See Rock Branch Baptist Church Testimony 1871-1988, by Jerry D. Bingham.
Many of the immigrants from Elbert County, Georgia settled in the Rock Branch Community. Some of the families who settled in this northeastern part of the county were Reynolds, McMullans, Clearmans, Mathews, Castles, Gilberts, Lairds, Harrises, Jones, Thames, Taylors and Clevelands.2
These faithful pioneers felt the need to hear the gospel preached because they were reared with the privilege of the gospel. Ministers were always encouraged to stop by the community and feed the people’s hungry souls with God’s precious Holy Word. To aid in this endeavor, a building was erected for the public’s convenience, though it was primitive in construction and doubled as a school as well as a place for worship.
Rock Branch Baptist Church was established in an economy that was beginning to rebound from the tragic results of the Civil War. Rock Branch was established as a church on December 30, 1871, approximately two miles southeast of Union. From the original pages of the now yellowed, ragged and laced together minute book, the testimony of Rock Branch Baptist Church’s beginning is found:
We whose names are hereunto subscribed being regularly ordained ministers of the gospel of Christ of the order and denomination of regular Baptist so hereby certify that we did this day at the request of sundry brethren and sisters of the same faith and order convened at this place of worship county and state above named to take into consideration the propriety of constituting said brethren and sisters into church relations. Thus convened a sermon was preached by Brother Nathan L. Clark after which the letters recommendatory of the applicants for constitution were called for when the following brethren and sisters present letters in order viz Francis S. Smith, deacon, and wife Eliza Smith; John B. Abney, deacon, and wife Lucy M. C. Abney; John Leverett and wife Marth Leverett, John I Cleaveland and wife Sallie E. Cleaveland, John W. Butler and wife Elizabeth E. Butler, all certified to the satisfaction of ministers and members present in all 10 in member who upon examination were found sound in faith and it appearing to our minds that these brethren and sisters were orderly and orthodox and members sufficient to keep house for God and otherwise in a destitute condition it was hence expedient that they be organized into a regular church, do all things and enjoy all privileges that the church of Christ may do and enjoy under the name and style of Rock Branch regular Baptist church on the abstract of faith of the Mt. Pisgah Association.
Nathan L. Clark
Once the church was established, property was secured to carry out its functions. On March 28, 1872, the trustees of Rock Branch Baptist Church purchased from F. S. and Eliza Smith, for an unknown amount, approximately two acres of land for the purpose of a Baptist church, school house, and burying ground. The building uses were designated for singing societies and for preaching by other evangelical denominations when it did not conflict with the Baptist services. According to the Deed of Trust, the trustees were John B. Abney, I. H. Cleveland, and W. A. Taylor, because they had the desire to promote the religious, moral, and educational interest in the neighborhood and community. The Deed of Trust also stated that no denomination should have the right to constitute or organize a church except the Baptist church. In August of 1891, the church passed a motion to forbid the holding of an election or political meeting of any kind in the church.
The Church Covenant was written at their first organizational meeting. Eleven commitments were made to the Lord and the church body.
The first business meeting known as a “conference” was held on Saturday, December 30, 1871. Rev. N. L. Clarke was chosen as Moderator Protem and J. M. Moore as Clerk Protem. The decision to name the newly organized church Rock Branch was the first order of the conference. The second order was the choice of a pastor for the year of 1872, and resulted in the calling of James M. Moore. The decision to meet on the first Sunday and Saturday before each month was the third order of the conference. The fourth order selected F. S. Smith and J. B. Abney to officiate as deacons and also selected Mr. Abney to act as church clerk. The fifth and last action was to hold communion quarterly beginning with the first month in the year.
On the first Sunday service, at the conclusion of service, the doors of the church were opened to receive members. Sister Martha L. Cleveland was received by letter as the church’s first member.
