the pastor or some other church member had kept church records at home, let's say, rather than at the church, then a fire that destroyed the church may not have destroyed the church's records at the same time. What is certain, however, is that the congregation began planning for a new building in 1815 and that the church's earliest existing records date from that same year. Thus it appears that the church's pre1815 building and records disappeared at the same time--about 1814 or 1815.
Although the church's records are complete from 10 August 1817 to the present, the congregation's history from its founding until 1817 is undocumented, which is. however, not to say unknown. There exists even today a friendly rivalry between Bethesda church and nearby Phillips Mill Baptist Church (Wilkes County) as to which is the older of the two congregations. Phillips Mill church having been organized in 1785 also. But local tradition holds that at the time of its organization, Whatley's Mill Church (now Bethesda) was the only organized Christian congregation within twenty miles. One thing, however, is certain: Bethesda church is one of the very oldest Baptist congregations in all of Georgia. It ought to be recalled that only 15 years earlier (before the Revolution) in the part of colonial Saint Paul's Parish that is now Columbia County, royal authorities had broken up a group of as-yet unorganized Baptists and had arrested the Reverend Daniel Marshall on the spot as he knelt in prayer on the charge of conducting public worship contrary to "the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England," which was the Established Church in colonial Georgia after 1758. Within two
years of that event, however, the Reverend Mr. Marshall would organize that persecuted group of Baptists into the Kiokee Baptist Church, the first--and now the oldest--Baptist congregation in Georgia. But few Georgia churches of any faith are older than Bethesda church.
The members of Bethesda church rejoice in a blessing that is vouchsafed to very few American Christians: the blessing of worshipping every Sunday in a historic and beautiful church building. When discussing or thinking of Bethesda church, it is easy to lose sight of the essential Christian truth that the Church is not a building "made with hands," but rather "the blessed company of all faithful people." But the lines and the proportions of the building are so refined and so graceful, and the peaceful rural setting so perfect, that on seeing the building one clearly hears the ancient words of the Old Testament writer, "This is none other than the House of God, the Gate of Heaven!" The histories of the congregation and of their place of prayer are so closely intertwined that they have become almost inseparable. It is scarcely possible to think of the people apart from the place. The people of Bethesda church are deeply sensible of and thankful for their singular blessing, and they have therefore been good and faithful stewards thereof.
As stated earlier, in 1815, the thirtieth year of its organization, the congregation began planning for a new meeting house. The reasons for a new church building are not known. Perhaps because within living memory the citizens of nearby Greensboro had been massacred by Indians, the church members wanted a sturdier, more secure building. We do know that two white male members of the congregation were appointed to stand guard during every service. Today, the building still has the huge iron brackets that used to hold a stout wooden bar across the church doors against the possibility of Indian attack. Or perhaps the congregation merely needed a larger space. Or perhaps the original building, whether a grist mill or a regular church building. had burnt down. In any event, it is entirely possible that by 1815. because of advancing civilization and increasing prosperity and population in the vicinity, church members quite simply found it desirable to construct a newer, larger, handsomer building. The community had "arrived." Frontier conditions were virtually a thing of the past. The Cotton Kingdom was becoming firmly established, and Southerners--indeed, all Americans--were beginning to see themselves in a different way. The building is a fine one of very elegant lines and proportions. and it is significant that its walls are of solid brick with a plaster interior. The use of brick certainty indicates material prosperity and gives us a good idea. too, of how the people of Bethesda church saw themselves circa 1815.
Fresh on the heels of their crucial victory in the War of 1812 and the huge expansion in American territory by means of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Americans were beginning to feel the flush of pride in their own national sovereignty, prosperity, and destiny. Plans for a new building may simply have resulted from the prevailing spirit of the times. It was in 1815 that the Trustees of the congregation petitioned the Georgia legislature for an official act of incorporation, which would be granted in 1818--the year in which the new building would be completed--and which would change the church's name to Bethesda (see text below, next section). The desire for a new and permanent building would probably have arisen quite naturally in such a time. Whatever the reasons, in 1815 the congregation began to lay plans for a new building.
During the years when the church was called Whatley's Mill Church. the congregation had but two pastors: the Reverend. Mr. Silas Mercer and his son, the Reverend Mr. Jesse Mercer. It was during Jesse Mercer's 30-year incumbency that the congregation was incorporated, its name changed to Bethesda, and that the present building as planned and built.
Georgia's famous red clay was dug, molded, and fired on site to produce the brick. It is not known who supervised construction of the building, but local tradition has that much of the actual labor was accomplished by slaves, and that is very likely true. Although there are no records, we may assume that the years 1816 & 1817 saw the preparation of the site, the manufacture of the thousands of bricks needed, and the initial phases of construction. The building was completed in the fall of 1818, and the first service was held in it on 14 November 1818. The dedication of the new building was held on 20 December and was preceded by two days of fasting and prayer. The pastor, Jesse Mercer, preached the dedication sermon. Three days earlier the Georgia legislature had officially incorporated Bethesda church. The congregation is today in possession of that original document, the text of which is reproduced here.
