When Hopeful Baptist Church opens its doors for homecoming April 26, it will invite the community to step into the past.
The church will celebrate its 200th anniversary that day with a performance by the Gospel Plowboys, plus inflatables, food and face-painting. The celebration continues Sunday, April 27, with a special message and potluck dinner.
But guests who attend (everyone is welcome) should take note of the building and the grounds. It is a study of worship through American history.
The church has met on the same piece of property on Winter Road in Blythe for 200 years. Three buildings – a pine building, a hewn log building and a framed building – preceded the one that now stands.
But the Greek Revival structure that welcomes congregants each Sunday was built in 1850 and has remained largely unchanged since.
It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 1, 1993.
The granite steps were cut from Stone Mountain, Ga., and hauled to the site by ox cart from the Georgia Railroad Depot in Grovetown.
The double front doors open to a single meeting room and flank the original pulpit, which stands at the front of the room. The shutters are painted black to match the doors and were made in 1905.
A single door opens at the rear of the room to the church yard. The grave of Nancy Palmer Johnson, mother of former Georgia Gov. Herschal V. Johnson, stands front and center.
“She wanted it placed there so when the preacher stood in the pulpit he could see her grave out the back door,” said Bobby Lowe, caretaker of the church grounds.
He said once there was lead along the fence that surrounds her grave, but men in Gen. Sherman’s army used it for bullets.
“Some of the old timers said they had pictures (of where) they’d put all the horses in here at night,” Lowe said, standing inside the back door of the church. “They made ramps and put all the horses in here at night when Sherman came through.”
He and his wife, Nancy, the church’s historian, have been members since 1993.
The building and its contents have seen few changes. The pews are original, though they have been upholstered in the years since the Lowes have been members.
Rows of pews in the back are noticeably different than the others. More utilitarian (and still not upholstered), they are where slaves once sat during worship services. According to information printed on the church’s flier, in 1865 the congregation consisted of 91 members – 56 black and 35 white.
In 1867, the black members formed Second Hopeful Baptist Church and, with the help of members of Hopeful Baptist, built a church about a half-mile away on property donated by Hopeful. Second Hopeful is still active today in a new building, built after a tornado in 2008 destroyed the original church.
In 1958, a new Hopeful Baptist Church building was built next to the original structure. It served as a fellowship hall until a larger, more modern building was constructed in 2006.
Children’s Sunday school classes are still held in the old fellowship hall, while adult classes and church functions are held in the new building.
Church members are considering expanding the new building to accommodate more seating.
“It’s just been eight years and already we need to expand,” Nancy Lowe said.
The new building displays wooden pieces that a member fashioned out of cedar trees that used to grow around the church cemetery. They were destroyed by the tornado. The church’s collection plates were also made from the wood.
Today, the church is active with ministries including Christian Crafters, which makes a variety of items to take to nursing homes, and cooks for homeless ministries in Augusta.
The men have a Brotherhood that helps elderly women in the church with yard work and other odd jobs.
Nancy Lowe dutifully writes down the church’s activities each week.
“I think this church family is a loving and open group of people. Everybody here is just exceptional,” she said. “We’ve all gotten to be really close friends, a big church family.”