By Amy Wenk
Situated on a quiet hill off Powers Ferry Road near Roswell Road in Buckhead, Sardis United Methodist is a quaint church rich in history. Having survived the Civil War, a cyclone and a split membership, it is the home of the longest sustained congregation in Atlanta.
“They can trace a congregation dating back to 1812,” said the Rev. Edward “Ted” Keen, who has been pastor at Sardis for four years. “It was Native American territory at the time — the Creek Indians, I am told. The settlers came in and looked for a place they could worship.”
According to an Atlanta Journal and Constitution article from April 1961, a log cabin was built on the land after Sy Donaldson fought and drove away the resident Indians. In 1825 — once the land was deeded — the state of Georgia granted to Joel Neal “Land Lot 97,” where Sardis Church and its cemetery were located.
“There are some gravestones at the church in the cemetery that date back to 1825,” said Keen, adding that unmarked graves there could be even older.
Among those buried in the cemetery is Henry Irby. It is widely rumored that Irby killed a large deer and hung it outside his tavern near what is now the intersection of Peachtree and Roswell roads, giving Buckhead its name. Another notable person buried in the Sardis cemetery is Napoleon Chesire, who laid out the street that bears his name. Also, there are descendents of the pioneers who built the first church, including the Tumlins, Rolanders, Bryants and Cooks.
In 1859 — a few years after Fulton County was created from De-Kalb — the second Sardis Church, a two-story wooden structure, was constructed to replace the original log cabin. In 1864, during the Civil War, Gen. William Sherman destroyed most of Atlanta. Sardis was spared, only to be destroyed by a cyclone in 1875. The Sardis cemetery also suffered much damage from that storm.
The church was rebuilt shortly after with assistance from a Masonic lodge, which held meetings on the second floor.
The current brick structure was erected in 1927.
George M. Spruill was a principal creator of the brick edifice, although the basement was dug out by hand by female convicts from the Fulton County Public Works Camp.
The longevity of the church, Keen said, is the result of several “good loyalties.”
“They built St. John [Methodist] Church on Mount Paran Road nearly 50 years ago, in the 1960s,” he said. “A large number of people went down there, but there were still a handful of families who wanted to worship in this building.”
At the time, about 90 percent of the congregation went to St. John. The remaining members raised the funds to buy the Sardis church so they could keep worshipping on the premises.
Today, about 40 people attend service each Sunday. The church has a total membership of around 75. The congregation enjoys close, intimate relationships, Keen said, and often gives back to the community.
“We are an affiliated church with the Buckhead Christian Ministries, and we support them financially, as well as with volunteers,” he said. “We do food drives from time to time.”
By far the church’s most popular endeavor is a live Nativity scene, which draws several hundred people in December.
“It is the biggest thing we do,” Keen said. “It takes a great deal of our energy. There are few other churches in the area our size that pulls off a live Nativity. It’s been a real success.”
In addition, Sardis often offers the sanctuary and grounds for public use. Artists rent out the buildings behind the church for studio space, and a reading program is held inside each weekday for children. The church also hosts around 15 weddings a year.
“Oftentimes during the summer, we have a variety of music programs here at the church,” Keen added. “Our music director here operates a group she calls the Grant Park Summer Singers, and they do a recital in August.”
All in all, Sardis United Methodist remains a warm, country church, as it has been since 1812.