The Landscapes of Bartow’s Religious Heritage
Places Sacred and Sublime
Since the initial platform mounds were constructed at the Leake and Etowah Sites in the first century B.C., Bartow County’s Etowah Valley has represented a landscape replete with religious significance. From ancient Indian mounds followed by early pioneer convictions to Rev. Sam Jones’ Union Tabernacle revivals and rise of megachurches, the Etowah Valley has long stood as a central hub of religious activity and leadership in northwest Georgia.
Bartow’s Religious Overview
Located at the mineral-rich nexus of the Blue Ridge, Piedmont, and Valley and Ridge and representing one of the most fertile river valleys in southern Appalachia, the Etowah has been settled by a myriad of peoples who have sought to capitalize on its rich natural resources. These peoples brought with them distinct religious systems which compelled them to shape the Valley into intricate ritual landscapes which reflected their respective worldviews.
The Native peoples who first settled the Etowah Valley transformed the region into a sacred terrain marked by an impressive network of earthen mounds that placed the Valley at the center of a vast ceremonial world. Mound sites like Leake and Etowah acted as major pilgrimage centers which drew devotees from across the southeastern United States and from as far away as the Midwest. For more than a millennia and a half, Native peoples gathered in the Valley molding the land into a powerful complex of symbols of cosmic re-creation and renewal, burying their ancestors in these sacred precincts.
When the first European settlers began to penetrate the Etowah Valley in the early nineteenth century they brought with them creeds and traditions which had deep roots in the Old World religious developments. Missionaries sent by evangelical denominations such as the Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and Moravians competed for converts by establishing a web of mission stations among the local Cherokee. These mission stations typically consisted of a mission school, chapel, missionary dwelling, and several craftsman shops. Stations like Hightower, Oothcaloga, and Pine Log provided religious education and instruction in European craft and farming techniques. After the Cherokee Removal, white settlers began to flood into the region from various regions of Georgia as well as several surrounding southern states. In doing so they began to reshape the Valley into a distinctly southern Christian domain.
Among the most influential of these early religious pioneers was Rev. Charles Wallace Howard who played a formative role in shaping Bartow’s Presbyterian geography and educational institutions. Powerful cliques of progressively-minded Methodists and Baptists also moved into the area establishing thriving churches and playing a pivotal role in shaping the cultural and social institutions of the county. Deeply influenced by the reform movements arising out of the Second Great Awakening, this cadre of socially conscious coreligionists were instrumental in making Bartow County a major center of the temperance and denominational education movements. Through their diligent efforts they established the Cassville Female College and Cherokee Baptist College–the first chartered colleges to be established in the Georgia upcountry. They also founded the independent Cherokee Baptist Convention to take charge of the Baptist college, serve the congregations northwest of the Chattahoochee River, and promote the cause of Baptist education and missions
Accompanying these religious pioneers were scores of enslaved Africans, who brought with them the robust traditions of African-American Christianity. These traditions developed over generations of bondage and provided the enslaved with a system of religious symbols and meaning which not only helped them cope with their captivity, but also resist and overcome it. With some support from local white denominational leaders, these bound black/African pilgrims ordained their own preachers, built their own churches, and held religious meetings throughout the county. After the Civil War, the African-American religious topography expanded considerably. African Methodist Episcopal and Missionary Baptist freedmen established a series of congregations through the region. They also worked tirelessly to promote the cause of black religious education. The earliest and most important postbellum/Reconstruction champion of this cause was the Missionary Baptist pastor Rev. Jefferson Milner. Milner established the first day school (known as a sabbath school) for African-American children in the county in 1866. Sabbath schools were the first institutions charged with the promotion of black education in Bartow. They provided religious instruction and general education through a daily lesson system taught from a collection of sabbath school books. A circuit of seven sabbath schools was established by freedmen in the county. Through the efforts of former Confederate general William T. Wofford, fifty sabbath school libraries were obtained from the American Tract Society for Bartow’s black and white schools. Milner and his wife were charged with the responsibility of distributing these libraries among the freedmen sabbath schools.
After Reconstruction, Bartow County became one of the most important sites of Gilded Age revivalism in the Lower South. The Etowah Valley became the epicenter of the Third Great Awakening in North Georgia. This preeminence was largely due to the ministry career of renowned revivalist Rev. Samuel Porter Jones. Beginning in the mid-1880s Jones held regular revival meetings in Cartersville. These meetings drew thousands and placed Cartersville as a major stop on the revival circuit in Georgia. This prompted many local civic and business leaders to recognize the benefits of Cartersville becoming a preeminent revival center. In 1888, the city fathers granted Jones ten acres of land just west of town for the construction of his Sam Jones Union Tabernacle. Jones regularly hosted week-long annual revival meetings at the Tabernacle drawing thousands from all across the state. The largest Union Tabernacle Meeting hosted by Jones in Cartersville took place in 1906 and attracted as many as 20,000 people from at least nine neighboring states. After Jones’ death, his Union Tabernacle continued as a mecca of revivalism in Georgia for another thirty years. National revival figures like Bob Jones and Billy Sunday held numerous revivals at the Tabernacle, thus affirming Jones’ legacy and symbolically taking the mantle of the famed revivalist upon themselves.
