Our History

McConnell Memorial Baptist Church

McConnell Memorial Baptist Church came into existence on the fifth Saturday of July in 1882. A three man committee from Macedonia Baptist Church met and chartered the new Baptist church in Hiawassee. That committee was called a presbytery, and the three men were elders of the Macedonia church – Elijah Kimsey, Elisha Hedden and Joseph Burch.

Short History of the Church

McConnell Memorial Baptist Church came into existence on the fifth Saturday of July in 1882. A three man committee from Macedonia Baptist Church met and chartered the new Baptist church in Hiawassee. That committee was called a presbytery, and the three men were elders of the Macedonia church – Elijah Kimsey, Elisha Hedden and Joseph Burch. The new church was chartered as the Baptist Church of Christ at Hiawassee, though for fifty years it was commonly called the Hiawassee Baptist Church. There were eleven charter members:

Elder E. Hedden
W. R. Cloer
W.L. Sutton
W. G. Blackwell

Caroline Hedden
Margaret G. Cloer
Julia Sutton
A.C. Blackwell
Elizabeth Burch
M.C. Standridge
Nannie Hedden

The church had no meeting house to begin with. They met once a month in one of the member’s homes. The monthly meeting began with a business meeting on Saturday, then the preaching service was held on Sunday. To begin with Elijah Kimsey and Elisha Hedden served as co-pastors, probably alternating the preaching duties.

After a few years a small frame building was erected on River Street utilizing a city lot that had been set aside for a Baptist church on the original City of Hiawassee plat. That remained the “meeting house” for about thirty-five years until the early 1920s when the congregation grew too large for the little building. Many attempts were made to raise funds for a new building, but money was scarce. Instead of building, the church began meeting in the auditorium of the high school, called Hiawassee Academy.

There had always been a close relationship between Hiawassee Academy and the church. The school was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and most of the students and many of the teachers were church members. Several of the teachers also served as the church’s pastor from time to time. Pastors were elected every year, and many served only one year.

Due to some unfortunate events in 1928, the Southern Baptist Convention (actually the Home Mission Board) had to give up the school, selling the property to Towns County. That left the church with a problem. To continue to function, they were forced to build a separate “meeting house”.

Due to hard financial times during the Great Depression, it took almost ten years to complete the building. That building still stands between the Family Life Center and the new worship center.

It was in 1933, during construction, that the name was changed to McConnell Memorial Baptist Church in honor of Dr. F.C. McConnell. Dr. McConnell was never a pastor of the church. A subsequent article will relate who he was and why the change was made.

That brick building served as the sanctuary until 2007 when the new worship center was completed. Membership has grown from that original eleven members to approximately 1200 members at present. McConnell is not the oldest Baptist church in Towns County, but it is the largest.

Why Did the Church Change Its Name?

By 1928 both Hiawassee Academy and the church were doing well, although the church had no building of its own. The school was well respected. Graduating students could enter most colleges without an entrance exam. The church was growing in numbers. But then, disaster struck. In August it was discovered that the Treasurer of the Home Mission Board had embezzled almost a million dollars from the fund that supported the mountain schools. The exact amount was $909,461.00. In 1928 a million dollars was like maybe 20 million in today’s terms. Clinton S. Carnes was an experienced and skilled accountant, but it was discovered later that he had a criminal record and should never have been allowed in such a trusted position.

The loss left the Home Mission Board with an embarrassing and overwhelming debt – a debt which, coupled with deepening depression, caused havoc, not only with the Board, but with the Convention as a whole. Those seventeen mountain schools were the first to feel the crisis as the decision was made to get out of the school business. Hiawassee Academy was sold to the Towns County School System and became Towns County High School. The selling price was $1,000 for the school buildings and fifty acres of prime land in Hiawassee.

On January 12, 1929, Dr. McConnell died at the age of 72. His family attributed his death to the shock of what had happened. He was pastor of Druid Hills Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia at the time. Had he lived with his normal youthful vigor, he may have found a way to save his beloved school, but that was not to be. Dr. McConnell’s funeral was said to be the largest ever in Atlanta at the time. Louie D. Newton, then editor of the Christian Index said, “We have lost a great preacher, a loving minister, a true friend, a glorious leader.”

It took a while for the effect of these events to sink in for the church, but by 1930 there was no denying that a new church home had to be built. They could not continue to use the school as their meeting house. Rev. Frank Loyd who, as a friend of Dr. McConnell, had been a teacher at the school since it’s inception in 1887. He had also been elected pastor of the church on five different occasions. It was Frank Loyd who immediately saw the church’s need and insisted on reserving two of the fifty acres of the school’s land for the church. Those two acres were the old McConnell home place where Ferd McConnell had grown up.

It was still far from certain whether the church could pull itself together and actually build a new building. With the Great Depression in full swing, money was scarce. Frank Loyd wrote a weekly column in the Towns County Herald in which he, week by week, described the slow progress.

