E. Keith Jones, Pastor
by Nelle Price Epps
don’t know whether the founders of Bethabara Baptist Church in
northern Oconee County were students of Hebrew when they chose that
name for the congregation, or if they simply liked the sound of the
name they ran across while reading a favorite passage in the King James
version. Whichever is true, Bethabara is an appropriate name. It means
“house at the ford” or “place of passage” the
church is located between the old pioneer ford of the Appalachee River
(now US 78 bridge) and the crossroads of the Hog Mountain Road. The
shallow water at the ford was used from the earliest days for baptismal
services. Records note many members who were “received by experience”
(i.e. converted) while attending a baptismal service for earlier converts.
The name Bethabara is found in John l:28.“This theme was continued
when the present worship center was built in 1913, with one of the four
main windows being a copy of a famous painting of Christ’s baptism.
Official church minutes, 1844-1855, were destroyed in a house fire,
and the minutes for 1913-1919 were “borrowed” and never
returned. There is also little concrete historical record of the community.
The minutes of the Appalachee Baptist Association have been essential
to the reconstruction of part of the history of the church.
There is dispute about the exact date of the formal constitution of
the congregation as a church. In November 1882, at the death of a charter
member, the founding date is given as September 4, 1844; however in
August 1894 the church planned a special service September 3 to celebrate
the church’s “semi-centennial’. Neither date holds
with the Baptist custom of the day, which scheduled formal business
for meetings for Saturday, and worship on the “Sabbath”
In the 1944 centennial history account of the church recounts how Miss
Lucy Jarrel (later Hayes) rode horseback to area homes, soliciting help
in building a brush arbor at the southwest corner of Hog Mountain Road
and Athens-Monroe Road. She also rode over 150 miles to South Carolina
to obtain an evangelist for the revival meeting. During or at the conclusion
of the meeting, Bethabara wads formerly constituted with twelve charter
members, nine white and three blacks. The ministers serving as the presbytery
for the organizational meeting were Rev.’s John Hendricks, Hartwell
Jackson, Sr., Samuel Churchill, and William Wright. The next day, several
more members united “by experience.”
The same month it was constituted, Bethabara was admitted to the Appalachee
Batist Association, meeting in 1844, with Sharon Church of Walton County.
Their minutes record, “On application made, Bethabara and Pleasant
Grove were regularly received as members of this association.”
Rev. S. B. Churchill, who would be called in November as pastor of Bethabara,
worked 50 days in 1843-44, as a “domestic missionary” for
the Association, at 75 cents per day. He probably had encouraged the
formation of Bethabara.
In 1844, the split between Missionary Baptists and Primitive Baptists
was almost complete. The next year, North and South would split into
separate denominations over the issue of whether or not to appoint slave
holders as foreign missionaries. The controversy was already boiling
in 1844. “No blame can attach to the South,” declared the
assembled body. “The time has come when Southern Baptists should
try to walk alone ad no longer submit to Northern dictation.”
Other concerns of the association (and presumably Bethabara) that year
included preaching to “the blacks.” Mercer University, the
“state of religion” in the area promotion of ”full
time” or every Sunday preaching, the declining of Temperance,
and Sunday School work, and the promotion of missions giving for the
association and state convention. Next year, the establishment of the
Southern Baptist Convention and its agencies was reported favorably.
Mercer University was reported to have “five professors and a
The church showed growth during its first dozen years, with some large
numbers of converts due to revivals. Total membership in 1856 was 121.
In that year, a deacon election was held, probably the first one since
deacons were chosen soon after the constitution of the church (first
deacons’ names missing due to burned records.) Two men, after
some reluctance, agreed to serve. They were D. W. Jackson and G. E.
Griffeth. It us not clear whether the former deacons had moved or died,
or whether church growth justified more deacons.
In 1856, James S. Griffeth was elected “chorister” and twelve
hymn books were bought. This is the first mention of the musical life
of the church.
A conflict between a farmer and a widow on the neighboring farm led
to formal charges and controversy in the late 1850’s. After several
months of wrangling, the church lost several members. The January 1857
minutes plaintively Note: We as a church know to our Sorrow that there
has been conflicting opinions among church members which we regret and
now we as a church feel to invite all of those members to come back
and take their seats again and let us try to bear each others’
Burdens and if we have done wrong let us forgive each other. (sic)
However, the next month, those who had withdrawn were accused of attempting
to “constitute in the midst” (i.e. start another church),
and were warned that if they tried to reunite with the church, they
would be required to “make acknowledgement” (confession
of this alleged wrong).”
By June 1858, most dissidents had “returned their letters”
to the church, becoming full-fledged members once again. The contemporary
practice of Baptists in that day was to grant letters of recommendation
to members who requested them, with the idea that the members would
almost immediately join another church of “like faith and order.”
However it was a form of protest to ask for one’s letter, and
hold it rather than uniting with another church. This practice continued
in some areas of Georgia up into the living memory of this writer.
