Bethel Primitive Baptist has been inactive for decades but is still fundamentally sound. It is an unusual structure for a Primitive Baptist church in that it has a hipped roof but we are not sure if this was the original architecture. We love the signage on the front that states the church was “const. Sept. 28, 1887”. We are not sure how old the sign is but it has been there for some time. The sign refers to the date the church was constituted, not constructed.
According to a local history, the church was organized in 1887 in the residence of William McLendon, and originally housed in a log structure. The structure above was built by Mr. Brown Mosely in the 1890’s. A tornado did extensive damage to the church in 1925 but the church was repaired using, in part, ‘timbers from the second structure’. The field stone footings attest to the fact that the church site on the original footprint dating to the 1890’s, but the roof was probably replaced after the tornado damage and the shingles added as well.
The history states that the large cemetery nearby had many graves with wooden markers and some with wooden grave houses. No trace of these are found today. As is typical of many rural cemeteries, there are many unmarked graves that will remain uncharted and unknown. “According to McLendon family history, S. A. McLendon was the first person to be buried in this cemetery. His grave was covered with a wooden house for many years but no evidence remains today.”
The old church is in a beautiful setting and is in surprisingly good condition as you will see from the interior photos. The structure could be preserved easily enough. The the key to any long term plan to preserve the sanctuary and the history it represents will be finding a local community dedicated to the effort that is able to re-purpose and use the facility. Hopefully, the old church will continue to receive some basic maintenance and will be with us for a good many more years.
Some of you will look at this lonely, abandoned church building and think, "Who cares? The community is gone as are the congregant families who built and worshiped in this structure for a long time. Many will say that the congregation had been 'the church' …. they and it are no more. It is now just an old building in the middle of nowhere." What we see is an old church building that, for over a century, was central to the religious, social, educational and spiritual center of life for a large number of families in this area of Georgia...many of whom are buried in the graveyard. We feel their stories and history need to be documented and preserved as well as possible. By photographically documenting its existence and archiving its minutes and available history, we save its stories, influence and character for generations to come, even if the church building itself does not survive. We think that is a worthy pursuit. We hope you agree.
The Primitive Baptist congregations sought simplicity within and without their churches. This photo presents a perfect example of that tenet. No architectural decorative elements are seen here… just the haunting attractiveness and luster of Georgia long leaf pine floor, wall and narrow ceiling boards. Since this interior had to be restored after the 1925 tornado, we see more modern sashed windows as opposed to the usual heart pine wood shuttered windows. The electric lighting was probably added about that time as well. Heat was always provided by a single, pot bellied stove whose flue outlet still remains in the ceiling.
In this closeup, we are looking out the small window behind the pulpit area. The church cemetery is seen in the background. Our photographer stated that he had seen the small cross in the window when he visited Bethel Primitive Baptist about five years earlier. That is evidence of the total abandonment of this church. It and the other interior photos also provide evidence of the fact that this church is still watertight, structurally sound and not besieged by vandals.
In this view we see the altar and pulpit area of the church to the right. There is often a rude raised pulpit. If one existed here, it has been removed. A church sanctuary cannot get much more plain and bare than we see in this stark photograph.
The Barbree family has roots in Early County and there are several Barbree interments in the cemetery. An interesting fact is that a well known NBC correspondent, Jay Barbree (born 1934), was raised on the family farm near here and joined the Air Force at the age of sixteen. Mr. Barbree went on to a career in journalism covering America's space program for NBC. He also wrote several books. For more information click here. For a complete documentation of Bethel Primitive Baptists interments click here.
Here lies William McLendon (1820 -1901). We think Mr. McLendon is one of the original founders of the church and that he is the same William McLendon mentioned in the church history. Bethel was organized in his residence in 1887.
Here lies Sarah McLendon Evans, wife of W. A. Evans and daughter of William and Sarah McLendon. She died in 1894 at the age of 45.
Rural churches are often located in picturesque settings in the Georgia back country and Bethel Primitive Baptist is no exception. She has been a large part of the community in rural Early County for well over 100 years. We hope she will be with us for some time longer but without some badly needed maintenance, her days are numbered.
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