To INCORPORATE THE BAPTIST CHURCH AT BETHESDA,
IN GREENE COUNTY
SECTION 1. BE IT ENACTED BY THE SENATE AND THE HOUSE OF
REPRESENTATIVES OF THE STATE OF GEORGIA IN GENERAL ASSEMBLY
MET, AND BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE SAME, THAT THE MEMBERS OF
THE BAPTIST CHURCH (FORMERLY KNOWN BY THE NAME AND STYLE OF
THE BAPTIST CHURCH AT WHATLEY'S MILL) ON LITTLE RIVER IN
GREENE COUNTY BE, AND THEY ARE, HEREBY DECLARED A BODY
CORPORATE, AND KNOWN BY THE NAME OF THE BAPTIST CHURCH AT
SECTION 2. AND BE IT FURTHER ENACTED BY THE AUTHORITY
AFORESAID THAT THE DEACONS OF SAID CHURCH NOW BEING, AND
THEIR SUCCESSORS IN OFFICE BE, VESTED WITH ALL THE PROPERTY
WHICH MAY NOW BELONG TO OR BE CLAIMED BY SAID CHURCH, BOTH
REAL AND PERSONAL, TO HAVE AND TO HOLD THE SAME FREE OF
TAXATION, FOR THE SOLE USE, BENEFIT, AND BEHOOF OF SAID
CHURCH IN THE PROMOTION OF THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD, AND
THEY ARE HEREBY AUTHORIZED AND EMPOWERED, AND THEIR
SUCCESSORS IN OFFICE, TO USE AND EXERCISE THEMSELVES IN ALL
THE FUNCTIONS USUALLY CONVEYED BY ACTS OF INCORPORATION TO
SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE
ASSENTED TO, 17TH DECEMBER 1818
The word Bethesda means "House of Grace." It comes from the name of the Pool of Bethesda in biblical Jerusalem, the waters of which were believed to have healing powers (see John 5:2-4).
The building is rectangular in its shape, with the north and south sides being sixty feet long and with the east and west ends being forty feet wide. The ceiling is twenty-one feet high. From the ground to a height of about twelve feet (just above the lower windows), the walls are twenty-one inches thick, and above that point they are thirteen inches thick. The interior walls are of plaster. The original flooring was of brick. The pulpit was originally situated at the center of the north wall of the church, that is, along one of the long walls, and not against the west end wall as it is today. The pews faced the pulpit, and a gallery above wrapped around the west, south, and east walls. Thus did the present building appear for about 32 years.
Then, beginning in 1850, the building was altered and improved in several ways. The galleries along the west end and the south side were removed, leaving only the gallery along the east end. The original brick floor was replaced with a wooden floor. The pulpit was moved from the north side and placed in the west end. Sixteen pews were then constructed, each sixteen feet in length, with a partition down the middle, creating a men's side and a women's side. Those pews were then situated down the center of the space, facing the pulpit. Then, thirty-six pews were constructed, each seven feet in length, and eighteen of them were place on either side of the main body of pews already in the middle of the floor, thus creating two east-west aisles. A door in the north wall was converted into a window. Two doors, one on either side of the pulpit, were opened in the west end of the building. The window and door facings were repaired and painted. And, finally, the windows were glazed for the first time. Much of the glass in the windows today dates from this period. The work was accomplished by a Benjamin Towns, who had contracted with the congregation on 8 June 1850 to complete the work for $750.00 by 10 October. Whether that deadline was met or not is unknown. What we do know is that the committee, chaired by a Mr. William Tuggle, reported to the congregation on 15 March 1851 that all the renovations had been completed. The congregation is in possession of the original contract.
Their meeting house was hardly their only concern, of course, and so beyond that very important concern, members of the congregation naturally carried on with their corporate life of faith and works. Bethesda church's first missionary society was organized in 1814, at which time only one other Baptist congregation in Georgia had such a society. In 1814, Georgia had not yet gained its present-day distinction of being the
largest state east of the Mississippi River. Much of the territory now comprised by the state of Georgia was still Indian territory at that time. In 1824, the congregation permitted a day school to be organized and taught in the church. In Georgia in those days, of course, there were no public schools as we know them today, nor were there many public schools elsewhere in the South. Georgia had established the University of Georgia as early as 1785, but outside of that, education was considered the proper concern of the family or the Church. Those who valued formal education and who could afford to provide it for their children did so. All members of the planter class, and all members of the yeomanry who hoped to rise into the planter class, provided whatever education they could for their children, usually through what were known in the Old South as the "academies," "seminaries," and "field schools," or through the services of a private tutor who would reside with his or her employer's family on the farm or plantation. Outside of New England, separation of school and state was as natural as the color of the sky, and the idea of "free" state-sponsored education was not generally well received in the South. Richmond Academy, 70 miles away in Augusta, was about the closest thing to a modern public school that Georgia had at that time, but even that venerable institution was not "public" in the way that we today think of public schools. Records do not indicate how long the day-school lasted at Bethesda.