Morality and good standing within the church was required at Rock Branch. A high regard for church discipline was carried out during each conference meeting when church references were called for. During this time the known immorality of members came before the church for disciplinary action. In November of 1874 a man was excluded from the church after the disciplinary committee found him guilty of the unchristian conduct of falsehood and leaving the county without paying his debts. Another disciplinary action in March 1877 resulted in forgiving a man for the unchristian conduct of dancing. Forgiveness was also granted to a man brought before the church after he acknowledged the sin of betting and promised to quit. On August 10, 1878, a man was forgiven by the church after he confessed to breaking the Sabbath by working. In 1885 the church fellowship was withdrawn from a man after the committee found him guilty of disorderly and unchristian conduct and of using profane language. One of the largest undertakings of the church during a reference was dealing with a marriage case. In the summer of 1887 the Church called for peace in the church and found it was not in peace because a young member was charged with violating her marriage vow and quitting her husband without cause. The marriage was reconciled a month later after members from three sister churches were called in to serve as a council. The council consisted of three members from Decatur Baptist Church, three from Pinckney Church, and two members from the Beulah Baptist Church. After the council met with the young couple, the couple agreed to forgive each other and bear with one another in the church while living in peace in the community. In 1888, the church forgave a man for fighting, though the committee handling the case could not persuade him to confess to the matter before the church. In 1891, another morality case resulted in withdrawing church fellowship from two men guilty of public intoxication. In 1909, the church withdrew fellowship from a female member because of departing from the faith.
At the end of the first year, the church had 24 members. Rock Branch’s membership has fluctuated because of the changing times. In 1988 the church had 58 resident members and 28 nonresident members, making a total of 86 members.
On February 12, 1958, the church voted for a full time ministry. The motion was made by Nuell Butts and seconded by Champ Luke.
Mrs. Orie Smith stated, “In 1912, the church voted to use the organ in services. It had been bought for the Sunday School only.: Later a piano was purchased. In 1912, the church passed a motion by Rev. W. H. Rainer to adopt the new Evangel as a songbook for the church. In 1933, a committee of women was appointed to raise money for new songbooks. This committee is believed to be the first female committee of the church, and included: Edith Cleveland, Lola Cleveland, Irma Viverette, Myrtle Cleveland, Odessa Nicholson, and Bessie Nicholson.
As early as 1887, the church conference minutes state that the deacons were granted liberty to use church funds to purchase wine for communion purposes. It is believed that this wine was a nonalcoholic beverage and is a scriptural expression relating to the cup used by Christ. When supplies were not purchased for the observance of the Lord’s Supper, some of the church members made the needed supplies. When Mrs. Callie Henry Cook Cleveland was a member of Rock Branch Baptist Church, she prepared the bread. She sectioned the unleavened bread into bite-size squares by imprinting the dough with a knife before cooking it. Once baked, the bread was prepared for the pastor to break up into bite size pieces to be placed in trays for distribution. Mr. James Burton Cleveland made the grape juice from his home vineyard to be used as the wine. A single cup of wine passed from member to member as they partook of the Lord’s Supper.
The first Ordinance of Baptism was observed after Rock Branch held their first protracted meeting (revival). Eight professions of faith were made during the five day meeting. The baptism service was held on August 7, 1872, with the following candidates: Lee W. Smith, Tabitha I. Smith, Martha A. O. Abney, Mildred L. Abney, Ibra H. Cleaveland, Piety Cleaveland, Emma C. A. Reanes, and Sarah E. James. Baptisms were held in local bonds.
Mrs. Irene Loper remembers being baptized in 1923 in Rock Branch below the hill just west of the church, near the bridge. To this day, during normal summer weather, the creek is just a small stream of water. For this reason, prior to the date of baptism, some of the men would dam up the creek until it collected enough water for a baptism pool. The following day the dam would be knocked down and Rock Branch would once again be back to normal.
Foot washing was added in 1876, after a motion made by H. W. Laird, as one of Rock Branch’s ordinances, though there is no written record as to whether it was ever practiced.
Mr. C. M. Cleveland, in June 1936, donated to the church two wooden, turned offering plates to take the place of passing the hat. At one time all the eggs laid on Sunday were sold by the women with the proceeds given to the church.
A petition letter for Mt. Pisgah Association membership was delivered at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Newton, Mississippi, on Saturday before the third Lord’s Day in September 1872. The delegates from Rock Branch who were elected to deliver the petition were F. S. Smith and John I. Cleveland, with John B. Abney as alternate delegate. Rock Branch, with a membership of twenty four, became a member of the Mt. Pisgah Association in September 1872. Around 1922, Rock Branch called for its letter from Mt. Pisgah Association and joined the Newton County Baptist Association.
