Liberty United Methodist Church’s simple, white sanctuary sits, just as it has for more than 200 years, at the crook of a Hephzibah country road well outside the hustle and bustle of town.
It’s a place where history and faith intersect, and where finding the will and way to move forward has become as important as any event in the congregation’s long and proud past.
The earliest history of Liberty is vague, with most accounts – including the book A Lost Arcadia about the early history of Methodism in Georgia and The History of Old Liberty Church by Robert Rhodes – dating the founding to a few months after the official birth of the United Methodist Church in Baltimore in 1784.
What is known is that the church was well-established and recognized as the oldest in the state when the sanctuary building was erected in 1804.
Francis Asbury, one of the founders of the United Methodist Church, gave a sermon in the log cabin that served as the church’s home in 1790. The church is recognized as not only the oldest Methodist church in Georgia, but the third-oldest in the United States.
And yet, it’s a history that almost came to a close in 1979.
That was the year Dr. Robert Taylor was ending his career as a Methodist minister. His final assignment was as district superintendent for the Augusta area. His final task was to be the closing of the struggling Liberty Methodist.
The congregational count had dropped to four and the original sanctuary, which had fallen into disrepair, hadn’t been used since the 1960s.
But Taylor had grown up on a dairy farm a few miles from the church. It was where he attended his first services. His parents were buried there. Liberty had inspired him, as a 28-year-old, to build on his ninth-grade education and become a minister.
Taylor retired and channeled his energy into restoring Liberty. He found friends and families who helped repopulate the congregation and also rebuild the sanctuary, which reopened with a celebratory service on Sept. 13, 1981.
Today, the sanctuary looks much as it might have looked in the early 19th century. The only contemporary additions are a modest sound system, some slowly spinning ceiling fans and electric lights in fixtures designed to recall the building’s past. Everything else, under Taylor’s careful supervision, was left as untouched as possible.
On the back of a pew near the rear of a church, there’s copperplate lettering left by someone known only as “DF” when a sermon got a little too long or the weather a little too hot. It is part of the history of the place, part of the reason Taylor fought so hard to save it.
“My father did this because he thought it was the right thing to do,” said his son, James Taylor. “He was never the kind of person that was concerned with a legacy for himself.”
James Taylor said doing the work of the Methodist church defined his father. Robert Taylor remained at Liberty for nearly 10 years but never quite got around to retiring a second time.
“No, up until the last year of his life he was out there doing weddings and funerals,” his son said with a laugh. “He’d take a week every summer and preach out by the lake. That’s just who he was.”
Mary Frances Richards was a wife and mother when she and her young family took the trip out to Liberty the first time. She said that while the history was interesting and important, it was Taylor, and his passion for the project, that attracted the Richards clan.
“It never felt like we were doing something all that important,” she said, sitting in the quiet living room of her Columbia County home. “We just did it because of him. That’s the relationship we had, the relationship everyone that went out there had with him. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Today, the Rev. Jim Hyder leads services from the church’s original pulpit. Like Taylor before him, he came to Liberty after retiring.
“That was in 1993,” he said with a laugh. “This was supposed to be for a few months.”
He said he has no plans to leave.
His is the kind of relationship that people develop with the church. Today, the congregation has grown to about 216 – more than enough to fill the simple sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
Hyder said that unlike a lot of churches that attract their congregations from the neighborhoods in their immediate area, Liberty has become a destination congregation built on the praise, prayers and recommendations of people who have made their spiritual home there.
“We get them from all over,” he said. “We have people that come from Evans, from Martinez. We even have a family that comes all the way in from Waynesboro. This, really, is a church of invitation.”
Like the Richards and Hyder and Robert Taylor, Shirley Grimaud came to Liberty with her family in the early 1980s and discovered the place she felt she belonged.
“We came here with every intention of returning to our home church,” she said, her frame fitting neatly in the careful geometry of the sanctuary doorway. “But this is a place that gets in your heart.”
“It certainly has ours.”