The Rev. Mr. Jesse Mercer gave up pastoral care of the congregation in 1826 and was succeeded in his post by the Rev. Mr. Jonathan Davis. That same year, the congregation appointed a committee to look into the advisability of having preaching on the first Sunday of the month in addition to the regular schedule of preaching on the third Sunday and on the Saturday before the third Sunday of the month. That schedule was adopted and was followed at intervals for an unknown period of time.
Between April and October of 1828, a great revival took place at Bethesda church, during which no fewer than 271 persons united with the congregation. That is particularly noteworthy in view of the number of baptisms during an "ordinary" year. For example, in 1834, in the absence of a great revival like that of 1828, forty-one persons were baptized into Bethesda church.
On 20 December 1834, at the congregation's regular conference. Bethesda's black members asked for permission to have "Brother Sam. a man of colour" to "attend them and preach for them once a month at this place." During slavery days, slaves were members of their owners' congregations. They attended services with their masters and sat in a gallery above the main floor. This was true in churches of all
denominations throughout the slave states, as an examination of church buildings from that period will demonstrate. The institution of slavery in the United States was very peculiar and was very much more complex than people today realize. After the discovery in 1822 of a plot by the slave Denmark Veasy to lead a slave insurrection in South Carolina, and after the actual slave insurrection in Virginia in 1831 (led by Nat Turner), Georgia and all other slave states passed laws that stipulated very severe penalties for teaching slaves to read and write and for allowing an unsupervised gathering of more than a few slaves for any purpose. But zeal for the Word of God induced more than a few slaveholders to teach their servants to read the Bible. A great many planters throughout the South felt constrained to teach the Gospel to their "people" despite such laws and to see to it that they were baptized. This led to many complications. Nevertheless, the church formed a committee to investigate Brother Sam's standing and to determine whether he had "attained the necessary certificates that the law requirels] in such cases, and [to] report to this church." The committee reported at the next church conference (January 1835) that action on the slaves' request should be delayed until Brother Sam should be able to "produce to this church the necessary certificates required of coloured preachers by the law of the land."
On May 16. 1835, the required certificates having been duly produced, the church adopted a resolution allowing Brother Sam to preach to the black congregation on the second Sabbath in each month. The resolution also required the deacons and "as many members as conveniently can, to attend their meetings and preserve order, as far as practicable." Then, in January 1836, the congregation decided to allow the slaves to hold their meetings inside the church building: "On application, the use of our Meeting house was granted to the blacks, and Bro. Sam, a man of colour, is at liberty to preach to them on the 2nd Sabbath in each month, on his complying with the law in such cases." However, on June 18, 1836, the church withdrew permission for the slaves to use the meeting house any further because of "some disorder."
Bethesda's first Sunday school was organized in 1837, the year the city of Atlanta was born, but it seems to have failed, as it was discontinued at about the same time. It was re-organized later and continues, of course, to the present day.
Between 1834 and 1900, membership figures fluctuated between a low of 176 and a high of 230. According to church records, most persons presented themselves for membership on a conference day, which was the third Sunday of each month. It was customary for the church to invite
people to membership on conference days. The records show also that many male church members were cited for failing to attend conferences. As the years passed, other Baptist congregations were organized nearby, and members of Bethesda who lived closer to those congregations would leave Bethesda and unite with them. Records of Bethesda and these other churches indicate that it was formerly the custom for members of the several congregations in the vicinity to attend one another's conferences to assist their sister churches in settling disputes, rendering judgments, and so forth. In former times, the church maintained very strict discipline among its members. Members could be--and were--cited for being intoxicated, for dancing, or for any other un-Christlike action that was against the church's moral or doctrinal teachings. Most of the members cited for such infractions repented of their wayward deeds and were duly forgiven and received back into the congregation.
In 1888, two church members recognized the need for a cemetery at the church so that church members could bury their dead in the church yard rather than in the small family plots near their homes as had been the custom from the earliest days of European settlement. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Tuggle donated one acre of ground next to the church for the purpose, stipulating that burial there was open to anyone, church member or not, at no cost. The first burial in the church yard was that of Mrs. Harriet Mitchell. The church assumed responsibility for maintaining the cemetery in good condition. The church has erected a good fence around the cemetery, and in November 1975, it granted Miss Lola Richards permission to plant the cemetery with crepe myrtles and dogwoods. Burial rights in the cemetery today are restricted to church members or to members of the immediate family of a church member.
