White Oak Presbyterian
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The local history tells us that in 1830, several families, descendants of the Scots-Irish from Counties Down and Antrim, Ireland, came first to Abbeville, Newberry and Laurens Districts in South Carolina, and from there, migrated to the White Oak community. These families were Psalm-singing Presbyterians. For several years, these families worshiped at the Newnan Presbyterian Church, but due to the distance and hardship of traveling, they desired a place of worship closer to their community and White Oak Presbyterian Church, a member of the Associated Reform Presbyterian Synod, was founded in 1836. Tradition has it that the organization of this church took place under the shed of the old Bowers’ cotton gin. Among the founding families were Young, Bowers, Walthall, Leslie, Stewart, Hunter, Tolbert, Bryson, Chalmers, Russell, Johnson and Carmichael.
1836 was also the year the Associate Reformed Presbyterians of the White Oak settlement bought a log church named Smyrna from the Methodists. On Saturday, October 21, 1837, the White Oak congregation assembled after the morning sermon and adopted the Westminister Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church and consented to receive its doctrines and to be governed by its disciplines, and were, by prayers, solemnly set apart and constituted into a church called White Oak Presbyterian Church. Robert Russell and James Thompson were installed as ruling elders in this new church. The Reverend Joseph Young Alexander was the Presbyterian minister appointed by the Flint River Presbytery to organize the White Oak Presbyterian church and was its pastor for the next several years.” The first meeting of the Presbytery of Georgia was held in the church in 1843. The present church was built in 1896.
In 1879, the Rev. John Hemphill was called as pastor. He has an interesting story which is told in one of the cemetery photos below. He was born in South Carolina, graduated from Erskine College and was licensed by the South Carolina Presbytery in 1861. He then enlisted at the beginning of the Civil War and served until he was captured and imprisoned in Elmira, New York for nineteen months. He returned home in poor health and served as the pastor of several churches until he was called to White Oak in 1879 where he served until his death in 1899. There is a memorial plaque in the church in memory of his service. The cemetery is lovely and quite large with 523 documented interments. There are many Civil War vets who are resting here, in addtion to Rev. Hemphill. Rev. Hemphill’s successor as pastor was Ira Sylvester Caldwell. Caldwell was serving as the pastor when his only child, novelist Erskine Caldwell, was born in 1903.
The little church has been almost perfectly maintained by loving congregants for almost 125 years. Improvements have been made, but the efforts to preserve the historical character of this lovely rural church are self evident. The interior is a visual treat as you will see. We are grateful for the wonderful stewardship of this architectural gem that is such a vital part of our Georgia history.