Rock Methodist Church is so named because the original charter members started the church at a site two and a half miles west of the present location “near two big rocks on south side of Highway 17”. We found two sources of history for the old church – one a handwritten history, written in the 1950’s, at the Pitts Archive at Emory – and another one, written in the 1970’s, in the Tignall Charge book held by a former member of the church. These two histories are at odds with each other regarding time frames and sequence.
They both agree that the church was organized at the rock location above, but the older history states that the “present building was erected abut 1839. The old gallery where the slaves might come to worship is the outstanding feature. After the colored people had churches of their own, two of the colored members asked that their membership be left here”. The history in the charge book then states that the church was moved to Centerville, a “then fairly thickly populated village and a school was built next door to the church”. It further states that in Sept. of 1870, Mrs. Mary E. Matox deeded two acres of land for the “benefit of the Methodist Episcopal South”. It then states the present building was built about 1870, with two front entrances with a partition down the center of the church to separate the men from the women and children. It also tells us that the church had significant repairs in 1910 after it “was almost split in half by a cyclone”.
The architecture of the church is unusual, and both of these histories have conflicting elements. There are always more questions than answers about these old church histories and we find them all the more fascinating because of it. The church was built with very high ceilings to accommodate the gallery that was a very prominent and original feature. There is no question in either history that the gallery had a separate entrance for “colored people”, that can be plainly seen in the above photo. The porch was added at a later date and we would be pretty safe in saying the upper windows were added later as well. It also states the church originally had two separate entrances and a partition in the middle of the interior to separate the men and women. This would have been fairly common for the time, except that usually meant that the interior would have a double aisle and the partition would be located in the middle of the center section. As you will see in subsequent photos, the interior was set up with a single center aisle and pews on either side. On balance, we tend to support the 1870 construction date. On the other hand, a prominent slave gallery with a separate entrance would not make much sense in 1870. The photo of the footings would support an older construction date as well.
Sadly, the church is no longer active and is sliding into a state of disrepair. A couple of former members are trying to keep the place up but without some assistance, it will likely become a losing battle. We are hopeful that historic icons like the Rock Church can be saved and put back into community service. These churches are a vital element of our rural heritage. So…. pre-Civil War or post-Civil War. Maybe we will find out some day.
As stated in the first photo and caption, we are faced with “dueling histories” regarding this meeting house’s construction date. In the photo above, we see that the footings are quite primitive and look more like an early to mid-19th century solution than what would be expected in an 1870 structure. The seemingly haphazardly laid, flattish field stones and old wood wedges used to level up the frame beams would have been acceptable in earlier timeframes. What we see looks more like an 1840’s leveling technique. Whatever it is, we continue to marvel at how effective this simple solution is and how many 125-175 year old church building supported in this way remain standing today!
In this view of the sanctuary, no definitive clues as to correct construction dates is apparent. We see style, construction, design, building materials and pews that could have been in a rural meeting house built from 1835 to 1875. The 12 over 12 sashed windows are more likely to have been used in the later 1870’s era than the 1840’s. The pews could be from the 1840’s or 1870’s. However, one account stated that the 1870 church contained a dividing rail to separate the men from the women and children. The lack of any pew notches to accommodate the dividing rail makes the earlier date a more logical choice. More questions than answers rise from this photo.
This black and white photo accentuates the slowly deteriorating condition within the church. At the same time, we can’t help but be touched by the quiet dignity of the semicircular, raised chancel, communion table, pulpit and apse at Rock Methodist. It is as if we were looking back into a better time for this rural treasure.
This view from the pulpit displays how the high ceiling along with the tall and wide, 12 over 12, windows creates an uplifting atmosphere inside this sanctuary, no matter when it was built. The door to the right rear is worth noting. It leads to a stairway up to a commodious gallery that has been enclosed. If the date of construction was 1840, it is probable that this would have been for the slaves in the community. If 1870 was the date, perhaps this was an overflow gallery for the congregation. The open door and gallery use question, like others we have mentioned, again raises more questions than answers to construction date mystery surrounding Rock Methodist.
This close up of the pews, floor, windows and wall gives us some more clues as to Rock’s possible construction date. Notice the very wide heart pine floor boards, pew backs and seats. All are hand planed. Hand planing in rural Georgia churches was common in the first 50-60 years of the 19th century. It was on the wane in the 1860’s and no longer used by century’s end. Second, notice the pew partition in the left hand pew and the disfiguration on the next pew…are these remnants of a partition, not rail, barrier separating the men and women? Do these developments point to the 1840’s as the likely construction date? We will have to revisit this church to seek more evidence needed to answer this question. Perhaps some viewers can help us with information they have?.
This is the view through the open door mentioned several photos back. In that shot from the pulpit to the right rear of the church we discussed the possibilities of the uses of the large gallery, now enclosed, to which it leads… for slaves? or congregation overflow? The door seen above allows entry from outside. Why wouldn’t that exterior door most likely to have been provided to allow slaves to enter the church and access the gallery from outside, as was often the custom in rural Georgia churches until the end of the Civil War? If so, the 1840 construction date is more credible.
Here lies Henry Edward Bell who died in 1885 at the age of 42. The census of 1880 shows him living with his wife Mary and apparently, no children. Mr. Beall’s occupation is listed as a Teacher, meaning he must have had some educational credentials. Mary, born in 1855, is listed as a Housekeeper while the census of 1870 shows her living in the Washington postal district with her mother, grandmother and two sisters.
Here lie Franklin G. (1830 -1924) and Sarah E. Colley (1838 – 1912). This looks looks like a fairly prosperous headstone of a Wilkes County couple with a Confederate headstone added at a later date. However, the life of Franklin was more difficult than you would guess at first glance. He enlisted in Savannah in February of 1862 in Co. G (Wilkes Guards) of the 61st Ga Infantry as a private at the age of 31, leaving a wife and three children on the farm. The 61st fought many brutal battles with the Army of Northern Virginia and Franklin was captured at Petersburg on March 25, 1865 in the desperate fighting during the last days of the war. The surrender of his unit at Appomattox took place a few days later on April 9. He and Sarah had three children after he returned but an Indigent Confederate Pension application in 1904 shows that he had no assets and no income for several years. He further states that “A good many years ago, my skull was broken all to pieces. I can’t go in the sun, do work of any kind, can’t think or remember anything”. Further reading of the records shows that he received these injuries after being thrown from a mule. He lived for another twenty years and Sarah would die in 1912. Life as a small Georgia farmer in the mid 19th century could indeed be a hard one.
While the true date of construction is controversial, the quiet dignity of the old church that has served this rural community for over 175 years is not. She still stands proudly and we are hopeful that some local support will rise up to save this grand old structure, and preserve her for generations to come.
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