By Jenna Goff
Over the course of a few days, membership at Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church jumped from one to 27. And the new pastor, Gus Harter, believes they’re only getting started.
After over 30 years as pastor of Bethany Primitive Baptist Church in Suwanee and eight years serving in the Philippines, Harter found himself called to the church in Sandy Springs.
“I came here to make this historic church work,” he said. “I don’t want to see it die.”
Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church has fallen on hard times. First established in 1829, it sits on the corner of Roberts and Spalding Drives. But whereas it had over 1,000 people attend service in 1928, its membership dropped to an all-time low this spring.
“When I came, Edward Cagle [the previous pastor] was the only active member of the church,” Harter said. “But 27 people joined with me so we’ve got a basic start.”
Patsy Froy is one of the members who moved with Harter from Bethany Primitive Baptist Church to Ebenezer. “I’ve known him my whole life, basically,” she said. “He’s been there for funerals, babies being born, weddings. He’s a very influential person in my life.”
Harter plans on renovating the church as his first order of business. The current brick building stands across the street from the original church, which Harter said was taken apart by Union soldiers during the Civil War. The building as it is now is the church’s fourth reconstruction.
“I want to dress it up, but I don’t want to lose the antiquity of it,” said Harter. “It’s a beautiful church.”
He thinks that this beauty alone, coupled with the improvements, will help attract new members. But Harter also believes that the church offers something different.
“We are not contemporary, but we are unique,” he said. “Every service has 30 minutes of a capella singing, and about 45 minutes to an hour of expository preaching. And we have a potluck lunch after church.”
Primitive Baptists are known for the simplicity of their worship. No musical instruments are allowed in church, so members engage in Sacred Harp singing, a tradition where singers use their voices as instruments in four-part harmony. There are also no divisions by age or gender. This means that children attend services and are encouraged to participate in all activities.
Although this is different than many, more modern, churches, Froy is certain that membership will increase. “We have really great services,” she said. “And Brother Harter is such an inspiration.”
Harter’s track record backs Froy’s confidence. He previously assisted in helping Bethany Primitive Baptist Church build their new building, which he claims is the largest Primitive Baptist church in the nation. And during his years in the Philippines from 2000 to 2008, he built 100 churches, he says, and started a clinic and an orphanage along with his wife, Betty Jo.
“I’m anxious to get in there and rebuild this church,” Harter said.
For now, he plans to keep holding services on Sunday mornings starting at 10:30 a.m. But if membership continues to grow, he has other ideas.
“If we get membership in Dunwoody, I’ll add an afternoon service,” he said. “And we have over 5 acres. If I need to, I’ll build another, larger, church.”
But no matter what the future holds for Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church, Harter will remain positive. “I want to see this church blossom,” he said. “And I believe that it will.”