In the minutes of the congregation dated 18 August 1893 is found the first mention of the iron "tie rods" that are visible near the present-day celotex ceiling. A committee had been formed to investigate how best to "secure the west end of the building." In minutes dated 1 6(?) September 1893, it is noted that "two rods extending the length of the house were necessary." J. H. Herbesan(?) was hired on 21 January 1894 to do the installation, and the completion of the project is recorded in the minutes dated 17 February 1894.
On July 16, 1907, a committee was formed for the purpose of constructing a new baptismal pool. From the founding of the congregation in 1785 until 1907, the church had used a spring-fed pool in a bottom below the church, the waters of which were. naturally enough. very cold. So in 1907, it was decided to build a new pool about 50 feet from the original one so that the water would have a chance to warm up a
bit before baptisms. The new brick and concrete pool remained in use from 1907 until the present indoor baptismal pool first began to be used in April of 1968. The indoor pool remains in use today.
On 20 July 1907, the deacons of Bethesda church sent the following resolution to Representative R. E. Davison of the Georgia state legislature:
"Bethesda Church today in regular conference unanimously instructed the deacons of this church to write and ask you to give your able support to the prohibition bill now pending in the House of Representatives, passed by the Senate; and should the same be passed. they especially request you use every effort to have it go into effect at the earliest possible date."
The resolution was signed by the church's board of deacons. On 20 August 1912, a called conference granted letters of dismission to ten members of Bethesda Church so that they could organize a missionary Baptist church at Robinson, Georgia.
On 18 May 1918. the church appointed a committee to oversee painting the interior of the church building and to make several necessary repairs. The committee was charged also with preparing appropriate exercises for the observance of the centennial anniversary of the church building. The committee included Mr. C. J. Thornton, Miss Eva Asbury, Mrs. Mattie Dickinson, Mr. W. S. Hester, Mr. J. V. Durham, Mr. J. C. Murden, and Miss Lizzie Thornton. Church records show that B. J. W. Graham, editor of The Christian Index, preached the centennial celebration sermon later that summer. On that occasion, he read his Scripture lesson from the Bible that had been presented to the congregation by Jesse Mercer in January 1819.
The building originally had been roofed with wooden shingles, and as time passed, subsequent roofs were of wooden shingles also, but in September 1938. the church decided to replace the wooden shingles with a top quality metal roof.
In June 1944, Bethesda Church held its first Vacation Bible School. It was under the direction of the Rev. Mr. W. R. Johnson, who was the Georgia Baptist Association's very first Associate Missionary. or Field Worker, as they were called in those days. Bethesda Church has held a
Vacation Bible School every year since.
In May 1945, just as the war in Europe was drawing to a close, the Rayle Electric Membership cooperative notified the church that they would extend electric power lines from the Washington Highway to the church (a distance of one mile) if there were at least three householders between the highway and the church who would agree to having their homes wired for electrical power at that same time. The church duly appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Henry Rutherford that successfully negotiated with the householders and the electric cooperative to have the church electrified. On 18 July 1945, Bethesda Church was lighted with electric lights for the first time in her long history. Barely three weeks later, the war in the Pacific ended, and the world entered the "Atomic Age."
In December 1945, Mr. Millard Swann donated half an acre of ground adjacent to the church yard so as to extend the boundaries of the burial ground, which was nearly filled by that time.
In September 1949, the church voted to make several repairs and renovations to the sanctuary. The wooden floor was replaced with tile over concrete, and the gallery was partitioned so as to make three small rooms for use as Sunday school classrooms. The front of the gallery was enclosed by means of sliding panels that could be raised to allow people to sit there and still participate in what was taking place in the main body of the church. The space beneath the gallery was enclosed in like manner, and the interior of the sanctuary was painted.
In October 1952, the congregation voted to close up the four fireplaces that had always been used to heat the sanctuary and to replace them with propane gas heaters. Happily, this was accomplished in a way that was sensitive to the building's age and architectural style. Sheetrock was used to stop up the chimney, and it was painted black so as to give the appearance that the fireplaces were still open. This increased efficiency in heating the church without doing violence to the beauty and architectural style of the building.
In February 1954, Mr. M. H. Callaway, Sr., gave the church the plot of land lying along the southwestern side of the grounds so long as the public roads were not relocated. The church accepted the gift on those terms.
In December 1954, the congregation allocated $2,510.00 to purchase 22 new pews to replace the hand-planed pews that had been in use since the renovations of 1850. The pews were situated with eleven on either side of the sanctuary, separated by a center aisle. and with side aisles alone the two side walls.
