Under the Oaks – Christ Episcopal Church

Charles Wesley preached here on March 14, 1736.  It was the first service to be held at the new mission on St. Simon’s Island. There was no actual church building so Reverend Wesley preached right there under the live oak trees with limbs stretching out over an acre and with trunks so large you cannot reach your arms around them – trees that were as old as, well…. the trees.

I like to think that first sermon was in the cool of the evening after a long hot day… new settlers in from a long day’s work clearing fields, soldiers from nearby Fort Frederica, watermen brought in with the tide hauling bushels of crabs or shrimp – everyone from the small colony…. men, women, and children gathering to sing a few hymns and hear the words of the Lord.  George Whitfield, who was a deacon at the Savannah church at the time remembered:

In the evening we had publick Prayers, and expounding of the second Lesson under a large tree, and many more present than could be expected.” 1 (Aug 8, 1737)

The oak no longer stands. It has long since succumbed to storms and damage and time.  There is a Georgia Historical Marker at the site that commemorates the “Wesley Oak” that stands very close to another ancient oak tree, so everyone just seems to think that is the actual oak where Wesley preached.  Yep, me too. Even took a photo with Jerry hugging the tree.  Actually taking the time to read the marker helps.  So, I have a great photo of an old oak tree that is NOT the Wesley Oak…. still a beautiful oak tree that is very picture worthy in its own right.  The original oak is gone but a cross was made from the wood and now hangs inside the church to further commemorate the man and the sermon that evening on St. Simon’s Island.

Charles was the brother of the Reverend John Wesley, the rector at the Christ Chapel in Savannah. Both brothers were sent out from the Church of England.  Brother Charles had traveled to St. Simon’s Island in the Georgia colony as a chaplain for James Oglethorpe, credited as the founder of the state. Oglethorpe had established Fort Frederica on the island on February 15, 1736 and brought in Scottish soldiers to help secure the frontier.  I do not suppose anyone thinks of the low country and barrier islands along the Georgia coast as “the frontier” these days and I daresay not too many people worry about protection when they visit, but in 1736, it was pretty much the edge of nowhere, full of all sorts of danger…. and possible Spanish colonists that couldn’t be allowed.

Charles Wesley established a mission on the island and preached that first sermon on March 14, 1736.  In the beginning, he held services in a small tabby (cement & broken up seashells) building within the walls of Fort Frederica. He served the congregation on the island at the small mission until July 1736.  The United Society Partners in the Gospel provided clergy for the mission/church during the 1700’s. After America’s Revolutionary War, the local churches broke away from the Church of England (understandably) becoming Episcopal churches in the US.

The first permanent church on the property was built in 1820. This church stood until the American Civil War when it was mostly destroyed.  Christ Episcopal Church at St. Simon’s was incorporated by state legislature in 1808 and given one hundred and eight acres on the island near Fort Frederica. Reverend William Best was the first rector of the newly incorporated Christ Episcopal Church which joined other churches to form the Episcopal Diocese in 1823.  On a sidenote, church history from Wikipedia 5 indicates that in 1840, bees built a hive in the church steeple. The congregants collected and sold honey to raise money for building repairs.  Two thoughts come quickly to mind; 1) this just has to be an early predecessor to more church bake sales than you can shake a stick at, and 2) I wonder if the bees “hummed” along with the singing during church services.

Christ Church continued to be served by lay ministers who visited the area as circuit riders at intervals in the 1800’s. It wasn’t clear where the congregation met once the church building was destroyed although under the trees seems to have worked out okay.  In 1879, Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. (Deacon and then Rector) reorganized the parish and, in 1884, had the church rebuilt in memory of his wife who was buried on the grounds. 

Reverend Dodge also established another church, St. Ignatius, nearby on Demere Road as an outreach to slaves that had been freed after the war.  Anna Alexander, a deaconess who served at St. Ignatius, is noteworthy as the first black deaconess in the Episcopal Church.  In 1998, she was named as a saint in the church by the Episcopal Diocese.  In the 1980’s, St. Ignatius was closed and merged with Christ Episcopal Church.  Christ Episcopal Church continues to be an active congregation with services still being held throughout the year.  Visitors are made welcome. (According to the church website, about 20,000 people visit the church each year.)

“Our grounds and our faith are historic, built upon the foundations laid by our ancestors on this island and the host of saints who have come before us.” 4

We were blessed in that the church was open on the day we visited, and we were able to go inside and enjoy the beauty of the church.  The interior of the building, which is quite simple and beautiful, was built with local heart pine which has never been stained or painted. 

We also spent quite a bit of time in the cemetery on the grounds. Many of the tombstones there are as old as the trees that surround them.  The oldest tombstone is 1803 although it is thought that there are older graves there. The cemetery includes the graves of the Rectors of the church and their families, early settlers, Officers of the British Army who served nearby, and soldiers from every war fought by the US.3

The day we visited was a quiet one with only one other couple strolling through the grounds reading the inscriptions on the gravestones, a Pastor and his wife visiting from Tennessee. 

Before we left, we asked the pastor to say a prayer with us. He obliged praying for safety in our travels and asked God to bless the church and bring souls to salvation there in the future. We prayed under the beautiful live oak trees where some 300 years ago, the Reverend Charles Wesley had preached and, no doubt, had prayed the same prayer for mercy and salvation. Amen

Notes & Sources with links:

  1. Georgia Historical Marker 063-33A, 1968, Christ Episcopal Church (I was unable to locate the link for the specific marker online so included the link for the main site.)
  2. Georgia Historical Marker 063-34A, Wesley Oak (Unable to locate the link for the specific marker.)
  3. Georgia Historical Marker 063-35, Christ Church Cemetery
  4. Christ Episcopal Church Website/About Us /(ccfssi.org)
  5. Wikipedia, Christ Church (St. Simons, Georgia)

If you’d like to visit Christ Episcopal Church:

There are two locations on St. Simons Island. The main Church and offices are located at 6329 Frederica Rd., St. Simons Island, GA 31522. St. Ignatius Chapel is located at 2609 Demere Rd., St. Simons Island, GA 31522. 4

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