Friendship Baptist, built in 1857 and located in northwestern Sumter County, is the oldest standing church in the county. Much of the history of the church would be lost if not for the efforts of Jack F. Cox, of Americus, and Mrs. Scott Hart, of Schley County. Mrs. Hart preserved the original minute book of Friendship Baptist, and Cox completed a transcription of it in 1980. The transcription is a treasure, transporting us to a time when the church stood at the center of a vibrant community.
The minutes span a period from the church’s founding in 1839 to a generation later in 1872. The earliest minutes reveal the congregation’s origins during a time of agricultural prosperity for Sumter County. Names both obscure and famous dot the minutes, including the appearance of Wiley Carter in 1852: the great-great grandfather of the future president. While Carter, his wife, and a slave were welcomed as new members of the fold, others were expelled for unacceptable social behavior, including “Elisateth” Strong, who had become an Episcopalian.
When it comes to the Civil War, the minutes are largely silent concerning the conflict that thrust the state and county into the abyss. The total number of congregants who fought is unknown, although many veterans of the conflict can be found in Friendship’s cemetery. However, we must remind ourselves that these were the ones who survived and returned home.
The minutes end in 1872, during the social changes of Emancipation and Reconstruction. You may be surprised how the minutes describe black and white relations, especially at the war’s end. Friendship Baptist is indeed a treasure, with its structure and history worth preserving, and its people worth remembering. More information and commentary can be found in the gallery photos of the church and adjoining cemeteries. Some highlights of the minutes are below.
Dec. 15, 1839 – We a part of the church at Liberty being at the painful necisity of separation of ourselves from a parte of our Brethering at liberty in order to mantane our mutual rights in the spread of the gospel have this day convened in order to provide wayes and meanes fpr the constituting of ourselves into a church.
April, 1840 – the first mention of new white and black members – The church met and after pray meting the conference was opend for the reception of members when came forward sister Rebecca Boyet and sister Eliza a woman of color and brother James & Titus men of culler and was recd all being members from Liberty church whom we know to be in good standing bowth in faith and practice.
Jan. 16, 1841 – the first mention of unacceptable behavior – Brother Sraford an alagation against Brother Kneel Gillas of intoxication and agread to lay it over until the conference in April. Brother Staford prepared an Alagation against Jesse Parker for drawing a knife and quaraling agreed to lay it over to the next conference.
Dec. 31, 1842 – A charge of murder of a slave – Brought a charge against Bro. James M. Stafford for the murder of his Negro boy John when he was expelled from all the Privaleges of the church.
Jan. 20, 1844 – The first mention of a female transgression – On motion appointed Brethren Shuffield, Absalom Burke, N. Dardern, J. R. T. Lingo and Cauthen and Derrysay to see Bro. Teals Eiliza who is guilty of the sin of Fornication.
Aug. 1, 1846 – Expulsion for joining another denomination – On motion Elisateth Strong fomally a member of our church was excluded from our church for jining the Episcopalian church of Macan Geo.
May 27, 1848 – Prevarication and intoxication – Prefered to charges against John Teal one for intoxication and the other for prevarication……..Took up the case of Mrs. Heath and after some discussion being had on the case She was expelled From all the privilages of the church For intoxication.
March 22, 1851 – Dedicated service for African Americans – Agreed that Brother William Ross preach to the Black Peaople every fourth Sunday in each month in the evening.
Aug. 24, 1852 – Wiley Carter (President Carter’s gg grandfather) and his wife Sarah join the church – Rec’d by letter Wiley Carter and his wife Sarah Carter. Aug. 5 – Received by letter Lucy a servant the property of Wiley Carter.
Sept. 25, 1852 – Assisting a slave jailed for rape – Brought a charge against Zackariah Sheffield and Rolling Baker who, it is believed aided and assisted Sam a servant boy belonging to Robt. Sheffield to make his escape from the county gail of Marion County Ga. Who was in there for the crime of attempting to commit the rape on a white girl….the church Excommunicated Zachariah Sheffield and Rolling Baker More for the above charge.
