In 1788 a group of Christian citizens in Wilkes County, Ga came together in the home of Jesse Spratlin, located three miles to the west, for the purpose of constituting a Baptist church. The church was first named Hutton’s Fork Baptist Church for a nearby creek. Due to the loss of the first record book (1788-1804) it is not known how long the church met in Mr. Spratlin’s home or when it was moved to the present site. The Georgia Baptist Association records show that, at the association meeting in 1788, Jeremiah Reeves and James Spratlin were delegates from Hutton’s Fork, so it is almost certain that they were two of the charter members of this church. It also shows that for the year 1788, Sardis had 30 members by baptism and five received by letter with a total of 63 members which would indicate that there were probably 28 charter members.
Jesse Mercer, who was instrumental in the founding of Mercer University, was the first pastor of this church, beginning his service there in 1789. His father, Silas Mercer, had been the pastor at the original Hutton’s Fork church. Rev. Mercer and his son Jesse were some of the very earliest pioneers of the Baptist faith in Georgia. Jesse Mercer’s home church was in Powelton, a few miles away in Hancock County. Powelton Baptist, organized in 1786, is the oldest Baptist church structure in the state. It was the site of the formation of the Georgia Baptist Association in 1822 and still holds services.
Sometime between 1795 and 1797 the name was changed to Sardis Baptist Church. The local history tells us that the original church was located about 100 yards east of the present church building. It served the congregation until 1835 when the present structure was built. It was 40 feet wide by 60 feet long and featured two doors with a partition running the length of the church to separate the men from the women and children….a common practice at the time. The men entered through the right hand door and the ladies to the left. Many improvements have been made over the years but the basic structure is intact after serving the congregation for over 175 years.
The history tells us that in 1857, an addition was added to the church for “the benefit of the negroes” and the pulpit was moved to accommodate it. It further tells us the addition was removed in 1877 since “most of the negroes had withdrawn their membership and moved to churches of their own”. In 1871 stoves and lights were purchased, serving the church until 1929 when gas lighting was installed. It was not until 1939 that the church was electrified. In 1914, the two front doors were closed off and a new double door was added to the center of the entrance. The porch was added in 1950. In the early days converts were baptized in the creek behind the church. In 1858 a “suitable pool” was dug. A new pool and dressing room were added in 1872.
Sardis can easily be described as a beautiful example of “functional originality”. The wooden walls with their assorted sizes of wood, the high wooden ceilings, the tall windows with wavy glass, all evoke the beauty of the past. The customary closed off wood stove pipe openings are there as for further reminders of days gone by. In the midst of this great history a dedicated congregation meets at Sardis and keeps the building, the history, and the legacy alive. Sardis has a proud congregation that has been serving the community for over 225 years. Sardis was the home of many prominent Georgia families, including the Callaway family who were present in many aspects of Georgia history. There are 58 Callaway interments in the cemetery.
At HRCGA, we normally shy away from churches whose exterior and interior have been extensively remodeled…i.e., whose facade is not original, whose interior has been updated and completely modernized, whose overall presentation is not authentic to its construction date or i9th century presence, etc. But, Sardis is a vital and thriving church today, over two centuries after its founding. That makes it such an important and historic church, whose congregation’s stewardship has always been outstanding, that we feel it proper to present it here. Above you are standing on the 1950’s porch, looking through double doors that replaced the original two front doors in 1914, into a spacious sanctuary whose basic construction was completed in 1835. The interior was modified in 1857 ” for the benefit of the negroes” and, then again in 1877 “…since most of the negroes had withdrawn their membership”.
The Sardis sanctuary is a pleasant blending of several centuries of changes in style, technology and prosperity. It’s design as an unadorned, simple, rectangular, center gable structure is totally consistent with its 1835 origins. The striking high, sashed windows would have been replacements for original, much smaller, probably clear glass ones. The original pews were probably, heart pine, flat back and seat, primitive in style that were replaced in the mid-late 19th century with the manufactured, 19th century style pews seen here. Oil lamps would have provided interior lighting for over a century, but the electric lighting installed in 1939 is tasteful and made life easier for all. Over all, in this 21st century view, the atmosphere within is warm, welcoming and still authentic.
In this close up, we see the fashionable, 19th century pews with gothic detailing and scrolled armrests that replaced the originals. We also note the carpeting throughout the sanctuary now. For many of these old churches, the insulating carpeting was a godsend providing a solution to the chilly, drafty/stuffy, hot authentic interiors with heart pine floor boards. Providing amenities like carpet, electricity, more comfortable pews, interior plumbing central heating and air-conditioning as tastefully as has been done at Sardis has been a big part of its ability to retain an active congregation.
This view from the pulpit reveals the Sardis sanctuary’s 1835 design and interior finish well. Though the decorative, wood window frames are of a later period, the dark, wood wainscot beneath the very wide horizontal wall boards is typical of the 1800’s and is clearly discernible. Likewise, the vertical ceiling boards are of the period. The gleaming white interior seems even brighter given the ambient sun-light that streams through the clear glass panes in the lovely high windows.
The padded pews, insulating carpeting, modern lighting, well maintained and cherished interior finishing on view above have a big hand in Sardis’ remaining relevant to its congregation. The attendance plaque on the wall attests to the fact that an enthusiastic congregation lives here. Many of the churches we document don’t even have 65 total members much less a Sunday School enrollment of 65!
The large headstone is that of Josiah Tuck Hewell (1824 – 1896), along with his wife Mary Vaughn Hewell (1830 – 1914). Josiah enlisted in Co. H of the 38th Ga. on October 1, 1861 at the age of 37 as a private . On September 17th, 1862 his leg was shattered at the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history. In 1890 he applied for a Confederate pension which was awarded in the amount of fifty dollars. He had to reapply for this pension every year until his death in 1896. Confederate pensions are particularly interesting in that they contain sworn personal testimony that gives detailed information instead of sketchy and often unreliable military records. Some of it makes for very sad reading indeed.
Benjamin F. Wall enlisted in Co E, 38th Ga Infantry on Mar 29th, 1862. He applied for an Indigent Pension in 19o2 that was denied with the comment “not an aged man. Infirmiaties are not such as are permanent and will prevent him earning his support”. The pension application process was difficult. Each application had to be witnessed by someone who supported the information. The rejection further stated that the “witness submitted was swearing from hearsay which is not sufficient”.
Sardis Baptist has a storied and noble history as one of Georgia’s earliest and most significant rural churches. The story in its graveyard, as the photo above suggests, confirms the depth of that history. In the foreground is a rugged old false crypt… dry stacked fieldstone laid many, many decades ago. Around it and behind it we see hundreds of stones in many styles from different eras that embrace the long history of Sardis Baptist Church. We salute the present congregation of this revered church who are dedicated to seeing that the church building itself, as well as its graveyard, remain relevant of many, many decades to come.
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Wonderful article very informative. .I love the history of that little town.