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.