Old Time Religion: From log cabin to Great Revival, Antioch Baptist celebrates 200 years
By Kathryn Schiliro
Photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Art by Katie Davis
It was founded in a rustic log cabin on Sept. 18, 1809. According to a 96-year history by clerk Thomas S. Burney, "A few of Christ's disciples, realizing the need of a church home, assembled there on the date specified and in New Testament form, constituted such a home and called it Antioch."
With that, Antioch Baptist Church was born.
And Sunday, the church celebrated its 200-year anniversary and more than 200 people were in attendance. "The church was packed," Esther Curry, member of Antioch Baptist, said.
The festivities came complete with resolutions from both Morgan County and the State of Georgia, read by Commissioner Ellen Warren and state Representative Doug Holt, respectively; remarks by state Senators Johnny Grant and John Douglas; the presentation of a plaque by Dr. J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention; and the unveiling of a bicentennial monument.
Sunday, however, just marks a page in the church's rich history.
Initially established at Walton's Mill, two miles south of its current location, the church moved in 1845. The current sanctuary was completed in 1956; it took two years to complete, and much of the building materials were taken from the original structure, according to Antioch Baptist member Aubrey Moon. In addition, a new steeple was erected in 1966.
Antioch Baptist was the site of the beginning of the "Great Revival of 1827," a result of the preaching of Adiel Sherwood.
The Ocmulgee Association (a regional group of Baptist churches) met at Antioch Baptist in September 1827; however, "the audience did not meet as delegates to an associational meeting but as spectators at a protracted meeting," according to the book "Adiel Sherwood: Baptist Antebellum Pioneer in Georgia," by Jarrett Burch.
Sherwood, an evangelist and the first speaker at the meeting, delivered a sermon titled "Great is Diana of the Ephesians."
"One spectator recalled hearing the sermon: '[It was] enunciated in the speaker's own original, peculiar style, when an old colored person, sitting at the rear of the pulpit, commenced shouting with all her strength of lungs. The demonstration seemed ill-timed and uncalled... The effect of this outburst was ludicrous. There was a perceptible smile upon the faces of the congregation, and a trying-to-look-proper expression upon the countenances of the ministers.' He continued, 'As the minister warmed into his subject, treating it wisely in his concise, nervous way, uttering solemn truths softened by pathetic touches, the Spirit of the Lord seemed to move upon the hearts of the people. In the close of the services, while the congregation stood to sing the last hymn, an invitation was given to persons desiring the prayers of God's people to come up to 'the altar.''"
Sherwood later estimated that 4,000 people responded to this urging, and that he and other ministers present spent two hours praying with those members of the congregation.
Sherwood took this successful conversion of so many as a Divine sign, and continued his career as a revivalist. The Great Revival lasted two years and spread to more than 20 counties, converting between 10,000 and 16,000 people. In this period, it is believed that Sherwood preached more than 300 sermons in around 40 counties.
As far as Morgan County, the community of Newborn was re-named. "Everybody in that community was 'New Born' Christians," Deacon Frank Underwood said.
Antioch Baptist employs a "church clerk" at all times, hence the reason for their elaborately detailed history, which includes "Foot Washing Ceremonies" in the 1800s, according to Curry, as well as punishments and excommunications.
"If you drank too much, they'd kick you out of church," Moon said.
"And if you spit on church grounds, they'd put you on probation for two weeks," Underwood said.
"Also, in the old days, the church deacons would excommunicate people from Antioch for things like spitting, spite, cussing, drinking alcohol, slander, all types of things," Curry said, in e-mail correspondence written based on her reading of church records. "[I]n the year 1900, a preacher at Antioch named S. Emmett Stephens preached his last sermon at Antioch before heading off to China to become a missionary...Years later Emmett Stephens preached a revival sermon, and at the end of that sermon I counted 35 people who had been excommunicated but were re-admitted to the church. I just think he must have seen some unusual things in China and must have gotten back to the real Christian message of forgiveness and love."
Antioch Baptist was one of the first churches to allow women members more rights, according to current Pastor Joe Hughes.
Further, until after the Civil War, when black people were asked to "keep to their boundaries," according to Curry's reading of the church record, both black and white people attended Antioch Baptist. According to Curry, a black man affiliated with Antioch Baptist asked to be ordained so that he could start another church; this marks the establishing of the nearby New Enon Baptist Church, a thriving church to this date, Curry said.
At one point, Antioch Baptist was home to the largest Baptist congregation in Morgan County, bigger even than the Madison Baptist churches. The church also housed the largest training union in the county, and has had 56 pastors over its 200 years, many of them being student pastors, according to Curry.
Even in the current deacons' time, membership at Antioch Baptist declined with changes in the economy. "There was no more farming, and a lot of people sharecropped," Underwood said. "They moved to the city to find jobs."
Though now, things are beginning to move in the opposite direction. There are more new homes in the area, and Antioch Baptist currently has 51 members on the roll.
"I just enjoy going to that church," Curry said. "There is an atmosphere of encouraging you to feel forgiven."