In July 1955, the church voted to build a brick platform on the east end of the church with brick steps on all three sides thereof to give easier access to that end of the building.
In April 1956, the Women's Missionary Union was given leave to build a choir loft and to rearrange the pulpit between the fireplaces, all at the west end of the sanctuary. As of this writing (1997), these arrangements still maintain.
In September 1957, the Georgia Historical Commission erected the bronze marker that stands by the road at the edge of the church yard. One sees these markers throughout our state at places that have figured in the history of Georgia, and there are surely few places more deserving of such recognition than Bethesda Church.
In August 1959, the road leading from the Washington Highway to the church was paved. That same month, the congregation voted to build an Education Annex on the northeastern side of the church building, to consist of three classrooms and a hall. At the same time, it was decided to build brick steps across the west end of the church building to grant easier access to the two doors there. Dedication services for the new Education Annex took place on 18 April 1960. consecrating the building to the teaching of the Word of God and of the Christian way of life. The building remains in use today. In June 1960. iron railings were installed on the steps at both ends of the building.
In August 1961, the church engaged the Georgia Department of Archives and History to microfilm and laminate all the church's records through 1925. The church then donated a copy of those records to the Mercer University library.
In June 1965, the church voted to repair or replace the windows in the sanctuary. Happily, the people of Bethesda Church have always been good stewards of their lovely church building, and they wisely left in place the window panes that did not need replacing. Therefore, much of the glass today dates from 1850 when the windows were first glazed. Also at this time, the people voted to install a celotex ceiling in the sanctuary. Because of the new Education Annex, the ersatz Sunday school rooms in what had been the gallery space at the east end of the church were no longer needed, so the gallery space was restored to the state in which it had existed from 1850 to 1949. Also in June of 1965, the sanctuary interior was repainted.
In April 1966, Mrs. Lucy Falkinburg, Mrs. Elizabeth Bowman, and Mrs. Margaret Hill presented the church with a new pulpit Bible in memory of their father, Mr. C. J. Thornton, and in honor of their brother, Mr. Charles Thornton. The new Bible replaced a Bible that had been given to the church by Sister Ann Gerding in late 1888 or early 1889. The pages of Sister Gerding's Bible had become too brittle with age to allow for further use even though Mrs. Kathleen T. Dolvin had it re-bound in 1951. Today, the congregation quite naturally treasures that old Bible as one of its most highly prized possessions.
In November 1966, the church voted to build an additional annex onto the north end of the existing annex so that lavatories and running water could be added.
In December 1967, the congregation decided to install an indoor baptistry beneath the choir loft at the west end of the sanctuary. That baptistry, which remains in use today, replaced the old outdoor baptistry that had been in use since 1906, which, in its day, replaced the original baptismal "pool of Bethesda." Also in December 1967, Mrs. Lottie Durham, Mr. Gordon Durham, and Mrs. Bevelyn McCommons were granted leave to install new lighting in the sanctuary. The new system was to be in place for the observance of the 150th anniversary of the construction of the present building. New carpeting was installed, as well, in preparation for the sesquicentennial celebration.
August 1968 brought to the congregation the singular joy of being able to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the incorporation of the congregation under the name Bethesda and the construction of the present church building. The preacher for the morning service was the Rev. Mr. Ernest Kelly, assistant to the secretary of the Georgia Baptist Convention. His scriptural text was Mark 4: 35-4 1. Mrs. Betty Mosely made a special musical offering titled, "In Times Like These." Mr. Jack U. Harwell. editor of The Christian Index, pronounced the benediction and asked the Lord's blessing on the noonday meal that followed the morning service. The congregation assembled again at 1:30 in the afternoon for the afternoon service, at which the Rev. Mr. John King, pastor of nearby Phillips Mill Baptist church, delivered the invocation. Mrs. Irby Jackson made a special musical offering, and the Rev. Mr. Bill Duke. associational missionary of the Georgia Baptist Association. reviewed the history of the congregation. Remarkably, there were 21 persons present at the sesquicentennial celebration who had been present also for the centennial celebration in 1918!
In July 1971, the Cora Dickinson Sunday school class placed the granite marker at the intersection of Highway 44 and Bethesda Church Road in memory of the Rev. Mr. 0. L. Duvall, former pastor of Bethesda church who had died in February 1970.
In May 1972, the church voted to build more Sunday school rooms, and in January 1973 confirmed that vote with another. In June 1974, it was decided that the newly completed education building would be called "The C. Elton Richards Memorial Building" in memory of Dr. Richards, and the date for the dedication service was set for 15 September 1974.
In August 1975. the congregation observed the 190th anniversary of the founding of the congregation (in 1785 under the name "Whatley's Mill church"). Many of the gentlemen wore beards and many of the ladies wore long skirts to re-create the atmosphere of earlier times.
