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Johnny Vardeman: Many local churches have colorful stories to tell
Johnny Vardeman

It’s difficult to determine how long some churches have been holding services in Northeast Georgia.

It is particularly hard to name the oldest church in Hall County. Records are lost or nonexistent. For instance, some have said Indians formed the first Christian church in the area, but that can’t be substantiated.

T.H. Robertson many years ago wrote a history of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association, in which he said Hopewell Baptist at Candler in south Hall County was the oldest, having been constituted in 1807. A fire, however, destroyed official records. The Baptist Association is said to have originated there in 1826.

Sardis Baptist Church history has its starting date as 1800, but some of its records, too, were lost.

Harmony Hall also is among the oldest churches, said to have been organized in 1821. It is located on Mangum Mill Road in south Hall County.

Wahoo Baptist, originally in Hall County, but now in southern Lumpkin County, although it has a Murrayville address, was organized Oct. 31, 1819. It is often called the mother church of other churches, including First Baptist on Green Street in Gainesville and Concord in Clermont. Wahoo is located on Ga. 52 between Clermont and Dahlonega.

The Wahoo name is from an Indian chief, “Wauhoo.” The location of the church is a former Indian settlement called Big Wahoo. It is said to be the oldest church in what is now Lumpkin County, which itself wasn’t formed until 1832.

What is now First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville resulted from a reorganization of Presbyterians in the mid-1820s, according to a history by the late Barbara Webster. In 1829, the Gainesville church was listed as one of four Presbyterian churches by the Hopewell Presbytery. The others were Concord, Hickory Grove and Nazareth.

Ephraim Johnson is said to have been the first Methodist in Hall County and is credited with promoting Methodism in the area. He bought the old county courthouse for $150 and had it moved to a lot on South Bradford Street in 1834 for use as a church.

A story familiar to Methodists as well as followers of Hall County history is that the preacher who delivered the first Methodist sermon was run out of town on a rail. The incident occurred in 1831 when the courthouse was used by some churches for their services. The preacher was the Rev. W.J. Parks. Times changed within a short time, and the Rev. Parks’ son, the Rev. Harrel H. Parks, became pastor of First Methodist Church 19 years later.

Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, who lived in Gainesville the latter part of his life, had a role in St. Michael Catholic Church’s history. No Catholic church existed in Gainesville at the time of his death in 1904. However, his funeral was conducted by Catholic priests in Hall County Courthouse.

In 1910, his widow, Helen Longstreet, opened a room in her house on Green Street for monthly masses conducted by an Atlanta priest. Services continued in members’ homes until 1933 when the church was built on Spring Street. The church building, now used for offices, stands across from Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The present St. Michael’s is located on South Enota Drive.

The Green Street home, now owned by Winner Wellness Center, contains some evidence of Catholics’ use of the house downstairs. Jeanne Winner said what might have been an altar was removed during renovation and not returned. She said a niche in a wall might have been where an altar stood. Nevertheless, the house at 746 Green St. is historic two ways: as the Longstreet home and apparently the birthplace of the Catholic Church in Hall County.

Somewhere in China, a church bell from Gainesville might be calling worshippers to service. When First Baptist Church, now on Green Street, moved to the corner of Washington and Green downtown in 1909, it donated the bell from its previous church at Main and Church streets to the Rev. and Mrs. E.L. Morgan, missionaries for their church in China.

It is undetermined whether the church or the bell have survived the various wars and upheavals in China since then.

Lessie Smithgall, co-founder of The Times and counsel to this column, suggested that the columns should have an ending, such as “That’s all, folks” or something similar. For this particular column anyway, maybe “Amen” would be appropriate.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose column appears Sundays. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501;  e-mail.

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