In the late summer of 1812, a small group of slaves is said to have gathered for church on the Rhodes Plantation in what is now Hephzibah.
On Sunday, Historic First Ebenezer Baptist Church commemorates the occasion with a 200th anniversary service and celebration.
“We’re proud of our church history,” said the Rev. Moses D. Anderson. “It was founded by people who were willing to risk everything so they had a place to worship God. It was founded by people in slavery. They weren’t allowed to have a church. These were people who more than likely had never read the Bible.
“They simply heard the word of God, believed it and were willing to risk everything they had to obtain a new kind of freedom – spiritual freedom.”
Every day this week, church members have met for revival in preparation for the anniversary. About 400 members are on the rolls today. Sunday services average 250.
“Our theme for the whole year is ‘Keeping what brought us here,’ ” said Anderson, the pastor of the church since 2000. “After 200 years, we’re still going.”
Ebenezer Baptist received membership in the predominately white Georgia Baptist Association in 1840, but oral history and church records date it to “the fourth Sunday in August in the year of our Lord 1812.”
Ebenezer was the fourth black church to join the Baptist association. It had 56 members at the time.
In the late 1860s, it and several other black churches separated from the body to form the Ebenezer Baptist Association, one of the first associations of black churches in Georgia. They went on to form the Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia, which existed from 1870 to 1915, according to the Georgia Baptist Convention archives and museum.
Several present-day associations trace their roots to the movement, including the Atlanta-based General Missionary Baptist Convention, billed as “the largest organization of African Americans in the state of Georgia.”
In October 2002, the church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The following summer, a historical marker was placed on the winding dirt road that leads to the old wooden church and surrounding cemeteries.
“We’re living history,” said Denise Anderson, first lady of the church. “It’s exciting, especially for our older members. They’re excited to see this day come.”
Mamie Evans, 82, has attended First Ebenezer since 1943.
“When I started coming here, they had a wooden stove, wood floors, hard pews,” she said.
Her friend Lula Thomas has attended since 1946.
“We had this old bell in the vestibule. The janitor would come and ring that bell and you’d hear that bell all over Hephzibah. That’s how you knew you’d have to come running or you’d be late for Sunday school,” Thomas said with a laugh.
Services are hours shorter today, and baptisms are held indoors, “but it’s still the little church on the hill by the railroad track,” Evans said.
The significance of the occasion isn’t lost on Thomas.
“You think how hard they’ve worked to keep this church going. They gave their pennies and dimes so we could be here,” she said. “I’m just thankful to God for bringing us this far.
‘‘We’ve been through it all, but we’ve learned to lean and trust on God.”