Heard County, in west central Georgia on the border with Alabama, is the state’s seventy-seventh county. Created in 1830 from 301 square miles of Carroll, Coweta, and Troup counties, it was named for Stephen Heard, an influential patriot of the American Revolution. The land now encompassed by Heard County was originally held by Creek Indians, who lost it at the Treaty of Indian Springs in 1825. The first white inhabitants arrived soon after the signing of the treaty and acquired most of their property by state-run land lotteries. Bethel Primitive Baptist is one of the earliest congregations in the county and it may be the oldest. Very little information is available regarding the old church and, unfortunately, this is a common problem. The history associated with these rural churches is remarkable but we have let far too much of it get away from us. Scraps of old newspaper articles give us a clue as to the age of the church and life back in the day. It appears that the church was also used as a school from one of the articles below written in 1898. Another article, written in 1895 confirms that the pews were built in 1895.
Columbus Enquirer, Dec. 5, 1838 says a bill was passed “To incorporate Bethel Baptist Church in Heard County”.
Carroll Free Press, Aug. 20, 1886 “Tax collector, Rev. W. D. Jones spent last Sunday night with us. He was on his way from Bethel, Heard County where he had been to attend a general meeting”.
Herald and Advertiser, July 8, 1898 “Miss Ona Herndon, who has been attending the Girls Normal and Industrial College at Milledgeville, has returned home. Miss Ona will teach a school at Bethel, Heard county, beginning next Monday”.
Herald and Advertiser, May 17, 1895 “Prof. Wm. Wells of your city, worshipped with the church at Bethel, Heard County…..and presided at the organ with his accustomed ease and ability……Bethel has instructed her building committee to have new pews built, and we expect to have them in place when the general meeting convenes in August”.
Carroll Free Press, July 6, 1888 “Bro. Ripples of Coweta visited Roopville last Saturday night……they were attending a two days singing at Bethel, Heard County”.
Of course the most important history of all is in the old cemetery, where the early settlers who created a life in this new land are buried. Several Confederate veterans who survived the war are resting there as well as a Revolutionary War veteran, Thomas Hilley, who died in 1838. The old church suffered a fire in 1925 but it looks like most of the interior survived. Simple Georgia Heart Pine and handmade pews are the order of the day. Bethel still has an active, though small, congregation and we applaud their stewardship of this important part of Georgia history.
We are looking from the rear of the church toward the chancel and pulpit area. Though we are told there was a fire at Bethel in 1925, this view from the rear of the church presents as a successful, significant, authentic restoration of the church. The suspended ceiling with its narrow gauge, vertical boards appears to have been rebuilt in the image of the original sanctuary ceiling.
The present sanctuary’s erection date is unknown. The date could be around 1886 or earlier since the Carroll Free Press article of August 1886 stated,”…Reverend Jones spent last Sunday night with us. He was on his way from Bethel, Heard County.” Perhaps an earlier date is more accurate. In any case, we know Bethel was quite active in 1895. In the view above, we have a clear image of the sanctuary from the Pulpit appearing much as it would have at that time. It is apparent that, despite the fire, the pews, by their rough finish and prosaic design are early. An article confirms the pews were built in 1895 and most likely similar to the original’s . The heart pine floors also appear to be authentic, 19th century. The window and door frames do look as if they might have been manufactured and are likely products of the fire restoration in 1925. The electric heating system seen on the wall is surely fairly new, perhaps late 20th century. Please notice that the modern heating element is aligned beneath the original, wood burning stove flu pipe outlet.
In accordance with tenets of the Baptist, other than the “Last Supper” tapestry on the back wall, we see little in the way of ornamentation or design decoration in this sanctuary. “Less is more”.
This view confirms the supposition that the pews are old and original. So, here we are given the opportunity to see one of the few furnishings/design elements in place at Bethel. The pew ends are finished with a lighter colored, decorative wooden band.
Here we see an elaborate, functioning, upright piano from the early 20th century. It sits in the front of the choir bench, a place of honor to the left of the chancel and pulpit. Music, choir and congregational singing was and continues to be the bedrock of most of the early, rural churches we encounter throughout the state.
