The oldest continuous event in Heard County, Georgia, is a Sacred Harp singing begun right after the Civil War on the third Sunday in June. This June, the singing at Hopewell Primitive Baptist Church celebrated its 150th session with a well-attended day of singing, fellowship, and several special events. How does a small church in a small community in one of Georgia’s least-populated counties keep such an event going for so long? The answer has a lot to do with perseverance, faith, and a strong sense of family.
James A. Denney and Hopewell Primitive Baptist Church
The singing was started by James A. Denney and his wife, Mary Anne Patterson Denney. James was born in January 1832. His father died of typhoid when James was sixteen, so James took over his business of farming, milling, blacksmithing, and cattle raising. He married Mary Anne (born July 1835) on Christmas Day in 1852. They settled in Troup County, Georgia.
James was a large man, six feet, four inches tall, weighing 240 pounds. He wore a size sixteen shoe. Mary Anne was petite, weighing ninety pounds and a mere five feet tall. They started a family and had had three sons by the time the Civil War began. James felt it was his duty to join the Confederate war effort, so in the fall of 1862 he walked to join Company 8 of Cobb’s Legion. Because of his strong constitution and experience, he was assigned to carry the bellows on his back from battlefield to battlefield and to do the blacksmithing needed by the infantry. He was wounded at a battle near Perrysville. The shot went through his body in the stomach area. A medic placed a silk handkerchief soaked in vinegar on the ramrod of a rifle and passed it through the path of the bullet. James recovered and continued to serve. He was at Appomattox with Confederate general John B. Gordon when the war ended. With no money, threadbare clothes, no maps, and one shoe, James and a fellow soldier began the arduous trek back to Georgia. He would wear the shoe on his right foot until his left became too sore to walk; then he switched the shoe to his left foot. The trip home took three months.
When James returned to his farm in Troup County, his home and mills had been destroyed, and his land had been sold for delinquent taxes. His wife and sons had hidden in a cave when the Union forces came through, but Mary Anne was able to hide some gold. With that stake, they moved to northwest Heard County and started over. James bought some land and built a log house. He added to it later and had a fine, three-chimney home. He also built a grist mill, a mill dam, a sawmill, and a blacksmith shop. With the help of his neighbors, he built Hopewell Primitive Baptist Church. He donated the land and did 95 percent of the work on the church. He also started a Sacred Harp singing there on the third Sunday in June.
James and Mary Anne had six more children. They now had eight boys and a girl. They were Frank, John, Cullie, James T., Lonnie, William, Charlie, Buena Vista, and Joseph. The girl, called “Bunie,” was named for Buena Vista Hill where James was wounded. James died on April 27, 1887, and Mary Anne died exactly twenty-one years later on April 27, 1908. They are buried at Hopewell.
Their children and grandchildren were active in the church and singing. They settled mostly in Heard and Carroll counties, where many of the local citizens can trace their ancestry (and their love of Scared Harp) back to James and Mary Anne. In October 1984, almost 100 years after James died, a ceremony was held at Hopewell to honor James and his contributions. A plaque was unveiled, several descendants and local dignitaries spoke, a twenty-one-AR15 pistol salute was sounded, and there was Sacred Harp singing.
The earliest records of Hopewell are lost due to fires. One fire destroyed the church, one destroyed the home of the church clerk, and the county courthouse burned as well. These fires were in different years, but the result was that the earliest records for the church date from 1910. At that time, Elder W. T. Merrell was pastor, and James Harrison Rogers (1852–1919) was church clerk. Harrison lived in Ephesus, a town in Heard County; he had a strong bass voice and loved to sing. His son, Frank Rogers, was also a strong singer who often keyed music and was an early honoree of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. Other singers who served as pastors included Elders Roy Avery and Homer Benefield. Church clerks were often members of the Denney or Rogers families, both of which were active in the church.
The last surviving member at Hopewell was Mae Rogers. While she was alive, in October 1988, the church set up a domestic non-profit corporation to handle the business of the church. The original fifteen members of this corporation’s committee are deceased. The current committee, consisting of Denney and Rogers descendants, maintains the church and works to keep the singing going. Denney Rogers is the CEO of the corporation and Karen Rogers Rollins chairs the committee and the singing.
A Special Occasion
To celebrate the 150th session of the singing, all descendants of James A. Denney were invited to join singers from near and far to make their way to the small church in the woods at the end of the road. Cousins of the Rogers and Denney families who had not been to Hopewell since they were children returned to listen to the singing and partake of the bountiful “dinner on the ground.”
As singers and visitors arrived, it was clear that this was a special occasion. The church was adorned with a large welcome banner across the front. Underneath, life-size cutouts of James and Mary Anne Denney greeted participants on their way inside, where special memorial fans were given as mementos to all who came. Inside a large tent at the right of the church, numerous historical and genealogical exhibits coordinated and created by Sherry Rogers Lovvorn were on display. These exhibits featured informative panels, photographs, and books documenting James and Mary Anne Denney, Buren and Mae Rogers, James T. and Laura Denney, the Shadinger family, Cullie Denney, James Harrison and Elizabeth Rogers, and Newman and Willie Myrt Denney, as well as Hopewell Church and its history of Sacred Harp singing. Some of the panels are now on display at the Sacred Harp Museum through the first weekend in November.
Special presentations attested to the significance of the day. A marker was placed at the church to note the founding of the church and the singing. Randy Nix, Heard County’s representative in the Georgia Legislature, authored House Resolution 479 recognizing and commending the church and the singing on the occasion. Since he was preaching elsewhere that day, Denney Rogers, the mayor of Ephesus, presented the resolution during the singing. Not to be outdone, the state of Alabama also passed a resolution to honor the event. The representative from Auburn, Joe Lovvorn, a descendant of James A. Denney and James Harrison Rogers, presented the resolution.
During the singing, awards were presented to the children of the last church clerk, Buren Rogers, and to the oldest descendant of James and Mary Anne present: Eris Denney Muse. The youngest descendant present was also recognized. And, in honor of James, an award was also given for the tallest person present and the one with the biggest feet. There were also awards for the singers who traveled the farthest to attend, one for those outside the United States and one for those inside America. Opal Rogers Cannon from Leesburg, Georgia, shared her memories of singing there with her father, Frank Rogers, and her siblings.
And, of course, there was singing. Singers from England, Germany, and Ireland joined those from many states to sing the old songs and enjoy the day. There were many fathers and children present which was appropriate since it was Father’s Day. Of course, the third Sunday in June had not yet been designated as Father’s Day when the singing started 150 years ago. Maybe James and Mary Anne, buried not far from the church building, could hear the fasolas and rejoice in the fact that their families and friends are continuing the tradition.
This article draws on the records of Hopewell Church and personal recollections, as well as two books: History of Heard County, Georgia, 1830–1990 compiled and published in 1991 by the Heard County Historical Society, Cullie and Mollie Denney: Parents and Descendants, compiled and published in 1998 by Diane Denney Rooks and Violette Harris Denney.