Though not a church cemetery as such, Clay Cemetery and the Clay Family are intimately associated historically and geographically with what became the Kirkwood Baptist Church. Originally “Bush Arbor” or “Beech Springs” church, it evolved informally from services first held in a bush arbor near a spring, possibly in today’s Gilliam Park.
Beech Springs Church was formally founded in 1873 on Clay Street by Cleveland & Nancy Clay, Jesse Clay Sr., Newt Williams, Peter Hughes, and D.V. Stephens. Services were first held in Cleveland and Nancy Clay’s home, then in a vacant house, and then a small church built in 1873. These were all on Clay Street in Kirkwood, one street east of Clay Cemetery.
The third building was erected in 1886 after a donation of land and $500 by J.B. Wade. It was located at the S.E. quadrant of today’s Hosea Williams Drive and Clay Street on a 150′ by 75′ parcel with the long side facing Hosea Williams Drive.
Jesse Clay remained active in the church until his death. Cleveland Clay was active in Kirkwood Baptist Church until at least 1891 and served as a “Messenger” to the Stone Mountain Association of Baptist Churches in 1886, 1889, and 1891.
The church had 34 members in 1888 and met two Sundays monthly. By 1893 there were 55 members and a 57 member Sunday school and within a year the Sunday school had grown to 75 participants. The church was renamed “Kirkwood Baptist Church” in 1894 and the building was subsequently moved to Howard Street N.E. and Hardee (today’s Delano Drive) in 1895. Growth continued and in 1897 the congregation numbered 88 and met every Sunday.
Internal dissension became pronounced from 1898-1900 and the church subsequently dissolved, becoming an arm of the First Baptist Church until Kirkwood Baptist Church was reconstituted in 1902, when it absorbed Murray Hill Church and one to two smaller congregations. The church’s seating capacity in reached 275 by 1913.
The congregation’s fourth building was today’s Pentecostal Church of God at 110 Howard Street N.E. Their fifth and final Kirkwood building became today’s Israel Baptist Church at 2071 Hosea Williams Drive. After Kirkwood Baptist Church’s congregation joined the white flight from Kirkwood in 1966 it was renamed Rainbow Baptist Church in 1969 to reflect the new location on Rainbow Drive in adjacent Decatur, Georgia.
(Research and writing by Earl Williamson, 2013.)