In September 1975, Mrs. Lottie Durham beautified the Lord's House by installing fine gas logs in the two fireplaces on either side of the choir loft at the west end of the church. Also in September 1975, the congregation set up the "Bethesda Church Cemetery Trust Fund" to provide continuing care for the graves of the faithful departed who there await the great and promised Day of Jesus Christ. That November, Miss Lola Richards was granted permission to plant dogwoods and crepe myrtles around the cemetery.
Also in November 1975, the church purchased its first pastorium. The brick house on Highway 44 came with two acres of ground for the sum of $27,000.00. Rev. Mr. Riley Nathaniel Bomar became the first full-time pastor to occupy the pastorium. He moved in with his wife on 6 April 1978, and was joyfully greeted by many of his new flock bearing gifts of food and household items.
In July 1978. the church voted to drill a well that was paid for by an anonymous donation of $1,000.00. The well was dedicated to the glory and service of God following morning worship on 19 November 1978.
In July 1979, the church decided to construct a concrete ramp for the convenience of handicapped members at a cost of $198.24. Brothers Talmadge Hensley, Carroll Worthen, and Billy Merritt, among others, labored to complete this act of kindness.
Under the hand of Divine Providence, the congregation was able to pay off the mortgage on the pastorium in October 1981, a full 14 years ahead of schedule.
In May 1982, the Rev. Mr. Lemon Clark, was called to become pastor of Bethesda church, and he arrived on 16 June with his wife and daughters to a warm reception by church members.
in September 1983, Mrs. J. W. Andrews returned to Bethesda church the original Second Church Book, which details the congregation's history from 10 August 1817 to 1 December 1833. Mrs. Andrews' father had been church clerk, and the book had somehow reposed itself with their family for more than a century. Naturally the congregation was very grateful to have such an important document returned to its possession. In that, the efforts of Deacon Billy Merritt were invaluable.
In preparation for the congregation's bicentennial anniversary observance in 1985, the shutters were repaired or replaced, as needed, in 1984. Because of the condition of the shutters and the type of hardware on them, experts in the field estimated that some of them were at least 150 years old. Since many of them were salvageable, the contractor repaired all that he could and reinstalled them on the north side and at the ends of the church where they would take less of a beating from the sun. Next, shutters for the east side of the building were made of redwood. In order to preserve as much as possible of the historic appearance of the graceful old building, exact replicas of the old hardware were cast and molded. Pastor Clark directed the contractor's very successful efforts. In January 1985, the interiors of the sanctuary and the annex were renovated. The partitions under the gallery at the east end of the church were removed, allowing the old fireplaces to be seen once again. Mr. John Griffith. Building Committee chairman, directed the work of the contractor.
In April 1985, in anticipation of the congregation's bicentennial anniversary celebration, the Rev. Dr. Robert Taylor, pastor of Bethesda church from 1933 to 1938, presented to the church a gavel that had been given to him during his incumbency by Judge Charles Thornton. The gavel is made of wood taken from Bethesda's first pulpit. Also, a church member, Mr. Colelough Evans, donated a hand-made pew that is believed to be the only remaining original pew from the 1818 construction of the present church building. Under the chairmanship Mrs. Betty Griffith, the Bicentennial Committee made 1985 a year of much activity in celebration of the beginning of the congregation's third
century. Members of the Bicentennial Committee were Mr. John Chapman, Mrs. Nellie Ellis, Mr. Wayne Jackson, and the Rev. Mr. CIark. To begin the bicentennial anniversary year in prayer for God's guidance. the congregation held a Watchnight Service on 31 December 1984. In
February 1985, there was a lamp-light singing service at which a church.
full of happy folks enjoyed singing many old songs. The singing service was capped off by much-needed and well-deserved refreshments. The following month, more than 100 people gathered at the church for an old-fashioned vegetable soup supper and "sing." Many brought such antique items as corn shellers, dough bowls, butter molds, tools, guns, and many other very interesting items.
The April 1985 Revival was a bicentennial celebration at which all living former pastors were invited to preach. The Reverend Messrs. Robert Taylor, Riley Bomar, and Everett Sawyer delivered fine messages. The Reverend Messrs. Simmerson and Duke were unable to return. In their stead, Dr. Waldo Harris. Director of Missions for the Georgia Baptist Convention, and the pastor of the congregation. the Rev. Mr. Clark, blessed the hearts of their listeners with very inspiring messages. In April, the children of the congregation took part in an Easter Parade, and in May, the younger adults of the church were the congregation's special guests at a cook-out and hay ride.
