The story of Powelton Methodist church is really the story of the village of Powelton itself. One of the oldest villages in Georgia, Powelton was a very important town in the post Revolutionary War Georgia back country. Hancock County was formed in 1795 but Powelton was already a prominent village by then. Indeed Powelton was considered a major crossroad community in early nineteenth-century Georgia. The major east-west artery from Augusta to Greensboro ran through Powelton and one of the major north-south routes ran from Milledgeville to Washington via Sparta, Powelton, and Wrightsboro. At the other end of the village, Powelton Baptist was formed in 1786 by Silas and Jesse Mercer and was subsequently the location of the first Georgia Baptist Convention in 1822. We have seen several mentions of the fact that Powelton, at one time, rivaled Milledgeville for the location of the state capital after Louisville and came up two votes short. A recent Methodist document dated 1961 also mentioned the ‘two votes short’ story.
Many prominent citizens of Georgia resided in this village along with many merchants and commercial enterprises as well as academies of higher education for both men and young ladies. However, as early as the 1860s, Powelton could be described as a mere remnant of the vibrant community that it had once been. Liberty Hall (Alexander Stephen’s home now in Crawfordville), the Richard Malcom Johnston house, the Howell House, and others were dismantled and moved to new locations before the Civil War. Very little history of the Methodist church at Powelton is available but we believe the church was certainly organized prior to 1800. The Baptist Church in Powelton was consecrated in 1786 and the community was very prominent on all early Georgia maps. A prosperous community such as Powelton would likely have both a Methodist church and a Baptist church by the turn of the nineteenth century. The earliest documented grave in the cemetery, according the Friends of Middle Georgia Cemeteries, is dated 1817. However, a short church history in the Emory University archives, written in 1972, mentions graves with dates of 1802 and 1803. As usual, we suspect many unmarked graves are located there.
The current building is not the original but was probably built on the site of the first sanctuary since the cemetery age and location supports that. We have found some recent Methodist records which places the date of the present sanctuary as 1830 and mentions that the the structure was ‘re-roofed’ in 1946. Another brief Methodist history states that the present building replaced an earlier ‘Methodist Meeting House’. The single field stone footings and hand-hewn support timbers attest to an early origin. Regardless of the footings and timbers, the interior of the church is extremely level and stable, a testament to the building skills of early carpenters. The old church is in amazing condition, given its inactivity for over 30 years, but it is badly in need of some basic repairs.
Richard Malcolm Johnston, a prominent Georgia author, was raised and educated in Powelton. He immortalized Powelton in 1871 with his popular book Dukesborough Tales under the pen name Philemon Perch. ‘Here was once a smart village; no great thing of course but still a right lively little village. But it is no use to think about it, because the thing is over and Dukesborough is no more’.
Powelton Methodist may be the most well preserved and photogenic... but completely abandoned... church structure we have uncovered to date. Its ownership at this moment is very cloudy and questionable. So, why do we start here with a close-up view of the center steeple, bell tower and pediment? From a distance, when viewing the 'long shot" of Powelton Methodist that introduced this sequence, all looks well. But this close-up of the vulnerable steeple and roof area reveals that serious deterioration of these elements has already taken place. Now open to the elements, these highest structures will soon allow rain into the interior of the building (in spite of the remarkably well-preserved, old tin roof) thus sounding the death knell for the entire structure.
If you are looking for the opportunity to enter the front doors of an early-19th century church and enjoy the visual experience of exactly how things really were in that time period, this is your destination. It is simply a marvel of early 19th century rural crafsmanship. Hand made , 150+ year old pews sit on wide heart pine floor boards. Wide horizontal wall boards are in combination with three and four inch ceiling boards. Add clear glass 9 over 9 windows, an 1830's altar and a pulpit framed with a perfectly proportioned contrasting arch and it really is a visual treat. Now add a giant, front and center wood stove to make the sanctuary habitable on frigid, frontier Georgia mornings and the vision is complete.
Most think that these sturdy, well roofed structures are almost invulnerable. This view of the 19th century piano centered between two windows with broken panes reveals that there are other dangers that can destroy these churches. The view above, while very romantic and photogenic, shows that vines and trees can invade these structures via broken windows and rotted clapboard siding and wreak havoc within. Weather has virtually destroyed the piano.
What a remarkably correct view of a 19th century sanctuary… not many like this. After years of abandonment and neglect, "Why is this sanctuary view so pristine, perfect and inviting?" There has been no recent congregation to preserve the purity of their church! The answer is that over twenty years ago, the producers of a motion picture, "Get Low" (starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray) came across this church and declared it perfect for their filming needs. The producers spent a small amount of money to bring the interior up to movie standards. The scenes in the movie lasted less than two minutes!! But what a difference a little maintenance makes for these old structures. Exterior enhancements were not on the producers agenda and they are now failing fast.
These rough, single field stone vertical footings are totally unique in terms of construction technique. We do not know of a church of similar size in Georgia that is supported this way. Usually these heavy structures are supported with un-mortored field stone pillars that are made level by adjusting the number and shape of the individual rocks. The fact that this church is still plumb and level so many years later is a quite a tribute to the builders. We are sure there is probably a much larger, more intriguing story here regarding the designers/builders at Powelton. In any case, this 'church built on the rock' still stands and dead level too. One of our favorite hymns - 'On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other land is sinking sand. All other land is sinking sand.'
This view from the cemetery is both intriguing and educational. There is the ongoing mystery of what the actual dates of Powelton Methodist's founding as well as the present structure's construction dates really are. However, the early burial customs give us some clues. If you look at the monuments in the foreground, you see from left to right, two ruined, 18th century-style false crypts with unreadable ledger stones and a late 18th early 19th century tablet marker. These tend to suggest that the early 19th century date for the cemetery along with the second, existing building are appropriate. We hope to clarify these questions at some point in the future with the input of informed followers out there like you.
Author's note - The Confederate gravestone in the above photo is that of my Great Grandfather, William D. Seals. In July of 1861, William D. along with his brother, Henry, enlisted in Co. K - 15th Ga Inf. and joined the grand conflict sweeping over the south. Four years later, he returned to Powelton after being wounded at the Wilderness. Brother Henry had been killed at Antietam and he would soon lose another brother at Jonesboro. He returned to the family farm, married a girl named Sally Herndon and had eleven children. In 1902 he would apply for an 'Indigent Confederate Pension' which stated that he had no assets, no income and was supported solely by his children. Not much of a payoff for Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, The Wilderness and countless others. The discovery of this grave led to my interest in these beautiful old sanctuaries and the founding (along with a like minded and lifelong friend) of Historic Rural Churches. These are indeed sacred grounds and we must find a way to respect and protect them.
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