Springfield Baptist Church
Savannah's First African and First Bryan Baptist churches have long contested with each other for the title of "oldest" church. The origins of the Augusta and Savannah churches are intertwined. Around 1773 a roving evangelist named Wait Palmer organized a church among George Galphin's slaves at his Silver Bluff, South Carolina, plantation, located twelve miles below Augusta on the Savannah River. Among the original members were two who played major roles in black Baptist history, David George and Jesse Peters. George later left an account of his life, including his escape from slavery in Virginia, his flight into the Indian country, and his association with the traders employed by George Galphin. George recounted how "Brother Palmer formed us into a church and gave us the Lord's Supper at Silver Bluff." Galphin's children taught George to read, and he began preaching to the little congregation on the plantation. George Liele, a slave of Henry Sharp and a member of the mostly white Buckhead Baptist Church, also preached at Silver Bluff.
George Galphin took the patriot side in the American Revolution (1775-83). In 1779, during the British occupation of Georgia, about ninety of Galphin's slaves, among them George and Peters, sought refuge with British commander Archibald Campbell. They were later joined in Savannah by Liele, whose master was killed in a skirmish with patriot forces. The refugees formed a church in Savannah. When the British evacuated Savannah in 1782, George and many members of the church went to Nova Scotia and founded one of the first, if not the first, African American church there. The inhospitable climate, and an unfriendly reception by some of the inhabitants, caused George and his followers to migrate to Sierra Leone, where they established a church and a community. Meanwhile Liele and others of the Savannah church left Georgia for Jamaica.
Historian Mechal Sobel credits Springfield Baptist with 497 members in 1803. Following Jesse Peters Galphin's death in 1806, Caesar McCredy and Robert McGee served as pastors. In 1824 Jacob Walker succeeded to the pastorate, and Springfield enjoyed its greatest period of growth, claiming 1,000 members to make it the largest congregation in the Georgia Baptist Association.
In 1840 Springfield established the first of several daughter churches. In 1844 the church purchased the building known as Asbury Chapel from Augusta's St. John Methodist Church. The building, constructed in 1801, was moved several city blocks to the Springfield Church property on Twelfth and Reynolds streets and replaced the older church on that location. The building survives today as one of Georgia's oldest church structures.
Under pastor George Dwelle, the congregation laid the cornerstone of a new brick church building in 1897 and used the older Asbury Chapel as its parish hall. The Reverend James Nabrit served as pastor from 1912 to 1921. His son, James Nabrit Jr., graduated from Morehouse College and from Northwestern University Law School in Chicago, Illinois; joined the faculty of Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C.; and rose to the presidency of that institution. He also served as deputy for U.S. supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case (1954) that reversed the policy set earlier in the Ware High School decision. Another son, Samuel Nabrit, also a Morehouse graduate, became president of Texas Southern University.
In 1995 a coalition of city and community leaders began construction of Springfield Village Park adjacent to the church. The park features abstract metal sculptures by nationally known African American artist Richard Hunt of Chicago. Plaques along an ascending ramp tell the history of American blacks as well as the history of Springfield Church.
Walter H. Brooks, "The Priority of the Silver Bluff Church and Its Promoters," Journal of Negro History (April 1922).
Edward J. Cashin, Old Springfield: Race and Religion in Augusta, Georgia (Augusta: Springfield Village Park Foundation, Inc., 1995).
Edward Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, ).
Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
Mechal Sobel, Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979).
Edward J. Cashin, Augusta State University
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