By Amy Wenk
The sky above was blue and clouds looked like puffs of cotton. The unassuming Brookhaven brick church, hidden on a narrow road among houses and railroad tracks, was ready for its special day.
On the hot Saturday morning, a simple white banner above the white doors of Nancy Creek Primitive Baptist Church, announced the “Annual Event” to its brethren.
Inside the two-room chapel, which has 20 wooden pews and no ornamentation or stained glass, were Primitive Baptist preachers from across the South. Each came June 26 with verses from the King James version of the Bible and lessons in mind.
Many preached with heavy Southern accents and voice inflections. One gave his sermon in English and Spanish so Hispanic churchgoers could understand.
“The Bible has the answers,” said Elder Donnie Halbgewachs, a pastor from Juarez, Mexico, who visited that day. Primitive Baptists take literal interpretations of the scripture. “It’s the message of God. It’s for your soul … This book is No. 1.”
Primitive Baptist churches are some of the oldest in the South. Worship began at the Nancy Creek Church, on 8th Street near Ashford Park, in 1824. Crossroads (Atlanta) Primitive Baptist Church on Mount Vernon Highway in Sandy Springs formed in 1870, making it one of the oldest buildings in the city, historian Kimberly Brigance of Heritage Sandy Springs said.
“The word primitive implies that it was the original,” said Elder Loyd Blair, a pastor at Crossroads for 20 years. He said the Baptist church split years ago but the Primitive Baptists continued to follow the original doctrines brought from England and Wales when the United States was forming.
Although membership is low (Most churches have less than 40 members and Crossroads has just 13.), Primitive Baptist churches are common in the South and are synonymous with rural life.
The small chapels often are hidden on country roads. Crossroads is housed on land that was the headquarters of Union Gen. William Sherman when he planned his approach for the Battle of Atlanta, Brigance said. “He did spend the night here.”
Many preachers are themselves children of Primitive preachers.
“I’m just an ‘ole country boy,” said Elder Tommy Patterson, a pastor from Waco, Ga. who wore a pressed white shirt and dark pants, a solid black John Wayne-style cowboy hat and a silver bolo tie to the Nancy Creek annual event.
When he led the group in prayer, Patterson knelt humbly at the altar. Behind it was a photo mural of a fall landscape with red, orange and yellow-leafed trees on the banks of a rushing river. “I see us preachers as an old rusty water pipe,” he said. “The message doesn’t come from us. It comes from God and flows through us like an old rusty water pipe.”
Blair and his 12 brothers and one sister were born near Tupelo, Miss.
“We were raised in farm country,” said Blair, whose father was a Primitive Baptist pastor for 58 years. The home was a stopping place for traveling preachers, Blair said. Female guests slept in the house to “cook around the clock” and male visitors stayed in the “huge cotton house” on the family’s land.
“We didn’t have a lot of money but we always had plenty to eat,” Blair said. “That was a good life. I wouldn’t have traded it for growing up anywhere in the world.”
Worship at a Primitive Baptist church is not complicated. Church service consists only of music, prayer and preaching. There is no Sunday school or nursery for children. Hymns are sung a cappella and families worship together. You’ll see couples in close embrace and mothers keeping young children quiet with coloring books.
“We just like it simple,” said Elder Royce Beal, pastor of Nancy Creek for almost 10 years. “It’s a sweet, simple service.”
Beal has brought diversity to the Nancy Creek church in his tenure by instituting an “open door” ministry, named for the verse in Colossians, “open unto us a door.”
“What we do in church is attempt to build up Christ,” Beal said. Members that have a need can pull freely from the church’s food and clothing closet located in the dining room. Churchgoers now are from several races and ethnicities: White, African-American, Hispanic, Filipino and Chinese.
“There’s so much excitement around the ministry [Beal’s] doing,” said Elder Marty Hoskins, a pastor from Dallas, Ga., who came to the Nancy Creek’s event. Having an interracial congregation is “fairly new to Primitive Baptists,” he said.
Whites and African-Americans worshipped together before the Civil War, but churches became segregated after the battle, Hoskins said.
Members of a Primitive Baptist church still address each other as “Brother” or “Sister,” Nancy Creek churchgoer Victor Halbgewachs said, “because we are brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“I just love the atmosphere here, just the love of brethren from one to another,” he said.
Another tradition is to wash feet during communion.
Primitive Baptists prefer to baptize outside. “I have gone into stock ponds nearly up to my knees to baptize,” Elder Harvey Fulmer, a former pastor at the Nancy Creek church for 16 years.
Elaine Halbgewachs, a Primitive Baptist for 40 years, said her favorite aspect of the religion is “the friendly spirit, the feeling of family.”
“It’s like you don’t ever meet a stranger,” she said.