Bethesda Baptist is one of the iconic rural churches of Georgia and one of the greatest extant examples of vernacular Federal architecture in the state. The congregation traces its origins to 1785, when it was organized as Whatley’s Mill. The first structure was of wooden frame construction. Notably, Bethesda is among the oldest Baptist congregations in the state and the present structure one of the oldest surviving church buildings. The most influential Baptist of early 19th-century Georgia, Jesse Mercer, performed the dedication on 20 December 1818. In what would seem progressive by today’s standards, they licensed an African-American called Brother Sam to minister to members of his race in 1834 in a separate monthly service but revoked the right in 1836 over claims of “disorder”. Enslaved people of the community were required to attend church with their owners and the remains of the gallery are still visible in the church.
Bethesda is located in a rural area of Greene County near the South Fork of Little River on land given by Samuel Whatley. The original name of the congregation, Whatley’s Mill, honored his parents, who were killed by Native Americans trying to protect their lands from the white men. Silas Mercer was the first pastor and his son Jesse Mercer became pastor in 1796, serving for thirty years. The name was changed from Whatley’s Mill to Bethesda just before the dedication of the present church building in 1818. It remains a thriving congregation to this day.