FORT GAINES, Ga. (BP)–The Georgia woods have given up many of their secrets through the years — Civil War miniballs, cannons, belt buckles. But one of the strangest would have to be an in-ground baptistry that had been lost for most of the last century in rural Clay County.
The discovery was as much a surprise to the members of Mt. Gilead Baptist Church as to anyone in their small community near Fort Gaines in southwest Georgia. The existence of the baptismal pool had been lost in the mists of time as it lay under dirt and a layer of pine straw for nearly half of its life.
The story of the missing baptistry began to unfold on May 4 when members gathered in the woods across the street from the church, the oldest in the county, to clear the land for parking spaces. As members hacked at the underbrush, deacon and Clay County Sheriff Roger Shivers hit something with a backhoe that caught his attention.
Not exactly sure what he had hit — and recognizing it wasn’t going to move — he called fellow deacons Mike Hartley and Eugene Williams to bring their shovels and dig around the area.
Within a few minutes of removing the top layer of soil the men had identified a concrete structure 9 feet long and 5 feet wide. The men were at a total loss as to what they had found — and were somewhat apprehensive to continue digging.
“We didn’t know if it was a grave or a septic tank but we talked a little bit and decided to keep digging. After we had dug out enough of the dirt we discovered it was a baptismal pool,” Williams recounted.
Few members remembered the church ever having a place to baptize new believers. Margaret Lindsey, who has been a member since 1939, had never seen the baptismal pool.
But M.M. “Pap” Shivers, who says he was “practically born and raised in this church” and who attended a two-room schoolhouse which shared the property with the baptistry, now remembers playing in it “way back then, you know, how little chillun’ do when they have time on their hands. We didn’t know exactly what it was but, from the 1828 date inscribed in the concrete, it had been there 104 years when we were just little chillun.’
“I don’t know how long it had been since the waters had been stirred in baptism, but I will tell you one thing. My mother was baptized in 1933 in Hog Creek, down the road here a bit in the Pecan Community, so that will tell you that they weren’t using it then.”
After determining that the baptismal pool was in mint condition, the congregation restored the old tradition of holding baptisms in the ancient structure rather than in pastor Randy Stoke’s swimming pool.
A garden hose stretched across the two-lane blacktop highway from the church slowly fills the 4-foot-deep vault with 600 gallons of water. Even though the water is crystal-clear when the baptistry is filled, it becomes cloudy overnight as it begins to leach into the concrete.
The congregation has constructed a temporary cover for the baptistry, which keeps pine needles and animals out of the pool and prevents anyone from falling into it when not in use, church historian Pam Monfort said.
Stokes said in-ground baptismal pools are rare but there is one baptistry of similar dimensions located at an African American church in the county. The Mt. Gilead pool is believed to have been built with slave labor since its membership in its early days was largely comprised of wealthy landowners and slaves.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: TRADITION RENEWED and OUTDOOR IMMERSIONS.