The centennial commemoration of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church

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Lengthy, spirit-filled sermons delivered to a fidgeting congregation, an exasperated preacher having no qualms about reprimanding a misbehaving child, a trio of bored teenage girls skipping communion to walk several miles to get a bottle of pop, nearby drug raids, river baptisms, and genuine miracles enliven a historic centennial profile of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church near Alapaha, Georgia. Photography by Wenda Gaile Bailey on January 11, 2013

Laverne Bennett, Ronald Bennett, Jeston “Jet” Connell, Jorden Flanders, Gene Gray, Jacquline Giddens, Annette Griner, and other friends convened on September 3, 2017, inside Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church’s fellowship hall to examine their memories. All agreed that Pleasant Hill, about three miles southwest of Alapaha, Georgia, on the paved Alapaha-Lenox Road, was commonly referred to as Harper Church for decades, a name which stuck due to the presence of Harper School on the premises.

Jimmy Flanders attended Harper School, where elder sister Polly Flanders regularly taught, along with some of the Paulk kids, Grays, Cribbs, and Vickers. James Cribb and wife Lottie Flanders were the last ones who lived in the school building.

Mary Elizabeth “Mamie” Hutchinson, the wife of Jimmy Flanders and mother of Dalpha Giddens and Wilma Jones, was the first individual laid to rest in the cemetery. She died at age 29 on February 4, 1920, only nine days after giving birth to Wilma. Jimmy and his family lived at the Paulk Place until he was 43 years old according to son Jorden.

Jorden’s father often met the train in Alapaha to pick up a preacher for church services. Bro. Olem Bennett caught the train on Saturday and returned on Sunday afternoon after venturing to Douglas or other far-flung locations to preach. When Charles Flanders entered the service he left his car in the care of Bro. Olem, who used it for traveling ministry purposes. Charles had several mischievous brothers and was rightly afraid they would destroy his prized possession while he was away.

The first preacher Jorden distinctly remembers is Archie Hendley. Bro. Archie’s 1932–1942 tenure witnessed record-shattering attendance according to the 88-year-old deacon, who would have been roughly three years old when Bro. Archie accepted leadership of Pleasant Hill. Folks would be backed all the way up the road parking anywhere they could. Bro. Jessie Exum filled in when Bro. Archie went fishing on Saturdays. Bro. Jessie apparently lived on the Hendley farm and was a convenient substitute whenever Bro. Archie’s angling obsession got the best of him.

Lengthy, spirit-filled sermons delivered to a fidgeting congregation sitting on uncomfortable benches were a common occurrence. So many folks desired to hear God’s word that Pleasant Hill was unable to hold them all, so latecomers would stand outside near the open windows. Bear in mind this was over half a century before a professional sound system was installed.

An exasperated preacher had no misgivings about calling a child or teenager out during a service if the guilty party was deemed to be talking or cutting up. Laverne was ordered to the front of the church by his dad [Bro. Olem] and admonished to sit on the piano stool while Carolyn Danforth was playing. Carolyn was so focused on hitting all the proper notes that she barely realized Laverne was on the bench until the hymn had finished.

Jorden revealed that a creek not far from the church was occasionally used for baptisms. As a young child Annette helplessly watched her first cousin Charlie Griner frolic around the edge of the Alapaha River during a baptizing and accidentally fall in.

The November 1962 baptism of five young men, including Bro. Jackie, Ronald, and Patrick Henry “P.H” Danforth, as well as the April 3, 2011, baptism of six men and women in the Alapaha River near Rowetown Church Cemetery brought much joy and nostalgia. The Rowetown location was substituted since drought had significantly reduced river levels at the frequently used “Wash Hole” baptismal spot about a mile east of Alapaha on Highway 82 near the property of the late Prentice Bracewell.

Annette’s mother visited the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home in Baxley and came home professing a strong desire to adopt a little red headed boy. Annette threw a tantrum and strongly insisted to her parents that she was the baby and didn’t want or need a brother. The adoption never took place, but Pleasant Hill nonetheless supports the orphanage to this day.

If an unfortunate soul was struck with an illness in the community, a person was dispatched on horse, foot, or whatever transportation was available to encourage neighbors to pray ceaselessly. Many times people would drop what they were doing and journey to the afflicted individual’s abode. Traces of melancholy emerged when remembering members who had already departed this world for a flawless mansion in Heaven.

According to church lore many years ago a special prayer service was called on account of a debilitating drought. A gentleman rode up on his horse, took his saddle off, and placed it under the front of the church. He had enough faith to expect it to be raining when the congregation was dismissed — and it was.

