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Religion in Augusta

First Presb. Ch
First Presbyterian Church
Rebecca Rogers

Almost from the beginning, Augusta’s citizens made religious worship a high priority.  The architecture of the historic buildings that remain and the rich religious history associated with them illustrate the importance of religion in the life of the community. Augusta’s historic churches are diverse in their denominational affiliations and in their architectural styles.

In 1749 even before colonial settlers had regular access to the services of a clergyman, they completed a small church. Because Georgia was a British colony, the congregants were of the Anglican faith.  After the Revolution, the third of five successive buildings on the site of the first church ostensibly served all denominations even though an Episcopal priest was often in residence.  Episcopalians gained control in 1819 and built the fourth St. Paul’s Church on the original site according to plans by architect John Lund.  That Georgian style building burned in the Great Augusta Fire of 1916. The present building replaced it in 1918.  Remaining true to Lund’s 1819 exterior design, architect Henry Ten Eyck Wendell enlarged the footprint and included a modern high style Georgian interior. 

The oldest surviving church building in Augusta is now part of Springfield Baptist Church.  Saint John United Methodist Church originally built Asbury Chapel on Greene Street in 1801 and used the building until 1844.  When the Methodists constructed a new building, the Springfield Baptist congregation acquired the chapel and moved it to the corner of 12th and Reynolds.  Springfield has existed on that site since 1787, making it among the oldest African American congregations in the United States.

In 1807 Charleston-born architect Robert Mills entered and won a design competition sponsored by the fledging Presbyterian congregation in Augusta. Although subsequently remodeled, the building he designed, constructed on Telfair Street between 1809 and 1812, still stands today as the historic sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church.  Joseph Ruggles Wilson, the father of President Woodrow Wilson, was one of its notable pastors.  In 1861 the church was the birthplace of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States. 

ch of most holy trinity
Church of the Most Holy Trinity
Historic Augusta, Inc.

Roman Catholics, banned in colonial Georgia, began coming to Augusta in the 1790s following slave revolts in the French colony of San Domingo.  By 1810 they formed a congregation, known as the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, and obtained land on Telfair Street to erect a sanctuary. The present building, constructed between 1856 and 1863, is one of the two oldest Catholic Church buildings in the state.  Later, many Catholic Irish immigrants came to Augusta to build the railroad and help dig the canal. 

Kiokee Baptist Church, established in 1772 in what was originally St. Paul’s Parish, was the first of its denomination in Georgia.  Kiokee is now located in Columbia County but remains the oldest Baptist congregation in the state.  Although Trustees held a lot for a Baptist Meeting House on Ellis Street between 1777 and 1787, Baptists were slow to organize permanently in Augusta.  They finally established a Baptist Praying Society in 1816 and constructed a building in 1820 on Greene Street according to plans by architect John Lund.  The Southern Baptist Convention was born in this building in 1845, signaling one of many rifts that led to the Civil War.  In 1902 First Baptist Church replaced the 1820 building with a Beaux Arts style edifice. The congregation moved to the west Augusta suburbs in 1975, but the 1902 building, its previous home, still stands and presently serves as a seminaryand a new Baptist congregation.

Other denominations established footholds in Augusta, even as the older congregations began to obtain second and third locations.  First Christian Church dates from 1835 and had its first building on Reynolds Street, replacing it in 1875 with the present Romanesque Revival building on Greene Street, a gift of wealthy benefactress Emily Tubman.  Lutherans arrived when German immigrants came in the 1850s.  Their first church was Saint Matthews, built in 1860 on Walker Street, now the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.  In the 1880s a younger generation wanted services in English.  They built Holy Trinity Lutheran Church at 553 Greene Street in 1889, now the Metropolitan Community Church. The two Lutheran congregations reunited in 1921 as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, constructing their present building in 1926.

