learn about the history of this historic church on Madison Square
Overlooking the impeccably landscaped Madison Square is the towering St. John’s Episcopal Church. This Gothic Revival temple captivates its visitors with luxuriant greenery and quintessential southern appeal. Located in the heart of Savannah, Georgia, the church is brimming with historic importance, dating back to the Civil War. St. John’s Church is merely one of the many places in the Spanish moss-blanketed city where history and architecture seamlessly merge.
Before St. John’s construction, there was the Mother Church of Georgia: Christ Church. The sanctuary, located on Bull Street, was the first recognized place of worship in Savannah, led by celebrated English ministers John Wesley and George Whitefield. Founded in 1733, along with the Georgia colony, Christ Church experienced exponential growth throughout the years, prompting a broadening of its congregation. Although the church was initially considered purely Anglican, colonial and territorial influences shifted the parishioners towards an Episcopalian identity.
St. John’s Episcopal Church was therefore erected to increase the presence of the denomination in the city and, naturally, its first members were former Christ Church attendees. Stephen Elliot, the first bishop of the Diocese of Georgia, was St. John’s first rector. Elliot consecrated the building on May 7th, 1853, a year after its first cornerstone was laid.
St. John’s beginnings are not dissimilar to the origins of the Episcopal theology in that they both emerged from an inclination towards self-sufficiency.
The Episcopal Church arose within the Anglican Communion after its dissemination throughout the New World. While the Anglican Church was established as a reformative religion - separating itself from Roman Catholicism, the Episcopal Church stemmed from a desire to gain independence without completely cutting ties with Anglicanism. The Episcopal Church was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1789 as an autonomous American denomination with a Protestant-based theology.
In recent years, Episcopalians have adopted an uber-liberal stance, advocating for gay rights and tolerating non-celibacy. Although the religion has embraced modern ideas that reshaped the congregation, the church has not completely reformed and avidly preserves its traditional ways, especially when it comes to the Book of Common Prayer, a Protestant guide for worship.
The Book of Common Prayer is a compendium of prayer books published with the purpose of defining worship traditions within the Anglican Communion. Originally published in 1549 - during King Edward VI’s reign, the book describes ceremonial practices, complete forms of Sunday worship, and establishes Protestant doctrine.
Since the publication of the Book of Common Prayer, the religious guide has been revised multiple times, with its most recent revision in 1928. It is from this last revision that St. John’s Episcopal Church bases the format of its services.
What was once the most expensive home in Savannah, the Green-Meldrim House became St. John’s rectory in 1943. Upon being placed on the market, the coveted yet deteriorated home was purchased by the adjacent St. John’s Episcopal Church, who funded its expensive restoration and turned into a parish house. The Neo-Gothic mansion was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1976 due to its extravagance and Civil War significance.
Upon stepping foot in Savannah, General William T. Sherman was offered the opulent mansion as Union Headquarters by its owner Charles Green. It was within its walls that the famous telegram sent by Sherman to Abraham Lincoln - in which he offered the President the city of Savannah as a Christmas gift - was written.
St. John’s Episcopal Church also encountered Union soldiers closely as General Sherman’s chaplain is believed to have conducted Christmas services in the church’s Nave.
In the 1960s the church purchased a portion of land on Macon Street, between the parish house and the sanctuary, where a beautiful garden was planted and the two buildings were connected by a large passage. The lush landscaping between the church and the Green-Meldrim House imitates a cloister with high pointed arches that give way to a perfectly serene setting. Just beyond the archway, we find towering bay laurel trees, neatly manicured shrubs, and a central fountain.
The beautiful St. John’s Episcopal Church was designed by renowned architect Calvin N. Otis in an impressive Gothic Revival style. The New Yorker was commissioned to construct the sanctuary for $500.00, a large sum of money at the time. Calvin Otis is also credited with designing the Buffalo Broadway Auditorium (a former Civil War arsenal), as well as the Mariners’ Church of Detroit.
The exterior façade was designed to include a central tower and spire, grey stuccoed brick, and multiple arched windows. The church’s simple outer appearance contrasts its interior eye-catching decor.
The interior of St. John’s Episcopal Church features a vibrant color palette, consisting of ruby reds, emerald greens, and sapphire blues. High ceilings are framed by exposed carved wooden beams that symbolize a ship’s keel (bottom). This design is popular within Gothic churches as it is meant to represent the Great Flood described in the Book of Genesis. Those that boarded Noah’s ark were saved from death, metaphorically signaling the church as an ark that saves its members from death, or in this case, damnation. The center spire encloses a ship’s mast, further symbolizing the church as a vessel for salvation.
Colorful stained glass windows adorn the interior walls; depicting scenes from the New Testament. The interior also features a large silver pipe organ and a medieval-style angel mural. Centered over the brass reredos, just behind the altar, is the sculpture of Christ rising with arms spread wide, indicating his blessing of the sanctuary.
Tour of St. John’s Episcopal Church and Green-Meldrim House
The St. John’s Episcopal Church currently offers guided walk-in tours of the church and adjacent Green-Meldrim House. Reservations are not necessary and walk-ins are welcome.
Sunday Services are held at various times throughout the day: 8:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 12:15 p.m.
Visit St. John’s Episcopal Church and Green-Meldrim Parish House for a glimpse of Savannah’s elegant yet vexing history.
325 Bull Street
Savannah, GA 31401