Oct. 26, 1856 – A collection for African missions – Rev. J Stallings preached a Sarman on missions after which a collection of Som fourteen dollars was taken for Affrican missions.
Aug. 22, 1857 – Wiley Carter buys the old church building – Agreed to offer for Sale the old church building…… Sept 26 – the old church building was sold at fifty two dollars, Bought by Bro. Carter.
Apr. 26, 1862 – Appointments to keep order among the blacks – appointed Brethren James McCarrah, James Jones and N. Darden to Keep order among the blacks of collered people on Sabbath.
Aug. 24, 1863 – First mention of the Civil War – The church agreed to Send Several Numbers of the Index to the Sumter Flying Artilery Battalion.
Jan. 23, 1864 – The purchase of the school house next door – Agreed to purchase The School House & lot adjoining the church Lot South, There being five acres more or less attached to the primces….which as done this evening at the Sum of five hundred dollars.
Feb. 28, 1864 – Only other mention of the war – appealing to the “God of battles”- The Church agreed to have a general prayer meeting on Saturday before the fourth Sunday in March for our army and bleeding country. And that we invite the churches with whom we correspond to meet with us on that day and spend a fiew hours in prayer and humble devotion to the God of Battles.
July 26, 1865 – Emancipated slaves continue to join the church – Rec’d by an Experience of Grace Andrew McGarrah a Collered man; a collered woman Martha McGarrah by an Experience. Alsey Johson a woman of coller by Exeperience Mary Hart a collered woman.
May 25, 1867 – Black clergy emerges from the congregation – Granted Bro. Aaron May a freedman of coller License To preach with his race.
Aug. 21, 1869 – Emancipated slaves are still joining the church – Rec’d by an experience of Grace Sally Lansley & Emma Collier collered, Frances Deconey colored, Louiza May, colored, Caroline May, colored, Rosetta May, colored Artemoers Worty all collored.
Sept. 25, 1869 – “STATE OF THE CHURCH” report given, 40% of the members are black – Whites in Fellowship 85, Blacks in Fellowship 35
Oct. 22, 1870 – Most of the freed slaves now leave to start their own church – Ordered the clerk to give Letters of Dismission to all collered members who is in fellowship with the church for the purpose of constituting a Church of their own coller.
June 24, 1871 – More transgressions and charges – Charge prefered against Bro. Therilkill for Stabing Mr. Gearham, appointed Bro. Jesse Carter to notify im to attend the next conference To answer to the charge.
July 27, 1872 – Last mention of an African American in the minutes – Granted a letter of dismission to Julia Ross Col.
Sept. 21, 1872 – Last entry in the minute book
When we document a church, we often find that its architecture is the principal feature. At other sites, the interior is often the standout feature, and still others reveal the church’s history and significance through the stories we discover in its cemetery. Friendship Baptist is notable for all three categories. It is rare that all of these elements are found in such excellent condition. The exterior, first photo, presents the church as a Greek Temple and is an excellent and early example of the Classical Greek Revival architectural style. In the photo above, we see that the interior is a “frozen in time” example of a mid-19th century sanctuary founded by prosperous planters . Later, we will visit the cemetery and reveal some of its important secrets
Of course, the sanctuary has undergone many changes during its 160+ year history. But, here we see that many significant elements from its earliest days remain. The wide horizontal pine wall boards and the vertical, narrower pine ceiling boards are authentic and in remarkably good repair. The heavy paneled doors still function and sit comfortably within their wooden frames. Architectural decorative features such as elaborate ceiling and floor moldings along with other decorative elements are not used, in keeping with the tenets of the faith.
