Located just a few miles from the eastern edge of the Okeefenokee Swamp in Charlton County, near the town of Folkston, is Sardis Primitive Baptist Church. Sardis was one of the first Baptist churches in all of interior southeastern Georgia, established before the Native Americans had been extirpated from the area. Sardis, along with High Bluff Primitive Baptist Church near Hoboken in Brantley County, was constituted in 1819. The church is located on a ridge above the run of Long Branch, the site to which it was moved in 1840. Elements of the existing structure probably date from that time. There is a mowed path to the stream to the place where baptisms were held.
Sardis Church was organized when all Baptist had the same doctrine, but a rift over church support of missionaries occurred in the 1830’s, and two denominations emerged, the Southern or Missionary Baptists and the Primitive Baptists. Primitive in this context should be interpreted as meaning Original, as the original Baptists were, as this denomination strictly adheres to the teaching of Jesus Christ and rejects those things not called for in the Bible. In the 1870’s dissention among the Primitive Baptists over a Reconstruction law known as the Georgia Homestead Act rose to the level of creating another split. One faction of the split was led by Elder Reuben Crawford, an elder at Shiloh Primitive Baptist Church near Blackshear, who supported the Homestead Act and whose followers became known as Crawfordites.
Among the conservative beliefs of the Crawfordites was a rejection of ornamentation of their meeting houses as they felt it distracted from their worship of God. These churches, services, and way of life tend to be simpler in comparison to some of today’s ways. There are doors in both ends and a double door in the front of the church. Women and men enter from separate sides. Men enter the church through one of the end doors women through the door at the opposite end. The segregated seating is meant to show that marriage between men and women is not the major factor to God. Visitors and the un-baptized sit in seats that face the pulpit. Sardis Church and other unpainted wiregrass Primitive Baptist Churches not only give us a concise view into some structures of the 19th century but provide an austere beauty seldom encountered elsewhere.
Sardis Primitive Baptist Church was moved to its present location in 1840. In the cemetery adjacent to the church are buried many of the pioneers of the area, but only 30 headstones predate 1900. As with many old rural churches, the oldest graves of the original members cannot now be identified, their simple markers lost to the elements. The oldest marked grave in Sardis Cemetery is that of James Brown Jones, 1772 to 1844. It is interesting that the next oldest marked grave is dated 1872, a span of 28 years. This could be explained by the extensive use of wooden grave markers in early times, only one of which has survived at Sardis Cemetery. Also, burials in rural church yards in early times was probably less common that burials at home in family plots. Among the 1,150 interments are nine veterans of the Confederate Army, only recognizable as Confederate veterans by the Confederate flags placed by a civic organization.
For nearly two hundred years Sardis Church served its members as a church and for part of its history as a school house, but in very recent times the church membership fell below the three members required to continue. Meetings continued but the church was no longer in fellowship with other surviving churches of the Alabaha River Association. The future holds promise for the survival of this old church as the courts in 2016 assigned ownership of the church and cemetery to the cemetery association, members of which are preservation oriented and who will be diligent in its upkeep.
Sardis Church may be the largest of the surviving meetinghouses, and the organization of its interior is typical of those structures. The men’s seating section faced the section in which the women members were seated, both at a ninety-degree angle to the front of the pulpit. The general congregation was seated facing the pulpit. This arrangement is consistent throughout the Crawfordite meetinghouses and was likely the same for all the early rural Baptist churches. In the 1970’s the roof of Sardis Church was sagging badly and it was at that time the supporting columns and lattice support structure were added, probably saving the building.
When the interior of the church is viewed from the stand (the pulpit) it becomes evident that the elder who was delivering the sermon could easily make eye contact with anyone in attendance. That may not have been an issue as many elders tended to be long-winded, and sermons may have been delivered by several elders in succession. In Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South, 1815 to Present, Dr. John Crowley writes “Many Primitive Baptists preachers delivered their sermons in the chant (style)… Hardin E. Taliaferro described the ‘heavenly tone’ in the Wiregrass ‘cow counties’ along the lower Chattahoochee in the 1840’s as having the ‘suck in and blow out the breath, the uh! and the ah! Some still employ that tone. A more recent and less charitable observer described one South Georgia preacher as sounding like ‘an old John Deere tractor hitting on two cylinders’. …Many older Primitive Baptists still doubt the inspiration of a preacher who delivers a sermon in a normal tone of voice.”
