by Virginia Fraser Evans
“Behold, the glory of God is all about us!"
Benjamin Baker and Samuel Bacon and their families must have exclaimed when on the eastern horizon above St. Catherines Island in the new colony of Georgia they saw the glorious sunrise tinting the marshes and reflecting soft hues of gold on the Medway River.
As these pioneers left their boats and began their struggle in the wilderness of the Midway District on December 6, 1752, they came upon knolls with large moss-covered oak trees and tall pines that provided beautiful sites for their homes and choice timber for all their building needs. Surrounding the high ground were low, swampy, and water-filled areas that were perfect for the cultivation of rice. Because rice was to be their principal cash crop, the colonists chose this location for their new homes. Again, they must have felt God's guidance to this place.
The Bakers and Bacons were the first families to leave the Puritan colony on the banks of the Ashley River at Dorchester, South Carolina, to form a new colony, "settle the gospel" and cultivate rice in this location between Savannah and Darien (which is believed to be the reason for the name Midway). They were members of the Dorchester Congregational Church and Society in South Carolina, an organization that bound them together in their religious and civil beliefs, and they were descendants of the first group of Puritans who came to America in 1630 from the counties of Dorset, Devon and Somersetshire in England. It was recorded that on the voyage over' 'the word of God was preached and expounded every day to these Godfearing people."
From the first settlement in Massachusetts, which the colonists named Dorchester, after a beloved town in England, these Congregational Puritans migrated in 1635 to the area now known as Windsor in Connecticut, where they remained until 1695 when they answered the call of their Puritan brethren who had reached the Carolina coast and were without a minister or religious ordinances. The Reverend Joseph Lord accompanied a small group of these missionary minded members of his church to South Carolina, where on January 14, 1696, they selected a site on the Ashley River and named it Dorchester; there the minister preached his first sermon on the site selected for their meetinghouse. Part of this group settled at Beech Hill, a few miles away and was also served by the Reverend Mr. Lord. For fifty-six years this colony grew and prospered and actually outgrew its bounds until it became necessary to find more suitable lands. The reasons for removal were given in the colony's records:
"Our ancestors, having a greater regard to a compact Settlement and religious Society than future temporal advantages, took up but small tracts of land, many of which, after their decease, being divided amongst their children, reduced them still to smaller, in consequence of which our lands were generally soon worn out. Few had sufficient for the convenient support and Maintenance of their families, and some none at all, nor likely to get any among us. Young people, as they grew up and settled for themselves, were obliged, for want of lands, to move out from us. Dorchester and Beech Hill, the places where we settled, being also a very sickly part of the country, several persons among us, chiefly for these reasons, seemed very anxious to move out from us, and had several times searched for some other places in Carolina, but could find none capacious and convenient enough for that purpose; notwithstanding which, the same disposition to remove continuing with several, occasioned some serious reflection on the state and circumstances of this Church, and it was thought probable, that unless some tract of land suitable for the convenient and compact settlement and support of a congregation, could be found to which we might remove, and settle in a body, the Society would in a few years at most, be dispersed, so as not to be capable of supporting the Gospel amoungst us, especially if we should lose our present pastor, and (which in that case seems not unlikely) be any considerable time without the administration of Gospel ordinances among us - the only circumstance which at present detains many, otherwise quite inclined to remove from us. Upon these considerations, a removal of the whole Society seemed advisable: and having heard a good character of the lands in Georgia, 'twas thought proper that some should take a journey to that Colony, and search out some place there conveniently for our purpose, which was accordingly performed at several inquisitions, and issued at length in a tolerable satisfaction as to the capacity of the place, and a remove thereupon was more generally concluded on."