This point of view provides further evidence of the lack of ostentation and the desire to maintain simplicity within the sanctuary that is expressed by the congregation today and since Friendship’s founding. The spare Windsor chairs sit behind a simple, straight legged offertory/communion table. At the raised chancel are just three Victorian, high backed horsehair chairs for the clergy that sit behind the wooden pulpit. The apse is a simple, wood frame cased opening above which rises a plain, wooden cross.
In this view from the pulpit, if we removed the modern elements such as electric lights, heating vents and carpeting, we would be looking at a near-authentic, mid19th century meeting house sanctuary. The fact that so many its original elements remain in place is a tribute to the congregation at Friendship whose stewardship has been exemplary for over 160 years.
Baptists have always embraced and incorporated congregational singing of hymns into their services. Friendship is no exception. No doubt the piano above is just one of many to have been used in the sanctuary during its noted history. But we are pretty sure that a pump organ or piano, like the one above, has always sat upon the lovely heart pine floor boards and accompanied thousands of services, funerals, weddings and baptisms. The fact that lives will continue to be touched in these ways for decades to come is reassuring.
The grave of Robert Sheffield is one of the oldest in the cemetery. Sheffield (1782–1856) married Ann Height on March 24, 1807. The 1840 Federal Census recorded him living in a household of six free whites and four slaves. According to his obituary in the Sumter Weekly Republican, Sheffield served as a highly esteemed Deacon in the church for over forty years. The Confederate flag by the headstone is misplaced, for Sheffield died before the war in 1856.
This is the grave of John Randolph Battle (1848–1885), who enlisted with the 22nd Georgia Infantry on June 15, 1861, at the age of sixteen. He survived the war and was among those that surrendered at Greensboro, NC, in April 1865. While John may have imagined a glorious war ahead when he enlisted, events proved otherwise. His wife, Edna, attributed his death at age 37 to complications from wartime privations when applying for a Confederate widow pension. Life was hard in the Georgia countryside. When John died, the family had seven children under the age of 13, but only four would survive past their teenage years. The three who died are also buried in the cemetery.
Eleven graves in the cemetery belong to people with the last name of Dodson. The family's patriarch, Joel Dodson (1813–1880), was one of the early settlers of this part of Georgia. Joel and Nancy, his wife, had five children, three boys and two girls, and owned 20 slaves according to the 1860 Federal Census. The three sons all served in the 27th Georgia Infantry. The grave pictured here belongs to one of the three, Lieutenant William Columbus Dodson (1837–1863). He enlisted as a private in September 1861 with his younger brother, Rufus. He was elected 2nd Lieutenant in July 1862, and died during the war at the age of 25, although the circumstances are unclear. He married Martha Murray in 1859, and more information about Martha can be found in the next photo.
Martha Murray Dodson (1838–1891) was the wife of Lieutenant William C. Dodson. They married in Marion County in December 1859. Her grave refers to her as the "Relict of W. C. Dodson," a term not used today but which refers to a widow. The war that many assumed would be short when it began in 1861 produced thousands of widows across the South and the nation. This was especially true in Georgia, where tens of thousands of husbands and fathers never returned. Because a high proportion of white southern men perished in the war, many women never remarried, including Martha. She had no children before war took her husband.
This is the grave of John Edward Powell (1835–1909), who served in the 46th Georgia Infantry. He saw nearly the entire course of the war, enlisting in May 1861 and surrendering with General Lee at Appomattox. The 1860 Federal Census found him as a young farmer, 26 years old, living near the village of Pineville, Marion County, with his wife Nancy Dodson Powell. Nancy was the daughter of Joel Dodson, and sister of William, both discussed in previous photos. Many families in these churches were intertwined, and so were the lives of the slaves they owned. The experience of some will be addressed in the next three photos.
