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Johnny Vardeman: Flat Creek church sings 200 years of praise
Oakwood church thrives after rising from humble origins
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A 1914 photo of a singing school at Flat Creek Baptist Church. - photo by For The Times

Flat Creek Baptist Church near Oakwood, celebrating its 200th year, is at least as old as Hall County, which also celebrates its bicentennial this year.

Johnny_Vardeman
The church has a rich history that is tied into the history of the county. It includes Indians, prominent preachers, singing schools and a heavy emphasis on missions, yet when Lake Lanier began to rise in the 1950s, it faced an uncertain future. That was because Flat Creek Baptist was cut off from some of its members who had been crossing the Chattahoochee River to get to services.

The lake turned out to be a blessing as Flat Creek now sits on a peninsula, and new homes are sprouting all around. The church also is in a setting like few others, at the end of a paved road and surrounded by the scenic waters of Lake Lanier.

Cherokee Indians were among the first to be ministered to by the church, which was founded in an area along the Chattahoochee River inhabited by them. Indeed, the ancient cemetery beside the church contains several Indian graves inscribed with Cherokee script.

The Rev. Charles Jones, who pastored the church from 1991-99, is helping the present pastor, the Rev. Mike Taylor, research and present the church’s history. Already, posters depicting various facets of history are on display. A video is planned, and a book is in the making, though it might not be ready for next weekend’s homecoming celebrating Flat Creek’s 200 years.

The homecoming will be a two-hour event beginning at 10 a.m. May 20. Besides a message by Taylor, Jones will speak on the role of ministers in the church’s history. Special singing will include a welcoming back of anyone who has ever sung in the choir. A dinner-on-the-ground will follow services, and guided tours of the cemetery will be available.

Jones says the first 30 years of church history are missing. No written records could be found of the period between the church’s founding in 1818 and 1848. The founding pastor is believed to be Thomas Wilson. The Wilsons were significant in Hall County’s history, and the Flat Creek area was known as the Wilsons District.

Jones believes the church could have grown out of what were known as “preaching points,” at which itinerant preachers would come to certain locations to preach to whoever gathered there.

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An Indian tombstone in Flat Creek’s cemetery. - photo by For The Times
Many ministers served over the years, but the first full-time pastor was the Rev. Parks Whiting in 1952.

The present location of Flat Creek Baptist is the only one the church has ever had. Its proximity to the Chattahoochee River and the old Federal Road nearby, considered the interstate highway of that era, probably caused early settlers to put a church there. 

As for buildings, researchers don’t know much about early meeting houses. Flat Creek might have shared a school building in 1854, and records do show a church building was occupied in 1881. Two doors allowed women to sit on one side of the sanctuary, and the men on the other. The church was modified with a single front door in the 1930s, and men and women began to sit together.

As Lake Lanier rose in the mid-1950s, the only route to Flat Creek Baptist Church from the Oakwood area was a dirt field road. Some churchgoers previously only a mile or two away had to make a 17-mile round trip to get there after the lake came up. For years, worshipers would come by wagon or buggy. But now that access was cut off, the minister resigned, some members left, and a local newspaper suggested the church might die.

But Dr. James Merritt, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, stepped in as interim pastor, the membership rallied and refocused the church’s purpose. The Rev. Joe Vernon somewhat reluctantly followed him, but invigorated the church toward a more optimistic future. The community around the church began to grow, and the paving of Flat Creek Church Road, now simply Flat Creek Road, was expedited with members appealing to county commissioners.

When the church began to realize the need for a new sanctuary, plans were presented for a simple cinder block building. However, in keeping with members’ new attitude and the changing community, they instead went for a much finer building, which rose in 1966. 

It was a sad day when the 1881 building was torn down in 1964. At the last service during a revival, the minister chose not to have a benediction, and members walked out into the church yard with their eyes focused forward. They began to dismantle the old building the next day.

The church’s footprint has enlarged over the years. It bought adjacent property in 1993 and 1999. More educational space was added in the early 1970s, and an education and fellowship building was built in 1961. A gymnasium and other fellowship and educational areas were added in 2002. Today’s sanctuary, dedicated in 1966, has been remodeled and now seats about 275.

