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Early church put bars out of business

POSTED: March 14, 2010 1:00 a.m.

A writer identified only as "C.W.A." gave an account of the early history of churches in Gainesville in an 1888 article in the Gainesville Eagle.

He or she apparently had known the community in its infancy as the article begins, "Sixty years ago there was no house of public worship in the town of Gainesville." That would date the writer having lived in the new town as early as 1828. Gainesville was incorporated in 1821.

Religious organizations used the courthouse as a place for worship, but none had its own church building until the Presbyterians built one and allowed other denominations to use it. Hall County had set aside three lots in the city for use by the churches.

The Presbyterians at first appeared the strongest denomination, but many of their members left Gainesville, and by the 1840s had dissolved, according to a history of First Presbyterian by Mrs. J.A. Webster. It reorganized after the Civil War.

Some prejudice had existed against the Methodists. The story goes that the first man to try to preach a Methodist sermon was run out of town on a rail. They had a small membership formed by a circuit rider, Robert Edwards, C.W.A. wrote.

Hall County decided to build a new courthouse in 1832, and the Methodists bought the old one for their church building. Ephraim Johnson, generally regarded as the real mover of Methodism in Hall County, had bid $150 for the old courthouse, but the county refused that price.

At a second auction nobody would bid against Johnson, so the Methodists claimed the building. They rolled it on logs to the lot the county had dedicated to them on what is now Bradford Street and used it for 40 years before building a larger church.

The Methodists had begun to thrive. C.W.A. writes, "Sinners were converted, backsliders reclaimed, and the membership graciously quickened and revived. A new era had dawned upon Gainesville - a bright star had risen and was shedding its light upon her people as was manifest in its power and influence upon most of the businessmen of the place."

The writer explained that from its settlement, Gainesville allowed spirituous liquors to be sold at every business. "Every merchant had his bar attached to his store, where his customers would walk up and lay down his (money) ... " But apparently because of the influence of the church, "Every merchant ... except one abandoned the sale of liquor."

C.W.A. credited the purge not only to the Methodists but other viable churches at the time. He singled out a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church, Dr. Norman L. Chester, who had moved to Gainesville from New England, as instrumental in the anti-booze movement. Chester also organized the first Sunday School in Gainesville.

Circuit riders filled the pulpits in many of the Gainesville and Hall County churches until they grew enough to justify full-time ministers.

Baptists also were few in numbers in Gainesville at first, but built a church, and its members became influential citizens of the new town. The denomination already was spreading in Hall County, Harmony Hall forming in 1821, three years after the creation of the county. Flat Creek Baptist Church has been traced back to the founding of the county in 1818. T.H. Robertson's history of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association, puts Hopewell Baptist's organization at 1807.

Chattahoochee Baptist Association organized March 1, 1826, according to its history. Churches represented at the first session were Hopewell, Wahoo, Mount Salem, Tesnatee, Yellow Creek, Dewberry, Flat Creek, Mossy Creek and Chestatee. Those churches averaged 37 members.

The five oldest churches in the association were listed as Hopewell, 1807; Flat Creek, 1818; Harmony, 1824, Yellow Creek, 1825; Sardis, 1825. However, Sardis had written records placing its origin at 1800.
Wahoo Baptist Church, originally in Hall County, but later in Lumpkin County, organized in 1819 and helped establish First Baptist Church in Gainesville, among others. First Baptist in 1831 succeeded Limestone Baptist, which had formed in 1826 and burned two years later.

First Baptist, C.W.A. wrote, "... built them a snug little church ... and grew in membership and influence until it became a strong body of Christian people."

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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