In 1987 a young man was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Pleasant Hill and many other local churches banded together in prayer, the Lord miraculously intervened, and that young man is now a healthy, contented grandparent.

Before the Sunday school rooms were commissioned in 1973, adults would meet in the sanctuary, some would converge out by Deacon Lawson Giddens’ flat-bed truck if it was not too chilly or rainy, while others preferred various other locations or vehicles.

Polly Flanders taught the little ones on a bench placed along the outside wall facing the Alapaha-Lenox Road. Always carrying a handkerchief with a coin tied at the bottom of it, Polly would unfold the hanky and give all the little kids a perfect tea cake or sometimes a stick of sweet juicy fruit gum.

Sunday school teacher Dalpha Giddens always gave her older students a box of chocolate covered cherries each Christmas — undoubtedly a major treat. Dalpha’s younger sister Wilma Jones was in charge of crafting all the plays for church and Sunday school rallies. As Wilma approached retirement status, she handed many of her responsibilities over to Sylvia Luke Roberts, whose father Paul Luke served as a deacon and was coincidentally born the same year [April 3] as both Bro. Olem [November 29] and Pleasant Hill [December 9]. Wilma was especially tireless in her efforts to secure costumes for the plays. During one Sunday school rally at the Alapaha Gym the children wore crepe paper costumes and pretended they were flowers. Sylvia never failed to wish she could just throw up all those annoying butterflies before walking onstage.

For a Christmas play which Mary Stone had borrowed from a friend, a young boy had a multitude of lines to deliver. When his favorite uncle died the night before the play’s debut, the heartbroken, albeit brave little boy insisted that he would not miss the play or let down his castmates. And you know what — he was true to his word.

During Christmases past, Santa Claus would magically appear and supply fresh apples and oranges to all the kids who were not hiding under the seats or trying to warm themselves beside an old potbellied stove that was the church’s only source of heat.

Diane Shearer and Sharon Anderson, the only children born to the late Felton Jones and Wilma Flanders, vividly recall our madcap Easter egg hunts. If eggs couldn’t be hidden outside, arrangements were hastily altered to conceal them inside. The annual tradition is forever appreciated.

Savvy Sylvia constantly spotted then-little Edwin Harper cruising all the appetizing dishes spread upon the wire table stretched under the noble oak trees in front of the church. Edwin was determined to be first in line to choose just what he wanted to eat.

Sylvia also overheard a very young boy, mature enough to make his own plate in the fellowship hall, brag to an older boy as they chose their favorites, “My mom makes good ham, yam patties, frozen grapes, and coconut cake.” And a portly “dumpling man” clad in overalls from the Rowetown Church community always arrived just in time for biannual big lunch meetings.

In the early 1960s Sharon, Diane, and Sylvia decided they didn’t wanna remain at church on a Sunday afternoon while the members participated in communion after a long week of revival. The bored, resourceful teenagers convinced their parents to let them proceed on foot to Diane and Sharon’s red brick house on North Fletcher Street in Alapaha.

So walk they did…they walked and walked and walked for what seemed like an eternity on a sweltering South Georgia day. They made it four miles into the city limits, deciding to stop and take a breather at the first store they encountered — a quaint block building on the left side of Highway 129 before you get to the Alapaha Church of God — to ask if manager Leo Purvis might give them a Coca-Cola on credit until the next day. Nobody had any money on them. Leo complied with their request and had a big laugh about their odyssey.

Refreshed after their brief sojourn, Sharon, Diane, and Sylvia determinedly trekked another mile and a half to the Jones’ residence, astonishingly beating their parents back home. Next time communion occurred, the fiercely independent girls wisely borrowed Felton’s snazzy, cherry red Ford Falcon pickup truck and avoided any sweating.

When 72-year-old dependable auto-diesel mechanic Clark “Pud” Giddens was laid to rest after suffering a myriad of heart problems on December 20, 2001, a drug raid actually went down a stone’s throw north of the cemetery in a since-burned, silver roofed mobile home.

Returning later that afternoon to view the bountiful floral arrangements, Pud’s elder sibling Lois Bush, then a nimble 84 years young, excitedly whispered to sister and influential Pleasant Hill alto Thelma Luke that she knew exactly what was about to happen and that they needed to take cover as she saw drug raids being depicted all the time on long-running reality series COPS. Ultimately neither one hit the deck since Lois’s trendy black high heels might have gotten scuffed up. Considering that Pud was a former Alapaha Police Chief, the carefully orchestrated sting operation served as a fitting send-off.

