High Bluff was organized in 1819 by Isham Peacock, a legend among the Wiregrass Primitive Baptists. Elder Peacock began his religious life in 1802 at the ripe old age of sixty, and retired from Providence Church in Ware County in 1844 at the age of 101. He was typical of the Primitive Baptist preachers of the early 19th century in that he was not a man of letters but was able to convert the wild frontier cattle drovers who inhabited this part of Georgia in great numbers. The religious doctrine they founded was strict and extended to their architecture, their dress, their services and every aspect of the hard life in this part of wiregrass Georgia. It still exists today in much the same form as the unpainted structure above will attest. These unpainted Wiregrass Primitive Baptist churches are all located in this small region of Southeast Georgia and a few in North Florida. The visual similarity of the construction of these old sanctuaries, both inside and out, is amazing. The Georgia Wiregrass Primitives are a unique subsection of the Baptist religion and worth some investigation if you are so inclined. John Crowley’s book, Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South is one of the few reference books on the subject.
High Bluff Primitive Baptist Church had its beginnings in a settlement on a high bluff (hence the name) of the south bank of the Satilla River. The origins of the settlement are lost but history seems to indicate that the pioneers had come up the river in boats and may have been previous members of the Little Satilla Church, whose location is now unknown. Eventually these early pioneers settled in and found the need for a church. High Bluff was constituted in September of 1819 with nine members. The Presbytery was made up of Isham Peacock and Fleming Bates, two ministers who would be active in the establishment of other churches in South Georgia and North Florida. A meeting house was built that included a cemetery and, beginning in 1821, Fleming Bates was the pastor.
In 1823, 13 members of High Bluff were granted letters of dismissal to become a constituted church at Kettle Creek. At some point, within the next few years, the congregation at High Bluff moved to become members of Big Creek. The minutes make no mention of the cause for the move, but tradition says that there was a cholera outbreak in the High Bluff area. The only solution to cholera at the time was to move away. So the little church on the bluff was closed. Today few signs can be found of the original church. In the late 1870s, the name of the Big Creek Church was changed to High Bluff.
High Bluff is still an active house of worship today and is among the oldest continuing congregations in this part of the state. Its cemetery is very old, but as with many of these historic churches, few of the graves of the old settlers have survived. Among the tallest of the existing stones in the cemetery is that of Lydia Stone, known as the “Queen of the Okefenokee.” Lydia was an unschooled, independent, iconoclastic girl of the swamp. With a unique and colorful style, she made the swamp her life and became a self-taught and shrewd businesswoman who died a millionaire. The river brought many of the early settlers into this area. And today, it holds the story of their struggles and successes, their sins and their redemption, and the ongoing story of the High Bluff Church.
Although most Wiregrass Primitive Baptist Church’s appear to be constructed from the same plans, they are not. They appear to be similar in appearance because they all follow and adhere rigidly to the strict…” no frills, no ornamentation(exterior or interior, pictures, statues, brackets, etc.), windows covered by simple, wooden shutters, no floor coverings/rugs and the plainest possible wooden pews and pulpits. The sanctuary must not in any way distract the congregation from the principal task of worship.
This black and white photograph emphasizes the unfinished wood elements throughout the interior of the Wiregrass sanctuary. It also accentuates and reveals the “open” attic, frame construction found in each of these buildings as well as the eye-pleasing, skeletal geometry of the wooden ceiling beams and cross bracing.
These two primitive and battered side chairs present us an example of the auxiliary seating provided for the church leaders, preachers, deacons and other honored guests. Where you might find high-backed, elaborately carved, walnut or oak, perhaps upholstered seating near the chancel, pulpit or alter of other nearby churches of the period, the congregation of High Bluff offers the most modest of seating for their leaders. It is their tradition and a badge of denominational austerity and distinction.
One look at a rude and totally functional pulpit such as this confirms that this is a Primitive Baptist Church. You might think that this photo was taken in an old and failing rural church… perhaps even years and years ago. It was not. High Bluff still meets and welcomes a small congregation every 2nd weekend of each month in this fine old sanctuary! The tradition still lives in Brantley County, Georgia.
Here lies Lydia Stone who was known as the ‘Queen of the Okefenokee’ for her business acumen and marriage exploits. She led a very colorful life and managed to accumulate an estate valued at over a million dollars when she died in 1938.
Here lies baby Brainard Ammons who died at the age of three on November 14, 1888. He lies beside his four year old brother, Owen, who preceded him in death by twelve days on November 2, 1888. Infant deaths were all too common in the backcountry, especially at birth. We can only speculate, but this was probably an epidemic of some sort. Whatever the cause, how tragic to lose two children within two weeks. Rest in peace boys.
There are over 2,000 interments in the cemetery and over 250 of them are the Griffin family. The above graves are that of John and Peter Griffin who served with the 26th Ga. Infantry. John was wounded on August 28, 1862 at 2nd Manassas and died on September 5. Ironically his brother, Peter, had been discharged on “disability” at Richmond on August 16, 1862 – less than two weeks before his brother was mortally wounded.
This elaborate, wooden picket fence, grave plot enclosure still stands in High Bluff Cemetery. Though store bought wire or cast iron is the usual material found for enclosures like these, this one was obviously hand-made and erected by a local family. Made of the readily available, heart pine of the area, it still stands many, many decades after its last loving coat of paint. It also follows the prime rule for these austere, Wiregrass congregants… keep it simple.
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Does this church still meet regularly?
Yes. We think so. At least it was active when the photographer did his work.
Who were the members around 1822?
We do not have this kind of information. If it exists at all, it would be within the original church minutes, and they are probably lost to time.
Do you know where copies of the High Bluff Primitive Baptist Church are located? Thank you.