When you head out to someplace with no particular route in mind – just a bit of a plan to head up through the mountains and see if there is any chance you can catch some color with the leaves turning in the fall – you never know what you are going to find. We are always on the lookout for something new, and we usually do find something – something good.
That’s generally how we find old churches – just wandering around looking. And that’s how we found High Shoals Baptist Church a good ways up the mountain above Amicalola Falls in Dawson County, Georgia. We’d taken a detour off the main road to check out the State Park at the falls since I absolutely love waterfalls and have taken many a detour to see them. I’ve had many adventures looking for waterfalls and maybe just a few “un-adventures” too.
We’d stopped at the main part of the park, looked around, and then headed on up to check out the overlook of the falls. Very nice.
Then, we just headed on up the road a piece. We lost pavement after a bit and were thinking about maybe turning back down the mountain and back towards civilization.
That’s when we saw the sign for the church. So, that was it…decision made. Now we absolutely had to keep going up the hill to find that church.
Silly me, thinking it would be just up the road from the sign. Never is. Turned out to be another mile and a half of bad pot-holed, washboard rough, used-to-be-graveled but ain’t no more, north Georgia dirt road.
We finally found the church in the middle of nowhere or, maybe from God’s perspective, in the place exactly where it is supposed to be. At first glance, it didn’t appear to be very old at all…. but it turns out that the building was new; the “church” is much older.
The church or congregation was established there in June 1879 by Samuel Roper and two deacons, Jonathon F.M. West and Samuel Harben.1
This area of Appalachia had been settled from about 1823 although I am sure the Cherokee were in the area long before that. Things went well at High Shoals and the settlers thrived until the 1930’s when the Government decided to create Chattahoochee National Forest. With the Government buying up (and maybe just taking) the land thereabouts, the congregation dwindled down… to few parishioners were left to support the church. The final service was held at High Shoals Baptist in 1934.1
Things went quiet at the old church for many years… no gospel singing, no scripture reading, no eloquent sermons, no altar calls… until the 1970’s when descendants of the original congregation began having “homecoming” services. The Reverend Billy Welch and Flem Vaughters got things going again and a new church building was erected in 1975. (The original building was a log cabin with dirt floors. There are no remains of this building today although the old cemetery remains from the early years.)1
The current church building has no electricity or running water. Propane gas lanterns are used for evening services and heaters in the winter. Water from a nearby spring is pumped in for the outhouses.2
The people came back. As of 2015, it was reported that there are about sixty members with services held on the 3rd and the 5th Sundays each month.2
Things are not so quiet at the church nowadays. The local paper, Dawson Community News, reported on a bit of an unusual occurrence at a revival service held in 2015.2 Seems a great big ole rattlesnake was there to greet the worshippers when they arrived:
“A [big] rattlesnake with 14 rattlers was right beside the front door,” said Harold Evans. “It about scared our visiting pastor to death. But he did give us all a fine sermon that night afterwards.”2
I can only imagine that particular sermon.
Pastor Evans further reported:
“We’ve seen bears, copperheads, rattlers. We’re not that concerned about them up there. We know they’re there.”2
In the country, I suppose you have to be prepared for just about everything.
We wandered around the church and into the cemetery. (We didn’t see any snakes, thankfully!) The Georgia Genealogy Cemetery site reports there are approximately 32 unmarked graves and 11 marked graves.3
Much to our delight, the church doors were unlocked, and we were able to look around inside. There were hymnals in the pews, cushions on the seats, and plenty of those “hand-powered cardboard fans” I remember so well from my childhood days in church.
On the upright piano in the corner the hymnal was opened to page number 479, “Amazing Grace”4
and nearby an old Bible was opened to the 23rd Psalm…..
all waiting and ready for the pastor to step right in and begin the next sermon.
It was all very beautiful, and we stopped together for a moment to pray before we continued on our way…a prayer of thankfulness and a hope that this church would continue to serve in God’s love and grace for many years to come.
Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel feet have trod, With its crystal tide forever Flowing by the throne of God?2
We’ve come to the river at last. Not just any river. I’m talking about the Jordan River. And I was ready – ready to be baptized in the same river where John the Baptist had baptized the Messiah – Jesus. I was so ready that I had planned my whole trip around that one event. From the time we booked the tour way back in January 2021 right up until the day we got on the plane in February 2022, I had told everybody who would listen that I was going to get baptized in the Jordan River. The Jordan River. It was going to happen.
