Bethany Presbyterian has a long and proud history. It was organized in 1786 with 50 members and is one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the backcountry. The first church was a traditional brush arbor. This was replaced by a church built of hewn logs near the present building, each member contributing a few logs and joining in to erect the building. These were still dangerous days on the frontier and during services, members had to keep a guard outside to watch for hostile Indians while worshiping. A more comfortable church was built after the turn of the century and was considered the finest country church in the Presbytery at the time. In 1872, it was torn down and replaced by the present sanctuary. Many new members were added and by the year 1880, membership reached 180.
In 1886, a very historic trial took place in Bethany that preceded the famous Scopes monkey trials by four decades. It was here that Dr. James Woodrow, a favorite uncle of future president Woodrow Wilson, was brought before the Presbytery of Augusta at Bethany church on charges of heresy by one of his peers, Rev. Dr. William Adams. Presbyterian ministers were men of letters, even in the backcountry, and Dr. Woodrow was exceptional. He was the first professor in the state of Georgia with a Ph.D. and he went on to a life of service including the Presidency of the University of South Carolina. Dr. Woodrow, after much thought about the subject, taught a form of Darwinian doctrine of evolution in such a manner that it was in conflict with the orthodox teachings of the book of Genesis. During the trial Dr. Adams argued against evolution using logic and satire and at one point traced the progress of animal life until it reached a frog. He then declared that ‘In some way or another this frog got ashore and that, brethren of this assembly, was the landing of your first ancestor’. Dr. Woodrow defended himself and was found not guilty. For a detailed list of Dr. Woodrow’s accomplishments click here.
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The present structure was built in 1872 and has been well maintained for almost 150 years. Thank you for your stewardship of this remarkable piece of early Georgia history.
One can easily imagine Dr. Woodrow (sans microphone and carpet) defending himself here at his heresy trial in 1886 during the first 'monkey trial' in the United States. The original, 1872 pews pictured above above would have been filled with interested by-standers as well as east Georgia ecclesiastical and political royalty. The gallery would have been overflowing and small crowds would have been pressed against the windows. The verdict could have gone either way. The fact that Dr. Woodrow was found "not guilty" at this delicate moment of battle between church and science(beginnings of the "Fundamantalists-Modernist Controversy") is a tribute to his debating skills. After all, almost 40 years later in Tennessee, John Scopes, defended by the legendary Clarence Darrow, was found guilty of similar charges!
This is a meeting house sanctuary which still maintains the quiet dignity one would expect from one of the very oldest Presbyterian congregations in the Georgia backcountry. The active congregants have maintained this historic rural treasure and intend to perpetuate this legacy.
Bethany meeting house has clearly been well maintained and well-loved for the past 140+ years by an active and dedicated congregation. The interior has been modernized to accommodate the need of changing generations. It is difficult to maintain an active church community if the structure does not provide attendees heat, light and other common, 21st century amenities. The horizontal, wide wall boards have been replaced and the heart pine floors carpeted. But, the original pews remain in place as does the traditional board ceiling. At the close of the 19th century, American and Georgian churches embraced the Carpenter Gothic movement. It is believed that the chancel, pulpit and apse remain as designed but enhanced by a late 19th century addition... the charming gothic fretwork framing.
Here lies Mary Colbert who died at the age of 24 in 1806. Her older sister, Margaret, died two years earlier in 1804 at the age of 23. Life in the Georgia back county could be hard and short.
Under the shade of the trees overlooking the Georgia countryside. What a fair place to spend eternity.
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