By the end of the decade, the church had once again had a healthy increase
in members, with a total up to 208. The first seventeen years of Bethabara’s
church life showed the start of concerns with a mission larger than
the local area, a maturing process of dealing with the internal disagreements
and membership discipline, the acquisition and improvement of a meetinghouse,
and the conducting of at least three very successful revivals. The church
seemed poised for a period of further expansion and ministry. However
events of the Civil War/Reconstruction intervened, and not for thirty-five
years would the church again attain the membership levels of 1859.
“May the 4th 1861…Unanimously adopted the following resolution,
to wit: Resolved as we believe that these Confederate States are now
Contending in a just Cause & believing that the Battle is not to
the Strong but to them than fears and serves God; Therefore, we do appoint
the Sabbath and Saturday before in June for fasting and praying and
se do invite all Gods People to come and be with us on those day…(sic)”
Soon eight, “Bethabara Boyes,” as they signed themselves,
would be writing home from camp in Portsmouth, VA. Confederate records
show that two died of disease before serving 18 months, one each died
at Malvern Hill, Fredricksburg, and Spotsylvannia; one, the pastor’s
son and namesake, died of wounds at Gettysburg, and two were discharged,
the first on disability in 1862, and the other following Spotsylvasnnia
(1864), when his right arm was amputated. Other members, including the
church clerk, would also serve in the Confederate forces.
At home, church life went on. Oct.5, 1861, the church asked former members
to “bury the past” and return to active membership. They
cooperated with Gov. Brown’s 1862 plea for a day of fasting and
prayer. Fall, 1862 brought a special offering to raise funds for “colportrage
among our soldiers.” In July, 1863, before news of young David
Moncrief’s wounds or subsequent death could reach his father,
the church was deciding to provide Rev. D.H. Moncrief with a suit of
clothes for use in baptizing converts.
Following the war, a change in attitude toward black members had to
take place. In August, 1865, three converts were still referred to as
being “the property of…” despite the Rebel defeat.
By January, 1866, however, a member is referred to as a “freed
woman.” Across the south, black churches were formed over the
next several years due to several reasons--- first, some blacks now
desired to take control of their own religious affairs; secondly, because
most whites refused to share any real fellowship with in the churches
on the basis of equality; and sometimes, because the active antipathy
of whites led to blacks being forced out of churches. There is no evidence
that this last reason was active at Bethabara. In fact, Appalachee Association
minutes still showed at least one Oconee church with black members as
late as 1885. As far as is possible to determine, the last black members
dismissed by letter from Bethabara was in 1877. It is possible that
other black members remained on roll until their death, but no concrete
evidence exists for this. The race issue faded into the background for
Bethabara until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s,
when the church by formal vote decided to welcome all persons who desired
Membership in the thirty years after the Civil War ranged from 113 to194.
Items of interest gleaned from the minutes include: purchase of a pulpit
Bible; 1871, construction of a new building and appointment of the first
church Trustees; 1872, weekly prayer meetings on” Sabbath evening;”
1873, establishment of a Sunday school; 1878, committee for a church
discipline; 1879, hosting statewide Sunday school Convention; 1880,
building debt retired; 1882, establishment of Sunday school each Sunday,
with the accompanying with that the church would soon follow with “full
time” worship—a hope that only took 68 years to fulfill.
The church continued to worship only one Sunday each month, most often
the first Sunday. Other Sundays, members would visit in other areas
churches, including the Christian and Methodist churches. Their members
also attended Bethabara, accounting for the huge crowds at worship remembered
by some older members.
The 1860’s brought a time of controversy over ethical matters.
Members were prohibited from the manufacture, sale, or use of “ardent
spirits” and from visiting the “dram shop.” However,
not all members went along with this Victorian attitude: Charges of
betting and dancing, though true, were rescinded against Bro.---and
for the sake of harmony, dancing charges against two sisters rescinded.
In August, 1885, the church decided to take a quarterly offering specifically
for mission causes. $10 was also raised to help support a ministerial
student at Mercer. In 1891, the church, short of cash, sold the wood
pickets around the graveyard to raise money to support a student at
Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
In the early 1890’s, financial records of the church become more
complete, with lists of how much each member was “assessed.”
The writer wonders what reaction would result today if the church sought
to “tax’ its members! It must have worked to a degree in
the 1890’s for no protests are formally entered in the minutes.
The last decade of the 1800’s and the first of the 1900’s
showed an acceleration of progress, growth, and evangelism. One of the
church’s pastors, Rev. H. R. Bernard, left to work with the state
convention on an early systematic program of raising mission gifts.
A new covenant and articles of faith were adopted by the church. Women
of the church, probably under the leadership of the pastor’s wife,
Mrs. W. S. Walker (a former missionary to China) began a Women’s
Missionary Union. However, the pastor had to read the report of their
work to the church conference, leading modern readers of the minutes
to suspect that women were not allowed to speak in church.
From 1907-1911, several references in the minutes pointed up the need
for either drastic renovations to the church house, or a new structure.