Seated on the clerk/moderator’s bench in front of the stand (the pulpit) provided this view of the double front doors of Sardis Church. The general congregation would have been seated in the pews in this part of the church. Notice the wear-worn saw kerfs, somewhat smoothed by decades by use.
The bench inside the stand is for the use of elders. In days when these churches had larger congregations there may have been several elders among them as well as guest elders from other churches with which the church was in fellowship. More than one elder may deliver a sermon during a service. The bench in front of the stand is for seating the clerk and moderator. These churches had no hierarchy and church records were recorded and kept solely in the possession of the clerk, passed from one to the next. As the old churches disband there is a danger that the church minutes will be lost to time. The records are considered to be private and are generally not shared or published. The table was used in the communion service and held the container of communion wine, made by one of the church elders or deacons. All of the remaining Crawfordite meeting houses have a rectangular hole in the floor in front of the stand for the purpose of disposing of water used in the foot washing ritual. Though not evident in Sardis Church, it is present but not easily seen as it is equipped only with a notch for removal rather than a more obvious attached block for a handle or with a funnel as seen in similar churches. Legend has it that the pulpit bears a bullet hole from the Indian War days. Hostilities between whites and Indians lasted into July of 1838 when Seminoles raiding from the Okeefenokee Swamp killed members of the Wildes family near Waycross, Ga.
This section of the church is for seating the men members. Notice that holes for the expectoration of tobacco juice are provided. Chewing tobacco was once widely practiced and was an acceptable behavior in any public place, even in church. The use of these holes is actually quite innovative. Upon visiting a Civil War era Methodist church, Mary Chesnut in her famous Civil War diary wrote: “the floor was covered in tobacco juice and, not only did the women have to lift up their long dresses to avoid having them stained, but the floor was dangerously slippery.” The situation in a Methodist church described by Ms. Chesnut was typical, so perhaps the tobacco holes reflected a progressive step toward sanitation in a faction that resisted progress.
This view is along the length of Sardis Church from the section in which the women members were seated. The small shelf attached to the support column held a container for drinking water. The container may have been a cedar or cypress bucket with a gourd dipper or perhaps an enameled pail with an enameled dipper.
Buried in the cemetery is William Chesser who was born in 1825 in Georgia and died in 1900 in Charlton County. In the mid-1800s William and his wife, Mary Elinor Kirby, moved with their children to a small island on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. William and Mary had seven sons and together they carved out a life in the harsh conditions of the swamp and set about to establish a self-sustaining community. Their history is typical of many area settlers – they ate what they could shoot, trap, catch, or grow in the poor sandy soil. They bought little but salt and for this they traded the pelts of the animals they trapped in the swamp. Today that small island is called Chesser Island and is part of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Their homestead has been preserved and augmented and is a living example of life as it existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. William, Mary, and four of their sons are buried in the Sardis cemetery. In all, 58 members of the Chesser family rest at Sardis. Son Hardy died in 1883 at age 23 when, returning home from plowing, he stopped at a huckleberry patch to pick some berries. As he was backing out of the tangled bushes, a rattlesnake struck and he died shortly after. Today his grave is among those whose markers have not survived. Son Moab died in 1910 and his marker is among the very few hand-made markers that survive today. Moab Columbus (Buck) Chesser served the Confederacy as a private in Company D of the 21st Georgia Volunteer Cavalry, CSA.
Each of the surviving Crawfordite meetinghouses has a water well that provided water for drinking, for the foot-washing ritual, and for the annual cleaning of the house. It was a great honor for a church to host the annual meeting, and preparations for the meeting were extensive. When the church was cleaned, the pews were moved into the yard and were scrubbed with a palmetto brush using sand and water, as was the interior of the church. Martha Mizell Puckett in her book Snow White Sands commented that the house and pews "gleamed like the snow white sands" when the cleaning was completed.
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