Saluting the Founding Eleven

All Those Years Ago: A Timeline

Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church was established on December 9, 1917, with founding members:

  1. James Wilson Conner
  2. Pearlie Sutton Conner
  3. Andrew Jackson “A.J.” Cribb
  4. Mary Elizabeth “M.E.” Harvey Cribb
  5. Annie Martha Eunice Futch
  6. Charles Luther “Charlie” Flanders
  7. Linnie Rowe Flanders
  8. James Wesley “Jimmy” Flanders
  9. Lottie Flanders Cribb
  10. Mary Elizabeth “Mamie” Hutchinson
  11. Polly Flanders

As excerpted from the original minutes, “We the following named members have this day covenanted together to keep house for God and keep up a gospel minister at this place for the advancement of his kingdom and cause.

“After preaching by Bro. E. V. Rowan and L. J. Knight, we were duly organized into a church to be known as Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. The presbytery consisted of the following: Bryant Roberts, Archie Hendley, W. F. Kent, E. V. Rowan, L. J. Knight, and Elias Ray.”

After dinner on the grounds, the group reassembled with a sermon by L. J. Knight and then conducted an ordination service of Bros. Charlie Flanders and James Wilson Conner as deacons. After prayers and laying on of hands, a charge was given to deacons and an admonition was offered by Bro. Bryant Roberts. The meeting adjourned in order.

Curiously, in vintage documents the name was officially designated Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. However, both parishioners and locals referred to it as Harper Church for many years due to the church being situated on the same property as the Harper School. The congregation met in the school until a church could be sufficiently constructed.

Saturday, February 9, 1918

  • The church met for the purpose of appointing a building committee. Bros. Andrew Jackson Cribb and Charlie Flanders accepted the nomination.

Saturday, April 13, 1918

  • The building committee reported that framing for the church was hauled and ready to be erected. Thursday, April 16, was appointed as the work day for the framing.

Sunday, June 9, 1918

  • The church set their yearly meeting as Friday and Saturday before the second Sunday in September.

Friday, September 6, 1918

  • The church voted to be a part of the Mell Baptist Association, and Bro. James Wilson Conner was appointed as a delegate to the association.

Sunday, September 8, 1918

  • The Lord’s Supper was observed.

Saturday, June 7, 1919

  • Pleasant Hill voted to host a revival. Saturday before the second Sunday in August was selected to be the revival’s starting date.

Saturday, September 13, 1919

  • Andrew Jackson Cribb and Jimmy Flanders volunteered to attend the annual association. One dollar and a half was approved to be sent to the association for minutes and clerk hire, five dollars was approved to be sent to the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home in Baxley, and one dollar was set aside for state missions. Rev. E. S. Ray was chosen as pastor of Pleasant Hill Church for the coming year.

Saturday, June 12, 1920

  • A revival meeting was set for the second Sunday in July with revival running however long the church wished.

Sunday, December 11, 1921

  • A letter from Riverside Church was read in conference regarding a new association. Riverside requested that Pleasant Hill send a delegate to represent their affairs at a meeting regarding the new association. Bro. James Wilson Conner was appointed delegate.

Saturday, February 11, 1922

  • A letter from Bro. Andrew Jackson and Sis. Mary Elizabeth Cribb was read in conference asking for privilege to be absent from the church for a while. The request was put before the church and approved. Pleasant Hill requested they attend as often as possible.

Sunday, December 14, 1930

  • Pleasant Hill gathered for the last service of the year. Money was awfully tight, so members collected $10 worth of food — canned peaches and pears and vegetables in big glass Mason jars, cured sides of meat or sausage from smokehouses, pecans, peanuts — whatever the congregation could spare to be delivered to the orphans’ home.

April 10, 1932

  • Sunday school was organized at Pleasant Hill by future Bank of Alapaha President J. P. Culpepper who was concerned about the welfare of area youth. Elected Sunday school officers were Superintendent T. F. Vickers, Assistant Superintendent J. C. Strippling, Secretary and Treasurer Mary Lee Cribb, Adult Teacher T. J. Pope, Intermediate Teacher Byron Paulk, Junior Teacher Mrs. T. R. Vickers, and Card Teacher Mrs. Byron Paulk.

February 18, 1933

  • Smack dab in the throes of the Great Depression, a vintage Sunday school report certified that $0.23 cents was collected from 27 class members consisting of officers, teachers, visitors, and members. Sunday school was cancelled the previous Sunday on account of snowfall.

