Little is known about the earliest beginnings of what is now the Sandersville United Methodist Church. The journal of Circuit Rider Lorenzo Dow for 1803 states that Sandersville had a “lively Methodist Society” although the record only speaks of his actually having preached in Davisboro. Dow is remembered as one of the most eccentric Methodist preachers to ever travel the circuit. Although it is unlikely that there was an actual church building in the early 1800’s, local tradition had it that there was at least an adequate place for the society to gather. Georgia remained in the South Carolina Conference until 1831when the new Georgia Conference was formed.
Other early Methodist churches and societies within Washington County are mentioned in the journal records of Francis Asbury. A journal entry dated December 3, 1801 places Asbury at Harris Meeting House, New Chapel, and William’s Creek the following day. According to local information, Matthew Harris served as a Methodist circuit rider for nearby counties as early as 1788. Quarterly meeting was held at New Hope on December 5, 1801. In December of 1803, Asbury again rides through Washington County to Matthew Harris’ home, preaching in New Chapel. He states in his journal:
"There are many hindrances to the work of God in this section of the county – some evitable, and some inevitable; amongst the first are Sabbath markets, rum, races, and rioting; of the latter may be enumerated, necessary business (so called); the sudden and severe changes, more peculiar to this southern climate, which affect people powerfully, and against which they have not the protection of warm dwellings – the houses are universally unfinished and open, and the churches and chapels are in no better state. My mind is kept in perfect peace, notwithstanding my daily labours, and my sufferings in exposure to night air, and day damps, and hard fare, and hard lodging.”
Francis Asbury made his last trip through our area in November of 1805 where he preached at Matthew Harris’. Asbury writes:
“I only lamented that I could not see my poor black sheep at Buffalo Creek; but was glad to hear that Ethiopia still stretched forth the hand of faith and prayer. I feel very serious about the supplies for the preachers for the South Carolina Conference: some are sick, some are settling in life – men of feeble minds. But let the Head of the Church see to his own work – it is not mine. Why should I despond? What was the work thirty-seven years ago, where there were but two local preachers – one in New York, and one in Maryland? Now there are two thousand local, and four hundred traveling preachers.”
The War of 1812 had a dampening effect on religious zeal and brought about a demoralization of values in general for about the next ten years. A period of financial prosperity contributed in turning thoughts toward temporal matters. But perhaps the most serious factor was that the Methodist itinerant ministry had lost a number of its strongest men and the replacements were new, relatively untrained, and in some instances lacking in native ability. Methodist Historian, George G. Smith, Jr., wrote that we are less informed concerning this period of time than any before or since. Even the newly established Methodist Magazine offered a scarcity of news of Georgia’s work.
The first official mention of our early congregation in Sandersville appears in the January 7, 1835 Conference Minutes which was held in Savannah. According to the minutes, in the Savannah District under leadership of Dr. Lovick Pierce, Presiding Elder, Sandersville first appears as a circuit. Daniel Bird and Francis V. McKee were assigned as preachers for our circuit. The circuit is described as a large one, including all of Laurens and Washington Counties with some 405 members. At that time our congregation was a part of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
George G. Smith, Jr. in his book, History of Methodism in Georgia and Florida, writes “The church in Sandersville was an ungainly building, without paint, blinds, or ceiling, and located on the outskirts of town.” In 1844, our congregation became part of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Miss Ella Mitchell in her 1924 book of county history writes the following story:
“Some time about the year 1856 four young men, all of whom were dressed in linen clothes as was the fashion of that day, attended services at the old Methodist Church. It was located on the hill in the City Cemetery on the old Milledgeville road. The building was old and dilapidated and the red dust had sifted through the cracks and covered the seats in the church, and when these four young men came out they discovered that their clean linen suits had become soiled from contact with the red dust. They began the agitation for the building of a new church, each making a contribution of $100, which was followed by contributions from others until a sufficient amount was raised for the building of the new church. None of these four young men were members of the Methodist church.”