Liberty Methodist Church near Hephzibah was one of the first Methodist congregations in Georgia, having a presence as early as the 1770s.  In town, Saint John Methodist dates from 1798.  Its African American members formed Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on 8th Street in 1840.  White Methodists established Saint James Methodist Church further east on Greene Street in 1856. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church became Augusta’s second African American Methodist group before emancipation.  Following the Civil War, additional Methodist congregations grew up in suburban areas, including Saint Luke’s in Harrisburg in 1875, and Trinity-On-The-Hill Methodist in Summerville in 1926. 

Tabernacle Baptist Church
Rebecca Rogers

Baptists quickly began evangelizing after their late start in the town, establishing among others Thankful Baptist in the Pinched Gut Historic District in 1840; Cumming Grove Baptist in the Sand Hills Historic District in the late 1840s; and Tabernacle Baptist Church founded in 1885, with its present building completed in 1915 in the Laney—Walker North Historic District.  These three African American congregations were soon joined by other white brethren at Curtis Baptist, which located downtown on Broad Street in 1876. Its current sanctuary dates from 1927. The Hill Baptist Church, founded in 1930, has a building from 1940 in the Summerville Historic District.  Baptists outnumber all other denominations in Augusta today.

A small number of Jews had a presence in Augusta by the late 18th century, and later formed an association.  In 1847, they built their first synagogue and replaced it in 1869 with the temple at 512 Telfair Street.  Known as Congregation Children of Israel, the Reform congregation joined with an Orthodox congregation later in the 19th century.  Both moved to west Augusta suburbs after World War II, but the 1869 temple, now used as city offices, remains the oldest synagogue building in Georgia.

In 1850, the second Episcopalian parish built the Church of the Atonement on Telfair Street designed by architect Richard Upjohn (razed 1976).  Founded in Summerville in 1869, the Church of the Good Shepherd is now in an 1882 High Victorian Gothic building rebuilt after a fire in 1896.  Good Shepherd’s original building, a wooden church in the Carpenter Gothic style, was moved to Harrisburg to become Christ Episcopal Church in 1882. African Americans founded Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church, located in a building on 12th Street since 1928.

The Presbyterians’ first attempt at founding a second church in Augusta in 1851 was not successful.  The building, at 1102 Greene Street, later became a Civil War Sunday School for African Americans, but was acquired by Union Baptist Church in 1883, when a group of former members of Springfield Baptist improved and enlarged the wooden Carpenter Gothic building.  In 1875, the Presbyterians started a new congregation known as Greene Street Presbyterian Church, whose present 1906 Romanesque Revival sanctuary has a commanding presence on the downtown skyline.

sacred Heart
Sacred Heart Catholic Church
Historic Augusta, Inc.

Roman Catholics expanded their flock by establishing Sacred Heart Church in 1875 on Ellis Street.  The original building still stands and serves as the local headquarters of the American Red Cross.  In 1898-1900, Sacred Heart built a magnificent new church at the northwest corner of Greene and 13th Streets, adjacent to the original building.  Designed in the Romanesque Revival style, the building features 15 different brick designs and a cathedral-like plan. Since 1986 it has served as the Sacred Heart Cultural Center.

In 1913 Catholics established a third historic parish in Augusta, the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Located on Gwinnett Street (now Laney-Walker Boulevard)in the heart of the African-American community, Immaculate Conception continued as an active congregation until 1971 when it was closed by the Diocese, along with Sacred Heart. Both were merged with the mother church, Saint Patrick's, on Telfair Street. With this merger, the original and still official name of the remaining parish was reclaimed, and it has since been known as the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. The parochial school that was established with Immaculate Conception in 1913 continues to be operated by the Diocese, although the original campus was abandoned in 2009 in favor of a building on Telfair Street near the Church of the Most Holy Trinity.

Taken together, Augusta’s historic churches and religious buildings represent an impressive collection of both modest and monumental ecclesiastical architecture for a city of Augusta's size.  Fine examples of Gothic, Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Georgian, and Greek Revival styles can be found.  These buildings witnessed important events in religious and national history, playing significant roles in religious freedom in America.