Bethlehem Primitive Baptist

Brantley County
Org 1880
Photography by Randall Davis

We are not certain of the exact date of organization for Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church.  We do know that in 1905, Bethlehem joined the Alabaha River Association (Crawford), but based on earlier dates on a few of the headstones, the organization of the church could have preceded that, perhaps by a number of years. The oldest marked grave in the Bethlehem Cemetery bears a date of death of 1881, and our estimate is based on that.  Bethlehem remained a member of the Alabaha River Association (Crawford) until 1969 when it became a member of the Satilla River Association.  The Crawford faction is Old Line or Old School Primitive Baptists that along with other conservative elements is sometimes referred to as “Hard Shell” Baptists.  The Satilla Association records that a split occurred when Bethlehem and Smyrna Churches were “taken off” by Elder Ben Johnson in 1988.   The church served its community until 1991 when it disbanded.  Today the Satilla River Association is down to two churches and one elder.

Bethlehem Primitive Baptist is another of the group of churches referred to as Wiregrass Primitives. The Wiregrass Region of the southeastern United States is characterized by longleaf pine and scrub oak trees and generally sandy soil, extending from the coastal areas of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida inland to southeastern Alabama. Wiregrass is a type of coarse grass adapted to life in a sandy pine and scrub oak habitat.

In the 1830’s and 1840’s there was dissent among Baptists over missions and other issues not mentioned in the Scriptures.  A schism occurred and by 1844 two distinct denominations had emerged, one known as the New School (pro-mission, later to become the Southern or Missionary Baptists) and the other known as the Old School (anti-mission, later to become the Primitive or Regular Baptists). Erroneous interpretation of the term Primitive in describing the denomination has been inflammatory over the years, and the term should be construed as meaning simply “of early times; of long ago; first of the kind; very simple; original.”

During Reconstruction, in 1868, the Georgia Homestead Act was passed that allowed restructuring of individuals’ debts. Among the Primitive Baptist in Southeastern Georgia, anti-homesteaders considered the “avoidance of debt” to be a breach of contract, even if legal.  The controversy was divisive enough within the Alabaha River Association that it created a split, and two factions emerged.  The pro-homesteaders, led by Elder Reuben Crawford of Shiloh Church, became known as Crawfordites, and the anti-homesteaders, led by Elder Richard Bennett of Rome Church, became known as Bennettites.  Both groups claim to be the legitimate Alabaha River Association, so when reference is made to one of the Crawford churches as belonging to the Alabaha River Association it usually followed by (Crawford faction) or (Bennett faction) for clarity.

The Crawford faction had adherents in the area of southeastern Georgia including Brantley, Charlton, Ware, McIntosh, Pierce and perhaps other counties and in northern Florida. Only four Crawford faction churches remain active with three Elders among them.

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