Island Creek Baptist Church has seen a lot of change since it first met in an area courthouse in 1794 — but much of the history remains intact. Originally a community hub for area cotton farmers, the small but thriving Southern Baptist church now is surrounded by pine forest about six miles off of the highway from Milledgeville to Sparta.
The current building sits next to a modern Family Life Center and a fenced-in cemetery that holds the remains of at least one Revolutionary War soldier. In 2007, radar revealed graves as old as 1817.
Church historian Judy Hill has files filled with pictures and records that detail the church’s history — like handwritten church minutes from the 1800s, and a picture of a young woman being baptized in the 1970s. More records are archived at Mercer University in Macon, she said.
Like many of the church’s members, Hill and her husband, Barry, live on Lake Sinclair. The Hills moved to the area to retire in 2006 and Judy had the job of keeping records handed down to her. Hill sat recently in the Family Life Center, a 2007 addition, and talked about the church’s history.
“It used to be up the street. It actually was a courthouse up there. On the corner of Pecan Way and right here on Island Creek Church Road. We can’t even really find the cornerstones of that,” Hill said. “Then later, they came down the road and pretty much diagonally across the street, we had a little over an acre over there … That was used as a schoolhouse also and that burned. And then we came across the street, and then in 1842 bought an acre and three fourths.”
Church members built on the location in 1842, but tore down the structure and rebuilt in 1886. That building is still used for worship today. Hill explained that the church used the same pews from the late 1800s up until 2016 — and first added running water and bathrooms to the building in 1996.
Long-time members, husband and wife Johnny and Alice Smith, both 85, have seen a lot of the church’s history.
Johnny remembers being baptized in the church’s baptismal pool in 1969, while Alice’s membership goes back further to 1943.
“I was the clerk, secretary and treasurer for 24 1/2 years out there,” Johnny Smith said. “Alice lived out in that area. Her mama and daddy was baptized, they’ve got an outside pool down there. And when I come along, I was baptized in the outside pool.”
These days, the church baptizes in the indoor baptistry that was part of a 2013 addition to the sanctuary — or in the lake. But Smith would like to see the outdoor pool be put to use again.
“We’ve still got the pool, but the land has been sold. And we’ve got rights to it, but we want to clean it up and put a fence around it or something— restore it like it used to be,” Smith said.
The Smiths are among the few still attending with a long-time connection to the church. They remember when the church met just once a month— then twice a month. Now, Lake Sinclair, which sits about a mile away, has provided a boost that will keep the church going for years to come, they hope. The church has a weekly attendance of about 65 and more than 30 at Wednesday night Bible study and counted 142 in attendance at Homecoming recently, as it celebrated its 225th anniversary.
“In 1999 when we got a new pastor, Arthur Gunn. When Arthur came there in 1999, we had 13 people there that day. Now we have anywhere from 65 to 80 every Sunday. We’ve really grown, you know — Lake Sinclair crowd,” Smith said. “We’re real proud of it. Real proud of it — that it [came] back, cause we [were] afraid sooner or later, we were gonna have to close it, you know.
Gunn pastored the church until 2018 and has handed the reigns over to John Johnson.
Johnson, a retired pastor, said he didn’t expect to be filling the role when he moved to the lake and started attending Island Creek. But God opened a door and he’s optimistic about leading the church toward a future of reaching people for Christ while still appreciating the congregation’s rich history.
“We’re conservative in our theology, but we’re liberal in our love. Reaching today’s population— the world needs folks to love them,” Johnson said. “One of the things here at Island Creek is that any time anybody comes through those doors, they are welcome, they are loved, they don’t go away feeling like ‘nobody spoke to me, nobody talked to me.’ The congregation is just a great loving bunch.”