Thomas Hilley was born in Virginia and married Mary Walker Bond around 1776. They lived near the James River in an area that eventually became Amherst County. In 1790 they probably crossed the Natural Bridge of Virginia and followed the trail known as the “Great Wagon Road” to what is now Elbert County, Georgia. It took them three months to make the trip. They made their home there until Thomas Hilley moved to the home of his youngest son, Thomas Hilley, Jr., in January, 1838. That winter was one of the coldest on record and he developed pleurisy and died March 22, 1838. An SAR grave marker dedication ceremony was held at his gravesite in 2006 in honor of his Revolutionary War service.
S. H. Crain was born in Heard County, Georgia June 22, 1838. He enlisted in Company E, 19th Georgia Regiment in June 1861. He was a 2d Corporal June 26, 1861. He was later appointed 5th Sergeant and on September 17, 1863 he was elected Jr. 2d Lieutenant. He was paroled at Charlotte, N. C. April, 1865. His brother, George A. Crain also served in the war.
Charles Jefferson McDowell was commissioned an officer in Company E, 19th Georgia Regiment, CSA on June 26, 1861. He resigned his commission on September 17, 1863 because of disability. After he left the army he was appointed collector of taxes for Heard County. He took an oath of allegiance to the United States and received a full pardon and amnesty for his part in “the late rebellion” August 31, 1865. A United States Headstone application states that he is buried at St. Cloud cemetery. Bethel Baptist Church is located in what was known as the St. Cloud Community.
Benjamin Thomas Simms was born in Hancock County, Georgia. He was married to Elizabeth P. Dickinson and they had ten children. Their son, William Philip Simms, was a foreign editor for Scripps-Howard newspapers. He became correspondent-in-chief of the United Press at Paris in 1909. He covered both world wars and the years between them. Too old at 62 to get credentials to cover the Normandy Invasion, he bummed his way across the Channel and covered it anyway. William Philip Simms, one of the most famous of American war correspondents, was appointed manager of the Washington Bureau of the International News Service.
Jesse J. Whitaker served as a Corporal in Company B, 1st Regiment, Georgia Infantry State Guards during the Civil War. His brother, Daniel W. Whitaker died of consumption in 1859 and is also buried at the Old Bethel Cemetery. Another brother, P. O. Whitaker served in Phillips Legion and lost an eye in November, 1862 near Charleston.
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Just seeing this! The church minutes are on microfiche at the Archives in Morrow, GA. I was able to review them about 10 years ago Very interesting, and included member names from very early!
My grandmother, Blanche Thompson Duke, grew up at Bethel. Her parents (my Great-Grandparents) are buried there: Mr. & Mrs. A.H.S. Thompson.
I’ve been by a couple times in the past 2-3 years and although the cemetery needed a good bit of work, the building looked good. Who maintains the building now?
Being a senior citizen now , I remember going to Bethel as a child with my grandparents who were members there. In the summer they would have a week of revival at night and the church would be full ,even some of the men would sit in the windows. The women and children would fan with funeral home fan or even a folded newspaper. The pews are made of one piece of timber for the seat and another solid piece for the back and they remain since the beginning of the church. The church burned at one time but, most of the furnishings were save along with the pews and piano. My husband’s grandmother used to play the piano. My relatives buried there are the Forbus, Melson, Lunsford, King, along with distant relatives. The grandparents i attended with was Cleveland and Lena Forbus Newman.
Great history. Thanks Mary. Nice to see she is still going strong.
I might have ancestors burried there… West, Spence, Adams, and others.
Have you visited ZionEpiscopal Church in Talbotton?
Yes. One of the most beautiful in all of Georgia. The Georgia Trust owns it now. We were fortunate that the recent tornado did not damage the church. She is a beauty. You can access it here. https://www.hrcga.org/church/zion-episcopal/
Love this one! Home of the annual Ware family reunion, which will meet for the 150th time in july.
If any history emerges, please pass it on. There must be some out there somewhere.