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……..no 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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This is the main entrance to the sanctuary. When the Wiregrass Primitives say no ostentatious or new fangled accoutrements to interfere with the tried and true worship of the Lord, they really meant it.
The normal construction for a Wiregrass Primitive church was post and beam held together with an elaborate system of pegs. This view from the pulpit has been the same for over 150 years with one exception. The ceiling was added in the 1940’s. Prior the view would have been of exposed rafters.
The simplicity of the pews somewhat contrasts with the look and scale of the podium. This is a powerful visual statement and it doesn’t take much imagination to see and hear a thunderous recitation of the scriptures along with reminders to repent and share the glory. To top it off, the visuals of the sweet south Georgia countryside pouring through the plain 12 over 12 windows are a peaceful contrast. Notice the lack of a piano or organ. They were considered ostentatious and an unnecessary device for the serious business at hand. They did love music and they loved to sing. Alas……………all A Cappella .
Here we see how the plain, unadorned, simply framed 12 over 12 windows work to provide ample sunlight. An equally good clue as to the congregation’s desire to keep the sanctuary effective but unostentatious are the very wide heart pine floor planks that are visible above in the well lit church. Unlike other, wealthier churches of the day where more fashionable, 3 to 4 inch flooring was used, Bethlehem’s builders chose to use heart pine boards in 10 to 12 inch widths. Why? First, the large pine logs needed to produce these widths were plentiful and costless in the community at that time. Second, by sawing the logs into wide planks, the time to saw and lay the wider lengths reduced the time(cost) and material(cost) expenses to complete the structure. “Waste not, want not”.
Above, we see a detail of the post and beam construction technique used at Bethlehem. This construction method is ancient, simple and requires the least fastening hardware (in this case, just two wooden pegs) imaginable. Once again, unadorned, cheap, simple and very effective. These pillars have remained intact, plumb and square for a long, long time!
Some Wiregrass cemeteries toward the coast can be quite large with hundreds of gravestones. This one is small and relatively new, the earliest grave being 1930. Having said that, what an idyllic place to spend eternity, deep in the south Georgia backwoods in the lee of a church that has not changed for over 150 years.
You are looking at the remains of an old outhouse/comfort station at Bethlehem. No flush toilet, sink, running water, lighting… just the basics please. These Hardshell Baptists were Spartan in their demeanor and creature comforts right down to the privy they used. Amen!
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As a descendent of Nancy Cone Hagan who asked to be excommunicated from this church due to a difference in beliefs about mission work, Sunday School and theological schools and who went on to be a founding member of Liberty Baptist Church, I thank you for this photograph and history.
Lovely and well preserved
The John in this article was John Dykes, not John Dukes! My grandfather was a Dykes and this was his family.
Thanks Cynthia. It has been corrected.
Also, I have a hymnal that was used in that church with John Dykes signature. His family wound up worshiping at Welcome Hill Church of Christ, an offshoot of the Primitive Baptist.
Love old Churches,reminds me of my growing up days.