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.
Nestled among Spanish moss draped live oak and long-leaf pine trees near the Hickox community in Brantley County is Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church. The church and the cemetery are managed by a board of local citizens. As you can see, this important part of Georgia history is being well maintained by providing it with a metal roof and a pole shed for the water pump. We thankfully acknowledge their efforts in preserving this picturesque piece of Georgia history.
This photo shows the layout of the interior of Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church. What you see here is the typical design of early Baptist churches in south Georgia with an aisle from the front door, double doors in this case, to the stand (the pulpit), intersected by a second aisle between the two end doors. The elevated stand contains a short pew (bench) not visible in the photo for the use of the elders. Elders were the only members allowed to enter the stand. A second short bench in front of the stand is for the use of the clerk and the moderator. Beneath the communion table is a hole in the floor, in this case fitted with a collar to serve as a funnel, placed for the convenient disposal of water used in the foot-washing ritual.
This gracefully constructed bench placed inside the stand was for the use of the Elders. In times when the Crawford faction churches were in their heyday, any church may have had more than one Elder, sometimes several. Elders visited among the churches so there were at times guest speakers, and when the Big Meeting occurred (an annual meeting rotated among the association members that was attended by all members of the association who could get there), preaching lasted for two or more days. Deacons decide on who will occupy the stand on a given day. They believe when they go out (into the church yard) “to inquire who should stand” that God actually appoints the men who will go in the pulpit that day. They often pray for the Lord’s guidance and are never to consider who might be inspired, the better speaker, or who they might like to hear that day. Among the Wiregrass churches, Elders do not prepare sermons. They do not use outlines or notes of any kind. All of it is extemporaneous.
This view is from the stand (pulpit) toward the double front doors. The cemetery can be seen in the distance. Elderly men were seated to the left side of the stand in this church and elderly women to the right. The general congregation was seated on the benches in front of the stand. Elder Jason Deal of Comfort Primitive Baptist Church of Waycross related a story of a funeral held at Bethlehem. There were so many attendees that the house was full to capacity, causing a portion of the floor to collapse. There were no further details so we don’t know when this event occurred, but it evident that the current floor in the building is a replacement.
This is the oldest marked grave in Bethlehem Cemetery and its inscription reads “Sacred to the memory of SV Johns, April 6, 1849 and Died June 19, 1881, Age 32 Years 2 Months and 13 Days. The Day is Past and Gone the Evening Shades appear O May We All remember Well The Night of Death is Near.” This verse from John Leland’s hymn is followed by the notation &C. In its entirety the words of the hymn by John Leland are: “The day is past and gone, The evening shades appear; O may we all remember well The night of death draws near; We lay our garments by, Upon our beds to rest; So death shall soon disrobe us all Of what is here possessed; Lord, keep us safe this night, Secure from all our fears; May angels guard us while we sleep, Till morning light appears.”
These are the gravestones of Pvt. (later elected corporal) Robert Cooper and his wife Lucinda. Robert’s grave is the only marked CSA veteran’s grave found in the cemetery, though there are likely others. Robert served with the Company C of the 26th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment from July of 1861 until his unit was surrendered at Appomattox April 9 of 1865. The 26th GVI participated in the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia from the Seven Days’ Battles to Cold Harbor, fought with Early in the Shenandoah Valley, and ended the war at Appomattox. This regiment came to Virginia with 1,100 officers and men, lost 37 killed and 87 wounded at Second Manassas, and reported 6 killed, 49 wounded, and 6 missing at Sharpsburg. It had 53 casualties at Fredericksburg and 12 at Second Winchester. The unit was detached from its brigade to support the artillery at Gettysburg and lost few casualties. On April 9, 1865, it surrendered 85 men, of which 4 officers and 34 men were armed. This brief overview of the 26th GVI Regiment is included to serve as a reminder of the hardships endured and sacrifices made by the men of this and other regiments.
Grave houses have become rare in today’s landscape and these are the two finest examples we have located. With the exception of the supporting posts of the larger one, which are replacements, they seem to be original. We don’t know the identity of those interred within as their grave markers were made of wood from which any identifying inscriptions have long since faded. Grave houses helped protect the graves from weather and in times when domestic livestock roamed freely, from damage that may have been inflicted by animals.
Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church appears much as it did in the nineteenth century. At some point the lower portions of the boards (siding) required replacement and the task was accomplished in the most practical manner; the deteriorated portions of the boards were removed with one long, horizontal cut and replacement boards were applied horizontally. It could be the replacement boards were repurposed from the original flooring. The church still rests on the pine block foundations.
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