Located in present day Lanier County, GA, the old Union Church lies about 10 miles east of where Levi J. Knight settled on Beaver Dam Creek (now Ray City, GA). It was the first church to serve the pioneer settlers of this region. L. J. Knight’s parents, Sarah and William Anderson Knight , were among the organizing members of the church. Built on land provided by Jesse Carter, the church was originally referred to as Carter’s Meeting House, and later designated Union Church.
The church and cemetery were on a trail used by the Creek Indians traveling between the Chattahoochee River and the Okefenokee Swamp. During the Indian Wars, 1836-1838, the church building was partially burned. The fire-damaged timbers were used in the reconstruction, and since that time Union Church has also been known as Burnt Church.
“Union Baptist Church, on the Alapaha River ….was constituted October 21, 1825, the first church in the old area of Irwin County. The original members William A. Knight; his wife, Sarah; Jonathan Knight; his wife, Elizabeth; Joshua Lee; his wife, Martha; James Patten; his wife, Elizabeth; Mary Knight; Josiah Sirmans, deacon. The Rev. Matthew Albritton served the church as its first minister.”
In Pines and pioneers: A history of Lowndes County, Georgia, 1825-1900, author J. T. Shelton gave the following description described a Big Meeting at Union church:
“The old church had a door on every side for easy access, a rostrum along one wall with seats facing it from three directions. The arrangement allowed the seating of slaves on one side. With feet planted firmly on the wide floor boards, the congregation sat on the pews, each a single plank. The women of the church had scrubbed down with potash and homemade soap both pews and flooring, and the wood had a soft, silvery sheen. The pulpit was seven feet long, twelve inches wide and two inches thick; three to five preachers sat on a long bench behind the pulpit until each had his turn to address the assembly. The exhorter then paced up and down the generous space provided, and he held forth for two hours before the next preacher had his chance. Listeners came and went; mothers carried out crying babies; little boys believed that they would starve to death before they could get outside to the loaded dinner tables that were as much a part of Big Meeting as the preaching.”
In 1928-30, The Clinch County News published a series of articles on the history of Union Church, portions of which are excerpted below:
HISTORY OF OLD UNION CHURCH
Union Primitive Baptist Church, the mother of all the churches of this faith in this immediate section of Georgia, was organized or constituted October 1st, 1825. The presbytery consisted of Elders Fleming Bates and Mathew Albritton.
As is well known, the church is located on the banks of the Alapaha River about 1 1/2 miles south of Lakeland formerly old Milltown. It stands to-day where it has always stood for the past 108 years (1933). The cemetery close by contains the graves of many pioneers and old citizens of east Lowndes, southeast Berrien and western Clinch counties. Baptisms have always taken place in the nearby river, it not being over one hundred yards from the church to the river. A high bluff with a sharp bend in the river’s course is the visitor’s introduction after he has passed the church. Several steady-flowing springs of fine drinking water are to be found on the banks, and eminating from the walls of the bluff. Part of the bluff slopes off to the river’s edge at the river bend thus making an ideal place for baptism purposes.
The little log-house which was the first building on the site of the present church, had come to be known as Carter’s Meeting House prior to the organization of the church. For some months prior it had been the scene of monthly meetings or services, and it was the expression of the desire of the settlers to have some kind of divine services in their midst, for there was not a church to be found of any denomination from the Altamaha River to the Florida and Alabama lines. The settlers in this immediate vicinity were more numerous than in most of the settlements, and many of them Carters. The meeting-house took its name from old man Jesse Carter and he probably gave the land and his boys had a hand in building the original log house to hold services in. The earliest settlers had only been living here four years at the time, while the most of them had not living here hardly a year. Knights, Carters, Giddens and Lees made up most of the settlers west of the river while on the east side of the river were to be found Tomlinsons, Sirmans and Fenders, Corbitts and Mathises. Further down the river could be found the Wetheringtons, Swilleys, Peters, Walkers, and Roberts.
Elder William A. Knight, at that time a layman, was one of the leading spirits in the formation of the church. As already stated it was Elders Bates and Albritton who presided at the organization of the church, but to “Old Father Knight” as many people called him in his lifetime, may be attribute more than anyone else the religious activities of the community in those days when the first settlers were moving in. He led in prayer and in song, and when the preacher failed to keep an appointment because of lurking Indians, high waters or other providential hindrances it was Bro. Knight who took charge and carried on the service. Five years after the church was organized he was licensed to preach the Gospel and two years later (1832) he was ordained to the full Gospel ministry.
Union Church had been constituted under the auspices of the Piedmont Primitive Baptist Association, but by 1827 the establishment of a number of new churches prompted a desire to divide the association. Fleming Bates and Matthew Albritton, of Union Church, were appointe to lead the local organization of “seven Baptist churches situated between the Alapaha and Flint River” into the new Ochlocknee Primitive Baptist Association. The Ochlocknee Association grew rapidly and by 1833 included 35 churches and 1,010 members. William A. Knight was appointed to travel these new churches to instruct them on their duties and responsibilities to the Association. By 1835, when Union Church and other churches of south Georgia and north Florida again sought to divide from the Ochlocknee Primitive Baptist Association, Knight served on the presbytery in the organization of the new Suwannee Primitive Baptist Association.
