learn more about the history of one of Savannah's most historical churches
If you’re traveling Savannah’s North Historic District, you’re bound to come across the Lutheran Church of the Ascension. With its Grecian-Doric architecture, it’s difficult to miss! White, columned capitals are finished with medieval-style turrets, making the Lutheran Church of the Ascension a striking sight. Yet the Lutheran Church boasts more than an impressive architecture. The Lutheran Church of the Ascension is likewise a testament to religious freedom, canonizing the exile and emigration of Salzburgian Protestants. The establishment was even used during the Civil War as a makeshift hospital!
Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, had expelled the Salzburgians in 1731. His “Edict of Expulsion” had demanded the Salzburgians recant their faith, yet the Salzburgians refused. The Salzburgians then turned to the Lutheran King George II of England, who offered Salzburgian Protestants refuge in the Colony of Georgia.
Recently exiled, Salzburgian Protestants arrived at the Colony of Georgia in 1734. The Colony of Georgia had been founded by General Oglethorpe the year before, and Oglethorpe met the Salzburgians upon their arrival. Oglethorpe then recommended Ebenezer as the location for their congregation. Yet Oglethorpe would later face the blame of the congregation’s unnecessary deaths, which had occurred from the poor location Oglethorpe had suggested to them.
Ebenezer was moved closer to Savannah in 1736. Reverend Johann Boltzius, a Lutheran American minister and Pastor of Salzburgians at Ebenezer, contested the move and demanded the congregation relocate to a more fertile location. Although Oglethorpe resisted Boltzius’ request, Oglethorpe eventually complied: Boltzius had threatened to disband the Salzburgian community if the request was unmet. The Salzburgians then moved to Savannah, where the Lutheran Church of the Ascension was officially organized.
A brief history of Lutheranism is necessary to contextualize the Salzburgian emigration. The denomination can be traced to Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century professor, composer, and reformer.
Martin Luther thought that one’s religion should converge upon the Gospel. Atonement was only possible through one’s private penance. This was starkly different from the Catholic Church, who thought that a priest mediated one’s relationship with God. Lutheranism, in contrast, rejected the papacy. Martin Luther’s followers became known as “Evangelicals,” and later, “Protestants.”
Protestants therefore faced difficulty in the Archbishopric of Salzburg, a Catholic principality. Their emigration was inevitable after their exile. If Salzburgians wanted religious freedom, they would have to relocate. The Colony of Georgia supplied the opportunity for spiritual sovereignty – an outstanding alternative to the Archbishopric.
In 1741, Reverend Johann Boltzius founded the congregation that is now known as the Lutheran Church of the Ascension. Boltzius had led the Lutheran practice in the Colony of Georgia, so his appointment as the minister to the Lutheran Church of the Ascension came as no surprise.
Yet Boltzius was a controversial figure with an even more controversial doctrine. During the Salzburgian emigration to the Colony of Georgia, for example, many Salzburgians died of complications from infectious disease. Boltzius determined that these deaths were “God’s Plan,” and that they were enacted to test the Salzburgian faith.
The Salzburgian congregation likewise felt that the emigration brought them closer to God, who provided hardship as a way to test their conviction and fidelity. The Salzburgian emigration was even regarded as a “pilgrimage,” which explains why Boltzius described the journey as going "into danger, but closer to God.”
Boltzius’ controversy doesn’t stop there, however: Boltzius became pro-slavery in 1740, though he had been opposed to slavery before. Boltzius came to believe that anti-slavery sentiment endangered the Salzburgians and that pro-slavery sentiment ensured the safety of the Salzburgian congregation. Yet Boltzius later stated that slavery was a way to spread the Christian faith – a far cry from his former stance that slavery was anti-Christian.
Despite the controversies of the Lutheran Church, trustees purchased a lot for the establishment for one hundred and fifty pounds. The purchase occurred in 1756, and a nearby building was acquired in 1772. This building, a former courthouse, became the first church of Lutherans in Savannah.
Yet this was later replaced with a Greek Revival structure in 1844. The structure was affected by antebellum hostility throughout the later-nineteenth century, however. Renovations to the Lutheran Church of the Ascension continued until 1879. These renovations were overseen by George B. Clark, an English architect. Clarke’s contributions include the lowering of the floors, the addition of the second story, and the enlargement of the steeple. Clarke likewise incorporated the medieval-style turrets that the church is known for today!
A stained glass window was additionally included over the building’s altar, leading to the congregation’s moniker “The Lutheran Church of the Ascension.” The stained glass, which the Lutheran Church became known for, depicted Christ’s ascension into Heaven.
Although the charter for the Lutheran Church of the Ascension was signed by Governor Edward Telfair in 1790, their first full-time pastor wasn’t called until 1828.
Their Civil War history is, however, undoubtedly strange. The church pews were used as firewood during General Sherman’s invasion of Savannah of 1864. General Sherman served the Union Army during the American Civil War. His soldiers slept on the cushions of the Lutheran Church! The Lutheran Church likewise served as a field hospital.
Despite damages to the Lutheran Church during the Civil war, the establishment was not destroyed.
The Lutheran Church of the Ascension underwent further renovations in the twentieth century when memorial windows were placed along the North and South walls of the sanctuary. These windows, installed in the 1930s and 1940s, depicted the life of Christ.
Another notable installation occurred in 1968 whenever a 6-acre retreat facility was gifted to the congregation by Vergel Eyler Butler. Vergel wished to honor her late husband, Captain Charles Butler. The retreat is now known as Captain Butler’s and is located on Whitemarsh Island along Richardson Creek. Captain Butler’s is available today for personal or professional events!
Whether you’re visiting to learn more about Savannah’s Salzburgian emigration or Sherman’s Civil War presence, the Lutheran Church of the Ascension is a must-see! You can also find a copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper on the marble altar of the establishment. Looking for “Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms”? Wander to the building’s back window!
Stop by today to experience this essential site!
Today the Lutheran Church of the Ascension is located at 120 Bull Street in the North Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Worship is held at the Lutheran Church of the Ascension on Sunday mornings, though the church is open to visitors seven days a week!