Historical connections: a Georgia Baptist pioneer comes home

Elisha Perryman slider
After morning worship, lunch in the fellowship hall, and a short ceremony, Andy Perryman and Keith Claxton lead a procession that included “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes to the cemetery. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

WRENS — Andy Perryman, associational missions strategist for Georgia Baptist Association, knew his ministerial roots ran deep. But on Sept. 30 he had the chance to be part of something solidifying his connection to that past.

The marker for Elisha Perryman’s grave stood in the woods of McDuffie County for 158 years before it was restored and moved to the cemetery of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church. Perryman served as the church’s first pastor when it was established in 1850. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

Elisha Perryman, Andy’s great-great-grandfather counts among the founders of what came to be the Georgia Baptist Convention. For decades during the 1800s he began several churches and traveled as a circuit preacher for numerous other congregations. Contemporaries include Jesse Mercer, first president of the Georgia Baptist Convention and editor of The Christian Index from 1833-40, and Abraham Marshall, who founded more churches in Georgia than anyone, including the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention, First Baptist in Augusta.

Andy Perryman had known about his great-great-grandfather, but a conversation with a relative led him to do some more digging. That led to a secluded patch of woods in McDuffie County, and ultimately, a solemn ceremony in the cemetery of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church.

A road starts

“My Aunt Jewell introduced me to a book written by him,” said Andy over homecoming dinner in the Mt. Horeb Baptist Church Fellowship Hall Sept. 30. Elisha started Mt. Horeb, located near Wrens in Jefferson County, in 1850 and served as its first pastor. Other area churches started by him include Reedy Creek and Mt. Pleasant, added Andy’s wife, Joni.

The road to finding Elisha Perryman’s grave and moving it involved the efforts of both Andy and Joni Perryman. In her 30th year as an educator, Joni currently teaches 8th grade Georgia history at Warren County Middle School. So, Andy had a resource in his own home before the search even began.

“Until around two years ago there was a section in the Georgia standards for teachers where you taught about Baptist and Methodist denominations in the state,” Joni said. “I taught about historical figures such as John and Charles Wesley. But, I also brought Elisha’s story into my classrooms.”

Much of her information came from the only book on Elisha, written as an autobiography in first person form by a friend of Elisha’s based off the latter’s personal notes. Available only online, A Sketch of the Life, Labors, and Adventures of Elder Elisha Perryman gives a glimpse into ministry life on the Georgia frontier in the 1800s.

Writings from Elisha Perryman

Elisha didn’t come from a family of ministers. His ancestors came from Wales, but eventually found their way to Halifax County, Va. The Revolutionary War drove them further south, where they settled down on Big Kiokee Creek in Richmond County, according to Elisha’s own writings.

Longtime Georgia Baptist denominational leader Leonard Dupree, who serves Mt. Horeb as interim pastor, was “instrumental” in helping Elisha Perryman’s remains be moved to Mt. Horeb, said Andy Perryman. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

First content to be a farmer, A Sketch of the Life … nevertheless describes a deep, inner turmoil in Elisha. Dealing with his own sin he sought out hearing from different ministers. But, his situation grew worse. One morning he informed his wife he was going to plow and wouldn’t be back for breakfast. Then, according to his book …

While I was thus in deep distress, all of a sudden, about the middle of the day, something, like a flash of lightning came all in me and around me; and I had such a view of the fulness (sic) and beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the worth of his pardoning mercy and love to a poor sinner like me, that I broke out in a great cry of joy and praise. I immediately took out my horse and went to the house as quick as I could, and told me dear wife what had happened to me.

After talking to his wife, Elisha immediately traveled to Marshall, then pastor at Kiokee Baptist Church nearby, to tell of the event. Later on in his book, Elisha recounts another event upon preaching with a friend named George Franklin near Savannah “at the house of a man named Parker.”

The meeting lasted until late at night, and several of the congregation remained in the house, as well as ourselves. Just after we had laid down, and before the lights were out, the earth began to shake very powerfully, when some of the dear young people jumped out of their beds, and run all in a tremble to Franklin and myself, and cried out for us to pray for them.

The man in the woods

Andy and Joni Perryman’s journey of around 12 years eventually brought them to a lonely road in McDuffie County. According to information they’d gathered, somewhere off to the right in the woods a couple hundred yards or so stood a four-foot tall marker for Elisha Perryman’s grave.

Tim Batchelor, association missions strategist for Hephizibah Baptist Association in which Mt. Horeb Baptist is located, offers a prayer at the close of the service. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

“We got as close as we could to it in the car,” Joni recollected. “Andy went out to try and find it. Meanwhile, I kept seeing these trucks going to the top of the hill and turning left. When he came back and said he couldn’t find it I suggested we go ask those people.”

The land, it turned out, was owned by a hunting club. Those cars belonged to members getting together for a cookout. The couple drove up and explained what they were doing to the hunters and if they knew where to find Elisha Perryman.

“Oh yeah, I just talked to that man last week,” one of them said.

Homecoming at Mt. Horeb

For years Elisha’s marker had been known among club members. One in particular like to walk by and have short conversations with it. It was he who walked Andy directly to the small clearing where the marker, darkened by time and nature, stood. It would have been easy to miss. Andy was in the general area but never would have seen it without the help.

Members of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church serenade the homecoming crowd. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

Homecoming services at Mt. Horeb on the last Sunday in September looked a lot like others. Morning worship included special music by an outside group with a message from a guest preacher, in this case Andy. Lunch followed where you eat as much, if not more, dessert than the main meal.

From there it looked a little different. Guests and church members reconvened in the sanctuary for a few more words, this time about Elisha Perryman. Among them were Keith Claxton, Aunt Jewell’s son who, like many others in the family, are in the ministry.

Soon, a procession that included “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes began from the sanctuary out to the cemetery. Green tents from Lowe’s funeral home, owned by friend and Warren Baptist Church member Paul Lowe who oversaw the monument’s transition, stood just to the side of the marker.

A call to end strong

Speaking to the crowd, Andy pointed out his great-great-grandfather’s involvement in the Georgia Baptist Association, where he now serves.

Andy Perryman, at left standing next to his cousin Keith Claxton, speaks at the final ceremony for Elisha Perryman. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

He shared Elisha’s notes on having traveled over 120,000 miles on horseback to present the Gospel. Andy pointed out Elisha’s role as an original member of the General Baptist Association for the State of Georgia founded in 1822, today called the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

“It is my prayer that we will end as strong as he did in 1857,” Andy preached. “He organized three churches and led countless others to Jesus. That’s pretty good footsteps to follow, I’d say.

“We’re not here for a committal service. He’s been celebrating for over 160 years with his Lord and Savior. We’re here simply to give honor to the life and adventures of Elder Elisha Perryman.

“Let all of us go and do likewise.”