Mt. Olive is another of member of the Wiregrass Primitive Baptist sect that is concentrated in a few counties in south Georgia in what is known as the Wiregrass Region. The churches are easily recognizable by the common architecture and the fact that they are all unpainted. These Primitive Baptists share a common belief that decorative embellishments detract from the purpose of worship and therefore are not part of the sanctuary in any form. The Baptist denomination began developing in the wiregrass country in 1819 when Elder Isham Peacock established High Bluff Church in Brantley County in 1819. In the 1830’s, a theological split within the Baptist Church then resulted in the Primitive Baptists going one way and Missionary Baptists going another.
The Wiregrass Primitives are organized by Associations and are further delineated by Factions which generally come about over different interpretations of the Primitive Baptist theology. During the 1870’s the churches of the Alabaha River Association underwent a split over the Georgia Homestead Act, passed during Reconstruction. Part of the members, led by Elder Reuben Crawford, supported the Act, and the remainder, led by Elder Richard Bennett, did not. The members who followed Reuben Crawford became known as Crawfordites. Due to the austerity of Crawfordites we have a few of their meeting houses that survive very much as they were, as in the case of Mt. Olive, in the 1870’s.
Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church is a small and attractive church that has undergone some changes over time, but has maintained the austere appearance associated with Crawfordite meeting houses. The building behind the church is a modern, government mandated sanitary facility, but the covered well and the old outhouse remain. The Alabaha River Association, organized in 1842, “took up” or accepted into fellowship, Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church in 1875 with 8 members. This church was moved from its original location but it must have been done long ago as the cemetery contains graves from the 1880’s. Sashes and glass panes have been added to the windows and the heart pine log sections on which the church originally rested have been replaced by concrete supports, but this old meeting house appears much as it did in the 1870’s.
More recent history tells us that Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church remained in fellowship with other Crawfordite Alabaha River Association churches until 1952, when, as a result of doctrinal disagreement, it was “taken off” by Elder Sammy Hendrix and was no longer in fellowship with any churches except those that followed Elder Hendrix. The Crawfordites of the Alabaha River Association were already isolated from other Primitive Baptist churches over disagreements concerning the Georgia Homestead Act, and the creation of another faction isolated them further. Three churches were “taken off” by Elder Hendrix, Mt. Olive, Corinth and Emmaus, and after Elder Hendrix’s death in 1987 the churches in the Hendrix faction disbanded. Two of the churches, Corinth and Emmaus, ceased to exist, but Mt. Olive re-organized and was constituted or “taken back up” into the Alabaha River Assn. in 1996. After 140 years of service this church remains active today (2015).
Pews in many older rural churches were often constructed by church members. The rural life demanded many skills to maintain self-sufficiency, and because church memberships were close-knit groups with families in fellowship, skills of one person could contribute to the well-being of all. Within this frame work, one or two skilled craftsmen built the church furniture, pews, communion table, and stand (pulpit). These kinds of crafts and skills are still common in the Primitive Baptist Church. For example, some families still prefer to observe their own funeral customs and we were told of one family who had one of the skilled carpenters in the church build a coffin for their loved one. While the men were doing that, the women knitted and sewed the lining, pillow and shroud. (Paraphrased in part from personal communication with Elder Jason Deal.)
This view is of the men’s end of the meetinghouse, detectable by the hat rack suspended from the rafters. In some of the Crawfordite houses the flooring in the men’s end of the house would have holes drilled for the expectoration of tobacco juice, but in this case the flooring required replacement at a time when the acceptability of chewing tobacco in church had passed. The replacement flooring was milled from trees cut on the church property and laid by members.
Mt. Olive is constructed and laid out in a similar fashion to the other Crawfordite meeting houses. The stand (pulpit) is centrally located on the back wall with seating for men members on the left and for women members on the right. The general congregation occupies the pews in front of the stand. The bench or short pew in front of the stand is for the use of the clerk and the moderator. Though not prominent in this view, a small, rectangular block can been seen on the floor which serves as a handle for removing a small section of flooring exposing a hole into which water used in the foot-washing ritual is disposed. A communion table would be located in front of the clerk’s/moderator’s seat.
In the warm climate of extreme South Georgia heat conservation on all but the coldest of days is not an issue. Actually, cool weather is welcomed. Light entering through the cracks between the door’s boards makes an interesting interplay of light and shadow on the church floor.
The only marked Confederate States Army veteran’s grave in this small cemetery is that of William Riley Thomas, Company I, 4th Georgia Cavalry. Nearby is the grave of his wife Samantha Fullwood Riley who died after 49 years of marriage to Thomas.
Resting in the shadow of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church are the remains of James and Catherine Lee who were early members or possibly charter members of the Mt. Olive church. Our consultant on Primitive Baptist churches in the area tells us that “they lived in what is now Echols and Clinch County at one time and then later moved to the Cowhouse Island in the Swamp (Okeefenokee Swamp). That is probably when they became members at Mount Olive, but it is anyone’s’ guess as to when that was.” Brother James died in 1888 followed by his wife Catherine in 1899. James Lee’s grave is the second oldest marked grave in the cemetery, the oldest being that of a child, Louis A. Lee who died at the age of two years in 1892. This cemetery has a unique feature of several rows of planted palm trees that have attained a height of fifty feet or greater.
From this serene location in the piney woods of Ware County, Mt. Olive has been giving spiritual comfort and fellowship to her congregants for almost 150 years. The Wiregrass Primitives came into being 200 years ago in this part of south Georgia with a total focus on worship, without frills of any kind. As you can see, they are still true to the faith and Mt. Olive continues to serve this Wiregrass community.
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