It wouldn’t be my first baptism. Way back, maybe sixty years ago, I was baptized when I became a believer and joined Watkins Memorial Baptist Church somewhere in northwest Atlanta. Two things I cannot remember (how I wish that I had been smarter and had written it all down). I cannot remember the exact date and I cannot remember the exact location in Atlanta. I cannot find the church no matter how many times I’ve gone to Google and searched. I’ve heard that the name was changed to Oakdale Baptist shortly after mama & daddy moved on to start another church closer to our home…but I cannot find that name on the internet either.
So, old Watkins Memorial remains only in my memory now along with the memory of my getting baptized. This was back in the day before every church had a built-in baptismal and your friends and family had smart phones to record every minute of it. It was back when you got baptized in a creek or a river or a pond or some other natural waterway outside.
It was a creek for me – I wish I knew exactly which one. I know it was by Mrs. Bogazan’s house somewhere near Atlanta. I’m not even sure who Mrs. Bogazan was or even if there was a Mr. Bogazan. She wasn’t a member of our church that I recall. But her house and that creek is a clear picture in my mind – a beautiful place where I wished that I could live back then. The creek ran down through huge granite rocks and had been dammed up right by the house to form a pool – a swimming hole, I suppose, for the Bogazan family. This spot was used by several churches in the area for baptisms. (And, yes, it was a place I wanted to swim and play and explore every single time we were there, but I was never allowed because, of course, we were only there for baptisms, a sacred ritual and not there to play or wade and certainly no jumping off those big rocks into the pool.)
Being baptized in a creek was not particularly a choice on my part at that time. I was very young, maybe 10 years old. I hadn’t a clue that there were some churches that had indoor pools (heated, no less) or that some churches only sprinkled water on the head and that they didn’t actually immerse people completely in water during baptisms. Every denomination has its own traditions, but I didn’t know about any of them. I only knew this was how it was done by our church, and I knew that, when I walked the aisle and asked to be baptized, this was how it was going to be…. the “full dunk” as I’ve heard it called more recently.
I was baptized in Mrs. Bogazan’s creek by our pastor, Reverend Lamar Gentry. I think it was a lovely summer day. The church members were all there standing along the side of the creek with my mama & daddy, brothers & sisters. They all sang “Shall We Gather at the River”2 as they did at every baptism as we waded into the water. Preacher Gentry had on his church clothes – suit pants and white shirt minus the tie and the suit jacket. My dad might have been there to help, I don’t remember. Knowing him, he probably was… who’s gonna miss the baptism of one of his babies?
I would have been wearing one of my Sunday dresses…. probably just what I wore to church that morning. I think there were others getting baptized, but I cannot tell you who or how many. Afterwards, I was allowed to go into Mrs. Bogazan’s house for just a bit to change out of my wet clothes (we weren’t allowed near or in her house otherwise). It’s a good memory of a very special event for me but a faint one…. like an old blurry photograph that’s tattered and fading around the edges. If I ever got baptized again, I promised myself that I would write everything down and remember…. maybe even take some pictures.
And I was determined. We were going to Israel and going to be near the Jordan River, and I could not think of any good reason why I shouldn’t be baptized there. I am reminded of the eunuch in Acts 8:36 after Philip shared the gospel with him asking “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” Indeed, where there is water, there can be a baptism and, if Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, then all the more reason that I should be.
The River Jordan is just about 251 kilometers (155.3 miles) long flowing north to south right through the Jordan Rift Valley. The upper course flows from its source springs down to and through the Sea of Galilee. The lower course flows out of Galilee and through the Jordan Valley into the Dead Sea.
