What started as two old friends’ jaunts into the country to find old churches has turned into something worthy of any coffee table.
“Historic Rural Churches of Georgia” debuted late this summer. The book’s authors are Sonny Seals and George S. Hart, Atlantans whose two-lane travels have led them to catalog more than 100 old churches across the state.
The partial result of their road trips is a publication showcasing 47 houses of worship. They are located in the green folds of the mountains, in pine-dotted coastal forests and in forested tracts far from any interstate. The book focuses on churches from Banks to Wilkes counties — some still echoing with hymns, others silent.
It encompasses 388 pages and weighs 5.5 pounds — substantial enough, the authors hope, to win a place under the Christmas tree, beside the menorah or at other holiday celebrations where gifts are handed out.
The volume, with a forward by former President Jimmy Carter, costs $39.95.
Seals and Hart have been encouraged by the public’s reaction to the book. The University of Georgia Press has published 7,500 copies; nearly 2,000 have been sold. At a recent book signing at the Atlanta History Center, people lined up to buy their volume and learn how two guys with no experience in publishing became authors.
Neither can say, exactly. Seals is an executive recruiter, while Hart specializes in reusing old structures. As reported two years ago in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the friends suspected they’d stumbled onto something when they began a website (www.hrcga.org/splash/) showcasing the old churches. Photographers who learned about their project donated time and expertise, creating a stunning collection of images.
“We were surprised at the number of people who cared,” Seals said.
And continue caring. At last count, the “Rural Churches” Facebook page has generated nearly 45,000 likes; the website gets more than 30,000 visits monthly.
Hart recalled fielding a recent call from an Athens resident who’d just bought the book. “’What you’ve got,’” said Hart, quoting the caller, “‘is like a museum piece.’”
They’re all museums, structures reminding us of an earlier time.
Consider Hebron Presbyterian, the first church highlighted in the book. Organized in 1797, the church thrived in the northwestern corner of Georgia. It was where Scots-Irish gave praise to the deity who had delivered them to a strange new land.
The current structure was built in 1884. It is constructed of wood siding, is white, and stands among towering hardwoods. Worn obelisks and other stones remind passersby that the devout lived and died in that part of the state. Worshippers still gather there.
On the other side of the state stands Jerusalem Lutheran, also still in use. The church’s first pastors arrived in Savannah in 1734 along with others who’d left Europe for religious freedom. The congregation occupied a couple of churches before erecting a brick structure made from local clay. It was built between 1767 and 1769.
It is the oldest church building in Georgia. Some consider it the oldest public building in the state.
Other structures haven’t fared as well. Carswell Grove Baptist for years stood in the bend of a Jenkins County blacktop. A house of worship for former slaves, the original building burned in the aftermath of the Red Summer race riots of 1919. Churchgoers built another, a twin-steepled Gothic structure, on the ashes of the old.
Two years ago, it caught fire. All that’s left are some crumbling foundation blocks and concrete steps leading to nothing.
Other churches, say the authors, face the same peril as Carswell Grove Baptist. They hope their efforts will help preserve some of the buildings where people found the Lord — or, at least, kept Satan at arm’s length for an hour or.
The book is a historical gem, said Lisa Bayer, director of the UGA Press. Not long after learning about Seals’ and Hart’s website, she began thinking their efforts might be worthy of a book. She believes her instincts were right.
She also thinks the book is unique, “certainly the first for our state.”
Under her direction, the book included scholarly entries on the growth of religion in Georgia. What would have been a collection of pretty photos became a handsome account on the spread of faith in one of the 13 original Colonies.
“Historic Rural Churches” showcases history as well as early architectural styles, all the while stressing preservation. “It’s all reflected in this book,” she said. “We hope all … the libraries in Georgia will buy it.”
As do the authors. They’ve got more roads to travel, more churches to visit. Lord knows, maybe there’s a sequel in the works.
WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK
“Historic Rural Churches of Georgia” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other independent and online booksellers. It also is available directly from the University of Georgia Press. Visit www.ugapress.org or call 1-800-848-6224.