Bethel Methodist is one of those small “three window” simple churches that rise up in the piney woods and sandy soil of the south Georgia wiregrass country. Thankfully the church is still active but time has taken its toll in several areas. The building is beginning to sag due to deterioration of the mortar between the bricks of the supporting columns. The brick chimney has been removed because it was leaning and causing damage to the structure. A patch in the roofing material can be seen in the area the chimney once occupied. There is a hole where the wood heater flu passed through the left wall. However the interior of the little sanctuary is a treat for the eyes as you will soon see in subsequent photos.
A search in the Statesboro library produced little information about the church. It was originally known as Alligator Creek Church but (the source wrote in 1978) some pastor years ago didn’t think Alligator was an appropriate name for a church and the name was changed to Bethel. We also have this from the History of the South Georgia Conference United Methodist Church….”West of Folkston on the west side of post road from US 23 to old Homeland Road is located this church called Bethel” (the road referenced as post road is Spanish Creek Road whose name changes to Sardis Road at some point). “It is on the site of Alligator Creek Church. It was organized before 1872 in a log building. In 1872 the present building was built; the lumber, from a sawmill at Kings Ferry, Fla., was brought up the St. Marys River to Traders Hill and hauled to the present site by ox team. The sills were put together with wooden pegs. It is still in use” (now meetings are held monthly). “For a period of time it served as the school during the week. Bethel Cemetery is adjacent to the church. Among the circuits to which it belonged is Traders Hill and Folkston. It has been in the Brunswick District. 1982 membership: 13, members entering the ministry: Bailey Gay.”
We don’t know exactly when the church was formed but we suspect it was prior to the present church built in 1872. There are documented graves in the cemetery from 1861 and we also suspect there are many unmarked graves from an even earlier period. These rural church cemeteries almost always have graves that are lost to us because the early, wooden or small field stone markers have disappeared over time. There are seven CSA veterans in the cemetery, although none of them have government markers.
The sanctuary of Bethel Methodist still looks much like it did when it was constructed almost a century and a half ago. The interiors of unsophisticated rural churches such as the one shown above provide a "time travel" opportunity for the viewer or visitor. Though significant alterations exist, the old church's walls, ceilings and windows are original. The rustic interior and furnishings of the Bethel meeting house allows a visitor to step back in time almost 150 years and enter an environment that generates the atmosphere of that earlier era.
Bethel Methodist is typical of a church building, outside and inside, that would have been constructed in rural, south Georgia during the last quarter of the 19th century. The exterior presents as a single gable, rectangular, exceedingly plain building. The inside is a rectangular box with right angle floors, walls and ceiling. Decorative architectural elements are few if any. The most simple possible windows, doors, frames and floor, wall and ceiling sheathing is employed. The five-paned transom at the entry door seems extravagant amid the other unadorned elements of this sanctuary.
In this view, we can appreciate the simple elegance of this sanctuary. The original, approximately five inch wide pine boards of the walls and ceilings were flat sawed, had no tongue and grooving and were simply nailed in leaving uneven joints between the boards. They are crude but still remain in service into the 21st century. Beneath the stove flu we see an early(original?) pulpit of heart pine whose wide, front panel is made with just one board. It now serves as an auxiliary table. The pulpit, pews, chairs, communion table, chancel altar rail and flooring are replacements but still "of the period".
It is rare to find a still playable piano or organ that could have been used in an old rural Georgia church since its earliest days. Bethel Methodist's Pease Piano seen above could be one of those rare instruments. One hint of its age are the ivory and ebony keys. Another dating key is that Pease Piano was established in 1844 and established a reputation as an excellent manufacturer. It moved to New York in 1874 very near the 1872 construction date of the Bethel Methodist Meeting House. This piano retains a "Pease, New York" logo (seen above on this piano) which was discontinued in 1900. It is quite possible that this grand old instrument has been accompanying Bethel's congregations from their earliest years.
Here lies Simon P. Jones, the son of Jethro and Sarah Strickland Jones who died in 1889 at the age of 29. We don't know much about Simon other than that. We could not help but note the contrast between the infant Jones homemade marker in the subsequent photo and the grand one you see here. If there is a kinship, it would be interesting to know the 'back story'. Old cemeteries are full of questions and conjecture.
The headstone in the foreground with the tattered flag is that of Noah Newton Mizell (1844 - 1910) and to his right is his first wife, Joannah Jane (1842 - 1890). Noah enlisted with the 4th Ga Cavalry in May of 1862 and served for the duration of the war, surrendering at Oak Hill Church in Camden County. In 1904 he applied for an Indigent Confederate Pension stating that he made $100 the previous year as a farmer. Noah had two other wives after Joannah - Vanie Dinkens who died in 1899 and Susan Johnson who lived until 1966. We are always amazed that someone honors these veteran's service even though there is no confederate headstone. This takes some real effort and a lot of research.
These rural cemeteries are sacred places and they are intimately connected to the church. The old cemeteries generally contain many of the original congregants in unmarked graves that are now lost to time and genealogy records. We try to honor their memory with one or two "Tales From the Crypt" to remind us of the hardy souls who lived and died here. Frequently you run across a reminder of the hard life they led and the love they felt for their children and each other...such as this one. It is hard to read but the handmade inscription reads "Infant of E.F. and B.C. Jones - Born Dead - Jan 1916" and signs off with a heart. It was a hard life in the wiregrass country a hundred years ago.
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I am so proud that Bethel Methodist Church is still an active church! I am a third generation of a pioneer family who were charter members of Bethel. We have church every fourth Sunday afternoon at 3:00. We have a very dedicated Pastor, Rev. Eddie Rawl , who is Pastor of the Methodist Circuit churches , which include Bethel, Homeland, Prospect and Traders Hill. All of these churches are small in number of members and low in attendance but we all agree that the up keep of our church buildings and our strong Faith in God will prevail until our Lord and Saviour returns!
Yes, it requires a great deal of effort to save our history and heritage, but very worthwhile. I live in Florida and will attempt to join the congregation for a Sunday afternoon service this summer. I have been trying to locate relatives who are probably buried in the cemetery. One was a CSA veteran and the other his adult son.
Thank you for your support of this wonderful old church.