Bartow County was also a significant hub of the postbellum world missions movement. In 1871 Lottie Moon along with her close friend and colleague Anna C. Safford moved to Cartersville to start the Cartersville Female High School, which they administered and taught for nearly two years.. Moon became an active member of the First Baptist Church of Cartersville and frequently ministered to the impoverished families of the county. Through the efforts of Rev. R.B. Headden, Moon finally decided to pursue a call to missions and was sent from First Baptist as a missionary to China in 1873. Throughout her career as a missionary, Moon challenged Southern Baptist women to establish their own mission societies for the promotion and aid of foreign missions. She also encouraged young women to answer the call to China. The women of First Baptist responded to Moon’s call by forming the Woman’s Missionary Society, the second organization of its kind to be founded in the state. The Woman’s Missionary Society would regularly take up a considerable collection to be sent to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board for the support of missionaries like Moon. Over her forty-year missionary career, Moon frequently admonished the Southern Baptist Convention to take a more active interest and role in foreign missions. Her efforts helped lay the foundation for the Southern Baptist Convention to become one of the primary missionary-sending organizations in the world. Accordingly, Moon ranks as one of most pivotal figures in the history of the women’s missionary movement and Southern Baptist foreign missions.
Bartow’s preeminence as a central hub of the late Victorian revival and missions movement was also accompanied by a profound increase in its significance as a hymnody center. Sam Jones’s national success as a revivalist and the construction of his Union Tabernacle in Cartersville marks the advent of the county’s gospel music legacy. Professor E.O. Excell was a major figure in the composition and publication of gospel music, who spent two decades as Sam Jones’ song leader for his revival meetings. Excel had the reputation of being the best song leader to travel the nation with a major evangelist during the Gilded Age. Over his career, Excell wrote and composed over 2,000 gospel hymns. He also published numerous hymnbooks, several of which he co-authored with Jones from music frequently used during his revivals. Excell regularly provided the music for the annual Sam Jones Union Tabernacle Meetings in Cartersville. His gospel solos and choir direction were often eagerly anticipated features of the meetings. Through Excell’s music ministry, gospel music spread in popularity throughout the county and became a cornerstone of Bartow’s musical heritage
With the rise in popularity of gospel music in the county came the formation of prominent gospel quartets. These quartets sang a form of gospel music known as southern gospel, which was distinguished by singing in four-part harmony and accompanied by a piano. Gospel singer and songwriter Leroy Abernathy began his musical career with his father’s gospel group–the Atco Quartet. Abernathy performed with the Atco Quartet from as early an age as five, frequently amazing listeners with his harmonizing ability. He is said to have often sung while standing on a Coca-Cola crate. The Atco Quartet achieved some considerable musical success recording two hits with Clarion Records in Atlanta in 1927: “Don’t Be Knocking” and “The Rich Young Ruler.” Yet, Abernathy would achieve his greatest success recording with the Homeland Harmony Quartet. In 1948, the group recorded the hit “”Everybody’s Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There” which became one of the best-selling gospel songs in history. Artists like Johnny Cash, Pat Boone, and Johnny Mathis would cover the song. Boone’s cover would even make it to number ten on the Billboard charts.
Bartow County has also been a major site of black gospel music. Rev. Robert Lewis “Jackey” Beavers was a pioneering figure of the Detroit soul music industry. With Johnny Bristol, he co-wrote “Someday We’ll Be Together” which Diana Ross and the Supremes would make a number one hit. Beaver would return to Cartersville in the 1970s continuing his education and becoming the minister of New Hope Baptist Church. He would also record several gospel albums such as The Inspired (1977), Refreshing (1986), and We Are God’s Children (1988) with Glory Records. One of his most popular hits was the song “Devil Stomp” which made #35 on the Cash Box gospel charts.
Other traditions that sprang out of the spread of the gospel music movement in Bartow County were the singing school and singing convention. Singing schools were short-term classes which provided instruction in singing basics, note reading, and song leading. They were principally centered on teaching beginners to read religious vocal music. These schools were led by itinerant songmasters and were taught at major rural centers such as a church or schoolhouse. They usually lasted between one and two weeks.
Shape-note, Sacred Harp, was often the most popular form of singing to be taught among these schools. Shape-note is a form of singing that is based on distinct musical notation in which a series of shapes correspond to specific musical notes such as fa, sol, la, and mi. Originally from New England, shape-note swept the South during the mid-nineteenth century becoming one of the most popular singing styles in the Victorian South. Among the most popular shape-note tunebooks were The Sacred Harp and The Southern Harmony.
Many singing schools were often dedicated to a particular tunebook. Singing schools were exceptionally popular with communities throughout Bartow from the 1870s onward. Several notable gospel songwriters and publishers such as A.J. Showalter taught singing schools throughout the county. These singing schools would often come together for local singing conventions
Singing conventions were communal gatherings for the purpose of religious singing. They often functioned as a form of mass congregational singing as well as venues in which local singing schools could perform. Singing conventions began to be held in the county during the 1870s with the Etowah Music Convention being the most prominent. Singing schools throughout the county would convene at locations like Stegall Station for a four day shape-note singing event. The Etowah convention was succeeded by the Bartow County Singing Convention in the 1880s and became a pillar of Bartow’s gospel singing legacy. As a major songmaster and shape-note publisher, A.J. Showalter was regularly elected to the position of president of the Bartow convention.
Moving into the twenty-first century, the Etowah Valley continues to be a region marked by large gatherings for religious worship. In the last decade, Bartow has become a major site for the megachurch movement in northwest Georgia. Congregations such as Crosspoint City Church, Church at Liberty Square, and Tabernacle Baptist Church regularly have an average weekly attendance of over 1700 worshippers.
Through a unique convergence of circumstances, the Etowah Valley has evolved as a major hub of religious activity and innovation for not only north Georgia but also much of the Lower South. The efforts of the Valley’s Native American, African-American, and European settlers have made it a major pilgrimage site, a prominent religious education center, an eminent base of the international missions movement, and as a mecca of gospel hymnody. As new families continue to move into Bartow County with their religious traditions, the Etowah Valley will continue to evolve as an important religious landscape marked by dynamic beliefs and practices.