In August 1985, Bethesda's annual Homecoming Day celebration kicked off a week of revival services. The preacher for the morning service was Dr. James N. Griffith, Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Following a traditional "dinner on the grounds," Mr. Clark preached at the afternoon's services. The preacher for the week of revival services was the Rev. Dr. Terry Duvall, son of the late Rev. Mr. 0. L. Duvall, who shepherd Bethesda as pastor from 1950 to 1970. The younger Duvall had grown up at Bethesda church and had been ordained here in 1972. His mother, Mrs. Gladys Duvall, rejoiced as a still-active member to see her son "come home" for the great bicentennial occasion.
In October, Bethesda church was host of the Georgia Baptist Association's 201st meeting as that organization, too, began its third century of service to Our Lord. The Rev. R. L. Duke acted as moderator. and the Rev. Michael Catlett of New Hope church preached the Introductory Sermon. The church was filled to capacity. Near month's end, one of the highlights of the bicentennial year took place: the historic gathering of all of Bethesda's daughter churches. Representatives of Robinson, Randolph, Union Point First, and Siloam Missionary churches gathered to remember and to celebrate their common heritage. Choirs from Bethesda, Siloam Missionary, and Randolph, and soloists from Bethesda and Union Point First churches led the worship in song. And in an event that is remarkable in the restless, rootless world of the late 20th century, it was a descendant of Samuel Whatley, the Rev. Julian Whatley, who proclaimed the Gospel in the afternoon sermon.
In 1986, the congregation undertook a study to determine the need for additional facilities. Franklin Combs, Wayne Jackson, John Griffith. Edward Taylor, and the Rev. Clark were members of the committee that decided to survey the congregation to determine whether to renovate the Community Center or to construct a new annex building. Ultimately, the congregation decided to maintain the existing Community Center rather than to build a new annex. Later that same year the Sunshine Community Club, under the leadership of Betty Griffith, was given approval to renovate the Community Center. The newly renovated Community Center was thankfully dedicated in May 1988.
In April 1986, Bethesda experienced a "first" in its history when, as part of Bethesda church's participation with others throughout the country in a '"simultaneous revival," they received the ministrations of a woman evangelist. The Rev. Judith Powell, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church. Enfield, North Carolina, preached to the people of Bethesda church under a giant outdoor tent! This revival gained the attention of the Home Mission Board and a fold-out page photograph of one of the "meetings was published in the "Missions, USA" magazine. It was generally agreed. and remarked upon in later years, that "That lady could preach!"
During 1987, several projects concerning the church's real property were initiated. Perhaps the most important of those was the decision in March of the Long-Range Planning Committee to establish the New Annex Building Fund. Two contributions, totaling $4000.00, were received at once, and the fund continued to grow throughout the year.
In 1988, under the leadership of the Program Committee, the congregation decided to take steps to "personalize" their Christmas Tree decorations. Each member of the congregation was encouraged to bring a brass ornament in honor or in memory of a loved one, with the loved ones' names to be inscribed thereon. The present tradition of member's coming forward to hang their ornaments on the tree dates from this period.
In January 1989, a new composition roof was put on the Sunday School building. In May, the congregation, acting at the behest of the sexton of the cemetery, set aside eight grave sites in the churchyard as a means of providing decent, Christian burials for those who at some future might not be able to afford a proper burial for themselves or others.
In January 1990, the congregation voted to retain permanently the simple wooden cross that had been hung over the baptismal pool for the recent Christmas celebrations. Significantly. the cross was fashioned by Leon
Lundy and Lem Clark out of a dogwood tree that had been felled by Emory Hubbard. And in February, the New Annex Building Committee received the go-ahead to proceed with construction as funds became available. In April, the Committee unveiled the plans for the new Annex, and the congregation approved the plans the following month. And in October, the church purchased a small electronic organ that was dedicated to the Lord's service on the 28th. Mrs. Sandy Clark and Mrs. Della Fowler were chosen organists.
In July, the Music Committee was commissioned to select and purchase replacement hymnals for the 1956 Baptist Hymnal which was still in use. This was initiated by a gift from Billy and Vivian Swann with other members contributing to this fund. The committee selected the hymnal Sing Joyfully. The new hymnals were first used on Homecoming Day, 1991.
In January 1991. Tony Fowler, Bud Thornton, Leon Lundy, Richard Cronic. and Lem Clark were chosen as members of a standing New Annex Building Committee in order to maintain continuity through all phases of constructing a new Annex, a process that was expected to take several years.
In July 1992, a survey of the church property established as fact what some had suspected: that the Bethesda Spring, located behind the church and used for so many generations as the place of baptism before the indoor pool was built, was not actually on the church's property! After discussions with the congregation, Mrs. Shirley Selman, the lawful owner, and her family graciously donated the spring and its adjacent ground to the church. Under the leadership of Billy Swann, Bud Thornton, and Mercer Durham, Jr., all of the property where the church stands was put on one plat. This included other pieces of property that had been given to the church over the years. Records of these transactions repose in the congregation's historical records cabinet.
