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.
This is an interior photograph, taken from the entryway, of the Van Wert meeting house. It presents a well preserved sanctuary whose walls, ceilings and floors remain intact and unchanged since its construction. The spartan interior has been updated to meet the creature comforts necessary to serve the still active congregation…electricity for heat, fans, light and to power the water pump serving the bathroom. The original tall multi-paned sash windows have been replaced by large 4 over 4, clear glass ones . Late 19th century pews replaced the hand hewn originals but even they are over a century old. It is a blessing that a historic relic like this still serves its original purpose today, almost 170 years later.
The Methodists have always embraced music and the singing of hymns during all services. Though this piano is a 20th century model, it represents this meeting house’s constant and still existing practice of that musical tradition.
Looking over the old pews and through the towering windows, we see the historic Van Wert cemetery where so many of its former parishioners rest in peace. Many of the windows in this old church are dedicated to the memory of a number of those former members. We have heard it said that people experience three deaths…One when their life ends and they breathe no more…One when they are laid into the ground… and the last when their name is no longer spoken or known. The Van Wert congregation is trying to insure that those names never die in the memories of their people.
Van Wert Methodist was lovingly constructed by members of its congregation as well as local carpenters and craftsmen in 1846. Locally available building materials were sourced and used in that construction. The clapboards and window frames pictured are survivors of the wind and weather of the past 168 years. Yet they still serve today and stand as a tribute to the people and quality materials used in raising this historic building.
This is a view of one of the most informative and charming burial sites in the Van Wert cemetery. The single, marked grave memorializes Sarah Strickland. Sarah lived from 1779-1881 and died at the ripe old age of 102, pretty remarkable longevity for that place and time. Her burial plot is bordered by a rough, hand laid stone enclosure that was not mortared. Such stones were readily available from the nearby slate mines that brought work, money and relative prosperity to the small settlement. Within the enclosure we see her small tablet grave marker made of granite. There are assuredly other interments within the site that are not marked with anything or just a simple field stone. Why not marble, granite or iron used for the enclosure? Why not slate for the marker. The story here is that the slate was rubble and scrap that was gathered from the mining site, free. On the other hand, dimension stone slate was hard and brittle and the dickens to engrave as a grave monument but when scribed, the inscriptions were very lasting. Granite/Marble cost money but its appearance and ease of engraving made it a more suitable and loving monument material for early settlers. Rest in peace Sarah Strickland.
Here lies James E. Thompson, Co. A. 4th Texas, who died in Van Wert on May 5, 1864. The 4th Texas is famous regiment assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia and on May 5, they were very involved in the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. According to a local historian, the family of James Thompson moved from Mississippi to Texas in the 1830’s or thereabouts. However, his uncle moved his family from Texas to Van Wert and was able to acquire some lottery land. Young James became very ill in Virginia and was on leave with his uncle’s family when his condition worsened and he died. The family then had this stone cut with the Star of Texas and placed so that it faced westward toward his natural home. Note the high quality Van Wert slate has certainly stood the test of time.
Here lies Albert Anderson. Ballentine’s Rangers, 2nd Miss Cav. It looks like just another of the tens of thousands of Confederate gravestone scattered across the rural Georgia landscape. All of the stories are sad but this one particularly so. Young Albert enlisted in June of 1864 when the south was enlisting old men and boys in defense of the homeland invasion. He was killed on October 10 in his first skirmish right here in Van Wert, as Sherman and John Bell Hood were regrouping after the battle of Atlanta. Albert did not even live long enough to draw his first pay check. He was 16 years old. He was buried here in the churchyard near where he fell. Rest in peace Albert.
The architecture and design of the Van Wert meeting house is somewhat unique. It is not just another rectangular, center gable box. Though there have been a few changes to the original structure, what we see is pretty faithful to the original with minor exceptions. The center steeple, set back from the facade and incorporated into the roof trussing for strength is quite unusual. It took a fairly sophisticated carpenter/craftsman to design and construct this building. Perhaps tradesmen connected with the nearby mining operations had a hand in its design and construction.
We think this picture from the 1930’s breathes life into the statement that these old churches were the justice, social, religious and moral centers about which their community orbited. Rich and poor, young and old, male or female their lives revolved around the churches. Amen
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I went to church here. Thank you for restoring this historical church!
I’ve loved this church for forty years. Thank you so much for renovating it for future generations. ????
Hope all is well. Is this site available for weddings?
Hi Keith. We do not know about wedding availability but here is a phone number listed on the Explore Georgia website. 770-748-5657