Carswell Grove Baptist

Jenkins County
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Org 1867|
Photography by John Kirkland

Founded in 1867, Carswell Grove Baptist Church is one of the oldest churches in Jenkins County. In 1867 the church was located in Burke County. Members of the church left Big Buckhead Baptist Church after the Civil War and formed their own church, first meeting under a brush arbor until their church building was erected in 1870. The land for the church was donated by Judge Porter W. Carswell of Burke County and the church was named in his honor. The church is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture and was erected in 1919 after the original church was burned. The contrast between Carswell Grove Baptist and Big Buckhead Baptist is remarkable in many ways, including the size and capacity of the structures. The churches are located only several hundred yards apart, but the contrast in cultural history is significant. Big Buckhead was constituted in 1774 by early white settlers who became some of the wealthiest planters in Georgia. Like all pre Civil War churches, the whites and blacks worshiped in the same sanctuaries and were segregated either by a slave gallery loft in the rear of the church or, in this case, by separate pews. After the Civil War trauma, the blacks began to form their own churches, oft times with the aid of wealthy white landowners such as Judge Porter Carswell. Carswell Grove prospered mightily and became one of the largest black congregations in Georgia. In 1919, there were over a thousand members in this remote rural location in the Georgia back country. However, the year 1919 brought trouble, violence and heartache to Jenkins County in the form of race riots that began on the grounds of the Carswell Grove church and ultimately spread across the land in what became known as the “Red Summer”. The particulars of the racial troubles have been well documented in a book, Red Summer, written by Cameron McWhirter and available at traditional retailers. The original church was burned in the aftermath of the riot and the present church was rebuilt on the ashes. Unfortunately, over time a familar theme was played out. The once thriving rural congregation began to dwindle until there were only 30 members of the church and no money available to maintain such a large structure. The church then built a much smaller church that is located beside the magnificent but faded original cathedral. There is good news, however. The church has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a local effort is underway to restore the structure. Mr. Palmer Lewis is a 4th generation member of Carswell Grove and is leading the effort. According to Mr. Lewis, “Judge Carswell also provided financial support for the church until his death, and that tradition has continued through his son and now his granddaughter”. The local unit of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans has also been very supportive of restoration efforts as well as the county historical society. Also, in 1995, the church was awarded two Georgia Heritage 2000 grants by the Historic Preservation Divison of Georgia DNR totaling $30,500 which was used to stabilize the church and replace the roof, sills and rafters. Without this effort, Carswell Grove would not be standing. We salute the majesty of Carswell Grove and we look forward to her restoration.

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