In August 1993, exterior lighting fixtures were placed at the entrance door on the east end of the building by the 1964 graduating class of the Union Point High School in memory of their classmate Larry Worthen The Griffith's, John, Betty, Mike and Joey, Marvin and Carolyn Stewart and Faye Worthen also donated fixtures for one of the west doors in memory of Carroll and Vashli Worthen. Cassie Taylor Akins donated fixtures for the other west door in memory of Nannie Poss Taylor. In January 1994, the composition roof on the Sunday School building annex was replaced with a new metal roof. In June, the celotex ceilings were replaced, and the ceilings of the Sunday School rooms were
insulated. The Tony Fowler family donated water heaters for the lavatories at this time also.
Also in 1994, the young folks of the congregation set themselves the goal of replacing the playground equipment with new equipment made of treated lumber. They achieved their goal and were able to present the children of the congregation with the new playground equipment just before Homecoming and August Meeting time. The remarkably heavy rains that fell on that Homecoming Day--the first rain on Homecoming Day in at least 75 years, according to the memory of Miss Lydia Poss-did little to dampen the excitement of the event.
In the fall of 1994 as part of an effort to produce a new congregational history, the church undertook an audit of its records--baptisms, membership letters, and others--and found significant gaps therein. This necessitated an inventory--apparently the first ever--of all the church's historical documents. The completed inventory list was then passed to the clerk of the congregation for recording. With that, it became clear that the church's historical records could no longer be stored in a safe-deposit box. Therefore, upon recommendation from the Building Committee, the congregation purchased two used fire-proof filing cabinets in which to store important historical documents. Accordingly,. in June of 1995 all records that had been held in the safe-deposit box were transferred to the fire-proof cabinets at the church, making access for research much easier.
Under the gracious guidance of Divine Providence, Bethesda church has been fruitful for Christ for more than two centuries. Should the Lord delay His return in glory, may He grant that Bethesda church continue faithful service to His cause and kingdom for yet another two centuries.
TO ALMIGHTY GOD: FATHER, SON, AND HOLY GHOST.
BE ALL GLORY AND PRAISE!
List of Pastors
(As Whatley's Mill Church)
Silas Mercer, 1785-1796
Abraham Marshall, 1796
James Heflin, supply preacher
Jesse Mercer, 1796-1818 (J. Mercer is the namesake of Mercer
University. In 1818, the Georgia legislature incorporated the
congregation as Bethesda Baptist Church.)
(As Bethesda Church)
Jesse Mercer, 1818-1826
Samuel Whatley, supply preacher
Enoch Callaway, supply preacher, 1827
Jonathan Davis, 1827-1837
William Tucker, supply preacher
R. Asbury, supply preacher
V. R. Thornton, 1837-1839, 1841-1842, 1846-1849
Adiel Sherwood, 1839-1840
N. M. Lumpkin, 1843
J. S. Baker, 1843-1845
S.G. Hillyer, 1850-1856
Thomas Morgan, 1856
H. H. Tucker, 1857-1870
W. A. Overton, 187 1-1874
J. S. Callaway, 1874-1914
R. E. L. Harris, 1918-1920
George C. Steed. 1920-1923
Z. M. Leverette, 1923-1925
R. L. Robinson, 1925-1932
W. R. Taylor, 1933-1938
W. G. Veal. 1939-1950
0. L. Duvall, 1950-1970
W. M. Simmerson, 1970-1971
Everette Sawyer, 1972-1977
Riley N. Bomar, 1978-1982
Lemon F. Clark, 1982-1996
James Olds 1997-2010
Bruce Lovin 2010- present
(Before I900, Bethesda church ordained the following men to the sacred ministry: V. R. Thornton; W. L. Tucker; W. A. Overton; Adiel Sherwood; and a colored brother, Cyrus Thornton. The church also granted preaching licenses to Richard V. Asbury, Joseph Roberts. and three colored brothers, Levi ?, Derry Murden, and Aaron Brinkley. On
30 December 1972, Terry Duvall was ordained to the Gospel Ministry in and by Bethesda church. Mr. Duvall's father 0. L. Duvall, was pastor of Bethesda church from 1950-1970.)
Almighty God has richly blessed Bethesda Church with the lives and work of these dedicated men who have shepherded His flock in this place for more than two centuries. We today, as we consider our heritage, must be ever mindful of the Lord's commandment to witness to Him and to the saving power of His resurrection in Greene County and in "the uttermost parts of the earth." Let us not forget the words of Paul to the Philippians: "But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things that are before. I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.'
Bethesda Baptist Church is now well into its third century, but there are still unsaved persons in this community--and over the whole world-which should challenge us to obey the Lord's command, recorded in Matthew 28: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."