TENNILLE — A walk to the baptistry is usually only a few short feet for most new believers these days. But in many older Georgia Baptist churches, it can mean a hike outside the church to an in-ground, spring-fed baptistry.
For some, the church’s original location was determined by the location of a nearby river or spring. As the congregation became more affluent and indoor plumbing, also known as “running water,” became a symbol of affluence the old ways gave way to the new. Carpet and padded pews followed. Then, air-conditioning. Out went the organ and in came the electronic keyboard, drums and guitars. And now, dramatic lighting and screens to replace hymnals.
Since the denomination’s founding in 1845, all churches began much the same way. They were agrarian in nature, frequently surrounded by cotton or tobacco fields.
Ohoopee Baptist Church, founded in 1792 a little more than an hour southwest of Augusta, is one of those small, historic congregations that maintain that tradition … not because they are against inside baptistries but just because if they have a perfectly good one, why spend money on another?
Paul Melton, who has faithfully served the Washington County flock for the last 20 of his 78 years, knows small churches well.
“I have nothing against larger churches but I just feel more at home in a church the size of Ohoopee. We have 57 members and average about 30 to 35 in Sunday morning attendance.
“It just seems that you get closer to each other when you are a small group.”
Melton, who was born in Hardwick near Milledgeville, has been bivocational his entire ministry. He was ordained in 1963, retired from a government job in 1992, but kept his love for small churches and their love for Christ, their community, and each other.
When he was pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church in Cochran the church still baptized in a nearby pond, but at a recent homecoming he noticed the sanctuary sported a new baptistry. And heated, as well.
It’s even older, founded in 1792 and still has the baptistry it inherited when it moved into a former Primitive Baptist Church in 1902.
“I understand that the church didn’t have plumbing until the 1960s so an indoor baptistry was not a pressing need. It seems that until then a very influential deacon strongly opposed ‘running water’ in the church house,” he notes with a soft chuckle.
But as that generation gave way to the new, the desire for an indoor baptistry never became an issue … even when they installed indoor plumbing.
“I guess they just figured that if they have one that works perfectly well, why spend money on another one?” he says with a smile in his eyes.
“They seemed to have been happy with what they had, and that’s what we still use today.”
Even if that spring water does get a little chilly now and then.