On a lonely and remote dirt road in rural Schley County stands Phillippi Primitive Baptist church. Time and neglect have taken their toll, but she still stands proud and reminds us of another time that seems so close and yet so far away. Phillippi was organized in 1835 and her history is preserved in the old minutes that still exist and remind us of this other time. According to the history, Phillippi was once the largest church in the Upatoi Association with 125 members and 5 ordained elders in the body. The last elder to serve the church was Elder John Mangham. He served from 1958 to 1974. The next 4 years the church was maintained by other churches in the Association. The last service held there was November 1978. The last member of the church was Mrs. Tom (Forrest McMickle) Cook. She died January 13, 1975 at age 84.
These excerpts from “The History of Schley County,” by Mrs. H.J. Williams, written and published in the 1930’s.
“Phillippi Primitive Baptist Church was constituted the twenty-eighth of February, 1835 in what was then Marion County. The presbytery was formed by Elders Joseph J. Battle and Andrew
Hood. After the Principles of Faith had been adopted, the following males and females were received into the full fellowship of the church: In a copy of the minutes of the church dated March 1, 1835, is the statement that when the door of the church was opened for the reception of members, ‘Randall Stewart and Lotty, a black sister, were received into the full fellowship of the church, by letter’.”
It is interesting to note in the minutes of September 30, 1837, that a church division took place. The following is a copy verbatim of the action of Phillippi church on that occasion: “Wheras, there are certain characters who call themselves Missionaries, arisen in the Baptist denomination, and are forming Institutions, which we believe to be contrary to the word of God, viz. Missionary, Bible, Tract and Temperance Societies, Theological Seminaries, and Baptist Colleges. Resolved therefore that we declare a non fellowship with said institutions and with all engaged in them. We further resolve that we do not invite or suffer a Baptist preacher, known to be friendly to, or engaged in said institutions, to preach in our meeting house.”
The Primitive Baptists have always been very strict in regard to the behavior of their members. A copy of the minutes, of 1837, discloses that a certain brother was excommunicated for getting drunk. Another was brought up for trial before the church for visiting a Masonic lodge. Others were excommunicated for taking a homestead to avoid payment of honest debts. A question always asked at church conferences was: “Are the brethren and sisters at peace with each other?”, and if they were not, the offenders were tried before the church conference. The minutes also reveal the fact that the doors of the church were opened at each monthly meeting for the reception of members, both white and colored. Phillippi is the only church in Schley county which has continued the custom of hold services on Saturdays. Attendance at the church conferences were obligatory to male members.”
The durability of these old handmade structures is remarkable. The combination of a good tin roof and Georgia Heart Pine makes them endure the years with strength and dignity if given just a minimum of maintenance. Unfortunately, Phillippi has been deserted now for decades. She is in remarkably good shape and could still be saved with a strong local effort, but the local community has faded along with the church. We think it is important to document these wonderful old sanctuaries while we still can. She is almost gone but not forgotten.
This venerable and historic church building has been abandoned and is probably beyond redemption at this point, but not because of physical decay. The tin roof is still watertight. The heart pine siding, framing, floors and joists remain sound despite rain blowing in through the open windows and doors and the lack of maintenance and attention for over 35 years. However, the three critical elements for restoration and continued utility of this site are missing – local caring and participation – a little bit of money – and an assured use and purpose for the structure after the rescue. In this hollowed out area of our state, those elements are not present and, unless something changes, will not become unavailable. At HRCGA, through our photographic archives and narratives, our goal is to at least document the existence and historic importance of endangered sites such as Phillipi for future generations.
Though this meetinghouse appears to be in dramatic disrepair when viewed from outside looking toward the west entrance and then the north in the first two photos, this shot from the inside toward the chancel and pulpit area reveals a sanctuary interior in relatively good condition. The heart pine ceiling, wall and floorboards are mostly sound. Though the windows, frames, doors, etc. are gone, the bones of this old church remain intact. There are no gaping holes in the roof and deteriorated floor and window sills that we often see. If someone were available to administer repairs, it could be restored.
Usually these abandoned churches have been devastated by weather damage, vandalism or materials’ scavengers. Other than the dismantling and removal of the pulpit and some chancel boards, Phillippi’s interior remains intact. We guess that this relatively mild damage is because the site is so isolated. The church’s inaccessibility works as a two edged sword… on one hand, there are few locals who could put the lumber of the sanctuary to an economical, practical use. On the other hand, no nearby population cares enough to preserve the site.
Here we see the resiliency of these old structures and the simple repairs that can be made to keep them alive. The foundation pillars may be failing, but fieldstones, timbers, brick and even cinderblock can be appropriately deployed to win the fight against collapse. Above is the evidence of how at least three or four generations of Phillippi’s stewards have cleverly and inexpensively kept the foundations and framing in place and effective.
The above grave is that of little Mary Ollie Lightener, who died in 1881 at the age of one and a half. The grave of her mother is in the next photo. It is interesting to note the substantial, dignified grave marker as opposed to the far simper marker of her mother. Mary’s stone memorial consists of a slotted tablet of unique design, probably made locally. The tablet is mounted into a large marble ledger stone covered by a smaller memorializing ledger. All of the inscription work appears to have been locally inscribed. This attention to detail reflects the attention of a loving parent… more than likely her grieving mother.
Here lies Sara Samantha Lightner, born in 1852 and died in 1886 of dysentery, according to her obituary, after “suffering a great deal”. She left four living children and is buried beside her daughter, Mary Ollie, who had died at the age of one and half in 1881. Sara was 34 years old, and her youngest child, Katie was eight months old. Her husband was William Lightener, born in 1851 and therefore too young to serve in the war. However, three of his older brothers enlisted and two are buried “somewhere in Virginia”. 19th century life in the Georgia backcounty was a hard one.
For almost 180 years, Old Phillippi Primitive Baptist has watched over her flock in this remote part of Schley County. She is still standing, but barely. We need to remember that these churches were the center of life in rural Georgia and are a big part of who we are and how we got here. She is almost gone but not forgotten.
Almost Gone But Not Forgotten
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Thank you for posting this article. Elder Joseph J. Battle is my Great-Great-Great Grandfather. He was one of the founders of this church. Very glad to see the photos and the information. Joe Battle, Birmingham, Alabama.