The little village of Irwinton in Wilkinson County had a bad history of fires in the 19th century. The courthouse at Irwinton first burned in 1828, and in 1854 both the Baptist and Methodist churches were burned as well as the courthouse. Later Sherman burned the courthouse for the third time on his March to the Sea sometime between November 23rd and 26th of 1864. The Wilkinson courthouse was one of four burned by Sherman’s troops. The others were Washington County (Sandersville), Bulloch County (Statesboro) and Butts County (Jackson). Incredibly, the Wilkinson County courthouse burned again in 1924. Unfortunately, fires were all too common in the 1800’s but the little town of Irwinton has more than paid its dues. One of the by-products of the 1854 fire was the Union church you see above.
After the fires of 1854, a number of citizens came up with the idea that a common church that could be shared among Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists would offer the best solution for the town. Thus the Union church was incorporated by the Georgia general assembly in 1854 and called the Irwinton Free Church, now called Union Church. William O. Beall deeded one acre to the church and the building was completed in 1856. The rotation called for the Methodist Episcopals to use the church the first and third week of each month, the Presbyterians the second week and the Missionary Baptists the fourth week.
Specifically the legislation stated ‘The Methodist Episcopal denomination shall be entitled to have, use, and control said Church for the first and third weeks in each and every month, reckoning from Friday morning before the first and third Sabbaths therein; the Presbyterians to have, use, and control said Church the second week in each and every month, reckoning as aforesaid; and the Missionary Baptists to have, use, and control said Church the fourth week in each and every month, reckoning in like manner as the Methodists and Presbyterians; and the rights secured in this section to the several denominations mentioned shall be perpetual and inviolable, except by a vote of the Trustees, with the consent of all the denominations interested. And be it further enacted, That each denomination aforesaid shall have power and authority to organize and maintain their respective societies, their government, forms and rituals, respectively, during the time they are entitled to the use and control of said Church as aforesaid’.
Even though the town and the courthouse were razed by the 15th and 20th Corps during the March to the Sea, Wilkinson county was actually opposed to secession right up until it happened. She then proceeded to answer the call aggressively and paid the price. According to the records 34% of the 685 Volunteer Regiment Soldiers from Wilkinson County died in the Civil War. In the Irwinton cemetery and on this website is the grave of John Lindsey who served for the duration of the war and was wounded twice. He was home on furlough when Sherman came calling. According to local newspaper article, ‘ A few soldiers who had been disabled by wounds were at home at the time. Among these were John W. Lindsey, later Pension Commissioner of Georgia, who had been wounded in Virginia and was partly recovered. He with several others rode out along the Ridge Road to reconnoiter. Just as they came to the bend of the road just west of the Lingo farm they spied the federal cavalry regiment coming at a gallop and only a short distance away. The Yankees saw them at the same time and opened a hot fire upon them……………. A few hours later from one of the hills near Red Level Church they watched the flames as the town was burned’. Fortunately the church was spared and over time, the survivors of the war drifted back home to the church communities they grew up in and started life anew in a land that had been desolated by the war. This story was duplicated all over Georgia and the churches they came home to provided some badly needed spiritual comfort.
The story of Union on our introductory page is complex and nuanced. The exterior photo presents as a proud, brick, Gothic Revival Cathedral. But, as a “sanctuary-for-all”, the interior photo from the back of the sanctuary reveals a no-frills space suitable for services by any denomination. The grand, arched Palladian windows suggested by the external view are revealed within as rectangular, 12×12’s within. The total lack of interior decorative, architectural elements of any kind reflect that this space was designed to service multiple congregations… a practical approach that has become the norm in the late 20th Century.
In keeping with the one-size-fits-all mission of this sanctuary’s builders, the the chancel, altar, pulpit, apse and windows remain denominationally neutral… but still authentically mid-19th century in appearance and function.
You are looking at Union’s pews and windows as they appeared in the 19th Century and still do today! Now is the time to reveal the remarkable story of why this church still exists in such grand condition. Their history goes like this. “By 1960, the multiple use protocol was abandoned. Emptiness, neglect and inevitable deterioration ensued. Then came Joseph T. Maddox. He was retired and set out to achieve his ultimate destiny, to preserve the history of his beloved county. One of his projects became Union. He oversaw installation of a new roof, carpeting and more. He got the ball rolling. Thank you Mr. Maddox for this great service.
Joseph T. Maddox financed the preservation of this sanctuary in its original state for all to enjoy for decades to come. The original walls, constructed of lime and horsehair, were restored as was! The original 500 pound, heart pine pews were repainted, as they had earlier been, by “liberally applying thick paint” onto the pews and then using a pocket comb to create a wavy design. Maddox sponsored and financed this effort ‘To establish a shrine to the former members of the church who were so instrumental to the re-emergence of the town after the civil war.”
John W. Lindsey was born on a farm four miles from Irwinton. He enlisted early in the war as a private in Company I, 3rd Georgia Regiment. The 3rd Ga saw some of the toughest fighting in the Virginia campaigns. The mortality rate was very high. Sgt. Lindsey was wounded twice – at Spottsylvania in May 0f 1864, and at Hatcher’s Run in February of 1865. He was the youngest of three brothers who served in the army. The oldest brother was killed at Gettysburg. The other brothers survived the war but both were wounded. Sgt. Lindsay was at home in Irwinton on furlough recovering from his wounds when Sherman’s troops burned the town. He later became a member of the bar and Pension Commissioner of the State of Georgia.
There is some mystery here in that the burial ground shown above, and surrounded with substantial and expensive iron work is impressive and commemorates the death of Mr. R. L. Stubbs in the year of 1869. The only problem is, according to the Findagrave documentation below……Mr. Stubbs is not there. Maybe one of our followers can clear up the mystery. This type of iron work is relatively common in Wilkinson County and we are guessing that there must have been a good source for it nearby. Schofield Iron Works – founded in 1850 in Macon – produced cotton presses, cane mills, steam engines, boilers, and general machinery. It may be the reason for the abundance of such craftsmanship. It was founded by J. S. Schofield in 1850 and by 1866, and was one of Macon’s leading industries. During the Civil War, Schofield’s and its fellow foundry, Findley’s, melted down church and school bells to produce shot and shell for guns and cannons for Macon’s defense.
Baptists And Methodists, Presbyterians
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My parents, John Henry Harden and Mary Juanita Puckett were married in this church in 1939.
My husband attended this church growing up.