The Sardis story must begin with the land itself and the Cherokee Indians. The church stands approximately 13 miles west of Rome on Georgia Highway 20. Sardis, with its cemetery to the west and a spring of fresh water in the woods to the east, lies at the foot of Turnip Mountain, just west of a pass between Turnip and Heath Mountains known for generations as “the Narrows.” The pass was widened to a road, then a two lane highway, and now a four lane highway with median. We do know there was a large Cherokee settlement in this area.
In 1821 the first missionaries were sent to this part of Georgia to establish the Turnip Mountain Mission to the Cherokees. Their residence was located on this site just north of the cemetery wall. The mission they established was known as Haweis and was located two miles to the east. Sardis Presbyterian church was organized in November 1836. The first building, a log structure covered with planks, stood just north of the church. The present building was constructed in 1855. During the Civil War, many young men of the congregation enlisted in the army. One group, the Sardis Volunteers, was organized on the church grounds on May 9, 1861 and became part of the 6th Georgia Cavalry. In 1863, Major Alfred Bale of the Sardis Volunteers, was killed near Dandridge, Tennessee, and his body was returned to Sardis for burial. The following year, Lt. Col. Charles Bale was killed at Resaca, Georgia, and he was buried beside his brother. These are two of the most distinctive grave markers in the cemetery which includes a total of nineteen known Civil War soldiers.
In 1877 a Sunday School was organized and church membership reached a high of 173 but with the Reverend Crawford’s departure from the church in 1878, the church began a slow but steady decline. By 1892 church membership fell to 82 members and by 1907, the church roll showed only 34 members. Church records show that many of the early members died during the later part of the 19th century and many families sought new opportunities in expanding towns and cities. The church persevered, although attendance figures continued to drop and finally, in 1979, Sardis Presbyterian church was officially dissolved. The Cherokee Presbytery permitted the building to be used for church services twice a year for several years. Fortunately, many members of the community banded together to save the church and, in 1989, the church was deeded to the Sardis Preservation Society and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2005.
Sardis Church was organized in November, 1836, just months after the controversial 'removal' of the Cherokee indians who had called this land home for centuries. Given that proximity to the seizure of Cherokee land and the fact that the settlers were occupying the far western, unsettled frontier of northwest Georgia, 'spare, simple and sacred' were the bywords concerning the type of church they could erect. The first building was made of logs. This, the present building, was constructed in 1855 and the interior view has changed little. Hand made wooden pews line the aisles and face a raised platform upon which rests an undecorated wooden pulpit. The exterior remains the same as well, a simple, unadorned rectangular building with no steeple.
This detail of the floor, pews, nine by nine windows and wide horizontal wall boards provide visual evidence of the 'modest and simple' rule this Presbyterian congregation followed when building and decorating their church. The Sardis church's plain and modest style contrasts with many of the earlier Presbyterian churches in the lower part of the state. Those churches were mostly organized by wealthier, colonial landowners immigrating from cotton-growing provinces such as Virginia. They tended to be located in more urban settings and boasted much higher-end furnishings and fixtures than what you see here. The new settlers in this part of Georgia were predominantly Scots Irish and immigrated into Georgia from the highlands of South and North Carolina after the Revolutionary War. They were often 'poor but proud' and quite industrious.
Looking from the pulpit of the church to the rear, the simplicity of Sardis in design and decoration is evident. The symmetry of the pews, the unadorned walls and clean lines of wooden wall boards, floors and ceilings draws one's focus to the pulpit, the preaching and the word… that's what church was all about for these daring settlers in a strange, wild and new land. Also notice that, unlike their Baptist counterparts, there is no dividing wall or line to keep the men separated from the women and children. Presbyterians were a bit more egalitarian.
The Presbyterians enjoyed their hymns and even more, singing them. Their hymn book was well developed and diverse with music for all occasions. The organ pictured above probably replaced an earlier, much more modest piano. It is evidence of the increased size of the congregation as well as its fortunes since Sardis' modest beginnings. The Mason and Hamlin Organ/Harmonium was a late 19th century addition to the church. In 1854, the company began manufacturing organs in Boston. By the 1890's when this organ was probably bought, Mason and Hamlin had become the premier manufacturer of harmonium organs in the United States… look at the gold medal medallions it had received and proudly displays to the left and right of center above the keyboard . It was also the most expensive! Placement of an organ like this in a church was quite a sign of prosperity.
The interior at Sardis remains in magnificent shape. Though the original pine flooring has been replaced, the remaining wooden elements are as sound and solid as when they were put in place over a century and a half ago. Also, obviously still in place is the simple, spartan decorative philosophy which guided the church founders. It would be hard to reduce the modesty of the simple pulpit above!
What a beautiful setting for an old rural cemetery. There are 253 interments in the grave yard, for a full documentation of interments click here. The oldest is that of Rev. James McArver who died in 1841. There are fifteen McArver graves ranging in dates from Rev. James in 1841 to Agnes McArver in 1984. McArver would have been one of the Scots Irish who immigrated from the upcountry of North Carolina. There are also eighteen Confederate Civil War soldiers buried here.
During the Civil War, many young men of the Sardis congregation answered the call. One group, the ”Sardis Volunteers,” was organized on the church grounds on May 9, 1861 and became part of the 6th Georgia Cavalry. In 1863, Major Alfred Bale of the Sardis Volunteers, was killed near Dandridge, Tennessee, and his body was returned to Sardis for burial. The following year, Lt. Charles Bale was killed at Resaca, Georgia, and he was buried beside his brother (click here for more). This is a tragic story but certainly not unusual. Rest in peace boys.
For over 150 years this simple, dignified sanctuary has provided spiritual comfort and nourishment to the citizens of Floyd county. Thanks to the stewardship of the Sardis Preservation Society, she will continue to stand and serve for generations to come. We are grateful for your stewardship. Well done thou good and faithful servant.
Your tax-deductible donation to Historic Rural Churches will help keep history alive through digital and physical preservation efforts for Georgia’s rural churches, their history and the communities that support them.
Full Name *
Sign me up for the newsletter!
Sardis Presbyterian Church is where My great-grandparents, Thomas Sanford Millican and wife Jane Bouchillon Millican are buried. I am pleased to see it on the list, with beautiful photographs. Their descendants are scattered from Florida to Oregon, with only a few remaining in Georgia. The Millican name is Scots -Irish and the Bouchillon is Huguenot, with entry into the U.S. through Charleston in 1764. A grandson of T.S. and Jane, Layton Wade Millican, Jr. is in Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome. My mother, a granddaughter of T.S. and Jane is buried in the Johnson Cemetery in Chattanooga County, GA.
Thanks for sharing that Bob. Good stuff.