Clinch County News
September 20, 1929
HISTORY OF OLD UNION CHURCH
As has been stated before, the minutes of the church from the beginning in 1825 to 1832 have been lost. We understand, however, that Rev. William A. Knight was the first pastor as well as the guiding hand of the church during these early years. It is certain that he was one of the charter members and the only ordained minister holding his membership with the church during that time. Assuming that he was pastor during those seven years, the list of pastors up to recently , is as follows:
- William A. Knight 1825-1832
- Matthew Albritton (died) 1832-1850
- William A. Knight (died) 1850-1860
- Ansel Parrish 1860-1865
- (No record, 1865 to 1873)
- Timothy William Stallings 1873-1888
- Wm. H. Tomlinson 1888-1900
- Timothy William Stallings 1900-1902
- A. A. Knight 1902-1907
- J. A. Chitty 1907-1911
- Aaron A. Knight 1911-1913
- Isham Albert Wetherington 1913-1915
- Orville A. Knight 1915-1916
- E. R. Rhoden 1916-1918
- I. A. Wetherington (died) 1918-1923
- Wm. H. Tomlinson 1923-1925
- Orville A. Knight 1925-1927
If the writer could properly write the life of these earnest consecrated servants of the Lord, it would be equal to writing an account of the religious life of this section in the Primitive Baptist denomination. Fearless in fighting sin and bold in preaching Christ and faithful in contending for the Faith, they have served nobly and well and unborn generations will bear witness to the fruits of their work. With few exceptions the writer has not sufficient biographical data at hand now to write of their individual lives, but we know of their godly records. We hope to write later of the lives of these great preachers.
The clerks of the church likewise contain a list of fine men, known throughout their communities and counties for their good, upright lives, and their staunch Christian characters. We do not know who the first clerk was.
- Owen Smith September 7, 1832
- Joshua Sykes January 12, 1839
- Isaac D. Hutto April 13, 1845
- William Patten May 10, 1851
- William Lastinger July 8, 1854
- John Studstill Jan 9, 1858
- William Giddens May 7, 1863
- E. R. Rhoden October 8, 1891
- W. R. Rhoden November 10, 1894
- J. L. Robertson February 12, 1898
- Wm. J. Knight May 12, 1900
- J. A. Weaver August 10, 1901
- G. L. Robinson September 12, 1924
- J. A. Weaver September 12, 1925
- J. S. Shaw October 8, 1926
A good portion of the minutes is in the handwriting of assistant clerks. These assistant clerks were generally elected by the church, but of late years there have been no assistants. The list of assistant clerks is as follows:
- William A. Knight 1834-1837
- Levi Drawdy 1837-1848
- James Walker 1853-1854
- Richard H. Burkhalter 1861-1862
- John P. Tomlinson 1887-1900
- John T. Watson 1900-1902
The church has had but few deacons during its 105 years [as of 1929] of existence. There were apparently never over two at the time, and when elected they served for life unless sooner dismissed by letter or otherwise. The list given below is full of as fine men as ever lived in this section. We do not in the list make any attempt to show how long they served except in those cases where they died members of the church. We do not know who the first deacons of the church were. List follows:
Bro. Edmund Mathis, one of the deacons, having removed his membership, Bro. Joshua Lee was elected in his place March 10, 1833, and ordained April 13, 1833 by Elders Peacock, Friar and Knight.
September 6, 1839, Bro. Edmund Mathis was received back into the membership by letter from Concord church, Hamilton County, Fla., and acted as a deacon until dismissed again by letter April 10, 1841.
On June 13, 1841, brethren Jacob Hughes and John Lee were ordained deacons. Members of the presbytery not shown by minutes.
March 13, 1852, brethren Richard H. Burkhalter and J. D. Peters were elected deacons. They were ordained June 12, 1852 but the minutes do not show who constituted the presbytery. Bro. Burkhalter died in 1862 and Bro. Peters also died a member but we do not know when.
The minutes do not show any further ordination of deacons until 1891 when Bro. John P. Tomlinson was elected on May 9th. On June 13, 1891 he was ordained by Elders J. A. O’steen and T. W. Stallings.
On December 9, 1899, Bro. James L. Robinson was elected a deacon but was never ordained.
On October 9, 1909, Bro. J. A. Weaver was elected deacon, and ordained February 12, 1910 by Elders Wetherington, Chitty and A. A. Knight .
The minutes do not disclose that the church ever had any treasurer until 1909 whem on October 9th, Bro. J. A. Weaver was elected as such.
Some other members of Union Church:
- William Hughes – joined by letter, December 8, 1838
- William Wesley Johnson – baptized August 10, 1839
- Amelia Sherley Johnson – baptized June 13, 1840
- John Lee – joined by letter, June 8, 1839
- Elender Wetherington Lee – joined by letter, June 8, 1838
- Joshua Lee – constituting member, October1, 1825
- Martha Ford Lee – constituting member, October1, 1825
- Moses C. Lee – baptized September 11, 1841
- Jincey Register Lee – baptized September 10, 1854
- Thomas Mathis – united 1839, dismissed by letter December 12, 1840
- Eady Mathis – united 1839, dismissed by letter December 12, 1840
- Tyre Mathis – joined by letter April 12, 1828, dismissed by letter December 11, 1847
- Nancy Lee Mathis – joined by letter April 12, 1828, dismissed by letter December 11, 1847
- Mehala Rice Monk – joined by letter 1838
- William Patten – baptized September 9, 1848, dismissed by letter March 11, 1854 to organize Empire Church
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