Richland Baptist 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. After the Civil War, black members left white churches and formed their own congregations.
One of the most poignant moments in the history of the church came a century and a half ago at the beginning of the Civil War. The ladies of the Richland and Marion communities would meet at the church to sew articles of clothing and make supplies for their boys in gray. Mrs. Isolene Minter Wimberly gave a heart-stirring address from the front steps of the church to the men and boys who were members of Company I of the 6th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, “The Twiggs County Guards.” Mrs. Wimberly presented her husband, Frederick Davis Wimberly, the company lieutenant and later captain, a hand made battle flag, which was turned to the flag bearer, Sergeant Warren. The Guards, like many other Southern units, suffered horrific losses while attached to the Army of Northern Virginia”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
Here lies Isoline Minter Wimberly – “A brave daughter of the Confederacy” according to an article in the Atlanta Constitution in Oct of 1906. The article goes on to state “In her youth and beauty and patriotism, she was an interesting figure and presided over “Inglehurst,” one of the oldest plantation homes in the south, to which she came as a bride in 1860. In the times that came later and tried men’s souls, she, in the absence of her husband, Captain Wimberly, “at the front,” became the president of the Solder’s Aid Society, the aim of which was to supply comforts and clothing for the soldiers and lint and bandages for the sick and wounded. At one of these meetings one of the men, who had stayed at home, teasingly said: “Mrs. Wimberly, some day you will hear from Yorktown that Fred is dead.” With fire in her eyes she replied: “Well, I would rather be a brave man’s widow than a coward’s wife.” Interesting commentary of the times.
We are looking at the most expensive kind of cast iron enclosures available in the last half of the 19th century. Heavy thick metal, elaborate and complex designs, custom features available(often the name of the purchaser and other family members are cast into the iron… see the top of the gate). The fact that the families could still afford ostentatious, family cemetery enclosures such as this one are evidence of the posterity that many southern families enjoyed after the Civil War beginning in the 1870’s. Little did they know that the boll weevil, peach blight, soil erosion and social forces beyond their imagination would soon engulf their families and the world in financial turmoil, social upheaval and the Great Depression.
As is typical of old rural cemeteries, there are many unmarked graves in the yard. The Richland Restoration League has put much effort into locating and marking as many of them as they can. The poignant image above represents a variety of age, funerary customs and materials as well as levels of social standing and wealth. There are only 63 recorded interments in the old burial ground but many more rest in the lee of Old Richland under the shade of the trees.
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My father preached there back in the 50s. Rev E. N. Swinney Jr. I remember as a child the church Homecomings. Everyone dressed in their Sunday best and the dinner on the grounds was a massive table of Southern food.