This is the first in a series of articles about the origins of the Baptist faith in Georgia and Bulloch County.
When Governor James Edward Oglethorpe settled Georgia colony in 1733 there were at least two Baptists, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Dunham, who had accompanied him. When George Whitefield came to Savannah in 1751, Nicholas Bedgewood accompanied him to take charge of the Orphan House, which was going to be built near Savannah, which became a branch church of the Charleston Baptists.
The first five Baptist churches known to have been established in the state of Georgia (in the 1770s) were Fishing Creek, Kiokee, Little Brier Creek, Red’s Creek (which became Abilene), and Upton’s Creek (which became Greenwood). The first Georgia preachers to serve in these churches were Silas Mercer, Abraham Marshall, Loveless Savadge, Peter Smith, Sanders Walker and William Franklin.
By 1784, 6 “Regular” Baptist churches and 4 “Separate” Baptist churches formed the first “Georgia Association”. In 1801, the very first Baptist periodical was published in Georgia by Henry Holcombe, entitled “The Georgia Analytical Repository”. Holcombe then established both Mount Enon Academy in Mitchell County, Georgia, and the “Savannah Female Asylum in Chatham County.
The first Baptist churches established in Bulloch County were: the Little Ogeechee Baptist Church (now in Screven County) established in 1790 with Pastor Captain William Cone, Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church established in 1790-1; Lower Lott’s Creek Primitive Baptist Church established in 1802; and Upper Black Creek Primitive Baptist Church established in 1802, with Pastor Isham Peacock.
Shortly thereafter, there was a move to form an official Baptist Association. It appeared in June of 1822, when the Baptist Convention of the State of Georgia created the “General Association of Baptist Churches in Georgia”. One of the first decisions the new association made was to support Baptist colleges and seminaries in the state, including Brewton-Parker, Shorter and Truett-McConnell Colleges, and to elevate Mercer Institute to Mercer University.
The first “big split” amongst the Baptists in the United States came about in 1832 when conservative Baptists met at Black Rock, Maryland to discuss reforms coming into the church. In the “Black Rock Address,” they decided to reject the use of tracts, as well as the creation of Sunday Schools and Bible Societies, because members might be duped into following words other than those of God. They rejected the success of missions as being temporary and appealing to the masses instead of the individuals.
They also claimed that theological schools and seminaries led preachers to focus on scientific knowledge rather than on God’s word for their understanding. They objected to “protracted meetings” (in modern terms, revivals) because they use all sort of machinery to excite the human animal instead of using God’s word to appeal to the soul.
This document led to the creation of two distinct groups of Georgia Baptists: “Primitives” (also known as “Old Line” or “Hard-Shells) on one side, who wanted to stick to a literal interpretation of the Bible; and “Progressive” Baptists on the other, who wanted to incorporate changes in their method of worship which were not specifically addressed in the Bible.
Ten years later came the next “big split”, this time of a regional rather than doctrinal nature. As the country lurched to war over the issue of slavery, it was only natural that the church members would eventually begin to take sides. Northern Baptists decided to create the Anti-Slavery Society as a part of the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1833.
Things came to an impasse when in 1844, the Georgia Baptist Association appointed James Reeves (a slave owner) as a missionary to the Cherokee Indians and the Baptist General Conference rejected him. Because of these actions, Southern Baptists decided in a meeting held in Augusta on May 9, 1845 to create a distinctly Southern based Baptist Conference which would see to their needs.
One year later, the Southern Baptist Convention was formally established. Time has been good to the Baptists in Georgia. While in 1800 there were 72 Baptist churches in the state of Georgia, and a membership of 4,690 members out of a total population of 162,686, in 2000, there were 9,175 Baptist churches in the state of Georgia, with a total membership of 2,140,651, more than one-quarter of Georgia’s population of 8,186,453.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look at Bulloch County's historical past. E-mail Roger at roger firstname.lastname@example.org