Sardis Primitive Baptist
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.