Bethlehem Primitive Baptist

Brooks County
Org 1834
Photography by Steve Robinson

What you see here is a magnificent example of a Wiregrass Primitive Baptist Church, named after the native grass Aristida Stricta (wiregrass) so prevalent in the south Georgia ecosystem. Wiregrass Primitives were prolific in this part of Georgia in the early 1800’s and continue to the present day. They are also known as Hardshell Baptists, whose conservative approach theology and austere lifestyle has thereby earned the nickname. Nothing could be more representative of this all pervasive, conservative approach to life and religion than the architecture and design of the Wiregrass Primitive churches. All the churches were built on site of native materials with local church labor and therefore will vary slightly from church to church. However, the basic design was always the same…… paint, no steeple, no window treatments, no distinct doors or entry points, low to the ground etc. etc.. The inside is just as sparse, quaint and unusual as you will see in this series of images.

The Primitives were suspicious of anything new and non-traditional and especially if these views were espoused by what they perceived to be of a social higher class. In the 1840’s the big split in the Baptist Church came because of these differences of opinion regarding religious doctrine and stewardship. Nothing personifies this conflict more than this church and the beautiful church just down the road a few miles in Grooverville, Liberty Baptist. The following quote is from our homepage on Liberty Baptist (also in Brooks County). In 1841 the Ocklochnee anti-Missionary Baptist Association added an article to their original Articles of Faith making the famous Thirteenth Article, in which they declared non-fellowship with any member who engaged or believed in Sunday-school work, missions, theological schools or any other new-fangled institutions of the day. Bethlehem was a member of the above Ocklochnee Association and in 1840 officially adopted the name Primitive Baptist to declare their defiance of the aforementioned new-fangled institutions. Liberty, on the other hand, was founded by an excommunicated Primitive member on the principle that Missionaries, Sunday School and Theological education would be the very purpose of the new church and thus the name Liberty. We would encourage you to re-visit the Liberty Baptist images and history and compare them with Bethlehem by clicking here. Only a few miles away as the crow flies but in another theological realm altogether.

Bethlehem was originally located about one mile distant in a log meetinghouse that was on the property of John Dykes. It had a slave gallery that was purported to be the only known slave gallery in any of the Wiregrass churches. It is an interesting note but it is also a fact that very few slaves were part of the Wiregrass congregations. Another interesting note is how life in the Primitive community was minimally affected by the Civil War. This part of Wiregrass Georgia saw very little actual combat and the total absence of a planter class minimized the degree of turmoil that would ultimately consume the south. Within this environment, the church decided in February of 1861 to look for a new location and build a new church. The result now stands before you. For those who would like to know more about the Wiregrass Primitives, there is an excellent book on the subject, Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South: 1815 to Present by John G. Crowley. Much of our knowledge on the subject matter came from this source.

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