The Independent Church, Savannah, Georgia


When George II, of his ” special Grace, certain knowledge and meer motion,” gave a deed for a lot in Savannah, ” in our province of Georgia,” he declared that it was ” for the use and benefit of such of our loving subjects . . . as are or shall be professors of the Doctrines of the Church of Scotland, agreeable to the Westminster Confession of Faith.” The further stipulation was made that the annual rent, if demanded, should be ” one pepper corn.”

The date of the grant was January 16, 1756, and within the three years allowed for the erection of the building a brick structure was ready for the use of the Independent Presbyterian Church. The church was independent in fact as well as in name. There was at first no presbytery in Georgia with which it could unite, and when a presbytery was organized, this independent relation continued.

The first pastor was Rev. John Joachim Zubly, who came to the Colonies from Switzerland. He remained with the church until 1778, and became a prominent figure among the patriots of the early years of the Revolution. When the first Provincial Congress of Georgia met in Savannah, July 4, 1775, it adjourned, immediately after organization, to the Independent Church, where Dr. Zubly preached a sermon for which he received the public thanks of Congress.

The London Magazine for January, 1776, contained an impassioned appeal for the Colonies, which was signed by Dr. Zubly. The editor stated that the communication was printed at the request of ” an old correspondent,” who signed himself ” O.” It is supposed that this correspondent was General James E. Ogle thorpe, the founder of Georgia. A few months later Dr. Zubly went to Philadelphia, as a member of the second Continental Congress. He had also been a member of the first Congress in 1774.

During the siege of Savannah by the British the church building was badly injured by British cannon, in spite of the fact that it was used as a hospital. Later the British used the church as barracks. A visitor who entered the city in 1784 said that he found the church in a ruinous condition. It was promptly repaired, however, and services were resumed.

But there was another pastor in the pulpit. In 1778 Dr. Zubly resigned, probably because, for some strange reason, he deserted the Colonies and made known his allegiance to Great Britain.

Fire destroyed the original building in 1796, and a fine new church was built. Twenty-one years later the rapidly increasing congregation made necessary a much larger structure. The new church was modelled after St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, London, and more than two years were required for its construction. The cost was $96,108.67 1/2, a large sum for that day in a town of ten thousand people. Although the middle aisle was eleven feet wide and each of the side aisles four and a half feet wide, there were seatings for 1,350 people. The beautifully proportioned steeple was 223 feet high. The day after the dedication a local paper said that ” for grandeur of design and nature of execution, we presume this church is not surpassed by any in the United States.” Many architectural writers have told rapturously of the wonders of this building.

President James Monroe and his suite, as well as many other distinguished visitors, were reverent worshippers in the church on the day of dedication.

Lowell Mason, who was organist of the church from 1815 to 1827, composed the popular melody to which Bishop Heber’s missionary hymn, ” From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” is usually sung. This melody was first played by him for the Sunday school of the church, whose organization dates from 1804.

Dr. S. K. Axson, the grandfather of Ellen Axson, the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, was pastor of the church from 1857 to 1889. The Wilson marriage ceremony was performed by Dr. Axson in the manse of the church.

All Savannah mourned when, on April 6, 1889, fire-brands tossed by the wind lodged on a cornice of the graceful steeple, too high to be reached. Soon the old church was in ruins. But the city resolved that the historic church must be restored. A new building was erected which is an exact reproduction of the former church. To it, as to its predecessors, ecclesiastical architects go on pilgrimage as a part of their education.

One of the old customs still continued in the church is the assembling of the communicants at a table which is laid the entire length of the broad aisle, as well as in the transept aisle.