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

Country Church Tour (Episode 1)

harpers ferryHave you ever gone looking for something and ended up finding another? Started out moving in one direction and ended up going in another? Gone out with one plan in mind only to find out that what you ended up with is so much better?

Well, this is exactly what happened to us recently. Being pretty avid birdwatchers, we are always going out looking for birds. If the birds are not cooperating (as is very normal for the summer months between migration seasons), then we go looking for gardens and flowers – wild or cultivated, it matters not. But mostly we end up roaming around just looking….well, for whatever interests us. This habit has prompted some of our friends to refer to us as being vagabonds….but only on vacations mind you.

So, we headed out on our last trip to southern Virginia with two thoughts in mind – visit a relative and scout out some good birds…which we did. But along the way, we spotted a beautiful old white church and I just had to get a photograph of it. Then there was another and another and another and I had to get pictures of them too.

ideaAnd then out of the depths of my brain a new idea was born…a splendiferous idea….an idea so amazing, I am surprised I had not thought of it before….why, I could write some blogs about old churches. After all, I have written about an old church before (Empty Church/January 2015) but this time I thought I’d do something a little different. I’d photograph the churches, find out what I could about them, and share it with everyone. And I could make this project a series of blogs and continue it on future trips…..when I’m looking for birds and blooms, I’d also look for old churches. Heck, I might even end up with a coffee table book filled with pictures of old churches if I do a good enough job of it…..okay, that might be stretching the dream a little bit but it is worth thinking about sometimes.

Right off the bat, I noticed that old churches are, in one respect, more cooperative than birds….they sit still so you can photograph them. On the other hand, it is turning out to be much easier to find out information on the internet about a particular bird than it is to find out the history of a particular church….especially an old one.

The second thing I noticed is that I like old clapboard painted churches more than old brick ones. But then again, there are some brick churches that are old and architecturally beautiful that I really love. So, I think the appeal for me is that the church be (1) old, (2) relatively small, and (3) out in the country rather than in the city. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably end up taking pictures of churches in cities too and big ones as well as small ones but I’m starting small and then we will see how this goes.

Without further ado – these first five were selected because they were seen and photographed on our recent visit to the middle peninsula of southern Virginia and because the Historical Society of Mathews County (mathewscountyhistoricalsociety.org) did a historical church tour in 2015 and posted information on the internet about the churches on their tour. That is convenient for me since, as I noted above, most of these old churches I’m finding do not have anything on their internet sites…or even seem to have internet sites. My undying gratitude to the Historical Society at any rate.

Mathews BaptistMathews Baptist Church

8284 Buckley Hall Road, Hudgins, VA 23076              http://www.mathewsbaptistchurch.com/

Now, this is the first church photograph I took on this trip to southern Virginia…the one that started it all so to speak. This church was established in 1776 – same as this country. It was established by itinerant preachers and was originally called Kingston. In 1791, it became known as Mathews Baptist Church when the county of Mathews was officially founded. In 1905, the sanctuary was remodeled and the steeple was added. I am not sure whether the First Baptist Church (below) was the first to use the gingerbread décor on the steeple or if Mathews Baptist had a prior steeple and the current one was just updated in 1905. The gingerbread reminds me of Victorian homes and I have never seen it on a church steeple before that I recall. If you look at the bottom front of the church in the photographs, you will see that renovations are still ongoing and, no doubt, new elements are always being added. The church mission is a good one —To provide the public worship of God; to preach the redeeming love of Christ and lead people to the Savior; to welcome the stranger; to comfort the sorrowing and help the needy; to create the spirit of Christian fellowship; to serve the community; the nation, and the needy world.”