The African American New Bethel Baptist cemetery is adjacent to the white cemetery at Friendship Baptist. The earliest graves at Friendship Baptist date to the 1850s, but the earliest marked graves at New Bethel all date to the twentieth century. A mixture of poverty, prejudice, and poor records leave an unanswered question: Where were slaves buried in Sumter County before Emancipation? While some may have been interred at individual plantations, it is probable that what is now the New Bethel cemetery was the "black section" of Friendship cemetery prior to Emancipation. When black congregants departed Friendship Baptist in 1870, it is likely they retained the burial ground that they had used in previous years. Because the marked graves that do survive date to after 1900, most previous burials were probably unmarked or used wooden markers that deteriorated. Despite these limitations, we can make educated guesses about the black community through one of the markers that did survive, that of Phebe Dodson.
One of the graves at New Bethel is that of Fibbie Dodson. According to the Findagrave database, she was born in 1870 and died in 1942 at the age of 72. One of our excellent volunteer researchers believes that Fibbie was actually born Phebe Casey, who made her first appearance as a two-year-old in the 1870 Federal Census records of Madison County, Alabama. Phebe then shows up in an 1886 Sumter County marriage record, when she wed Green Dodson on December 26, with bride and groom listed as colored. The 1900 Federal Census for Sumter County shows the Dodsons having four children, while the 1910 Census has Green Dodson, age 55, and Phebe, age 43, with a total of eight children. The last record of Phebe is in the 1940 Census for Schley County, where she was listed as a widow, age 68, with three boarders. She then died in 1942 and was interred in the New Bethel cemetery.
As previously mentioned, eleven graves in Friendship cemetery bear the name Dodson, with three having served in the Civil War. The end of the war marked a dividing point—before the war, almost all slaves were referenced only by first names, a pattern that holds in the Friendship minutes. After the war, African Americans took last names, with several taking the last name of their former masters. According to Sumter census records, Green Dodson, an African American, was born between 1855 and 1860. Joel, the patriarch of the Dodson family, had twenty slaves in 1860, and three of them are possible matches for Green and two of his siblings. It is likely that Green Dodson's family took the name of their former master, although the 1880 Census for Schley County reveals Green living in the household of Cupid and Henrietta Brown under their sur name. Green seems to have reverted to his Dodson name sometime after 1880. Although no records for Green Dodson are available after 1910, it is likely he was buried in an unmarked grave at New Bethel.
Due to the lack of records, we can at best make educated guesses about the lives of Green and Phebe Dodson. Green's life stretched from being born into a slave society to being emancipated, probably taking his former master's surname, and then trying to carve out a new life in the economically and racially troubled post-Civil War environment. Despite their challenges, Green and Phebe married and then raised eight children. They likely found their spiritual and community center in New Bethel Baptist, one of the many African American churches that developed after the war and which gave blacks a degree of independence. The Friendship minutes give us a sense of how our nation emerged from slavery and the false prosperity built on it. It is one of many rural churches that tell the stories of where we came from, how we got here, and who we are today. To preserve this story, we must save the history of these churches and these structures while we still can.
This picture of Friendship Baptist was taken in 1900. When compared with the modern photos, you can see the loving care that has preserved this church as a great memorial to Georgia history for over 150 years. We are grateful for the beautiful stewardship shown here.
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I am the granddaughter of Rev. Eugene Smith. I enjoyed this church many services here.
I grew up in this church. The only Sunday School teacher I ever had was Mrs Lucy Grace Hart the first 20 years of my life. I have wonderful childhood memories of Mrs.Lucy and all my family as well as church family growing up there. I think of her often.
A very pretty church, and I plan to be buried in the cemetery there. My parents and grandparents are also buried there. Two carpenters from Macon came in 1856 and took a year to build the house we have. They then went a mile up the road and built Friendship Baptist Church in 1857.
Great history Gaston. Many thanks.
I had an aunt and her family that were members in this church. She and her husband are both buried there. She would be so pleased with this spotlight.
A very beautiful church. Thank you for the great work you are doing. I so enjoy learning about these churches and the history that goes with them.
Absolutely beautiful and such a treasure.