By J.D. Moor
Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church stands at a crossroads.
Edward Cagle, who served as pastor of the congregation from 1953 until 1973, came back in 2003 for a second round to help hold together the small church at the intersection of Spalding and Roberts drives.
“They were talking about closing the doors due to low attendance in 2003. I couldn’t stand that, so I volunteered to come back,” Edward Cagle said.
Cagle is 86 years old now. And, at times, his efforts to hold the church together and the community seem to be at odds. “There was a time when 60 to 70 percent of the membership lived in the community. Now there’s only one,” he said. “Our members have dropped to an all-time low of 18 or 19.”
After high school, Cagle was a bookbinder by trade. He was ordained at 22. “When I heard God’s call, I didn’t think twice about it,” the pastor said.
In 1829, the church stood diagonally across the street from its current location. Dunwoody claims Ebenezer as its oldest church, but the building actually falls within Sandy Springs’ city limits.
Rebuilt at least twice since its beginning, the red-brick church building looks secular. Its low profile is faithful to Primitive Baptist tenets: no steeple, no cross outside to draw attention, just a roadside marquee to advertize the only weekly service, held on Sunday evenings.
During the Civil War, Ebenezer was commandeered as a Union Army hospital. The church’s historic cemetery is home to Union and Confederate soldiers.
Now, Marty Smith, a church elder, acknowledges Ebenezer is in a battle of its own, but he has not lost faith. “Throughout history, there are churches that have closed. We will see if the Lord revives us,” he said.
And there could be a new outreach. “We haven’t gone door-to-door and handed out pamphlets, but we might do that,” Smith said. “We just hope that people will come by when they see our lights on for now.”
On a recent Sunday, Smith’s booming voice opened the service. Singing a cappella, Smith led the 10 worshipers in attendance. All were visitors and members of other churches. Cagle was the only actual member present. They informally called out hymn numbers, a playlist of sorts, and Smith willingly accommodated them.
Smith and Cagle say Ebenezer’s decline is not only because members have fled the community or died off. Smith, who was charged by Cagle and led Ebenezer from 1982 to 1987, sees a change in lifestyles and values as well.
“What usually hurts us the worst is apathy,” he said.
Apathy would definitely not define Myra Medlin or most of the others in church this night. “I went to my church in Suwanee this morning, went back this afternoon, and I’m here tonight. You might think it’s weird, but I enjoy church,” the Duluth resident said.
William Mac Aldridge traveled from Cumming to attend. During the service, he knelt and said, “We pray that this church will flourish again.”
Although he belongs to another Sandy Springs church, Aldridge has been coming to Ebenezer intermittently for 23 years. “I used to see this church packed. If there were just two families that took an interest, I believe it would start growing,” he said.
Charlyne Harrison of Dunwoody takes a more sober view. “The larger churches have more to offer to young people these days. Also, church and religion just aren’t as important as they once were,” she said.
Harrison said she likes the evening service. “I go to two churches on Sundays because I didn’t get enough doctrine on Sunday morning,” she said with a smile.
Primitive Baptists embrace certain basics. No musical instruments are permitted in church. There is no division by age or gender, which means no choirs and no Sunday school. And communion, which is administered twice a year, includes the taking of real wine, unleavened bread, and the washing of each other’s feet.
“We’re not anti-technology. We do have websites. But the worship is very simple and we have to find basis for it in the New Testament,” Smith said.
Cagle is busy these days. In addition to Ebenezer, he pastors a church in Milton while it seeks a new, permanent leader. Cagle’s energies may be divided, but he remains upbeat and single-minded.
“I give out sometimes,” he said, “but I don’t give up.”