Georgia’s rural churches – historic treasures or relics of the past?
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week, SONNY SEALS, co-author of Historic Rural Churches of Georgia, a co-publication of Georgia Humanities and the University of Georgia Press, discusses his efforts to save Georgia’s rural churches.
By Sonny Seals
Georgia is blessed with hundreds of rural churches that represent a unique way to look at 18th and 19th century Georgia history. Indeed, they tell the story of a time when virtually all of Georgia was rural — the story of where we came from, how we got here and who we are. Most of us have seen these old treasures in various stages of prosperity, decline, and for some, ultimate ruin, but few of us really notice. We just drive on by.
As we have evolved from a frontier wilderness, totally rooted in rural agrarian enterprise, to a predominantly urban environment, Georgia rural communities have diminished greatly. In many cases, whole villages have virtually disappeared, leaving only the churches and the cemeteries as a reminder of the once vibrant communities that were there.
My friend George Hart and I developed an intense interest in these rural treasures a few years ago. George and I are history buffs, and we have been riding the backroads of Georgia for years, with no motivation other than the sheer joy of discovery — old farmhouses, overgrown cemeteries, towns that are now virtually deserted, and the like. These trips spoke to us of days gone by in a very powerful way. Old churches and cemeteries were very much a part of that landscape.
On one of these backroads adventures, I discovered the lost village of Powelton. It has just about disappeared now, except for two lovely churches at opposite ends of the mostly deserted town — one Baptist and the other Methodist. The Baptist church had a historical marker that pointed out the church was organized in 1786 and had been the home church of Silas and Jesse Mercer, who founded what became Mercer University.
On the other end of town there was an old Methodist church that contained a small, very old graveyard, where depressions and fieldstones marked the earliest graves. I spotted a Confederate headstone on the edge of the woods and walked over to read it: “Sergeant William D. Seals – 4th Sgt – Co. K – 15th Ga Inf.” I didn’t know it then, but I had just met my great-grandfather.
That chance encounter led to my journey of discovery — of family roots, of the rise and fall of the little village of Powelton, and of a fascination with old rural churches and the stories that lay in the cemeteries. George and I decided to form a nonprofit organization, Historic Rural Churches of Georgia (HRCGA), with a mission to research, document, and preserve the history of these noble icons of the past.
We built a website (www.hrcga.org), filling it with beautiful photographs that capture the humble dignity of these structures, accompanied by a brief history of each church and its historical role in the community. A very committed and talented group of volunteers, along with an extraordinary group of photographers, document the churches in a style we think of as “reverential documentation.”
George and I were curious to see if anyone, besides us, really cared about this neglected part of Georgia history. The response has been remarkable and gratifying. The success of the website led to our recently released book, Historic Rural Churches of Georgia (co-published by Georgia Humanities and the University of Georgia Press), and a GPB short documentary series, Saving Grace: The Story of Georgia Through the Eyes of Her Rural Churches, which airs on Saturday nights right after Father Brown.
While HRCGA continues our research and documentation efforts, we are also beginning to work with local communities on preservation. We now know people do care, and HRCGA believes that some of these old treasures, which are now in a death spiral of abandonment and neglect, can be renovated and/or repurposed in a way that will bring communities together again. A church can be saved, provided three elements are in place – a strong local group to lead the effort, funding for the project and an end use for the facility that will keep it maintained for the future.
Our goal is to develop a model that will not only work in Georgia but can be replicated and scaled, thereby birthing a national effort to protect historic rural churches that would otherwise be doomed. We are at the beginning of a long and worthwhile journey. Go to our website, join our subscribers, and take the journey with us.
Sonny Seals is the chairman and co-founder of Historic Rural Churches of Georgia. Presently he is the Founder and Managing Director of Eton Partners LLC, a retained executive search firm. Prior to founding Eton Partners, Mr. Seals was a senior executive with A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, and Russell Corporation, a textile and athletic apparel company.
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.