Van Wert Methodist

Polk County
Org 1846
Photography by Scott MacInnis

Van Wert Baptist is a wonderful example of a historic rural church in Polk County that, fortunately, is still with us and even more fortunately, a real step back in time. The town of Van Wert itself has an interesting history. It was named, oddly enough, for one of the captors of Major Andre, who was a co-conspirator with Benedict Arnold – a man named Isaac Van Wert. Originally this area was located in Paulding County and then became Polk County in 1851. If all these counties being carved up confuse you, you are not alone. Remember that Georgia had 80 counties in 1832 and now has 159 counties with the same footprint. The town of Van Wert was settled by pioneers of mostly English descent, after the usual process of acquiring Cherokee land and doling it out in small increments through the lottery system. Van Wert was ‘laid off, a map made and lots sold in 1837‘. The town soon had ‘100 people, a courthouse, one church, two hotels, two or three stores, a blacksmith shop, and an academy‘. Towns were rising up in the Georgia backcountry almost everywhere and the rapid rise of Van Wert was typical.

Apparently, a log cabin baptist church was established in 1840 and was the first church in the community. Subsequently, the United Methodist Church you see above was built in 1846 and was shared by both denominations until 1850. In 1849 Joseph P. Blance discovered large deposits of slate on his plantation property and in 1857 the Blanceville Slate Mining Company of Georgia was established. Slate mining then became quite an industry in Van Wert. Ultimately, miners were imported from Wales to mine the slate quarries and adopted the Methodist church as their home. Many of them are buried in the cemetery. The community containing the slate quarries and the home of the Welsh miners was call Blanceville and was located across the ridge from the church.

The church at Van Wert saw some hard times during the Civil War, as most of the state did. One particularly sad story is that of a young lad, Albert Anderson, from Tennessee who joined a Mississippi cavalry unit in June of 1864 during the waning months of the war when children and old men were being mobilized in desperation. An account states ‘October 10th & 11th , 1864 saw a Calvary skirmish take place in and around Van Wert. Many of the young men killed in this skirmish were laid to rest in the Church Cemetery’. One of these young men was Albert Anderson. His resting place and gravestone on the hill overlooking the church is a poignant reminder of those desperate days. Please see the photograph at the end of this series. Quite moving.

After the war, another significant event took place in Van Wert in that this is the church where Sam P. Jones, the famous evangelist, began preaching. Sam is quite a story. He had a serious drinking problem as a young man but after his father died in 1872, he was called to the ministry and went on to preach all across the country to huge crowds. He was reputed to be the “Billy Graham” of his day. He began his ministry in 1872 with the Van Wert circuit, a group of five churches spread over four counties. By the end of the 1880s, he was perhaps the most famous preacher in America.

Some of the old church minutes are always interesting and we have seen them from 1840 through 1848. Buried in the minutiae of the archives there are some stories of human frailties that are always interesting but they also remind us of the fact that the church was the keeper of the morals of the community and would not hesitate to address these matters, albeit with a very proper process and protocol. Here are a few examples.

February 15, 1845 – Brethren Hogue and Spratling offered acknowledgments for buying lottery tickets, which was received. Also Brother Roach came forward and offered acknowledgment for getting mad and using bad language and buying a lottery ticket, which was received. Also Brother Thomas came forward and offered acknowledgment for getting drunk, which was received.

November 15,1845 – The Church of Christ at Van Wert met in conference. Invited visiting members to seats. Then called for matters of dealings when Brother C Mason brought a charge against Sister Catherine Junior for living in adultery, and after being investigated, the Church excluded her from this Body.

Saturday, October 16,1847 – After preaching, met in conference. Brother Rice,Moderator. Brother Hogue preferred a charge of fornication against Sister Sarah Neighbors and ordered the committee to notify her of the same and answer to the charge at our next monthly meeting.

Saturday, November 20,1847 – After preaching, met in conference. Brother Holmes, Moderator. Took up that reference in regard to Sister Neighbors and appointed T. W. Burton, Joseph Morgan, Sisters Mason and Hogue, a committee to wait on her and report at next meeting. Brother Crabb of Antioch requested to act with the committee. Brother Burton charged Brother Frederick McGuire with wantonly and lawlessly aiding and abetting in pulling down a house and destroying the furniture thereto.

Such was life, law and order and governance in the Georgia backcountry in the 1840’s.

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