RAYLE – Sardis Baptist Church, under the pastoral leadership of Jim Newsome, celebrated 230 years of ministry in the spring and had an emphasis called, “Great Day in the Morning” on Oct. 21. The church was founded in 1788 as Hutton’s Fork Baptist Church and became the first church that Jesse Mercer would pastor.
Newsome stated, “To the best of my knowledge, Sardis was started in the home of Washington First Baptist member, Vannie Spratlin. Mercer was not only the church’s first pastor, but Hutton’s Fork (Sardis) was his first pastorate.”
Jesse Mercer became a prominent Baptist pastor, philanthropist, and publisher during his lifetime. He focused much of his attention on promoting cooperation among Baptists in antebellum Georgia. He became a strong advocate of education for pastors and ultimately helped found and support Mercer University. He served as the first president of its board of trustees.
Mercer was a delegate to Georgia’s constitutional convention in 1798, and actually wrote a significant part of Georgia’s constitution guaranteeing religious liberty to the state’s citizens. He made a run for the state senate in 1816 but was unsuccessful.
In 1833 he purchased The Christian Index, formerly The Columbian Star and moved the newspaper from Washington, D. C. to Washington, Georgia, and later to Penfield and in 1840 gave the publication to the Georgia Baptist Convention.
The Washington/Rayle section of East Georgia is rich in history and has had several notable citizens in addition to Mercer. E.M. Bounds, a godly pastor, author, and man of prayer, was born in Missouri in 1835, but came to Washington by way of Eufaula, Alabama where he met his first wife, Emmie. His second wife, Harriett, was her cousin, and both of them were from Wilkes County. Bounds is buried in the Resthaven Cemetery in Washington.
David Smithers has written about Bound’s life and declares, “After forty-six years of faithful ministry he still was virtually unknown. Out of the eight classics on prayer he wrote, only two were published during his lifetime. Though hidden and unrecognized while alive, E. M. Bounds is now considered by most evangelicals as the most prolific and fervent author on the subject of prayer.”
Jim Newsome has a compelling monologue that he presents at Bound’s graveside on occasion. It is delivered as if Bounds has come back from eternity to share with those who visit the cemetery.
Newsome explained, “It is nine minutes long and shares his life from Shelby County, Missouri, his chaplaincy with the Confederate Army, his pastorate in the First United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and his move to Washington.
“Then I go into his devotional time, from 4:00 to 7:00 o’clock each morning, how God revealed to him what He wants him to do. I also share how he is often not accepted by his fellow pastors. I share some of the quotes from his books and emphasize the importance of his prayer time and the effectiveness of his prayers. According to Bounds prayer demands time, calmness, and deliberation.”
Homer L. Grice is another notable Wilkes County legend that every Baptist should know. He was pastor of First Baptist Church in Washington from 1915 to 1924, introduced Vacation Bible School to the church, and became the first VBS director for the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) of the Southern Baptist Convention introducing the concept to churches all across the nation.
Newsome, himself, is another Wilkes County notable. He was born in the area, left to get his education before becoming the pastor of the prestigious First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, Florida.
He explained why he returned to Wilkes County and became pastor of Sardis Baptist Church, saying, “While I was pastor in Vero Beach I experienced open heart surgery and discovered that I was not able to keep up all the evening meetings. Twenty-five years earlier, after being at the church 5 1/2 years I thought I needed to begin to look for another church, when an almost audible voice said. ‘Did I not tell you when to come down here, and I am able to tell you when it is time to move again.’
“After being in Vero Beach for almost 31 years God impressed upon my heart that it was time to move again. I had inherited my parents farm and always wanted to come home. I had only thought of supply preaching, but while talking with Rev. Albert Huyck (who had just retired from First Baptist in Washington), about why he had taken a church full time, he said that it was for his own peace of mind.
“He helped me to realize that when you go from church to church, you never know what they expect from you, whereas with one church, it is far less complicated. I will also reveal this secret: In Vero I had 36 deacons and we met for two to three hours, and at Sardis I have six deacons— It is almost like being in heaven.”
Johnny Foster, pastor of East Cobb Baptist Church in Marietta and his wife, Judy, provided the music for the special day and it was greatly appreciated by the congregation of Sardis and the senior editor of The Christian Index, who preached the message.
And the meal that followed – well, it included fried chicken, fresh vegetables, and a variety of desserts, a fitting conclusion to a what really turned out to be a “Great Day in the Morning.”