Source tributaries are the Hasbani River and the Lyyon Stream that flow out of Lebanon. The springs at Banias (read about Banias and Caesarea Philippi here) and the Dan River (Springs of Dan – future blog coming soon), both at the foot of Mount Hermon, are also major tributaries. Originally, these tributaries ran together to form swampy wetlands called Lake Hula. This lake no longer exists as the land is fertile and has been drained and cultivated for hundreds of years. From “Lake Hula”, the river drops steeply about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and flows into the Sea of Galilee. It leaves Galilee at the Degania Dam3 which is about 210 meters (688.97 feet) below sea level. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth at 422 meters (1384.5 feet) below sea level.1
Just below the Degania Dam at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee is the location called Yardenit where you can get baptized today. The Hebrew name for the Jordan is Nahar ha-Yarden – so it makes sense this baptism site is called Yardenit.1
The Hebrew concept of “living water”9 appeals to me. Water that flows naturally from springs in the land. Water that was used for purification and cleansing. Being baptized in a natural setting whether Mrs. Bogazan’s creek or the Jordan River, was, well…just perfect!
I had waited patiently through several days of touring and the day had finally arrived. I had asked and received permission for my husband (an ordained minister – retired) to baptize me. It was going to happen for me and for about 25 others on the tour. In the beginning, it was all pretty well orchestrated. We had planned ahead and wore our “baptizing clothes” – something that could get wet – and something that wouldn’t be transparent when it got wet. We waited in line by the entrance, paid our $20 per person, received a white linen shift, which we put on over our clothes. Then we all went down to sit and wait on stone benches by the water.
Drs. Mark Yarbrough6 and Stephen Bramer7 were officiating and had already been in the water to check things out by the time we got changed and down to the baptism site. Jerry and I took a seat at the end of the line and waited as the proceedings began. There was no singing of “Shall We Gather..”2 by the onlookers; I would have been too excited to notice it anyway. Dr. Bramer advised us that the water was cold this year as it was coming from the snowmelt on Mount Hermon and gave us instructions on how things would proceed. There was a handrail (the riverbed was slippery) and 7-8 people at a time would go into the river and wait in line for their turn to be baptized. As an individual was baptized and exited to the right, the line would be replenished with those waiting on the stone benches. We would be in the last group to enter the water.
Dr. Yarbrough prayed asking God’s blessings on the baptisms and then began. As each person was baptized, either Dr. Yarbrough or Dr. Bramer would ask them a question about their belief in God and Jesus. Most just answered “yes” and were then lowered into the water backwards with both men holding them. I thought about what I would say, how I would answer, when asked the question. Of course, I felt like I should say something more than “yes”. Ultimately, I decided that I should just try to be “in the moment” and that “yes” would be quite enough.
When we finally stepped into the water, it was freezing. I was shivering before I had taken more than three steps in. I was next to last in line. There were about six people in front of me including Jerry. Things moved quickly. Soon it was his turn and then it was mine. Dr. Bramer stepped to one side and Jerry moved into his spot. As I stepped into the now vacant spot between Dr. Yarbrough and Jerry, I was beyond nervous. I felt Dr. Yarbrough’s hand on my shoulders to help support me and I placed my hands on my chest; Jerry laid his hand over mine and then asked me,
“Joan, are you trusting in the finished work of Jesus on the cross as complete payment for your sins? Are you trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation?”
I am not sure where it came from as I had fully intended to just say “yes” just like I’d decided earlier but, in that moment, I answered, “with all my heart and soul”. Then, I was lowered into the river which was like ice water; I gasped as I came back up into the warm air.
Then I raised my hands to heaven. Yes! After all those months of dreaming about it, I had finally been baptized in the Jordan River. I could not have been happier. This memory and this feeling will be with me for a long time if not forever. (And I have written down the date this time – won’t be forgetting now.)
I was helped out of the river by Jerry and Dr. Bramer, and I turned for a moment to watch the last person being baptized.
Afterwards, we headed into a communal dressing room where everything was wet, and those white robes stuck to our bodies like glue. I thought I’d never get out of it and into dry clothes. But all too soon we were back on the bus and headed to the hotel. It was over way too quickly, and I was exhausted.
Did I need to be baptized a second time? Of course not. My salvation came when I believed. The baptism is just a way of telling the world that I do believe. I like how Dr. Andrew Farley8, from the Grace Message Church in Texas, explains it as being like a birthday celebration. You’ve been born of the spirit and you’re celebrating your “birth” day with all your friends in Christ. Indeed. I might even do it again in another fifty years or so.
“Yes, we’ll gather at the river, The beautiful, the beautiful river; Gather with the saints at the river That flows by the throne of God.”2
Sources for References and Additional Information About the Jordan River: