Richland Baptist, in rural Twiggs County, is a beautiful Greek Revival style church that was built in the mid 1840’s. The congregation was originally organized in October of 1811 in a log structure on the banks of Richland Creek and thus the name. The church was formed soon after the organization of Twiggs County in 1809, which was split off from Wilkinson County – formed after the treaty of 1803 moved the western boundary of Georgia from the Oconee River to the Ocmulgee. This put Richland Baptist on the western edge of the Georgia frontier in a wilderness that had been Creek Indian land only seven years earlier. The present church is the third building to be located on the site. It was the grandest church in the county and was built in response to the rising prosperity of the Twiggs County plantation owners and the rapid influx of new settlers during the 1840’s.
Richland is on the National Register of Historic Places and we are fortunate that the structure has survived virtually intact since is was built in the mid 1840’s. This is even more remarkable given that the church has been inactive since 1911, when the congregation became too small to sustain it and the church closed its doors. The old church lay dormant for over 35 years. Fortunately in 1948, third and fourth generation families associated with the church formed the Richland Restoration League, a non-profit organization whose sole purpose was to “restore, repair, improve, rebuild, maintain and preserve” the historic church. This group is still active and has left us quite a legacy.
According to the National Register site “The church is an excellent example of the antebellum, Greek Revival style of architecture as interpreted by a carpenter-builder. The building, with its simple massing, Doric style portico, square columns, unembellished entrance ways and plain entablature, lacks the refinement and elaboration of high style Greek Revival structures; nonetheless, it is a sensitively designed, finely proportioned structure. The church is of particular interest for two reasons: The architect’s method of hanging the balcony from iron rods suspended from the roof trusses is an unusual engineering feature, and the church and its site exhibit an unusual degree of integrity. Very few alterations have been made to the interior or the exterior of the structure and there are absolutely no intrusions to the immediate site or surrounding area. The church and its cemetery lie undisturbed in the countryside much as they did when the church was built and the congregation was active”.
According to the local history “Membership continued to rise and by 1840, Richland Church became the largest church in the Ebenezer Baptist Association. During the first five decades of the existence of the church, both white and black members worshiped in the church together. Although the slaves were considered members, they were required to sit in the galleries of the church during church services. In the year 1860, black membership reached a peak of 165 members, representing nearly seventy percent of the total membership. This was a period of Georgia history where the rise of King Cotton and the plantation system created great wealth for a small number of large planters. However that wealth was built on the backs of slavery, and most of the prominent planter class of Richland Baptist owned many slaves. Some of these are noted in the cemetery commentary below. Ironically, the largest of these slaveholders was a man of the cloth, Rev. Henry C. Bunn. His occupation in the 1860 Federal Census is given as Baptist Minister of the Gospel and farmer. The 1860 Twiggs County slave schedule shows he owned 114 slaves.
This church is no longer active with regular services. But, it is available for special events and weddings. It also welcomes two annual events, “Keeping Christmas at Richland” and “Homecoming Services with Dinner on the Grounds” the first Sunday in October. I am sure you would be welcome at either of those if you truly wish to share the Richland ambiance. Richland Baptist is a grand legacy of our past that has survived for over a century and a half. Thanks to the Richland Restoration League, she will survive for many more generations. We are all indebted to them for their preservation of such an important part of our culture and history.
Be sure to click and scroll the photos below for more history on the church and early Georgia settlers who lived here.
The church and the cemetery are nestled into the rural Georgia countryside surrounded by trees, Spanish moss and the quiet solitude that is befitting this queen of rural churches. The cemetery contains quite a few unmarked graves that have now been located and mapped. Unmarked graves were common in the early 19th century due to lack of funding for proper headstones. Sometimes they were made of wood or a piece of fieldstone, but the inhabitants of these graves, along with their stories have been lost to time.
Bells were an important feature of a lot of the old rural churches. In a time when the only ambient sounds were those of nature, the bells rang across the countryside as a primary form of communication. This was important since most of the congregation was within “ear shot”. The churches served the local populace and, given the logistics of walking, horseback and wagons – they were pretty close.
This ornate gate contains the name Henry (unreadable Initial) Bunn. There are two Henry Bunns buried in this cemetery. Henry H. Bunn died September 5, 1852, age 24 years “so fully trusting in the Savior”. Rev. Henry C. Bunn , the father of Henry H. Bunn, was born December 18, 1795, Nash County, North Carolina and died September 3, 1878. He married Nancy Thorpe September 16, 1814.The 1850 Twiggs County census shows Henry Bunn, age 54; Nancy Bunn, age 52; and Henry H. Bunn, age 21, with occupation listed as teacher. In the 1860 census, Twiggs County, Henry C. Bunn’s occupation is given as Baptist Minister of the Gospel and farmer. The 1860 Twiggs County slave schedule shows he owned 114 slaves.
The condition of the church is truly amazing. It was built in approximately 1845, and the congregants and supporters have maintained that level of originality throughout the church. Note that the pews are built with a single board of heat pine for both the seat and the back support. These would have been milled from local trees on the property or very close by. The wide heart pine flooring would have come from the same source.