mathews stained glass Mathews Baptist steeple


First Baptist Church (Mathews)  mathews 1st baptist

9654 Buckley Hall Road, Mathews, VA 23109

The First Baptist Church in Mathews was founded in 1865. It “came out of” (to quote the Historical Society) the old Baptist church, Mathews Baptist Church. After Emancipation, two hundred and ninety one members of the church requested that their “mission” be changed in status to be a “church”. (Let me take a little break for me to look up some history here. I was a bit confused at the note that the church was founded in 1865 and then “after Emancipation”, a request for a status change was made. I speculate that the congregation had founded a mission prior to the Emancipation Proclamation was passed by executive order on January 1, 1863. But, as we all well know, the American Civil War did not end until 1865 and true emancipation did not come for many slaves until after the war and the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865. So, after the war, the church was founded when its status was changed. Again, I am speculating because I do not know anything more about this church than I was able to find on the internet.) One thing I love about this church is the lovely steeple with what looks like Victorian gingerbread which is very similar to the steeple at its mother church, Mathews Baptist (above). Also, their mission statement is quite beautiful –Committed to serving God and his people of all races, encouraging them to make Jesus their choice and acknowledging His as the only way to everlasting life.

mathews 1st steeple

mathews 1st stained glass


Emmaus Baptist ChurchEmmaus Church

13794 John Clayton Memorial Highway,  North, VA

Emmaus Baptist Church was founded in 1867 and established in 1868. (I am learning that there is a world of difference between being founded, established, chartered, built, etc. when it comes to churches.) Prior to the founding of Emmaus Baptist, blacks who wanted to worship in a church with a sanctuary had to do so over at the First Baptist Church. After emancipation, the founding families, some of whom may have been former slaves, would have undoubtedly wanted a church of their own in which to worship. The land for the church was donated by a Mrs. Harriet Jones who also taught school at the church for some years after it was built. The name “Emmaus” was taken from the New Testament in the Gospel of Luke. It refers to an event in the New Testament where Jesus appeared to two of his disciples as they traveled on the road to Emmaus…this was after Jesus’ resurrection but before his ascension into heaven.




Emmaus stained glass Emmaus cemetery


Ebenezer BaptistEbenezer Baptist Church

3601 Buckley Hall Road, Cobbs Creek, VA

Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded in 1875 by a small group of members from the First Baptist Church. (I am seeing a theme here in members of the congregation breaking away and forming a new church nearby in the county. I believe it is the same today and referred to as “planting” new churches in the community although the reasons for starting a new church may vary.) In the 1890’s, land was purchased and a clapboard structure was built. I was not able to go inside but, per the Historical Society tour notes, there are two Captain’s chairs at the altar that were used throughout the years to support caskets for funerals. The pews are painted wood….men sat on the right (the Hallelujah side) and women sat on the left (the Amen side). Light was provided by oil lamps and chandeliers. In 1908 a cornerstone was laid for the presently existing church and in 1914 a metal ceiling was installed. Of course, now I’m thinking I may need to go back and go inside some of these churches. I recall large wooden chairs behind the pulpit in churches I attended when I was younger but do not recall them being called “Captain’s chairs”. Now I wonder if they were also used to support caskets for funerals before the advent of those metal rolling gurney-like tables provided by funeral homes today.

Ebenezer steeple Ebenezer stained glass


Gwynns IslandGwynn’s Island Baptist Church

2011 Old Ferry Road Gwynn,  VA 23066     http://www.gibchurch.com/

Now this church is very cooperative – not only do they have a website, they have a Facebook page! Very up and coming for a church that was started way back in July 1874. But, once again, we find that the original congregants, thirty five of them, came over from Mathews Baptist Church. They acquired ¼ acre of land for $25 in February 1875 and built their church. The first pastor was Charles A. Raymond. By 1889, they had organized a Sunday School….or at least that was the first mention of Sunday School in their historical documents online. The longest pastor to serve the congregation was I.E. Belch who was pastor for twenty-six years. Their mission is Serving the Lord by Serving Others”.


Gwynns Island stained glass



Again, most of the information on these churches in Mathews County comes from the Mathews County Historical Society. However, I would love to hear more about these churches if you happen to know anyone who has or still attends these churches and have more information to share. And, if you like this idea, please comment and let me know……I’m finding lots of churches to photograph so would like to share more of them in future blogs.