During 1935, supplies for the Baptist Orphan Home were gathered by an appointed committee composed of H. L. Laird, Mrs. E. A. Cleveland, W. L. Heflin, and Mary Ellen Cleveland. They donated to the building fund for Clarke College. During World War II, Mr. Holcomb Nicholson recommended that the church send copies of the “Baptist Record” to armed service members of Rock Branch. The church agreed. An offering was taken in 1974 to help rebuilt Mt. Nebo Baptist Church after it was destroyed by fire. When Pinckney Baptist Church parsonage was destroyed by fire in 1978, the church collected an offering of $50 for that church’s pastor. In 1979, the church sent an offering to aid flood victims in Jackson. The church has an annual mission project of handing out fruit baskets to shut-ins.
The Women’s Missionary Society was organized in 1959. The holding of Vacation Bible School is mentioned as far back as 1953.
The sacred position behind the pulpit at Rock Branch has been filled by many men called by God. Some of the early ministers are:
Nathan L. Clark, who organized the church in 1871
Rock Branch has licensed and ordained many preachers to the gospel ministry. The first was James M. Kelly in 1872. Others are Ruben Cleveland, 1890; and W. T. Collins, 1897. The first written record of anyone holding a deacon position is found in the first minutes of the church conference, when Francis S. Smith and John B. Abney were asked to serve as Rock Branch’s deacons. Other deacons have been: W. H. Laird, 1874; W. B. F. Adams and B. Miller, 1882; J. B. Cleveland and S. S. James, 1892; F. S. Smith, 1912; Arch Laird and E. A. Cleveland, 1934; Champ Luke, Jack Viverette and Advin Broning, 1949.
If it had not been for the hard work and dedication of the church clerks, the history of Rock Branch would have been impossible to trace. The first church clerk, J. B. Abney, served from 1871 to 1892. Other clerks were: R. K. Cleveland, 1892 – 1895; W. F. Nicholson, 1895 – 1929; J. A. Cleveland, 1932 – 1953.
The first church was a two-room structure. It served as a schoolhouse during the week and a place of worship on the weekends. The exact date of construction of this structure is not documented in the minutes. School was of such importance to the people of the church that a motion was passed prohibiting any meeting in the church that would prevent the present term of school from being taught in the church house. The school met in the mornings to allow students to help their parents on the farm in the afternoons. Katie McLock taught the upper grades, and Daisy Smith taught the lower grades.
In 1885, a New Church Building Committee, made up of W. H. Laird, L. S. James and J. B. Abney, reported to the church that work on the new building was good and recommended the work be accepted. It is believed this refers to the second multi-purpose structure. In 1913, a committee received permission to proceed with arrangements to build a third new church. This committee consisted of F. S. Smith, Isaac McMahan, Jeff Viverett, J. B. Cleveland, and W. F. Nicholson, along with pastor R. W. Bryant. This new church was dedicated in 1919. The old 1885 building was disposed of for $50.
In 1953, the church agreed to turn the front of the church’s interior layout to face the west, rather than its current south, and allowed the pulpit to be on the east side, rather than the north end of the church. After eleven months of debate and working over renovation plans with the church, the committee received approval to borrow money to taken on the project. Most members were happy with the changes, but some hated to see the changes take place because of treasured memories of the past.
About every 28 years, the roof needs to be replaced. The exterior of the Church required painting every six years since 1962, at great expense to the membership. In 1983, the church eliminated this expense by covering the exterior with vinyl siding.
In 1949, the use of hurricane lamps in the church was discontinued when the lamps were replaced with electric light bulbs. Modern butane gas space heaters replaced the wood heater, which stood in the center of the church and had an extra long flue pipe that extended through the ceiling. In 1988, the space heaters were removed and central heating was installed. The ceilings were insulated and were lowered with 2 x 4 drop ceiling tiles to accommodate the central system ductwork for heating and cooling the church. In 1980, the church enclosed the conventional foundation of the church to make it weather proof and more attractive. During this same period the church sadly, like so many other country churches, had to install locks on the church doors. In 1986, a sound system was installed. In 1988, the straight back wooden pews added in 1919 were replaced with new pews with cushioned seats and back. In 1979, bathrooms for men and women were installed inside the church. The floors were carpeted in 1981. In 1985, the walls of the auditorium were covered with paneling and a steeple was added. In 1988, one of the Sunday School rooms was converted to a pastor’s study, and a new church sign was placed near the highway. The church acquired a parsonage in 1966.
The oldest grave in the Rock Branch cemetery belongs to one of the founding fathers of the church, B. F. Abney, who died on March 2, 1872.
Many things have come and gone over the years of Rock Branch’s testimony. The church, through its congregation and in its community, has had both good and bad experiences, yet the church moved on through history. God’s will has remained in the center of its purpose and function.