Smyrna Primitive Baptist

Brantley County
Org 1824
Photography by Randall Davis

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…… 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.

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