The Rev. William J. Cotter who served our church from 1859-60 writes in his autobiography:
“Washington County contained many good people and some not so good. It could NOT be said that many of the old and best leaders of the Church remained at that time. The good board of faithful stewards were pretty well worn out. There was not a member of the Church that would respond when called upon to pray.
Another great question came up before me. The old church building was at a sharp fork of the roads, and every rain washed away some of the foundation, so that it was hardly safe to worship in. As our official board was almost worn out, Capt. Seaborn Jones, not a member, but one of the best men I have ever met and a safe adviser, was consulted about building. His influence was great, and what he said went. He said: “Yes, we ought to have a new church.” If he had said “No,” it would have been a setback. He suggested the name of Thomas Youngblood, the leading merchant of the place, and lawyer Beverly Evans. With these three men the enterprise was speedily accomplished. Where I looked for maybe twenty-five dollars, Youngblood brought up two hundred dollars. I was sent to another party from whom I expected twenty-five dollars and got one hundred and fifty dollars. Evan’s father-in-law, a wealthy Primitive Baptist, took the contract to build the church. A new site was selected and the building went up rapidly. The work was faithfully done, and soon it was ready for dedication. Rev. James B. Payne came and dedicated the church for us. Before the dedicatory prayer was offered I went down the aisle, and a wealthy bachelor whispered to me not to ask for any more money, that he would foot every bill. Before reaching the pulpit a member told me that he would give one hundred and fifty dollars. A beautiful chandelier had been presented by one who was not a member of our Church. We had already purchased a fine-toned bell that could be heard five miles. It was an undertaking most dreaded and the easiest accomplished.
A gracious revival followed the dedication service. After it closed we started a young men’s prayer meeting. It was not large and they were very timid. One of them who was to pray had his prayer written. When he took the paper from his pocket, it was heard (to shake) all over the church. Of course they were carefully charged not to criticize each other in any way. They afterwards became strong officials of the church.
That we built the church then was a great good. The old church could not have lasted much longer, and the people were soon stripped of their property by the war, so the new church would not have been built.”
The site selected for this new 1859 church building was the same property upon which our current facility is located. In 1861 the church in Sandersville is named as a Station.
In late November, 1864, General William T. Sherman and the Union Cavalry rode into Sandersville. Our preacher was the Rev. James Danelly Anthony. His son, Bascom Anthony recounts this story:
“I heard horses coming in a hurry. I ran out and saw several Yankee cavalrymen pursued by some of Wheeler’s men in a life and death race. They soon passed out of my sight but I guess they caught them, for when General Sherman got to town he wanted to burn it up because some of his men had been killed and buried in the pine thicket beyond the school house. I guess he would have done it but Pa was a Mason and General Sherman was a Mason, and lots of women and children in town had husbands who were Mason, so when Pa made a few signs at him and talked to him a while he compromised by burning only the public buildings, the Court House and jail.”
In 1867 our congregation of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South became a part of the newly formed South Georgia Conference. Early in the 20th century, the wooden, white-columned, Methodist church in Sandersville was sold to another congregation and moved away to another site. In 1902 the first permanent brick church was erected on the same site as the 1859 church under the pastorate of the Rev. John Morgan Outler. In 1934 an Education Building was added adjacent to the sanctuary.
On August 15, 1938, lightning struck the sanctuary and most of the building except the large southeast tower was destroyed by fire. The Rev. Marion Monroe Marshall was our pastor, but was also a practicing architect and contractor. Under his direction, the present sanctuary was erected, largely on the foundation of the old, and it was ready for use on Easter Sunday, 1939. The bell that was purchased for the 1859 church still hangs in the bell tower of our current sanctuary, a testimony to our heritage.
In 1940 our congregation became part of The Methodist Church, leaving behind the designations of Episcopal and South. In the mid 1960’s new buildings were added including an educational wing, chapel, offices, and fellowship hall. In 1968 our congregation became part of the United Methodist Church. Later in 1976, a comfortable parsonage was added which was first occupied by the Rev. Marshall Burns Willis and his family.
Through many meeting places and name changes, the spirit and faith of the people called Methodist in this area has remained strong. May God continue to bless our church as she seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ.