The Episcopal Diocese calls Christ Church on Johnson Square the “Mother Church of Georgia.” Unique among all of Savannah’s Christian churces, this is the oldest body of believers in the city as the congregation was instituted on the same day as the Colony of Georgia itself — on February 12, 1733.
Since that monumental day nearly three centuries ago, Christ Church Episcopal has built three church buildings, suffered the onslaught of hurricanes, fires and struggled through a major congregational split in the last decade.
The story starts, though, back in the 1730s as the congregation is established and Herbert Henry becomes the first minister. Although he was the first pastor, his tenure was very short — less than one year. Samuel Quincy succeeded him and served for two years until John Wesley became a minister for the flock.
Undoubtedly the most famous of all ministers to ever serve at Christ Church was John Wesley. He is credited with being the founder of the Methodist movement and he instituted the first Sunday School in America at Christ Church. He remained a lifelong Anglican (which are called Episcopals in the U.S.A.) but spent five decades after his return to England preaching in open air spaces. This wasn’t always popular with church officials who favored the Anglican liturgy within the walls of a church. But Wesley possessed a hunger to convert anyone who would listen and believed many people would listen in non-traditional settings and would never enter a church to hear the Gospel. The Methodist denomination grew out of his efforts. A statue dedicated to John Wesley is located less than a half mile from Christ Church Episcopal in nearby Reynolds Square.
Another pillar of 18th century Christianity would succeed Wesley as the fourth minister of the Christ Church congregation — The Rev. George Whitfield. He began serving in 1738 and two years later began building the famous Bethesda Orphanage on the outskirts of Savannah. He’s credited with preaching personal conversion to Jesus Christ in both Great Britain and the colonies in America during what is now historically known as “the Great Awakening.” After his time in Savannah, Whitfield would spend time in Philadelphia and befriend Benjamin Franklin.
Reverend Whitfield was honored by Savannah officials in the middle of the nineteenth century by naming Whitfield Square after him. It was one of the last three squares established in Savannah and is located at the intersection of Habersham and Taylor Streets.
Wesley and Whitfield both led Christ Church before the first church building ever went up. It wasn’t until 1744 that the cornerstone was set and construction began on a permanent home for believers. In 1750, the first church building was dedicated and it would stand for forty six years until a fire completely destroyed the structure in 1796.
Work to rebuild commenced in 1803 but all progress on the building was lost the following year when a major hurricane struck Savannah and destroyed the construction completed up to that point. Once again, the congregation dedicated itself to rebuilding and work began again. In 1815, the 2nd church building was completed and the church was consecrated for worship.
The building completed in 1815 was not destined for a long life. In 1837, it was demolished and immediately work on the third church building began. It was the fastest of all building efforts in history for the congregation as everything was in place and ready for dedication in 1840. This structure (the third church building) is the one that remains today facing Savannah’s Johnson Square.
In these early days there was no local “diocese” over the church. It wasn’t until 1823 that Christ Church and two other parishes were founding members of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. Eighteen years later, the first Bishop, The Rt. Reverend Stephen Elliot, was consecrated. He would make the decision to divide the parish into two churches and assigned all parish residents south of Oglethorpe Avenue are to begin worshipping at the new parish of St. John’s
One interesting historical note for tourists who've visited Colonial Park Cemetery on Oglethorpe Avenue is this cemetery was supervised by the church from 1758 until burials ceased there in 1853. It was the parish burial grounds during this time but a legal dispute with the City of Savannah in the late 1800s returned control of the cemetery to back to the city and a park was established on the spot -- serving the purpose of protecting the burial ground for perpetuity.
Christ Church Episcopal cherishes its historic path through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries right up to the modern day. The current church building is more than 170 years old and serves the spiritual needs of the believers who worship here. In the 20th century, famous people from Savannah passed through Christ Church one last time for their funeral services including Juliette Gordon Low, Founder of the Girl Scouts in 1927 and Academy Award Winning Songwriter Johnny Mercer in 1976.
The church was also the sight of the first ordination of a female deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia in 1985 when Susan. W. Harrison was ordained.