In the pre-padded-pew era, my skinny behind polished plenty of rock-hard benches in country churches. Born with not much cushion between bones and my sitting-down place, I mastered the art of squirming. I have several layers of callouses back there. Credit goes to my Baker County grandmother for the first layer. During my farm visits, Nanny believed that if Pilgrims Home Primitive Baptist Church’s doors opened, her duty to God was to plop me in one of those heart-pine pews.
As soon as I was old enough to lash on a necktie, my dad assigned me to the flower detail at too-many-to-count country-church funerals. I sweated and lugged sprays, wreaths, baskets and potted plants by the thousands. As a teenager, with my long arms, I could tote six potted plants in a dignified trot from the sanctuary to the grave before the family ever got seated under the tent.
Before I went to the University of Georgia, I had already earned a Ph.D. in rural-church visitation. But that did not stop my affinity for quaint houses of worship. Even today, I’m apt to pull off the road for a look-see. In that spiritual atmosphere, walking through ancient cemeteries, I can feel history oozing into my pores.
Sometimes, I look at the crumbling houses of God and want to weep. I know how these churches—beyond religion—knitted a sense of place and purpose into so many souls. Too often, I have sighed, “Lord, somebody ought to do something.”
This year, I met two “somebodies” who are doing something before it’s too late. I want you to meet Sonny Seals and George Hart, through their new book: Historic Rural Churches of Georgia, published by the University of Georgia Press. This coffee-table edition, loaded with 300 photographs, is something you should ask Santa to put under your Christmas tree.
In 2013, these two Atlanta businessmen founded Historic Rural Churches of Georgia, www.hrcga.org, with the purpose of “researching and documenting some of Georgia’s most historic and architecturally significant rural churches.” George says he and Sonny first got into this for “fun.” But before long, others’ interest in the project mushroomed, spawning the book and a campaign to raise funds to save as many as possible of these structures and document their histories.
Powelton Methodist Church, organized on June 27, 1822, in Hancock County is featured on the book’s cover. In early October, I sat—squirming a little—on one of the church’s rustic pews, listening to the Rev. Dr. Gil Watson preach on redemption and salvation as if it were the spring of 1865. With four-part harmony, the Atlanta Sacred Harp Singers took us back 150 years with their shape-note performance. History came alive to members of the UGA Press advisory board, as we immersed ourselves into Sonny and George’s endeavor.
Up Highway 22, in Taliaferro County, we heard George Turner tell how Antioch Baptist Church—built by freed slaves—nurtured the lives of multiple generations of his African-American family. His father was the last deacon of the now-endangered church. Halting such decay drives the passion of this new historic organization.
Also on the tour was a stop in the tiny village of Locust Grove, home of the “cradle of Catholicity in Georgia.” The Locust Grove Catholic Church, not far from Crawfordville, was established in 1790 and could easily have been forgotten had dedicated volunteers and historians not taken up its cause.
In Oglethorpe County’s Philomath Presbyterian Church, I got to polish one more unpadded pew that day. As volunteers, Sue Ellen and John Buckman, along with Jim Carter, recapped the labor of love for this irreplaceable landmark, you could see what civic pride, donations and selfless labor can accomplish.
Here’s what Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society, says about Sonny and George’s book: “Rural churches offer a unique window to the soul of Georgia. Through them we gain insight into the architecture, culture, history and geography of our state. … A must-read for anyone seeking to understand what it means to be a Georgian and an American.”
And if my grandmother were alive, Nanny would be 116 and shouting, “Amen!”