Early Baptist Churches in Milledgeville, 1790 – 1821
Researched and written by Ethelene Dyer Jones
The accepted beginning date for organization of First Baptist Church, Milledgeville (under a different name then) is 1806. However, Baptist churches and witness in the area being settled along the Oconee River while the Creek Indians were still here date back as far as 1790.
Some of the members of the three earliest Baptist churches—Montpelier and Fort Creek formed in 1790 and Island Creek constituted in 1794—became members of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the precursor of Milledgeville (First) Baptist Church.
Each Baptist church, even in pioneer days, claimed local rule as a sovereign and self-governing body. Much evangelical and missional zeal characterized early Baptists. Wherever pioneers of Baptist religious persuasion settled, not much time transpired until a band of believers formed themselves into a local congregation, covenanting to be a lighthouse proclaiming the gospel wherever they made their homes.
Of the Baptist churches along the Oconee River, Montpelier (also known as Mount Peliar and in 1812 changed to Mount Olive) was the first to be organized in 1790. Montpelier and the others that sprang up along the Oconee River were attended by itinerant preachers who went maybe once a month to preach and assist with church organization, baptisms, business, discipline and receiving members by baptism, letter or statement.
Statistics reveal that in Georgia by 1790, there were 42 known Baptist churches with 4,211 reported members and 33 ordained Baptist ministers in service. Georgia became a stronghold among the states of those preferring the Baptist denomination.
Accounting for this Baptist growth were settlers migrating from Virginia and both the Carolinas where the Baptist denomination was strong. Revivals were held and converts baptized in creeks and rivers. The churches grew in numbers of members and in congregations organized. By 1810, at least ten Baptist churches had been established in Baldwin County.
Some of the early known ministers who served the churches in the Oconee River region were the Rev. William D. Lane who had been ordained at the Island Creek Baptist Church and served Montpelier as pastor, the Reverends Benjamin Thompson, Joseph Baker, James Steeley and William Ellis.
Search without success has been made for church minutes of the organization of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Milledgeville in 1806. The congregation was formed in the brand new town of Milledgeville, which had been selected by an act of the Georgia Legislature to be the new state capitol in 1804. However, it was not until 1807 that the task of relocating the state capitol from Louisville to Milledgeville was fully accomplished. The Baptist Church here was formed in 1806, but we know little of its founding.
Prior to setting up state government here, town lots were designated for church locations for the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal denominations. The lot for the Mt. Zion Baptist Church location was five city blocks from the Georgia Statehouse. Mt. Zion was built on North Liberty Street between Montgomery and Jackson Streets on a slight rise. At the foot of the hill was a bold spring which became known as Baptist Meeting House Spring. Perhaps the spring at the church location was significant, symbolizing the Living Water of Life, Jesus Christ, whom the church proclaimed with zeal and passion.
Mt. Zion’s first building was constructed of logs, with riven-wood shingles covering the roof. Seating was upon split log benches with crude wooden legs. Shutters over the two windows were opened to let in daylight. If night meetings were held, light was provided by members’ lanterns or candles brought from home. The floors were covered in split logs laid side by side. The walls were also of split logs, chinked with wood chips and daubed with red clay. With many men assisting with felling trees, hewing the logs, and aiding in construction, the new log building was ready for use in a short time.
With few records available to give charter members and first leaders, names gleaned from various places show early members were transfers to Mt. Zion from other churches in the area. Among them were James and Nancy Barrow who had previously been members of Island Creek and then of Montpelier Baptist Churches. Others joining from Montpelier were Anna Jarrett and Elizabeth Harris. Slaves of James Barrow also attended the new church. Others whose names have not survived also joined the new Mt. Zion.
In 1809-1810, work proceeded on a new meeting house for the Baptist congregation at Mt. Zion. Mr. James Barrow, member and perhaps chairman of the building committee (if Baptists had such a designated officer then) kept a record of gifts to the building fund and expenditures for same. Records show $70.00 received in subscriptions by donors and $183.25 in expenditures for materials (from T. E. Smith, History of the First Baptist Church of Milledgeville, Georgia, 1806-1975. Cherokee Press, 1976. p. 10). Names of donors, however, did not necessarily represent members, for church building in 1810 was a community endeavor.
Services were held in the new 40’ x 50’ building prior to the formal dedication. From April 11, 1811 through September 14, 1811, when the church building was formally dedicated, area Baptist ministers preached there by invitation (not as pastors): Reverends Edmund Talbot, Henry Smith and (Adam?) Jones. Also preaching by invitation at Mt. Zion during that period were itinerant Presbyterian minister Rev. Ezra Fisk and Methodist minister Rev. Lorenzo Dow.
Then, on the date of the official dedication, September 14, 1811, visiting minister Rev. Robert McGinty, pastor of Island Creek, and Rev. William Ellis, pastor of Fishing Creek, were present to assist the congregation in the organizational meeting. Extant minutes show that the following signed that day as members:
Mary D. Marbury, James Barrow, Nancy Barrow, Anna Jarratt, Susanna Phair (Fair), Joel Davenport, Peter Phair (Fair), Joanna Troutman, Liddia Howard, Elizabeth Davenport, Sally Stinson, Nancy Little, and Julian Bainbridge. And among those in attendance were Barrow’s Negroes: Aaron, Tom, Linder and Hester, and an elderly Negro man called “Old” Tom.
For an excellent account of the organization of the church in the new building on September 14, 1811, read Dr. T. E. Smith’s essay on pages 12-14 in his History of the First Baptist Church.
The first called pastor on record was Rev. Edmund Shackelford who served from November, 1811 through August, 1821. During these almost ten years, Mt. Zion (as it was called then–the name was changed to Milledgeville Baptist Church in 1829) had what we might call “growing pains”.
Business meetings (conferences) were held on Saturdays before the Sundays designated as the regular preaching days of the church (usually once a month). At Saturday meetings, attendance was noted, and unless summarily excused for good reason, members could be “churched” or discharged from membership for non-attendance. They could also be disciplined and discharged for violating rules of conduct as stipulated in the church covenant.
In his “Circular Letter” written for the Georgia Baptist Association in 1814, Pastor Edmund Shackelford stated: “Never let your pity, on the one hand, make you relaxed in this duty; nor pride or prejudice prompt you to go beyond its limits in the other.” (quoted in Smith, History, FBC, Milledgeville, p. 19). “This duty” Rev. Shackelford referred to was maintaining discipline in the local church.
Thus we see some “Beginnings…” of work in the Baptist Church (and churches) of Milledgeville and vicinity from 1790 through 1821, three decades of Baptist activity on what was then known as middle Georgia’s “western frontier.”