learn more about the history of one of Savannah's most historical churches
Now considered the "Mother Church of Georgia Presbyterians,” the Independent Presbyterian Church has endured fires, been the home of a composer, Presidential wedding, and Hollywood blockbuster. Its history doesn’t stop there, however: the original structure was a Magazine and stable used by the British during the Revolutionary War. That’s a far cry from its current site, which historian Walter Hartridge declared “Savannah’s most notable building.” With 250 years of history, Savannah’s Independent Presbyterian Church is a must-see for visitors to the city.
Established in 1755, the Independent Presbyterian Church was the First Presbyterian Church founded in Georgia. King George II deeded the land of the original structure to colonial supporters of the Church of Scotland with “the intent and purpose that a place of public worship be thereupon erected and built for the use and benefit of such of our loving subjects now residing, or that may at any time thereafter reside within the district of Savannah, in our said Province of Georgia, as are and shall be professors of the Doctrines of the Church of Scotland, agreeable to the Westminster Confession of Faith.” The Independent Presbyterian Church sat in Ellis Square on Market Street.
John Joachim Zubly of the Continental Congress was the first minister of the Independent Presbyterian Church. The meetinghouse then comprised a Magazine and stable formerly used by the British during the Revolutionary War. Notable events on the site include a sermon that Zubly preached upon the death of George Whitefield, the English Anglican cleric and founder of the evangelical movement. The first Provincial Congress of Georgia also adjourned at the church upon their organization on July 4, 1775. The meetinghouse was later used as a hospital during the Siege of Savannah.
A segment of the Independent Presbyterian Church’s eighteenth-century meetinghouse was excavated and rebuilt in 1980. The segment was reconstructed as a wall on West Hull Street.
In 1796, the Independent Presbyterian Church was destroyed by fire. A second structure was established in 1800. The Independent Presbyterian Church was relocated to York and President’s Street, facing what’s now Telfair Place. Hurricane damaged the second structure in 1804, though it appears that the Independent Presbyterian Church remained. The congregation of the Independent Presbyterian Church later outgrew the site and relocated to Bull and South Broad Street, now Oglethorpe Avenue. The third structure was laid on January 13, 1817.
The Independent Presbyterian Church’s third meetinghouse was designed by John Holden Green after St. Martin in the Fields, an English Anglican church in Westminster, London. Green likewise designed the Independent Presbyterian Church after the First Congregational Church of Providence, Rhode Island, which he had also established. The construction was supervised by Amos Scudder of Westfield.
The Independent Presbyterian Church’s new design was declared a “poem in art and a dream in stone.” The Columbian Museum and Savannah Daily Gazette covered the building’s May 10th dedication, recording that “yesterday the new Independent Presbyterian Church, which has been building in this city and now nearly finished, was solemnly dedicated to the service of the Almighty God. An able and impressive discourse was delivered from the second chapter of Haggai and ninth verse.” The Columbian Museum and Savannah Daily Gazette continued, detailing the structure’s “design and neatness of execution.” They even professed that the site was “not surpassed by any in the United States.”
In 1889, this building, too, burned down. A marble baptismal font was the only artifact spared from the fire.
A reproduction was supervised by William Preston Gibbons and established on-site in 1891. Everything except the mural tablets matched the former structure exactly. The baptismal font was restored and resituated in the pulpit, where it is still used today. The dedication was held on June 14, five months after the seventy-third anniversary of the Independent Presbyterian Church’s third meetinghouse.
William Dean Howell described how the “primacy” of the twentieth-century reproduction “must be yielded above every other religious edifice in Savannah to the famous Presbyterian Church, rebuilt in exact form after its destruction by fire. The structure on the outside is of such Sir Christopher Wren-ish renaissance that one might well be looking at it in a London street, but the interior is of such lovely uniqueness that no church in London can compare to it. Whoever would realize its beauty must go at once to Savannah, and forget for one beatific moment in its presence, the ceilings of Tiepolo, and the roofs of Veronese.”
The Axson Memorial Building was constructed in 1928 and contains the Mary Telfair Chapel. The Axson Memorial Building likewise contains the Wilson-Axson Room, which is a reproduction of the manse parlor.
The Independent Presbyterian Church’s administration building was built in 1895 though renovated in 1993.
In the nineteenth-century, Lowell Mason served as the church organist. His compositions include “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” and “From Greenland's Icy Mountains.” Mason is likewise credited with the introduction of music to American public schools and is considered the first significant American music educator.
The Independent Presbyterian Church was used in 1885 for the wedding of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s wife, Ellen Louise Axson, was born in the manse of Independent Presbyterian Church in 1860. Notable ministers of the Independent Presbyterian Church include Henry Kollock, Daniel Baker, Willard Preston, and I.S.K. Axson.
The Independent Presbyterian Church was most recently filmed in Forrest Gump. In the film’s opening shot, a feather floats past the meetinghouse before landing before Gump at the park bench.
The Independent Presbyterian Church has a remarkable interior. The structure features four Corinthian columns that hoist a gabled roof. The windows, which feature stained glass, are fashioned in the Federal style. A chequered center aisle rests beneath a domed ceiling. The steeple measures 227 feet high and incorporates steel and iron. It’s the tallest construction of downtown Savannah. The Independent Presbyterian Church also features a pillared mahogany pulpit. The organ, installed in 2005, was assembled by Rieger-Kloss of the Czech Republic.
With its impeccable architecture, the Independent Presbyterian Church is sure to delight locals and travelers alike. The history of the Independent Presbyterian Church will leave you enraptured.
Visit Savannah’s “most notable building” is at 207 Bull Street. Sunday Worship occurs at 11 am and 5:15 pm. Service is also held on Wednesdays at noon.