Services today are held Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday evening. To begin with, the church conducted services Saturday evening and Sunday morning the third weekend of the month. In 1947, it began services the first and third weekends, and weekly services began in 1953.

Flat Creek Baptist’s first recorded mission offering was $6.75, and it has been a steady contributor to missions, domestic and foreign, since. It has supported missionaries in Burma and Nigeria, in addition through the Chattahoochee Baptist Association. Part of its mission also has gone to education, through Baptist colleges and other educational endeavors. It was an early supporter of Chattahoochee High School in Clermont, which preceded public school systems in Hall County. 

Flat Creek was one of the founding churches of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association in 1826.

The church took up no offering until 1918, according to Jones’ research. Pastors would be paid once a year, church leaders going to individual members and asking for a contribution to pay them. The same was true when the church encountered other expenses.

Flat Creek had no electricity until 1939 after the federal Rural Electrification Administration brought it to rural areas. Plumbing was late in coming, too, with the first concrete restroom for women being built in 1956.

Singing has been a tradition in the church since its beginning. It has conducted singing schools, a group of members called the Sacred Singers gained widespread popularity in the 1920s, and its recordings are collectors’ items. They included some of the church’s mainstay families: Shelly Propes Mundy, Ben Propes, James Alexander Bagwell and James Marlow Propes.

The schools taught four-part shaped-note music. Eight members of a graded choir in 1952 are members of today’s church choir.

An outdoor baptistery was built in the early 1950s, and an indoor baptistery was provided later. Earlier, baptisms were conducted at Brown’s Bridge, Mud Creek, Flat Creek and Balus Creek, later in Lake Lanier.

Some former ministers are buried in the church cemetery. They have been doctors, farmers, businessmen, educators and Confederate veterans. The cemetery, besides Indians, contains many graves of prominent member families: the Propes, Bagwells, Mundys and Wilsons. Among them are Gwen and Ben Mundy, stalwarts of the church in modern times, especially in its music program. Shrubbery on both sides of the steps to the sanctuary are grown into the shape of crosses, an idea Ben Mundy promoted.

Other families important in the church’s history include the Millwoods, Couches, Cantrells, Crows and Iveys. Membership today numbers more than 625.

Jones was pastor when the church had a year-long 175th anniversary celebration. Services were conducted at the lakeside for several years. Members have been unified, he said, and instead of asking “why can’t we?” asked “why shouldn’t we?” in approaching new challenges.

Flat Creek Baptist Church 200th anniversary celebration

Where: 5504 Flat Creek Road, Gainesville

When: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. May 20

Contact: 770-532-0228

The Rev. Taylor, the present pastor, is enthusiastic as Flat Creek looks to the future. Two years ago it eliminated a $340,000 debt on building improvements and has rebuilt its financial base. It has expanded its missions outreach, contributing more money to cooperative programs, Chattahoochee Baptist Association and local ministries. Those include Good News at Noon, Gateway House, My Sister’s Place, Good Samaritan, In His Name in apartment complexes and local food banks.

Flat Creek also is helping start new churches and contributing volunteers and finances to other causes. 

In reviewing its history, Taylor said the church has looked at the big picture, asking itself “Who are we?” and what is its spiritual DNA. It has focused on four themes: worship and ministries, missions and outreach, discipleship/training and fellowship.

The pastor said the church will reach out to new developments in the area, which he counts as at least 1,000 houses within a five-mile radius the next few years.

“It is stunning,” Taylor said, “the reversal this church has accomplished within a generation.” Flat Creek Church came from trying to decide whether to continue services after Lake Lanier almost isolated it to where it is today, sitting on more than 6 acres with a $4.5 million, debt-free, church campus.

“The Lord has strategically placed us,” he said. “The stage is set for the future.”

Footnote: Two black couples, Jabah and Dilsey and Brother Larry and Nelly, no last names used, were taken off the church rolls in 1850 after being accused of harboring black “servants.” However, a month later, they were “forgiven” and readmitted to Flat Creek Baptist. Jones characterized the couples’ actions as a little “underground railroad,” a term used in those days for those who were helping slaves run away from their masters.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; e-mail.

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