The church minutes of July 9, 1933 state without elaboration that the church voted to change its name to McConnell Memorial Baptist Church in honor of Dr. F.C. McConnell. Those minutes do not reflect who made the proposal or why, but it is easy to assume that it was Frank Loyd who conceived the idea as both a way to honor his friend, Dr. McConnell, and a way to raise funds for the new building. Shortly after the name change was voted on, Frank Loyd wrote letters to as many people outside the church as he could think of, requesting donations in Dr. McConnell’s memory. He was surprisingly successful. A list of contributors shows names from all over the country who gave “because they knew and loved their great friend, Dr. F.C. McConnell.” Many of the contributors gave more than once as the building proceeded. Frank Loyd was elected pastor for the sixth time during the construction. The building was not fully completed until 1939 when its dedication was announced in the Towns County Herald on August 17th. Frank Loyd died five days later on August 22nd. He was 82 years old. It was as if he willed himself to live until the building he worked so hard for was finally completed.

The Old Church Bell

The old church bell, now mounted on a rebuilt platform near the entrance to the former sanctuary, has been around almost since the beginning of the church. First mention of the bell was in the minutes of December 26, 1891 when Willie Brown was hired as Sexton to cut wood, make fires, bring water, sweep floors and ring the bell. He was paid 25 cents per month. The bell was mounted on a platform similar to the present one in the church yard.

The tradition was to ring the bell to announce the start of service, so people socializing in the yard would know it was time to come inside. The bell was tolled to announce the death of local resident. To ring the bell a rope was pulled causing the bell to swing back and forth producing a dingdong two-tone sound. To toll the bell the side of the bell was hit with the clapper to produce a single tone sound – the number of tolls identifying the decedent.

Sometime around 1920 Louie D. Newton, editor of the Christian Index, came to Hiawassee and photographed the Baptist churches of Towns County. The pictures were published in the Index in May, 1923. His picture of the Hiawassee Baptist Church was really a picture of the bell with a wall of the church in the background. Seventy-five years later that picture led to recovery of the bell.

There are no records and no one remembers where the bell was located during the ten years that the church was meeting at the school. It next appeared in pictures on the ground just to the right of the door of the newly built sanctuary about 1940. This picture was made about 1945 showing Fannie Greene next to the bell by the church.

Moving the bell around was no easy task. It is 28 inches in diameter, made of cast iron, and probably weighs near 500 pounds. When the porch and white columns were added to the church in a remodeling project in 1965, the bell had to be moved again. This time, the chairman of deacons, Cline Puett, drug the bell to his home next door just to get it out of the way of the construction. He probably intended to restore it to the church later, but that didn’t happen for thirty years. Mr. Puett died, his property next to the church was sold to the county, and a hospital was built there. The bell remained where Mr. Puett had placed it, and it became a forgotten relic.

In 1996, Ann Berg, while visiting a friend in the hospital, noticed the old bell on the ground nearly hidden by the limbs of an evergreen tree. She knew that her husband Walter, while researching church history, had found the Louie D. Newton pictures and was wondering what had happened to the bell. Dr. Lanier Nicholson confirmed that it was indeed the old church bell and got permission from the hospital to reclaim it. A new platform was built to look similar to the one in the old picture, and the bell was brought back home.

If only the old bell could talk, we would have many more stories to tell.

The Osborn Cemetery

Jesse Osborn was one of the earliest settlers in the mountains of north Georgia. He was born in North Carolina on August 27, 1799, the son of Jeremiah Osborn and Ann (Blythe) Osborn. Jesse married Cynthia Murray in 1826. When the Cherokees were moved out of the Georgia mountains, Jesse bought a large tract of land near the community of Macedonia a few miles east of Hiawassee. He farmed and served as postmaster of the Post Office in Macedonia.

When Cynthia Osborn died in 1885, she was buried at the top of a small knoll on Jesse’s land. There were eight Osborn children. As Jesse and other family members died, they were buried near Cynthia. Soon, friends and neighbors asked to be buried there too. Before long it became known as the Osborn Graveyard. Not long after the Hiawassee Baptist Church was established, several Osborn family members moved their membership from the Macedonia church to the newer church at Hiawassee. Samuel Judson Osborn served as a deacon for many years.

In 1909 the Osborn family, seeking relief from the responsibility of maintaining the cemetery, deeded the two acre parcel to the Hiawassee Baptist Church. The deed was duly recorded on February 4th. The following is an excerpt from the deed:

Witnesseth, that for and in consideration of the interest we … have in the welfare of (the) church and community and in the further consideration which we have for the love of the Kingdom and cause of Christ our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we … do hereby give (the church)… the tract being known as the Osborn Graveyard. .. to be forever used as a cemetery .. for the use and benefit of the church and all Protestant denominations who want to bury their dead in said cemetery.

Though the cemetery has been a part of the church for over 100 years the name remains -the Osborn Cemetery. The oldest grave is that of Cynthia Osborn. The largest grave marker is an obelisk monument to William R. McConnell, the father of Dr. F.C. McConnell for whom the church is now named.

When the Hiawassee River was dammed to form Lake Chatuge, the church voted to allow the remains of persons taken from graves soon to be submerged to be re-buried in the Osborn Cemetery. In 1962 as the grave sites filled, an additional acre of adjoining land was purchased from the TVA for $400.

A walk through the cemetery is like a walk backward through time. If one could but call back time for just awhile to chat with the men and women whose names appear on the head stones, what stories could be told! The names Osborn, Hedden, Kimsey, Burch, McConnell, Corn, Carter, Greene, Lloyd, Berrong, Burns, Puett, Nicholson, Hutchings, Acree and others represent the men and women who have shaped the character of the church and the community.

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