Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain (from Rev. 3:2)
On the evening of September 28, 1803, thirteen believers met at one of the homes of the Beech Branch community for the purpose of forming a charter under the leadership of the Reverend Henry Hand and John Ross. The nine men and four women, calling themselves the “Beech Branch Meeting House,” continued to congregate, and in 1804 asked for admission to the Hephzibah Baptist Association. The Association, “having found them of like faith and practice,” admitted the group as Beech Branch Baptist Church.
Under the inaugural leadership of Reverend Hand, the official membership grew to forty members by the close of 1804. In December of 1808 a committee was appointed to “find a place on which to build a new meeting house somewhere near Boggy Gut.” Two months later a ten-acre plot of land had been chosen “on the Savannah road near Squire Sapp’s,” and by March of 1810 a conference was held in the nearly completed building. At the conference, it was decided that the church should be called Sardis.
Despite suffering through times of diminished attendance, including a yearlong period between March 1823 and March 1824 when there were no meetings at all, the little congregation continued to grow. So much so, indeed, that by 1847 a movement to build a new meetinghouse was begun. The new building, the plans of which called for it to be built”60 x 40,” was completed in November of 1849.
By the time of the Civil War, the membership of Sardis Baptist Church had come to include a significant number of slaves. The slave membership was likely composed mostly of persons owned by the white slaveholders of the church, as it was customary for Slaves to attend church with their master as a part of his “family.” The slaves generally sat in a separate section of the sanctuary, usually in the rear, though this was not the case in all Baptist churches.
Still, it appears to have been the case at Sardis Church, where in 1866 the newly freed slaves voted to remain as a part of the church, but to continue meeting in their own space, electing Deacon Abner F. Graham as their pastor. The new arrangement did not last very long, however, and soon a number of the Black membership were given “letters of dismission [sic] to unite with a colored church of Brother Carter.” Just before the split, in 1867, the congregation saw fit to list its members separately by race for the first time, noting that of the total membership of 235, there were 105 white and 130 black members. By 1874 that membership had dwindled to 117, with 49 white and 68 black members.
About two miles from Sardis Baptist Church lay a small crossroads community known as “Frog Wallow.” The period around the turn of the century saw the further development of the Frog Wallow community, and its eventual renaming as Sardis, after the nearby Baptist Church. The completion of the Savannah and Atlanta railroad in 1911 connected the town of Sardis to a network that brought some growth and prosperity, and perhaps more importantly, allowed local farmers to transport their cotton to Savannah with much more ease and efficiency. The local boosters of the Sardis Land Company, who were busy planning the growth and expansion of the new town, also wanted houses of worship to accommodate the new residents they hoped to attract. Accordingly, Sardis Baptist Church decided to construct a new brick building in the town, and work on it was completed in 1949. The old structure remained for many years as an extra meetinghouse, and its location is now the site of the church cemetery.
In 1951, under the leadership of Reverend Troy Hollingsworth, the church voted to move to a full-time service, after nearly 150 years of sharing pastors with nearby congregations. The church prospered under the newfound regularity, and various improvements were made to the building. By 1971 Sardis Baptist boasted central heating and air conditioning, a large educational facility, a beautiful Sanctuary, and a newly renovated brick-veneer pastorium. All the more shocking, then, was the news on December 28th that an early evening fire had gutted the interior of the sanctuary and the two-story Sunday school rooms. The social hall and classrooms in the rear educational building were heavily damaged from smoke and water.
Amid cries of “what will we do?” and “how can we go on?” Reverend Hollingsworth was quoted in the local paper the next day saying, “with God’s help we will rebuild and will continue uninterrupted worship services at a place to be announced,” and that “we will only draw closer together and to God through this tragedy to continue His work.” Services were held at the nearby high school and Methodist church until a June 3, 1973 Homecoming Service marked the completion of the restored church building.
Since the rebuilding, we have been proud to expand our many programs and activities, but above all we are excited about this church’s continued passion for service and worship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our ministries have included halfway houses for addiction recovery, Kairos Prison ministry, “Brown Bag” food delivery for those in need, as well as youth ministries for the children of the community. Church members have served on the foreign mission field as well, with service in Sri Lanka, Honduras, Panama, Africa, Russia, and Germany.
Sardis Baptist church has been fertile ground for the ministry as well, and significant number of current and former members have been ordained. In recent memory, Sardis Baptist has ordained Floyd Jenkins (1937), sterling Bargeron (1942), Susan Bargeron (1998), and matt Shyrock (2001). Members, current and former, who have been ordained by other churches include Clayton Weathers (Antioch Baptist of Claxton, Ga, 1952), Roy Cates (Sardis Baptist of Rayle, Ga, 1980), and Maxwell Kennedy (Big Horse Baptist church, 1982).
At this 200-year milestone, the roughly 350 members of Sardis Baptist Church reflect upon the lessons and trials of the past, dedication themselves with renewed fervor to the ministry of Jesus Christ in Sardis, in this country, and around the world. Ever mindful of the great needs of the community, the present members of Sardis Baptist are moving forward in ministry through their relationship with Christ, with steadfast dedication to that truth upon which the Christian faith ever rests: that the radical love of Christ holds transformative power for every human being.