Baldwin’s Bethel UMC celebrates bicentennial

lfabian@macon.comSeptember 13, 2013 

MILLEDGEVILLE -- On a hill up from Little River, men cut down trees two centuries ago for a small shelter from the Georgia sun.

Ten years after Baldwin County was created in the land lottery of 1803, its pioneer families in the Meriwether community built a place to worship.

They named it Bethel, which means “house of God.”

“I think the community grew up around the church because people started building here to be closer to the church,” said Al Haslam, a current member of Bethel United Methodist Church.

As more families settled between Potato and Buck creeks, they built a small wooden church in 1853.

Back then, dividers separated the men and women in the congregation.

A Bible from that year sits in the lobby of the current building that was dedicated April 20, 1969, exactly a year after lightning struck the old church, burning it to the ground. Milledgeville Brick Works donated the gold-colored bricks that still stand off Ga. 212.

The sign advertising Sunday’s Bicentennial Celebration at 10 a.m. includes the church’s website, www.baldwinumc.org. The Internet address is displayed under the banner that declares “Est. 1813.”

Times may have changed, but the congregation remains small. Just 22 people were in the pews last Sunday.

When it came time to add on a vestibule and fellowship room in the early 1990s, volunteers rolled up their sleeves.

“It’s the type church that will never get real big because most of our people are retired,” Haslam said. “All us old codgers just come together and have a good time.”

There will be lots of memories and laughter at the morning reception before the 11 a.m. service Sunday.

Folks might remember the time the preacher quoted “let there be light” from Genesis, and the stubborn light fixture over the pulpit finally came on.

“All the brothers and sisters looked around like, ‘What is going on around here?’” Haslam recalled.

There might be talk of a Christmas candlelight service about 20 years ago. Haslam’s youngest grandchild leaned over and his long bangs caught fire, but the fire was quickly snuffed out.

“That ended our candlelight ceremony,” he said. “We haven’t had one since.”

Tracing history

Folks entering the church through the front door will pass one of the 1853 cornerstones flanked by bushes.

It sits in the shadow of the steeple erected in memory of Yates Green, the uncle of Valette Adkins, whose Myrick family roots took hold of the property several generations ago.

Adkins’ great-great-grandfather, William Turner Green, was one of Bethel’s first members and was buried by the old church in 1896.

His tombstone is the oldest still standing in the graveyard.

Radar imaging in recent years located other burial plots, but the church has records dating back just to 1883.

Bethel member Doug Farill has been searching through old newspapers in hopes of tracing the history.

“Dips in the ground, we know they’re graves, but we don’t know anything about them,” said Farill, pointing out red and orange flags scattered in the ground near more modern monuments. “I think it’s amazing to have a church that’s been around 200 years.”

A glass cabinet in the lobby holds a pewter communion set that Adkins’ great-grandmother, Mollie Allen Stiles, kept at the homestead down the road, where it survived the fire.

Adkins’ mother relayed the story of the bumper crop of grapes they had one year, more than enough for the church’s needs.

“They sold some wine and after that, that vine never produced any more grapes,” said Adkins, who married at Bethel and joined her husband’s Baptist congregation.

Her family reunion this weekend set the date for the bicentennial celebration.

She’s looking forward to seeing old friends from the Meriwether Mights, the youth group she joined about six decades ago when she was the littlest one gathered at the piano.

“We sang, ‘Others, Lord yes, others, let this my motto be,’ and ‘More like the Master I would ever be,’” Adkins remembered. “We love those old songs.”

There were only a handful of families living nearby during the 1940s.

“The church and the community were very tightly woven together because that’s all there was out here,” said Haslam, who built his marina near the old Confederate train trestle when Lake Sinclair was filled in the ’60s.

Adkins is grateful to the current members for maintaining her old family church.

“Our society is just crumbling all around us, and we’re trying to keep it together,” Adkins said. “These guys have done a great job of just keeping it up, and keeping it open and keeping it going. That’s the main thing, to keep spreading (God’s) word.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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