September 10, 1933

  • Byron Paulk and Jimmy Flanders were ordained as deacons. Pleasant Hill voted to hold services twice a month on second Sunday and Saturday before.

October 13, 1934

  • The church voted to withdraw from the Mell Baptist Association and be a part of the old Original Smyrna Association. Earlier that March the offering for Reverend Archie Hendley totaled scarcely $1.45.

January 13, 1935

  • Members voted to rebuild the church with a committee appointed as follows to oversee the project — Byron Paulk, Jimmy Flanders, and J. C. Corbitt.

August 8, 1948

  • Donations were requested to assist in painting church and securing a new piano. Church body was grateful for the $54.00 raised. Dinner was served on the grounds.

June 10, 1951

  • Donations to paint the church were again requested and $17.00 was raised. A committee was approved to collect produce for the orphan’s home.

October 13, 1956

  • A discussion was held regarding the installation of gas heaters.

October 10, 1957

  • Painting the church’s tin roof was brought up.

November 8, 1958

  • More discussion on installing gas heaters occupied the proceedings.

April 8, 1961

  • The church approved the purchase of a gas tank from Tri-County Gas.

November 11, 1962

  • Jackie Connell, who has served as our blessed pastor for a combined 30 years and counting, along with P.H. Danforth, Ronald Bennett, Clark “Pud” Giddens, and Ray Griner, all accepted Christ as their personal Savior on this incredible morning.

December 8, 1962

  • Pleasant Hill voted to hold services on 4th Sunday as well as 2nd Sunday.

November 9, 1963

  • A committee was appointed to investigate new church benches.

December 7, 1963

  • The purchase of new benches was again discussed and ultimately approved. A committee made up of P.H. Danforth, Felton Jones, Homer Connell, and Lawson Giddens was appointed to visit Mr. Powell in Nashville about building the benches with an estimated cost between $800 — $900. The previously used benches were sold to Bethel Church.

January 14, 1967

  • Members joined forces to work on the shelter and tables behind the church.

June 10, 1967

  • Pleasant Hill debated purchasing new fans for the sanctuary.

June 8, 1968

  • Pleasant Hill further explored whether it was feasible to install ceiling fans.

December 7, 1968

  • New lights — and assumedly fans — were installed.

October 11, 1969

  • Renovating the inner sanctuary received discussion.

November 7, 1970

  • Church renovation was negotiated with members tasked with contacting building contractor Bro. Martin Kent.

October 8, 1971

  • Work on the benches was discussed. Members voted to insulate and treat the church for termites.

October 7, 1972

  • The prospect of new bathrooms was relayed during conference.

February 10, 1973

  • Bids were obtained on the new bathrooms at $4,200.

June 9, 1973

  • The possibility of building new Sunday school rooms / bathrooms and screening the shelter was noted in conference.

November 9, 1974

  • Updating the sanctuary carpet was explored in conversation.

December 7, 1974

  • Carpet was ordered.

February 22, 1975

  • Roger Burdette was contracted to lay the recently purchased carpet.

April 13, 1975

  • During the Sunday evening service, assistant clerk Carolyn Danforth perceptibly noted, “Bro. Jackie took the stand after songs and prayers, made a few humble and heart-warming remarks, and then it seemed everyone’s cup began to run over. Bro. Jackie asked for testimonies. With the spirit of God all around us, many in the congregation began to testify, and the evening service turned into a glorious testimonial service. Dismissed by an altar prayer, we remained at the church for about an hour, talking and fellowshipping one with another.”

April 27, 1975

  • Once the Sunday evening service was dismissed with prayer, Carolyn recorded, “We were fellowshipping outside when a weary traveler came on the grounds of the church and asked for financial help. Since no one knew him, just as no one knew Joseph and Mary when they went to the inn seeking a room, there was some wondering, but through the love of God, an offering of $46 was given to him.”

June 7, 1975

  • The church discussed purchasing central heating and air.

June 22, 1975

  • The church voted to install central heating and air.

August 10, 1975

  • Pleasant Hill voted to conduct services each Sunday.

December 13, 1975

  • Members voted to open a building account at Bank of Alapaha with Paul Luke and Lawson Giddens designated as account signers.

August 14, 1977

  • Obtaining a brand new piano was mentioned.

September 11, 1977

  • Taylor Piano of Douglas was chosen to install a new $1,500 piano with the church to pay installments after paying $500 down.

December 9, 1978

  • Digging a well was discussed.

January 13, 1979

  • It was noted in the minutes that a new well had indeed been dug.

