A Mission in the Cotton Patch

By Stephen Herbert

Neatly tended fields and their boundaries define most of southwest Georgia. More than any other part of the state, the southwest resembles the American Midwest: the skies are open, the land more accommodating. From here across to east central Georgia, the soil is loamy and loose; more fertile and forgiving than the hard, acidic red clay of the Piedmont.

The altar at Calvary Church in Americus

Although most of Georgia’s cotton production was devastated by the boll weevil at the start of the 20th century, southwest Georgia’s agricultural economy recovered faster than that in many other areas of the state, in part because it had already begun to diversify away from cotton and into other cash crops like tobacco, pecans and, most famously, peanuts.

The peanut farmer who became the 39th president still lives in Plains, about 10 miles southwest of the larger town of Americus. In 1905 a wealthy young man from northern parts (of Georgia, that is) arrived in Americus as the new rector of Calvary Episcopal Church. a congregation that had put down roots in the prosperous farm town, but which had never really blossomed.

The Rev. James Boland Lawrence, a dynamic and charismatic man, soon became known by the un-Anglican appellation of “Brother Jimmy.” He encouraged the growth of Calvary and helped plant the seeds of other congregations throughout southwest Georgia. He traveled from farm town to farm town by horseback, later by car and sometimes by train, found a place to preach, and held a revival. In some of these towns he founded congregations that continue to this day.

I first learned of Brother Jimmy from a visit to Calvary itself. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: Calvary claims none other than the great Ralph Adams Cram as its architect, supposedly commissioned by Brother Jimmy on one of his return visits to New York City, where he had been a student at Columbia University. Calvary had long needed a new church to fit its growing congregation.

By 1916, when the vestry at Calvary accepted the design for the new church, Cram was already nationally famous, having already designed St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, with his partner (and competitor) Bertram Goodhue, and having taken on the commission to attempt to finish the Holy Mess otherwise known as St. John the Divine. He had already written a popular book — Church Building (Small, Maynard, & Co., 1901) — that may have supplied the initial idea for Brother Jimmy’s visits to Cram’s studio.

Calvary showed that Cram was equally talented with a more earthbound, parochial English gothic style as he was with a soaring, scholastic French gothic like St. Thomas. Calvary sits charmingly and modestly on its site, the warm russet Flemish bond brick exterior graced by a series of windows on its western façade that came from the first church building. The small entrances are to the north and south of the west front. Twin-gabled transepts give a whimsical touch to the otherwise low, steady roofline.

Although certainly not small, the interior has a charming intimacy, and it is here that Cram’s influence (as well as his considerable artistic connections) paid off for Calvary.

He commissioned German woodcarver Johannes Kirchmeyer for the reredos. A crucifixion scene is transposed over the tree of life in a style that has a folksy formalism, bounded by vinelike tresses that form a tracery framing the reredos.

Cram also designed the paneling, stalls, lectern, and organ case for the church. In the Diocese of Georgia, impressive heritage parishes are usually on or near the coast. With Calvary, Americus, Brother Jimmy staked a backcountry counterclaim for the magnificent presentation of the Gospel in the Cotton Patch.

When Clarence and Florence Jordan arrived in Americus with Martin and Mabel England to begin their interracial Christian community of Koinonia Farm in 1942, Lawrence was nearing the end of his ministry. Koinonia and its descendant Habitat for Humanity (headquartered in Americus) are renowned for their work of reconciliation within a model of intentional, holy work in the world.

They chose Americus and Sumter County for a reason. Agriculture had barely sustained the local economy through the Great Depression. Most of the residents were poor, and segregation was strictly enforced.

Although Calvary is an impressive church, and Brother Jimmy did good work there, Calvary grew because of his active work in the mission field beyond its walls in the poorer towns and sharecropper communities of southwest Georgia.

Prince of Peace Church, now a community center in Vienna.

Paradoxically, extramural mission work often leads to intramural church growth: the gospel shared makes the gift all the more valued to those who are giving it away. Brother Jimmy’s life also shows that a missionary career can come from wealth, as long as the spirit is willing. He could hire the architect of the country’s wealthiest churches while bringing the gospel to the poorest communities in the land.

Some of the towns in Brother Jimmy’s mission field were sizable, like Moultrie and Dawson. His mission churches remain there, as they do at Cordele and Blakely. Others, however, were in tiny farming communities with sharecroppers still clinging to the land, like Pennington and Benevolence.

His rustic, small log church from Pennington still survives, having been moved near the entrance to Andersonville, the Confederate prison camp where thousands of Union soldiers died of starvation and disease. I drove far out to the tiny plantation community of Benevolence, where a fine Baptist Church remains, but there is no sign of Brother Jimmy’s mission.

However, in Vienna (rhymes with “bye” and not “bee”) I was excited to find the former Prince of Peace Episcopal Church, transformed into an erstwhile community center, looking a little forlorn and neglected next to an equally abandoned elementary school.

The rough, wooden Prince of Peace is a monument equally fitting for Brother Jimmy as the charming, beautiful Calvary, as a call passed down from him to us. Will you abandon the least of these? Will you continue my work? Come with me into the fields.

Stephen Herbert serves the church in rural Western Georgia.