In the early 1800’s, Primitive Baptists that we now know as Wiregrass Primitives were prolific in this part of Southeast Georgia and parts of Northern Florida. They continue to the present day, although in much smaller numbers. Nothing could be more representative of this all pervasive, conservative approach to life and religion than the architecture and design of these “Crawfordite” Wiregrass Primitive meeting houses of Southeast Georgia. All the churches were built on site of native materials with local church labor and therefore will vary slightly from church to church. However, the basic design was always the same……..no paint, no steeple, no window treatments, no distinct doors or entry points, low to the ground, no pianos or organs etc. etc..
This particular form of Primitive Baptist church began in the early 1800’s, lead by religious pioneers such as Elder Isham Peacock. Elder Peacock did not begin his religious life until 1802 at the ripe old age of sixty. He then carried on for over forty more years until retiring from Providence Church in Ware County in 1844 at the age of 101. He was typical of the Primitive Baptist preachers of the early 19th century in that he was not a man of letters, but was able to convert the wild frontier cattle drovers who inhabited this part of Georgia in great numbers. The religious doctrine they founded was strict and extended to their architecture, their dress, their services and every aspect of the hard life in this part of wiregrass Georgia. It still exists today in much the same form as the unpainted structure above will attest.
Smyrna was organized in 1824 and its present location, north of Satilla Station at a place known as Lulaton, is the third site for the church. The deed of record for the property is dated 1889 and the building is circa 1890. The land was given by the Highsmith estate and according to one source the oldest grave in the cemetery is that of John T. Highsmith, who died in 1877, but other sources give earlier dates for burials. In the 1830’s, there was a serious schism in the Baptist church. What is now known as Primitive Baptists were very conservative and disagreed with others in the Baptist faith that were beginning to support new things such as missions, Sunday Schools and other education initiatives.
Later, in the the 1870’s, another disagreement occurred within a number of churches in Brantley, Ware, Pierce, Charlton and McIntosh Counties and areas of north Florida regarding the use of the Georgia Homestead Act of 1868 allowing restructuring of individual debts. The pro-homesteaders, led by Elder Reuben Crawford, emerged as the Crawfordite Faction of the Alabaha River Association, while the anti-homesteaders, led by Elder Richard Bennett, became the Bennettite Faction. In 1871 the Crawford faction suspended correspondence with the other Primitive Baptist Associations and that condition became permanent. Both factions claim to be the Alabaha River Association “in order”, and there have been two separate associations with the same name for the past 140 years. In 1969, Smyrna left the Alabaha River Association and became a member of the Satilla River Association.
Today only four of the old Crawfordite churches remain active, with three elders among them. In 1990, after 193 years of functioning as the center of its community, Smyrna Primitive Baptist Church disbanded. The last member at Smyrna was too sick and infirm to move her letter anywhere else before she died. The last pastor of the church was Elder Ben Johnson. Smyrna had the distinction of producing no less than nine ministers. Ministers ordained by Smyrna Church include Elders John Strickland, Levi Strickland, Jr., James Henry Strickland, Henry Clay Highsmith, Jasper Willis, Jasper Mizell, B. Frank Jones, Matthew Strickland and Jasper Highsmith. In her book Snow White Sands, Martha Mizell Puckett writes about her first-hand account of life on the Satilla River at the turn of the century. She describes the old Smyrna church as “standing among large pine trees” but today the pines are gone and live and turkey oaks have taken their place.
This structure has architectural features not encountered in the other Crawfordite churches: there is a scalloped frieze board running the length of each side in the eaves but does not appear on the gabled ends; each window and door has a simple, pointed pediment with a thin drip mold. This ornamentation, simple as it is, stands in contrast to all of the other completely unadorned Crawford meeting houses found in southeastern Georgia.
