Beth Salem/Lexington Presbyterian is one of Georgia’s oldest, most prominent and historic rural churches. A Georgia Governor and a number of early Georgia movers and shakers lie in the Beth Salem grave yard. The church is located in Oglethorpe County, in the village of Lexington. The founding of Beth Salem in 1785 predates both the county’s and city’s incorporation because a group of Pennsylvanians came southward in 1785 into the area to provide missionary work among the Native Americans.
Later that year they were joined by an old friend, John Newton, at their settlement deep in the wilderness of Indian Territory, approximately three miles southwest of the present location of Lexington. On December 20, 1785, John Newton organized the Beth-Salem Presbyterian Church. From this beginning in the late 18th century, the county, city and church prospered. Lexington and the county grew rapidly from booming cotton production in the early 19th century.
By 1810 Oglethorpe County contained at least eight church meetinghouses and a dozen separate congregations. Lexington was known for its culture, educational institutions, commerce and as the cradle of some of Georgia’s most prominent early 19th century planters, judges, merchants, clergymen and politicians. In the 1830’s, Lexington residents made a fateful decision. They voted against allowing the new Georgia Railroad to pass through the city. Subsequently, the railroad stop was located a few miles west of town in Crawford. Lexington and Oglethorpe County’s prosperity and influence began to wane and fall into a long decline as a result. This is a common story repeated in many towns throughout Georgia.
Through the years, Beth Salem church suffered some crippling occurrences that have resulted in the church’s recent addition to the Georgia Trust’s “Places in Peril” program. The church is in peril because its membership has been reduced to less than 5, the steeple roof is leaking and money has been unavailable to fund repairs and preventative maintenance for years. Private citizens and the City of Lexington are joining forces to develop a preservation plan to save this National Historic Register site and return it to its former glory.
This lovely window was added in the early 20th Century to honor Stephen Upson’s son. Upson County(Created in 1824) is named in honor of Stephen Upson. We are told that the stained glass window is of the highest quality and superior workmanship. It is unquestionably striking and beautiful and serves as a worthy tribute to Mr. Upson. One of the things that makes this small church and graveyard so special is that many early Georgia leaders lived nearby having come south in the early days of the state when land and opportunity were plentiful. Upson was born in Connecticut and educated at Yale University. He was forced to go south for his health and became a successful attorney in Oglethorpe County. He later became a jurist of distinction and served in the state legislature in 1820-24. He is buried here at Beth Salem… quite a long way from New Haven.
This is the view from the northeast corner of the cemetery showing in detail the apse, nave and larger, east tower. It also reveals one of the catastrophes that can happen in old grave yards. Notice that the markers within the area pictured are few and far between with almost all of the north burial grounds showing no markers. Many decades ago, after the invention of machine-powered lawn mowers, someone decided to pick up all the protruding stones in that area to facilitate mowing! Luckily, a more knowledgable person came along before the job was finished and stopped the desecration. At least the stones were saved and are tucked safely under the apse(see the dark entry way).
This is a view into the burial grounds from the west side of the church. In the area pictured you see many enclosures made of cast iron. In the foreground you are looking at an enclosure of iron and then through a charming, custom made gate. Inside, to the left and right of the substantial obelisk,you see two false crypts, a style in favor in the early 19th century before the Civil War.
This is a view from the north side of the cemetery toward the south. First, notice how bare the area appears that is in the northeast background beyond the line of stately markers straight ahead…. remember the story about the guy who decided to make the mowing easier? Looking off to the left you see the area is densely populated with traditional, early/mid 19th century markers. You can see a small obelisk and then a larger pedestal mounted obelisk, very popular monuments from 3,000 BC Egypt up to today. In the foreground is a line of 3 larger upright monuments that sit at the head of the large, flat ledger stones covering each grave. The cross is/was and will always be in vogue in any cemetery. The other two are variants of the pedestal tomb, vaulted roof style which faded away in the early 2oth century. The one on the right proudly bears the Masonic Emblem.
This is an interior view from the nave into the overflow gallery on the south side of Beth Salem. The light from the lovely gothic window illuminates the area and offers an opportunity to enjoy the fine details of the coved bead board ceiling and the delicately turned balusters within the balustrade.
Most of the original furniture, fixtures, pews, communion silver, bibles and texts are still in the sanctuary. Above is a 19th century bible still in use.
As with most of the rural churches, the exterior reflects a simplistic revival of the Gothic style. In the view above, one can appreciate some of the more ornate elements within that add to the significance of the church building as a whole. The ceiling is stained, coved bead board which curves down to meet the walls rather than intersecting perpendicularly. This adds a touch of decorative elegance while also creating a visual lift of the the ceiling above the arched windows as well.
This is a low view from the narthex doors toward the pulpit. It provides a perspective that pulls your eyes down the pew-lined aisles to the raised pulpit which is backlit by the Gothic windows on the east and west walls of the apse…. no electricity needed to create that warm glow.
Beth-Salem Presbyterian Church, along with the entire old town area of Lexington, is listed on the National Register of Historic places. We think it would be a shame to let this landmark slip away.
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