Piney Grove Primitive Baptist is another of the group of churches referred to as Wiregrass Primitives. The Wiregrass Region of the southeastern United States is characterized by longleaf pine and scrub oak trees and generally sandy soil, extending from the coastal areas of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida inland to southeastern Alabama. Wiregrass is a type of coarse grass adapted to life in a sandy pine and scrub oak habitat. In the 1830’s and 1840’s there was dissent among Baptists over missions and other issues not mentioned in the Scriptures. A schism occurred and by 1844 two distinct denominations had emerged, one known as the New School (pro-mission, later to become the Southern or Missionary Baptists) and the other known as the Old School (anti-mission, later to become the Primitive or Regular Baptists). Erroneous interpretation of the term Primitive in describing the denomination has been inflammatory over the years, and the term should be construed as meaning simply “of early times; of long ago; first of the kind; very simple; original.”
During Reconstruction, in 1868, the Georgia Homestead Act was passed that allowed restructuring of individuals’ debts. Among the Primitive Baptist in Southeastern Georgia, anti-homesteaders considered the “avoidance of debt” to be a breach of contract, even if legal. The controversy was divisive enough within the Alabaha River Association that it created a split, and two factions emerged. The pro-homesteaders, led by Elder Reuben Crawford of Shiloh Church, became known as Crawfordites, and the anti-homesteaders, led by Elder Richard Bennett of Rome Church, became known as Bennettites. Both groups claim to be the legitimate Alabaha River Association, so when reference is made to one of the Crawford churches as belonging to the Alabaha River Association it usually followed by (Crawford faction) or (Bennett faction) for clarity. The Crawford faction had adherents in the area of southeastern Georgia including Brantley, Charlton, Ware, McIntosh, Pierce and perhaps other counties and in northern Florida. Only four Crawford faction churches remain active with three Elders among them.
A split occurred at Piney Grove over the Sacred Harp/modernization controversy that resulted in the loss of their only elder. Faced with a dwindling congregation and no elder, the church disbanded in 1996. We are fortunate that the church still exist. During the years following disbanding it was the target of vandals; in one instance dry palmetto leaves were used to start a fire inside the church with the obvious intent of burning it down. The fire consumed the tender but the heart pine did not catch and somehow the fire burned itself out with little damage. Out of use for decades, the church is in a good state of preservation which can be attributed to care given by Thrift family members.
All of the Crawford meeting houses we have documented have a pitcher pump like the one in front of Piney Grove meeting house. The necessity for drinking water is obvious in the absence of air conditioning or even fans, but one church ritual required an abundant source of water, the washing of the Saint’s feet. It is a sacred church ordinance originating with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and is a symbol of humility and devotion to Christ and continues today among some old-line churches.
Piney Grove Primitive Baptist is an example of the evolution of many of the old churches of the time. Some groups favored modernization and the introduction of creature comforts while others maintained the old-line view that ornamentation and comfort distracted from worship. Sexes were segregated for the same reason. In this case both elements were represented and the more progressive element dominated. With laminate flooring over the original floor, heating and air conditioning, new padded pews, walls paneled and rafters ceiled, the only remaining original feature of the church is the stand (pulpit). Shortly after the “improvements” were made the church disbanded.
We associate this slatted pew design with the turn-of-the-century era. This pew and others like it were in use when the modernization took place.
This simple yet graceful bench is a survivor from the original church. Its pine slab bottom is supported by hardwood legs, likely hickory or oak. It is situation next to the stand but was possibly one of the two short benches found in these churches, one in the stand for the use of elders and one in front of the stand for the use of the clerk and moderator.
The grave and monument to Elder Moses Thrift stand behind the church he organized and his family built. Elder Thrift preached at Shiloh and other PBC’s in the area as well as Piney Grove. The arch and gates on the stone symbolize the entry and gates to Heaven, and the star symbolizes the life of Jesus Christ. The book undoubtedly represents the bible, more significant in that Elder Moses was a preacher. We are uncertain as to the meaning of the globe or orb. It could represent the soul or the reward of the resurrection.
Piney Grove was organized in 1875. This is the second incarnation of Piney Grove Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1909. The first building, erected near a rail line in 1874, was abandoned because of noise and air pollution from the then very active rail line. Elder Thrift’s three sons capitalized on their skills and resources to build the new church. The timeless quality of black and white photography seems especially well applied with this subject.
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Was this church a member of the Alabaha association? The article talks a lot about it, but doesn’t state it outright.
I was there Feb 2011 to bury my granny Anna Elizabeth McSwain.
Moses Thrift was my Great Granddaddy who was a preacher & help start the church. Guy thrift grandfather my dad is Ray Thrift. A lot of family barried in the grave yard. Last time was the funeral of Rosa Thrift 1993.
Loved this site. This is great information. Thank you and I hope to see more like it.
Thank you Carol. Spread the word.