This view of the interior of Smyrna Primitive Baptist Church shows the typical layout of early Primitive Baptist Churches of Wiregrass Georgia. The view is from the intersection of the two aisles in the church. One aisle is between the front doors and the pulpit and the other is between the two end doors. The benches (pews) are arranged in a manner so that they all face the stand, as the pulpit is known. Elderly male members used one of the end doors and female members used the opposite door, the front doors being for the use of the general congregation. This separation of genders was widely practiced across geographical areas and denominations. When the metal roof was added it was placed over the cypress shakes (shingles) which are visible between the rafters.
The pulpit or stand as it is known was nearly the same in all the Crawford churches. It was elevated and walled on two sides, the wall capped with a wide book rail. The entrance may have been from either side. There was always a window directly behind the stand which was placed in the wall at a higher position that the other windows to accommodate the raised floor of the stand. When the church was in use there were two short benches, now missing. One was in the stand for the use of those awaiting their turn to preach, and the second was located in front of the stand for the use of the clerk and the moderator. There was also a small table which was used to hold the bread and wine of the communion service. Beneath the communion table is a hole in the floor, in this case equipped with a collar that serves as a funnel, for the purpose of disposing of the water used in the foot-washing ritual. The holes in the floor are for the expectoration of tobacco juice.
This interior view of Smyrna Church includes a set of what we felt to be out-of-place saw horses. These horses were old as indicated by their weathered patina and were built of non-dimensional lumber, solid but scabbed together with the materials at hand. There was no indication of any carpentry work having taken place at the church for many years, leading us to speculate that the horses may have been utilized as supports for a coffin during funeral services during the years when the church was active. It is also possible that they were used to support boards for a make shift table for dinner on the ground. Unfortunately, making an accurate statement concerning their use is impossible to make at this point, other than they seemed very much out-of-place.
Early Baptist churches were generally built on the same design but there were variations. Smyrna Church has one door opening in the center of the front wall which accommodates double doors. Other early Baptist Churches were built with two front doors, equally spaced at thirds in the front wall. At Smyrna a small landing and roof have been added. We love the view into the church yard that has remained virtually the same for well over a century.
Of the 704 documented interments in the cemetery, 103 of them are Highsmiths. Here lies Aaron H. Highsmith who served in the 26th Ga. Infantry along with brothers Isaac and Moses…….all survived the war. He enlisted in 1862 in Brunswick and surrendered with his unit at Appomattox. In 1904, he applied for an Indigent Confederate Pension and the notes from the Commissioner of Pensions (J. W. Lindsay) state he “was not an aged man” and that he “seems to be the owner of property of a taxable value, not indigent”. The pension process was pretty rigorous, and required much documentation.
This infant’s home-made gravestone reads “INFANT BORN MAY 24, 1904 THE LITTLE BAB IS GONE TO REST TO REIN WITH GOD FOREVER BLEST”. In the photo notice Babe or Baby is spelled BAB (or perhaps there just wasn’t enough room for the last letter) and that the S letters are backwards. Reign was spelled without the g letter. Not much education, but a heart full of love.
This unique grave marker is a board with a pointed arched top mounted with iron fasteners between two turned posts. A thin strip of wood was attached to the top arch to prevent water entering the end grain of the wood. It is approximately three and one-half feet tall and shows remnants of red paint. The whole is surrounded by iron round stock mounted between four ornate posts. The round stock may have served as an attachment point for ornate iron castings, but there is no trace of them now. A careful look at the area between the left iron post and the base of the tree will reveal a wooden diamond-shaped board that marks the foot of this child’s grave. There are conch shells on the grave obscured by fallen leaves. On the side of the headboard hidden from view is a wooden plaque attached which once gave identifying information but which now is no longer legible. This type of grave marker was common at one time but survivors are extremely rare today. We have examined dozens of cemeteries and thousands of graves and this is the only grave marker of this type we have seen.
Even though the church has been inactive since 1996, she stands just as she always has for over 125 years. These old churches in the wiregrass piney woods are a living reminder of times gone by. We hope this wonderful example of a Crawfordite Wiregrass Primitive Baptist meeting house will survive for future generations.
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