“January 19, 1736, was a mild winter day along Coastal Georgia. The Reverend John McLeod from Isle of Skye, Scotland, newly ordained by the Presbytery of Isle, said to the Highlanders around him, `Let us pray.’ Thus was born Presbyterism in Georgia, and Darien became its cradle.”
With these words, Savannah Presbytery historian, the Reverend Frank C. King, began his award-winning article on the early days of Presbyterianism in Georgia.
In October 1735 some 177 Highlanders had sailed from Inverness, Scotland. They landed at “Barnwell’s Bluff,” one mile east of today’s Darien. In their new settlement the Highlanders “built a chapel for Divine Worship,” and the Reverend Mr. McLeod began preaching in Gaelic. Somewhat later, a “meeting house” for the scattered Highlanders was built some eight miles north of Darien for worship and civic gatherings. It is worthy of note that on Sunday, February 22, 1736, General James Oglethorpe visited Darien and participated in worship. Oglethorpe later spoke of this group as his “favorite colonists.”
It is also noteworthy that John Wesley in 1737 attended the services conducted by the Reverend Mr. McLeod and was “surprised to hear an extempore prayer before a written sermon.” John Wesley praised the congregation and their persuasive minister, and the next day wrote in his journal, “I prayed extempore!”
Although it is difficult to trace a consistent historical line for the following decades in Presbyterian History, it is known that in 1808 the Presbyterian Church in Darien was officially organized and in 1822 plans were made for a permanent structure for the Presbyterian Church there.
The only other church within the Presbytery that can trace its history to the 18th Century is the White Bluff Presbyterian Church in Savannah which was organized in 1743 as a congregation of the German Reformed Church. In 1944 the congregation became a member of Savannah Presbytery and it has maintained itself as a mission-oriented congregation to this day.
A number of other presbytery churches were being rooted in the early years of the 19th century when coastal Georgia’s economy was thriving as a slave-based rice economy. Though slavery had originally been banned by the Georgia Trustees in the original colony, this law was rescinded in 1751 opening the way for Carolina planters to fulfill the dream of expanding their rice crops into the Georgia lowcountry. The planters and their slaves flooded into Georgia and soon dominated the colony’s government. Within twenty years some sixty planters, who owned roughly half the colony’s rapidly increasing slave population, dominated the low country rice economy of Georgia.
St. Marys First Church was organized in 1822 and the First Church, Savannah was organized in 1827. A cluster of “meeting houses” or “retreat churches” were forming simultaneously in Liberty County as early as the 1820s when the wealthy planters of the Midway Congregational Church (1752) began to move further inland from the malaria-stricken coast for safer settings in the summer. The first of these retreat churches to meet was Flemington, followed by Walthourville and Dorchester. After the devastation of the Civil War, the leaders of these churches voted to become Presbyterian which was a more well known denomination in Georgia though still less than 10% of the state’s population at the time. Flemington was organized by Savannah Presbytery in 1866 and remains vibrant today. Walthourville was later organized in 1897 and Dorchester in 1871. Though Walthourville and Dorchester are no longer active congregations, their historic structures remain.
It is noteworthy that many of the African-American congregations organized after the Civil War by those who had survived chattel slavery are still active today. A number of these churches were started by Rev. Joseph Williams, originally from Providence Island West Indies, who was ordained in 1866 as a Presbyterian minister by the Presbytery of Hopewell (Tennessee) and then became a leader in Knox Presbytery, one of three African American presbyteries formed along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida. Williams was known as the Founder of Black Presbyterianism in Liberty County where he shepherded the newly freed men, women and children of the old Midway Church. His efforts led to the founding of Midway First (1868), Second Ebenezer and Riceboro. Butler Memorial in Savannah (1871) and Grant Chapel in Darien (1890) also developed into thriving congregations with members building some of the church structures themselves.
As the people of South Georgia sought to build new lives for themselves from the trauma of the Civil War, the last three decades of the 19th Century proved to be a remarkable time of expansion and new church development with twelve churches organized during that 30-year period. In addition to Walthourville (1897) mentioned earlier, these included Blackshear (1872), First Eastman (1877), Vidalia (1890), First Statesboro (1891), Henry Memorial (1897), and McRae (1898).
The momentum of expansion continued in the early part of the 20th Century with seven churches being added by the early 1930s. First Douglas (1902), Swainsboro (1907), Metter (1910), Brunswick Second (1919), Jesup (1923), and Riceboro (1932). Following World War II, another period of expansion began with eight churches organized by the end of the 1960s. These included Montgomery (1944), St. Simons (1946), Washington Street (1956), Allenhurst (1960), Jekyll (1961), Peabody Heights (1962), Wilmington Island (1963), and Altama (1969). Almost a decade passed without a new church development and then Skidaway Island Community Church was founded in 1978 when The Landings community was founded on the outskirts of Savannah.
Just a few years later in 1984, the Presbytery extended its mission reach when it partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to construct the Swainsboro Presbyterian Apartments to provide housing for low-income persons 62 years old and older. Though the presbytery ceded management to the Presbyterian Homes of Georgia in 2014, it is still carried out as an outreach project to persons of need.
In 1986 Savannah Presbytery celebrated 250 years of Presbyterian witness in Georgia with a gala celebration held in Darien. Some 1,000 people attended the event which featured former moderators of the General Assembly as well as other dignitaries from local and state government.
Energized by this celebration of its heritage and hoping to end another draught of church openings, Savannah Presbytery adopted New Church Development as a major priority in the late 1980s. As a result, congregations formed around new community developments including Richmond Hill (1991), Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island (2000), and Christ in Pooler (2009). A redevelopment was also initiated at the Swainsboro Church in 2014 called Iglesia Latina which remains a vital mission of Savannah Presbytery with leadership by and for the Hispanic community in that area.
Today Savannah Presbytery is home to more than sixty active and retired ministers and thirty two active congregations with some 3,400 active members. We give thanks to God for the workings of Providence that have allowed the Savannah Presbytery to serve and to flourish during an extended history in this part of Christ’s Kingdom! We continue to seek God’s will together as we move through a time of transition in church and culture and enjoy God’s presence in this significant time.