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.