The First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia is a vibrant Christian church with an incredible history. While the current pastor, Reverend Thurmond N. Tillman, guides his flock and nourishes their spiritual needs in the modern world, the congregation looks back on its rich history and eagerly educates visitors about the past. Tours are offered to tell the story of how the congregation came into existence in the the late 1700s and all that has been experienced since those early days.
Photo courtesy of Jason Riedy
Originally named First Colored Baptist, the church was renamed First African Baptist and it is where the first black Sunday school class in North America was taught. From the exterior, the church looks smaller than inside. Standing in Franklin Square today and looking across Montgomery Street, you’ll see the current structure that was built in 1859.
Both the main sanctuary and the balcony are available for touring. Anyone with an appreciation for American history in the south, Christian history in the U.S.A. or African American history will be enlightened and inspired with a visit to First African Baptist Church in Savannah with its well preserved artifacts. Among the historical pieces maintained inside the church to this day are many of the light fixtures which have been present since the middle of the 19th century, although they were converted from gas to electric at some later time. The organ was placed up in the balcony in 1888 where it remains today holding the distinction of being the oldest pipe organ in the State of Georgia. Also in the balcony, you’ll find wooden pews that have remained since their placement. Constructed by slaves, the pews feature inscriptions in an African dialect. It is quite an experience to sit on those pews built by slaves inside the oldest black church in America.
Seventeen men have led the First African Baptist Church. The congregation has depended on their leadership and guidance over the centuries. The church pays homage to several former pastors in a very special way — with their images captured in stained glass. The very first pastor, George Leile is honored with placement in a special stained glass window visible when standing outside the front of the church. At the front of the church, behind where Rev. Tillman preaches today, are the images of six more preachers who led this historic group of believers.
While George Leile was pastor of First African Baptist, he traveled to Jamaica as a missionary earning him the distinction of being both the first missionary from America to travel to a foreign land for the sake of the Gospel and the first Baptist missionary to Jamaica. Taking over in 1788, Andrew Bryan was a former slave who became the successor of Leile as pastor.
The third leader of First African Baptist, Reverend Andrew Cox Marshall, holds the distinction of being the longest serving pastor (serving from 1812-1856) until his death at nearly one hundred years (reports on his age vary, but he’s believed to have been between 95 & 100). Pastor Marshall was a slave for many decades before eventually buying his freedom. He was born as the son of a slave girl and a white father who was likely the supervisor of a slave plantation. The church experienced more than 60% growth during his four decade tenure with more than 2,500 families registered as members at the time of his death.
After the death of Marshall, the Rev William J. Campbell became the fourth pastor. His tenure of two decades included the critical time of constructing the new church building — the one that remains to this day. Obviously, Rev. Campbell did his job very well. The only major setback to the church building since those times was to the original church steeple which was damaged in the late 1800s by a hurricane. The fifth pastor, Reverend George Gibbons, led the church for six years (1878-1884) during the time of the installation of the stained glass windows
During the last fifteen years of the 19th century, First African Baptist was led by the Reverend Emmanuel King Love. Many additions to the church were made during his watch including the baptismal pool. This is also the time frame when the pipe organ, which was already more than a half-century old at the time, was placed up into the balcony. Rev. Love was more than just a preacher, though. He desired improvements in education for his people and his leadership was critical in the establishment of several all-black colleges in Georgia including Savannah State College, Morehouse College (in Atlanta) and Paine College (in Augusta, GA).
Just after the turn of the century, it was time for another page in the history of First African Baptist. Reverened James Wesley Carr officially succeeded the popular Pastor Love in 1901. His tenure would be shorter (just six years), but the church moved forward with his stewardship as the sturdy oak pews were placed into the sanctuary in his era. Electricity came to the church as well under Rev. Carr.
All of the church debts were retired in the years of its eighth pastor, Willis Jones. Reverends T.J. Goodalls, Edgar Thomas, Mack Williams and J. Alfred Wilson would guide the church through the early parts of the 20th century until Ralph Mark Gilbert became pastor in 1939. The name may sound familiar if you’ve toured the museums of Savannah. One of them is named for him — The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.
Pastor Gilbert loved his flock and believed that all of God’s children were created equally. While serving as the local president of the NAACP, he demonstrated courageousness while endeavoring towards integration of the local police department. He’s considered one of the greatest leaders of the civil rights movement from the south.
The push for desegregation continued to be a dream for those who came after Reverend Gilbert. Assuming the leadership of the church in 1957, Curtis Jackson focused on desecrating Savannah area school and he led many non-violent demonstrations. Civil Rights leaders recognized the work that was being done in Savannah and Martin Luther King, Jr. even visited First African Baptist on his visit to Savannah delivering a speech that many of the themes he would later give in the infamous “I Have a Dream Speech.”
The later-half of the 1960s, while William Franklin Stokes was pastor, it became a lot more comfortable to worship at First African Baptist as air conditioning was installed for the first time. Understanding the the church’s story was unique in America, a permanent museum space was created by Pastor Lawrence McKinney during the 1970s.
Currently, Reverend Thurmond N. Tillman serves as the 17th pastor of the church (since 1982). He’s achieved the second longest pastorate with three decades of service — though, it is still significantly shorter than the 44 years Rev. Marshall performed in the 1800s. It would take another dozen years or so for Rev. Tillman to become the longest serving pastor of this amazing congregation. Will Pastor Tillman reach that milestone? If the Lord wills it!
History shows the God has blessed and protected this wonderful church. He sends pastors with the leadership skills suited to the times to guide this flock. Pastor Tillman and his congregation are grateful to worship in such a historic building and they invite you to discover history at First African Baptist Church in Historic Savannah, Georgia.