Located in Thomas County, this is another one of the Georgia Wiregrass Primitive Baptist churches, a very unusual, little known and fascinating part of early Georgia religious history. They are also known as Hardshell Baptists, and the architecture and design of these Wiregrass Primitive churches are representative of this all pervasive, conservative approach to life and religion. 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. Note that the WPB’s did not allow musical instruments into the churches. No distractions like pianos or organs, yet they loved to sing and according to John Crowley’s book – Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South – singing formed an important part of worship and, in the absence of a preacher, furnished the bulk of the devotions.
We do not know the exact date of the formation of Mt. Zion but we think it would be prior to 1850 and perhaps prior to 1840. This is based on the fact that the oldest documented grave in the cemetery is 1851. In addition, Mt. Zion was part of the Ochlocknee Association of WPB’s, as was the Bethlehem church located in nearby Brooks County that we know was formed in 1834. The only Mt. Zion reference in Crowley’s book revolves around an internal dispute over a doctrine that was considered heretical by the more conservative members and came to be known as “Coonism” – based on ideas attributed to Isaac Smith Coon. The book states that in 1876, the Ochlocknee Association dropped Antioch, Mt. Zion and Mt. Moriah from the roles for ‘advocating the two seed doctrine‘ attributed to Brother Coon, Elder Daniel Parker and other prominent “anti-missionary” proponents. Mt. Zion was returned to the Association in 1879.
The records of Mt. Zion are either missing or incomplete, but it is believed that Mt. Zion is the oldest church in the community. The present building is not the original one but no contemporary records have been found to date it. Early records were kept by the church clerks in their homes and were often unintentionally taken along in a move to a new locale. The cemetery is also the oldest in the community with many graves from the mid to late 1800s. Cemetery listings note many unmarked or unidentified graves.
This is a view of Mount Zion’s chancel, altar and pulpit area. We were surprised to find this charming carpenter Gothic pulpit up front and in pristine condition. The beveled diamond and triangular decorative elements contrast with the spare finishes found elsewhere throughout the building. We were also touched by the presence of the small, antique electric space heater. Unlike the large, wood-burning, pot bellied stoves found at other rural churches, we doubt this diminutive heater could have had much positive impact in warming up such a cavernous space on cold winter mornings.
The Gandy family seems to have been one of the very earliest members and supporters of Mt. Zion and their story is a good one. Max Whidden Gandy was the son of Brinkley and Leah Gandy of Montgomery County. Max married Laney Whiddon in 1829 and moved to Leon County Florida for a time before moving to Thomas County in 1834. Max and Laney had ten children, seven sons and three daughters. The oldest documented grave in the cemetery is that of baby James Gandy who died in 1851 at the age of four. Life was fairly peaceful and prosperous in this part of South Georgia until the Civil War came calling. In 1862, all six of his adult sons answered the call, five of them serving in the same unit in the 50th Ga. Inf. All but one survived the war, which was remarkable given the service record of the 50th Ga and the number of battles they participated in. We salute the Gandy family and all the early Georgia pioneers who managed to carve out a life in the Wiregrass piney woods. Their legacy lives on in these old burial grounds and this amazing piece of history in the form of Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist.
There are fourteen interments in the cemetery that belong to the Suber family, another early Thomas County pioneering family. The cemetery is reported to have the graves of many Indians and slaves. Some of the graves have headstones that are turned backwards. Many of the early graves have wooden head boards that are impossible to read today . And as these wooden markers are lost, so are the graves and identities that they marked. Of the 188 identified graves, only 12 burials occurred after 1950, the most recent being 1985.
Abandoned and Endangered
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Could anyone tell me when the Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church congregation stopped meeting before any recent activity? Was it meeting in the 1910s-20s? Thank you.
Does anyone know when the Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church congregation stopped meeting? And was there any connection with the Enon Baptist Church nearby? Any response on or offline would be appreciated.
I drove out there with my father today. He is part of the Murphy community in Coolidge Georgia. When visiting now, there is a gate with a no trespassing sign. It has three phone numbers to call to ask permission to go in. It states to please respect this place. So loving some folks now protect it. One of the signs has plastic butterflies on it, makes me smile.
Yes they are now doing some great work. See comment below from Rhonda King. She is one of the leaders of the group that is doing this incredible work.
This Church is not abandoned anymore. New members have taken it over and restoring the church.
That is wonderful news indeed.
Could I post the article on Mt Zion Primitive Baptist Church in Ancestry.com under my great grandfather Elder William Allison Dekle who pastored this church during the time of the dispute when it was expelled from the association. I read the minutes of that event in the Genealogical Library in Moultrie, GA. Wm Allison Dekle drown May 1, 1879 so I am curious to research the date when the church was taken back into fellowship in 1879. He may have been the source of contention???? If I can post this article who do I credit or what source do I credit for it? Thanks for your help.
I just saw the church for the first time last week. The Hurricane did damage and ripped the front porch and doors off the church. It needs to be repaired. Also it would be so easy to vandalize. Is there a group that could be called together to look at it, protect it?
It would be great of some local group would take an interest. She is still pretty stable but needs some TLC for sure.
The hurricane did not rip the porch off. The unruly kids in the area hooked a chain to it and pulled it off the church. We are in the process of getting new doors, the stoop on the porch put back on, the roof fixed and trying to restore this beautiful place.
Mr. Dekle: On page 125 of John G. Crowley’s “Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South”, he states, “The controversy spread to the Ochlocknee Association, where
Bethlehem Church, Brooks County, dropped Elder Willis Smith, Deacon A.M.D. Simpson, and eight others as “unsound in faith and sustaining this new doctrine that has divided us,” identified in one place as the Coon principle””. At the same time, Harmony and Antioch churches entered into a controversy over Elder Allison Dekle, sometime moderator of the association and then a member at Antioch and serving as pastor at Harmony. Harmony dismissed him for “endorsing the Mathis Doctrine advocated by Elder Coon.” After a council meeting in which Dekle equivocated masterfully, Harmony continued him as their pastor; but they soon accused him of maintaining heresy. They dropped him as a pastor and expelled twelve of his followers. The 1876 Ochlocknee Association dropped Antioch along with Mt. Zion Church of Thomas County, Georgia, and Mount Moriah Church, Nancy Hagan’s old foes, “for advocating the two seed doctrine as held by one Mathis.” After equivocating for some time, Mt. Moriah, Antioch, and part of Mt. Zion returned to the Ochlocknee Association in 1879, Antioch having declared the “Coon doctrin” to be “grose heresee.” Allison Dekle disappeared from all records by 1880.” (Crowley’s book is interesting and enlightening. I enjoy reading it.)
I would love to learn more about all of this as the “elder Coon” or as he was actually, Dr Issac Smith Coon in question was my great great grandfather on my mothers side.