Every church we document and introduce you to at HRCGA is special in some way. All are historic. Many of the present existing churches we photograph are quite old, some are unique and some are particularly pleasing to the eye. Many are the sites of significant, seminal events in local, state & national history, denominational history, social history and more. Others are architecturally significant in form, building materials, decoration, ornamentation, siting, the age of standing structure, etc.
Then there are the few that are “all of the above… and more”. Penfield Baptist is one of that rare breed. This striking Greek Revival building that it presently occupies sits regally, yet reverently, upon a hill on the site where it was built almost 170 years ago…… virtually unchanged from the day it was originally constructed by David Demorest to serve as Mercer University’s Chapel in 1845-46. Mercer had been established at Penfield, Georgia as a manual labor school in 1833. It prospered in the 1830’s-50’s and grew powerful as one of the most prominent learning institutions, and a seat of the Baptist movement in Georgia. Unfortunately, because of Penfield’s rural and isolated nature, and its steady demise during and after the Civil War, the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to move the University to Macon, Georgia in 1871.
The original congregation of Penfield Baptist was organized in 1839 after the destruction of Shiloh Baptist by a tornado. The original church was a wooden building and stood to the right of what would be constructed as Mercer Chapel about six years later. After Mercer University moved to Macon in 1871, the University gave the Mercer Chapel to Penfield Baptist and the congregation took immediate occupancy of their grand, new home and flourished there into the mid-1900’s.
During the 1970’s, the Penfield congregation could no longer support the upkeep of the Chapel, and it was returned to Mercer. The structure was placed in danger of loss. Providentially, there was a renaissance of appreciation for heritage and for such grand and important structures in the late 20th century. Mercer Chapel was a beneficiary of that movement. It was completely restored to its original condition and given back to the Penfield Baptist Church. This is a heart-warming example of a true ‘historic rural church of Georgia’ being saved for the enjoyment and use of generations to come.
Completed at a cost of $6,794 in 1846, the restored interior would be totally recognizable to Rev Jessie Mercer if he were to stride through the front door today! The heart pine floors, the pews, the balconies and stately columns illuminated by the glorious light that flows through the soaring windows are a welcome sight to any visitor.
This dramatic view from the pulpit highlights the relatively unique design of Penfield's interior. You do not find many examples of this design in rural Georgia Churches. The classical interior has a balcony on three sides. The interior doric columns seem to lift the ceiling higher to allow more light to enter. The windows are giant forty-eight over forty-eights allowing much more than average illumination. The pews remain in the old style with a partition set down the middle to separate the males and females. It is also appropriate here to note the "modern" amenities within the sanctuary. Most churches cannot expect to remain a vital center of worship if there are no lights, heat, air conditioning, circulating fans etc. We feel that the restoration at Penfield is a shining example of how to accomplish the merger of the new with the old.
Penfield's restored interior remains as it has been for decades. It clearly provides an atmosphere conducive to worship and meditation. Its continuing existence and availability is a blessing to all.
The Christian Index, a Southern Baptist publication, was printed on the Mercer Campus from 1840 to 1857 with John Boswell as its founder and Reverend Jessee Mercer as contributor and supporter. Many notable documents and publications and controversies were debated and discussed within these walls. "Oh, if they could only talk!" For those interested in pursuing more Southern Baptist related information, visit Mercer's Jack Tarver Library in Macon.
This view from the entry doors toward the pulpit provides another example of the welcoming atmosphere created by the totality of the chapel's interior design..… warmly glowing heart pine floors, giant windows, soaring Doric columns supporting the balconies, high ceilings. Unimpeded views from back to front and the white, raised alter beckon you to enter. We cannot imagine such a view would not be uplifting and inviting to any visitor or parishioner.
This recent view of the altar on a Sunday illustrates how the restoration has brought some necessary technological advances into the sanctuary without disturbing the original beauty and warm, inviting atmosphere and feeling within the space. This kind of reverential preservation and modernization is what can make the oldest of rural churches quite feasible locations for a congregation in the 21st Century. We feel that the highest and best use of a historic rural church is to continue its use as a church whenever possible. Penfield is a shining example of a successful revival. May it always stand.
Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of individuals who were dedicated to saving this remarkable landmark (many of whom are memorialized on the plaques outside the front doors), Penfield Baptist Church stands ready to host and serve thousands for years to come, just as it has since 1839.
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