The character of the land was good, convenient and suitable, and the Council of Georgia, in Savannah, granted the South Carolinians 22,400 acres to be reserved for eighteen months. The first grant was issued July 11, 1752, and a second grant for 9,650 acres was given August 6, 1752. Five months after the first grant was made, the Bakers and Bacons each claimed 500 acres. The next years they were joined by Parmenas Way and his family. Then in 1754 came the largest group: John Stevens, Richard Spencer, Richard Baker, Josiah Osgood, Samuel Way, John Elliott, John Quarterman, the Reverend John Osgood, Sarah Mitchell, John
According to the church records, the first officers of the church and society were the same as the Carolina church. At the second annual meeting at Midway, Benjamin Baker was reelected clerk, and John Stevens, John Elliott, William Baker and Parmenas Way were continued as selectmen. William Baker served as deacon until 1767 when John Winn was elected and served for nineteen years. The ministers serving the Midway congregation were: the Reverend John Osgood, 1754-1773; the Reverend James Edmonds (assistant), 1767-1769; the Reverend Moses Allen, 1777-1778; the Reverend Abiel Holmes, 1785-1791; the Reverend Cyrus Gildersleeve, 1791-1811; the Reverend Murdock Murphy, 1811-1823; the Reverend Robert Quarterman, 1823-1847; the Reverend I. S. K. Axson (copastor), 1836-1853; the Reverend T. S. Winn (copastor), 1848-1855; the Reverend D. L. Buttolph, 1854-1867; the Reverend John F. Baker (assistant pastor), 1855; and the Reverend Francis H. Bowman (copastor), 1856-1859. The temporary supply ministers included the Reverend Jedidiah Morse, 1787; the Reverend Richard M. Baker, 1851; the Reverend John Winn, 1853; the Reverend R. Q. Mallard, 1855; the Reverend Donald Fraser, 1862; and the Reverend R. Q. Way, 1866.
Originally Midway District was in the county of Savannah, but it became one of the eleven districts in 1751. In the year 1758 the district was included in the parish of St. John, the same year that Captain Mark Carr deeded 300 acres on the Medway River for the town of Sunbury.
St. John's Parish was inhabited by people who were independent in thought and action, and they were the first in the colony of Georgia to assert their independence and resist the dominion of England. The royal governor, Sir James Wright, upon learning that the citizens of St. John's Parish had entered into an agreement to adopt the resolutions and association of the Continental Congress, declared that "these rebel measures had resulted from the influence of the descendants of the people of New England of the Puritan Independent sect."
Dr. Lyman Hall led the fight for freedom in St. John's Parish. He and his friend Button Gwinnett, who resided on St. Catherines Island, represented Georgia in the Continental Congress in 1776 and were signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The parish furnished two generals - James Screven and Daniel Stewart-who commanded military groups. In a battle near Midway church, General Screven lost his life.
The patriotic spirit and action of Liberty citizens gave the county its name. The members of the legislature in 1777 deemed it appropriate to give the combined parishes of St. John, St. James and St. Andrew the name Liberty.
Five counties of Georgia were named for citizens of Liberty County because of their distinguished service in the Revolution: Hall County for Lyman Hall, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of the state; Gwinnett County, established in 1818, for Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of Georgia; Screven County, created in 1793, for General James Screven, a Revolutionary War hero; Stewart County, formed in 1830, for Daniel Stewart, a Revolutionary War hero; and Baker County, created in 1825, for Colonel John Baker, a famous military leader of the Revolution.
The war left its usual tragedies-death, bleeding hearts and devastation. As the society of Midway gathered after the dispersion of its members they found many families and friends missing. Their homes and property had been destroyed. Their church had been burned to the ground, but they stood on the ashes and made plans to rebuild on the same spot.
Time wrought many changes in the county between the Revolutionary War and the War Between the States for the Midway Congregational Church and Society. The migration westward in the county began with the retreats at Walthourville, Flemington, Dorchester and Jonesville that became permanent communities and the removal of the county seat from Sunbury and then to Hinesville, were changes that drastically affected the entire Midway and Sunbury areas. During these years settlers from other counties and states moved into the western and northern sections of the county and became a part of the established communities.
After the War Between the States and its destruction; the replacement of rice by cotton and tobacco that were not suited to the soil of the low country; and the coastal storms reduced the membership of the church to only a few families. They realized that they could no longer afford a minister's salary and the maintenance of the church. With the Reverend Mr. Buttolph's dismissal in 1867, the pulpit for a short time was filled with supply ministers, the Reverend J. W. Montgomery, the Reverend R. Q. Baker, the Reverend E. W. Way and the Reverend L. T. Way.
Soon after the war the trustees of the church, J. B. Mallard, Ezra Stacy and L. J. Mallard leased the building to the Negroes for religious services and a school. In 1887 a number of descendants of the original members of the church and society met for the first time in twenty years, signed the articles of incorporation and became organized as The Midway Society. Since that time annual meetings have been held in April, on the Sunday nearest the twenty-sixth, which is Georgia's Memorial Day.
Recorded in Georgia and American history, and on the pages of this book are the achievements of many men and women whose roots were deep in Midway soil. In writing about the closing of the church, Dr. James Stacy, the historian wrote: "But if this be not His will, if the time of her active life be past and she is to live only in history and story, then let the influence of her embalmed life continue ever to linger like holy fragrance around this sacred spot, a silent witness of the past and a source of inspiration for the future; in either case a benediction to the world, and to all who shall come after."