Nov. 30, 1907, a committee was appointed to “cover” (i.e.
roof) church: March, 1910, one to “fix leaks”; finally in
December 1911, the three brothers J. Y., R .L., and H. A. Carithers
proposed to build a new church building, with work to begin in 1913.
The building committee was officially appointed in June 1912. Generally,
the church members furnished labor (hauling sand for mortar, carpentry,
etc.), while the Carithers brothers furnished most of the materials
and furnishings for the meetinghouse. The stained glass windows and
walnut pews which are still in use were installed at this time.
Membership had climbed to 331 by 1915. All time peak membership for
the church was 1923, with 387 members. A correction of the records in
the 1920’s plunged to the level of 218, and then in 1929, to 175,
where it remained plateaued throughout the Depression.
Following the building of the present building (Cost $12,000!), the
original building was used for school classes, some people are alive
today (1989) who actually attended the school in the” old church.”
It was sold in 1929, with the proceeds of $87.00 going to the church
treasury. In 1931, a generator was purchased, but electric lights were
not installed until mid-1938. In May of 1939, the church voted to have
the Trustees install windows behind the pulpit area, but this was never
done. Probably the Trustees did not have the money.
In 1941, the Baptist Young People’s Union (BYPU) a forerunner
of the Discipleship Training program, held its Georgia statewide meeting
at Bethabara. Later the Sunday school Convention was invited to meet
here as well.
The church celebrated its Centennial a little early August 6, 1944,
with Homecoming. A short history of the church was inserted in the minutes.
In 1949, plans were made for additional Sunday school space. This was
paid for by the sale of timber from church property. The addition, dedicated
in December, added eight rooms.
February, 1959 saw the church finally begin “fulltime” preaching.
Vacation Bible School and Church Study Course programs were also mentioned
In early 1956, the church voted to build a two story, 62’ by 30’
annex. Work was done mainly by volunteers, and continued several years.
It was completed, along with a house to serve as a pastorium, by November,
The church had hired its first paid choir leader, Ms. Carolyn Langford
in 1959. She was compensated the grand total of $6 per month for travel
The church parking lot was paved, a pictorial directory was produced,
youth teams in various sports were organized, and various improvements
to the buildings were carried out in the 1960’s and 70’s.
The church was concerned with the widening of U.S. 78, but fortunately,
the efforts of the church and historic preservationists saved the old
pioneer well near the church from destruction, and the church was not
adversely affected by the project.
Pastors of Bethabara have included: 1844 S. B. Churchhill, 1846 Bedford
Crawford, 1848 J. G. McNorton, 1849 Hartwell Jackson, 1851 J. L. Loudermilk,
1854 J. G. Montcrief, 1866, Gus W. Nunnally, 1877, J. W. Butts, 1881,
T. J. Swanson,1885, J. W. Butts, 1886, W. A. Brooks, 1888, W.A. Overton.1890
W.S. Walker, 1891 W. S. McCartey, 1892 H.R. Bernard, 1896, T.E. McCuthins,
1904 J. W. Mc Whorter, 1914 E.A. Fuller, 1918 W. H. Faust, 1921 C. W.
Henderson, 1922 J. A. Crunkelton, 1924 J. W. McWhorter, 1929 J. B. Grizzle,
19332, W. H. Wrighton, 1934 J. W McWhorter, 1937 J. N. Saye, 1938 R.
E. Carter, 1951 C. F. Tidwell, 1960 D. R. Fuller, 1967 J. C. Glenn,
1970 J. H. Davidson, Jr., 1976, Fulton
B. Bryan, 1982 Kerry K. Walker, 1986 Keith Jones.
In addition, several pastors have served as interim or supply preachers
for short periods of time. Pastor Carter, who led the church from quarter-time
first to half-and the full time status, had the longest continuous service
as pastor. J.W. McWhorter, with an aggregate of eighteen years of service
in three terms, had the longest total pastorate.
Buildings the church has occupied include the brush arbor at Hog Mt.
Road and Athens Highway; a log cabin located near the back of the present
cemetery, donated by James Griffeth, Sr.; the frame structure built
in the 1860’s, used until the present brick building with the
dome was built in 1913-14.
Recent church activities and ministries have included: the start of
a tape ministry and one of Georgia’s largest Homebound ministries;
acquisition of temporary educational space; adoption of a long range
growth and ministry plan; complete renovation of the building and facilities
including handicapped access; conversion of the land-based trust to
capital-based for the purpose of building; and cemetery perpetual maintenance;
mission trips; an enhanced Music Ministry under the leadership of Mrs.
Robin Drewry (served 1978-1989) and Rev. Lamar Willis (1989-present);
donation of nearly five acres of land to Georgia Baptist Children’s
Home and Family Ministries for the construction of a Developmental Disabilities
Home for six mentally retarded adult men; and plans fore expanded evangelism,
educational ministry and membership growth as the area’s population
swells in the near future.
to Church Records