April 7, 1979

  • New pews were discussed along with renovation of the church. Building a fellowship hall was talked about with a proposed cost of $50,000 to $60,000.

November 10, 1979

  • A committee was appointed to look into new pews. It was noted in the minutes that $4,555 had been donated toward pews as of January 6, 1979. The project was approved but not to exceed $6,358.64 with East Side Church of God in Nashville purchasing the old pews for $1,000.

June 13, 1981

  • A steeple for the church was discussed.

August 8, 1981

  • A steeple was approved at $1,505.

December 12, 1981

  • Bricking the church and assembling a fellowship hall was discussed.

February 13, 1982

  • After ample deliberation, a majority of members voted to move forward with bricking the church and building a fellowship hall.

August 29, 1982

  • On the exact same day when Wayman Giddens and Vickey Gray’s eldest child Brandon was born, the congregation met for the dedication of a newly bricked church and a new fellowship hall.

February 11, 1984

  • The church voted to build a storage building.

April 11, 1987

  • The cemetery was surveyed by Roy Hogan at no charge to the church.

May 7, 1988

  • Pleasant Hill started having conference on second Sunday nights rather than second Saturday nights.

June 11, 1995

  • Cabinets were endorsed for the fellowship hall.

September 14, 1997

  • Stained glass windows and a state of the art sound system were given precedence.

December 14, 1997

  • The church voted to purchase stained glass windows.

August 30, 1998

  • Vinyl was installed on the church’s exterior portions. A ramp and carport were built on the side of Pleasant Hill facing the cemetery for an approximate cost of between $7,000 to $8,000.

February 13, 2000

  • The Church voted to proceed with a sound system at a cost of $5,371.98.

October 10, 2004

  • Members elected to install a new metal roof on the church.

February 12, 2006

  • The church made plans for building an enclosed sunroom onto the fellowship hall.

January 13, 2008

  • Members set in motion plans to construct new bathrooms and a new foyer to the front of the church at an approximate cost of $20,000. New lights were also hung in the newly painted sanctuary during this renovation.

October 14, 2012

  • A new deep well was approved by the church to be dug by Keith Thompson costing $5,700.

2013 — present

  • Descendants of the church’s founding families still actively attend worship services. The towering, venerable oak trees are gone, wire is no longer stretched between the trees, but the gospel continues to be dutifully preached by Bro. Jackie, Sunday school draws a modest but dedicated following, donations are sent to the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, Christmas plays illustrate Jesus’s humble Bethlehem birth, and Easter egg hunts are enjoyed by the young and young at heart.

Pastors

1917–1920: E. S. Ray

1920–1921: R. F. Kersey

1921–1924: L. J. Knight

1924–1931: A. N. Hammond

1931–1932: W. H. Jones

1932–1942: A. H. “Archie” Hendley

1942–1944: T. N. Cady

1944–1946: Jessie Exum

1946–1947: Felton Gaskins

1947–1957: Olem Bennett

1957–1959: Glendon Nix

1959–1960: John Futch

1960–1963: Walter Vining

1963–1965: Raymond Griner

1965–1969: Glendon Nix

1969–1971: John Futch

1971–1980: Jackie Connell

1980–1986: Joe Lee

1986–1991: Olem Bennett

1991–1996: Freddie Stone

1996 — present: Jackie Connell

Deacons

1917: Charlie Flanders

1917: J. W. Conners

1933: J. C. Corbitt

1933: Joe Peacock

1933: Byron Paulk

1933: James W. Flanders

1949: Lawson Giddens

1955: Paul Luke

1962: Luther Gray

1974: Felton Jones

1974: Terrell Roberts

1980: Jorden Flanders

1988: Jeston Connell

2002: Julian Giddens

2003: Ferrell Herring

2016: Ed Giddens

Clerks

1917–1929: James W. Flanders

1929–1931: John Harrell

1931–1933: J. Hendley

1933–1934: James W. Flanders

1934–1942: Marcus W. Griner

1942–1945: Olem Bennett

1945–1947: Alson Wetherington

1947–1949: Wilma Jones

1949–1958; Felton Jones

1958–1961: Luther Gray

1961–1969: Julian Giddens

1969–1972: Laverne Bennett

1972–1974: Dean Williams

1974–1980: P. H. Danforth

1980–1994: Dalpha Giddens

1994–2003: Colleen Bracewell

2003–2016: Martha Ann Vickers

2016 — present: Colleen Bracewell

© Jeremy Roberts and Sylvia Roberts, 2017, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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