As this Homecoming Day draws near, people think of going back to the place of their spiritual roots. It is a good day in June, an uplifting day. There is something special about "going home."
This year, 2007, marks at least the 173rd anniversary of the church. Why do I say "at least"? The exact founding date of the church has been lost through the mists of time. The earliest extant minutes of a business session of the church were dated September 5, 1834, but these were not the founding minutes.
In August, 1833, Choestoah (as it was spelled then) Baptist Church had ten members and was affiliated with the Mountain Baptist Association. Other churches participating in that 1833 meeting of the association were Wahoo Baptist Church of North Hall County and Tesnatee Baptist Church of White County. Although the written record has been lost, it is reasonable to believe that the church was formed as early as 1832, the year of Union County's formation, or even before that date as the first settlers came into Choestoe Valley.
It is commendable that the early members of Choestoe Baptist Church desired to join in fellowship with churches of like faith and order in an associational meeting. Even though messengers had to travel over rugged terrain and mountain trails on horseback to get to these meetings, it was a reflection of the desire for fellowship members had known before they moved from more populous regions like the Pendleton District of South Carolina or from Wilkes County, North Carolina.
In those areas from which early settlers to the Choestoe Valley had migrated, they had tasted the sweet fellowship of associational work. Famed Baptist leader, Luther Rice, had traveled as a representative of the Triennial Baptist Convention, organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1814. As Rice journeyed, seeking support for Adoniram and Ann Judson, missionaries to Burma and other foreign lands, he helped to organize Baptist churches wherever he went. He also sought to have the churches cooperate in the cause of missions and urged them to form an association for fellowship of churches within a geographic area. The chief aims of a local association of churches was fellowship, promotion of mission causes in the United States and in foreign countries, support of benevolent work, starting Christian schools, and examining churches for orthodoxy of beliefs and practices. It was in this tradition of Baptist purposes that Choestoah Baptist Church functioned from its beginning in the early 1830s.
There is a certain degree of pride and thanksgiving as we read the minutes of Choestoe (modern spelling) Church so astutely recorded and maintained since 1834 by faithful church clerks. The minutes are a part of historical records both at the Georgia Archives of History in Atlanta and at the Mercer University, Macon, Library, which houses Baptist Archives of Georgia.
The second church clerk was my ancestor (great, great grandfather) John Souther who kept the minutes from 1834 through 1847, and again from 1850 through March, 1853. It was in 1853 that he decided to join a new church forming "at Brasstown," a few miles further up on Choestoe. New Liberty became the name of this church and was founded and built on an acre of land Mr. Souther gave for the church and cemetery.
In 1853, before the term "church planter" was ever a part of missions vocabulary, John Souther founded a new church in the shadow of the highest peak in Georgia, Enotah Bald Mountain. His departure from Choestoe Church may have been precipitated from a falling out with another church member who purportedly cut timber on Souther's property and did not make either restitution or apology. Such disputes show the carnal nature of church members. At the same time, disagreements within the membership have proven to be the seeds of a new church. God often brings good from unpleasant situations.
The first recorded pastor of Choestoe Baptist Church was the Rev. John Chastain from 1835-1837. There were many John Chastains who were Baptist preachers, all descending from the French Huguenot immigrant, Pierre Chastain, a medical doctor who settled in 1700 at Manakin Township, Virginia, on the James River. One of immigrant Pierre Chastain's sons was the famous Rev. John "Ten Shilling Bell" Chastain, a visionary and associate of the fiery Baptist preacher, the Rev. Shubael Starnes. Both Chastain and Starnes were active in forming churches and associations in Virginia, North and South Carolina. The Rev. John Chastain who was pastor at Choestoe was in the line of descent from Dr. Pierre Chastain and the Rev. John "Ten Shilling Bell" Chastain.
Rev. Abner Chastain was Choestoe's pastor twice, 1837- 1838 and again in 1841. In Rev. Abner's first tenure at Choestoe, the membership hosted the association for the first time. It is not clear in the minutes whether the association was the Mountain Baptist or the Chestatee Baptist Association in which Choestoe then held membership. Rev. Abner Chastain was the grandson of the famous Rev. John "Ten Shilling Bell" Chastain. Abner Chastain and Susan O'Kelley married May 14, 1826 in Habersham County, Georgia. Four of the couple's thirteen children were born in Union County. He was a circuit riding preacher whose ministry ranged over north Georgia and into North Carolina.
After the Civil War, Rev. Abner Chastain, his family and about 250 others from Union County migrated west in a large wagon train. Many of this group settled on the Huerfano River in Colorado at St. Mary's. Rev. Chastain organized a Baptist church there, and in the fall of 1870 baptized his first convert in the Huerfano River. Sadly, his wife had died on the journey west. In Colorado, he married Amanda Elzey. Rev. Chastain died of pneumonia in April, 1871. In a measure, Choestoe Church of Union County had an influence on the organization of the Huerfano Baptist Church in Colorado, as one of the former pastors led settlers there to form a church much like the one they had known in the mountains of Georgia.
Another outstanding early pastor was the Rev. Elisha Hedden who served in 1840. A circuit-riding preacher, he was noted for his church starting and his evangelistic zeal. He was much in demand as a preacher in summer camp meetings. He had the distinction of leading to Christ two men who later became outstanding ministers, educators and denominational leaders: The Rev. Dr. George W. Truett and the Rev. Dr. Fernando Coello McConnell.
A Union Countian, the Rev. Charles Edward Rich, was pastor twice, in 1898-1899 and again from 1903-1915. Known as Preacher Charlie Rich, he had the distinct privilege of being educated at the Hiawassee Baptist Academy founded by Dr. George Truett and Dr. Fernando McConnell. He was greatly influenced by these two outstanding leaders who instilled in the young preacher a love for missions, evangelism and education.
The length of this article precludes a thorough listing of many other outstanding leaders, both pastoral and laypersons, who have rendered noble service at Choestoe Church. One was Dr. Harry V. Smith who, at the time he pastored Choestoe, was also president of the Blairsville Collegiate Institute. Dr. Smith went on to be an administrator at Mercer University in Macon.
From 1937 until 1953, the Rev. Claud C. Boynton pastored the church. Other pastors (not necessarily in order of service) were the Reverends Jim Hood, Aaron Souther, Luther Colwell, Sim Martin, Richard Hardy, Tom Smith, Marlow Stroup, J. Lake Gibson, Jim Geer, and Charles Richard (Dick) Stillwell. Rev. Troy Acree served as interim pastor on several occasions. The Rev. Ken Zollinger, current pastor, and members are expecting a crowd June 10 in the new Multi- Purpose Building completed in recent years.
Going home to the church of our youth will be a rich experience on June 9. Its 173+ year history proves that God has been with that congregation through more than seventeen decades. They welcome all to help them celebrate.
c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 7, 2007 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.