This wide angle view of the pulpit and chancel at Richland gives us a chance to point out and discuss a few of the features that make this place special. The floors of wide heart pine boards are original, and remain as lovely as ever. The short pine pews in the “Amen Corner” are also original and, though of simple construction, are objects from our past well worth preserving. The soaring, high windows that are throughout the building are not only impressive, but effective in allowing as much ambient light as possible into the the sanctuary. Also impressive are the 19th century pump organ and the square grand piano that the Richland Restoration League has placed in the church. This attention to detail reflects the love and caring stewardship this group has expressed for this old church.
The original lighting fixtures were not fueled by whale oil. They were carbide lamps that looked much like the ones in the church today that are, of course, electrified. The wealth and sophistication of the Richland congregation allowed them to purchase a carbide generator which was installed in a cistern near the front of the building. The gas generated was then piped to the lamps and chandeliers located throughout the sanctuary. When the Richland Restoration League restored this special building, they insured that the end product would be authentic. Richland, as it is today, is their gift to generations to come.
This view helps us realize just how large the balcony is at Richland. Why was it so large? It was built in 1845, in an area where cotton crops could be grown. In fact, Twiggs County was nestled in what had been Creek Indian territory in the middle of a very fertile area between the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers. On some 18th century maps of Georgia this land is designated as “Exceeding Good Land.” Cotton plantations which were very labor intensive flourished here, thus Richland congregants owned many slaves. This commodious gallery was needed to accommodate those slaves who attended church services with their white owners until emancipation in 1865.
You have read of and seen in the opening photograph the authenticity and integrity of the exterior and grounds at Richland. Through this view from the pulpit, you can see and appreciate that you are looking at an interior where alterations have been few for over 150 years. The overall effect is that you can personally experience and enjoy a well preserved and maintained mid-19th century sanctuary. Lighting fixtures are similar to the originals… only now they are powered by electricity. The lovely pews remain as they were prior to 1850 and the rail dividing the women’s and children’s sections from the men’s remains in place as it was in olden times. The balcony and its unique suspension elements still remain in place and function as designed.
We are looking at a high-priced “state of the art” foot pumped, reed (as opposed to pipe) organ produced by the prestigious Bell Company toward the end of the 19th century. This model can be dated by looking at its serial number, and we intend to do so in the future. Check back for details. In any case, the quality and complexity of the decorative elements, as well as sound production elements of organs such as this one are worthy of praise. Organs of this style, expensive or lower cost, were the life blood of musical accompaniment in rural churches well into the 20th century. Folks accustomed to solid state, modern electric organs need to experience the sound of these workhouse organs of the 19th century. “Heavenly!”
Thomas Wm. Emanuel Anderson was born in 1791 in Florida and died in 1843. His tombstone says Captain Georgia Militia 1809, War of 1812, Ft. Hawkins 1814. He was a trustee of Richland Academy which was established in 1837. He married Catherine Mitchell Johnson (1794-1836) in Barnwell, South Carolina on November 2, 1826. He owned 62 slaves according to the 1840 Twiggs County census.
Amanda M. Beckom Richardson was born April 3, 1833 and died January 17, 1859. She was the wife of Dr. Stephen L. Richardson (1825-1883). The book History of Twiggs County, Georgia, page 26 states “An old stage road that led from Savannah northward through Marion has visible signs of the old road bed near historic Richland Church. Over this road, known as the Northern State Road, the beautiful marble monument that marks the grave of Amanda Beckom Richardson in the Church Cemetery was hauled by ox-cart from Savannah”. In 1860 Stephen L./S. Richardson owned 44 slaves.
Maj. George W. Welch was born in 1791 and died November 6, 1838. He represented Twiggs County at a preliminary convention held in Milledgeville in 1832. In May, 1832, a wedding took place in his home when Dr. Joshua R. Wimberly married Miss Caroline Starr. An ad in the Southern Recorder, Milledgeville, November 27, 1838 offered for sale “The plantation upon which Maj. George W. Welch formerly resided.” It was described as containing between 1400 and 1500 acres. In 1830, George W., Welch owned 25 slaves.
Maria Paul died December 6, 1860 at age 50. She was the wife of Robert Paul, Sr. born about 1808. The History of Twiggs County, Georgia, page 441 states “On Sherman’s notorious march through Georgia, the Bob Paul home was directly in his path and the main house and barns sacked and burned, stock killed and everything laid to waste.” By the time of Sherman’s march Maria Paul had died. In 1860 Robert Paul owned 49 slaves.
James Jonas Ware was born February 26, 1785 in Edgefield, South Carolina and died June 6, 1856. He was married to Mary Louise “Polly” Mims Ware (1789-1855). He was appointed a commissioner of public buildings in Twiggs County in 1813. In 1850 he owned 38 slaves in Twiggs County. An ad in the Federal Union, March 17, 1857, Milledgeville newspaper offered for sale at the Court House door in Marion to the highest bidder, Joeallen, a man 35 years old and Augustus, a man 20 years old belonging to the estate of James Ware late of Twiggs County. Marion was the first county seat of Twiggs County.
Henrietta Cary Moore was born May 5, 1830 and died October 1, 1880. She was the wife of Daniel Greenwood Hughes (1828-1906). They were married August 30, 1847 in Athens, Georgia. History of Twiggs County, Georgia book states “Immediately, they left the classic city, driving two horses to a carriage on a four-day trip over nigh impossible roads to a new house in Twiggs County, forty miles southeast of Macon …”. In 1860 Daniel Hughes owned 41 slaves.
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