Bryan Neck Presbyterian owes much of its roots and its relative prosperity to the fact that it was located in one of the richest rice growing areas on the eastern seaboard and the resulting planter class that dominated the trade. These “Rice Kings” represented some of the wealthiest people in America and included storied families such as Clays, Maxwells, Arnolds, Rogers, and McAllisters. Thousands of acres were under cultivation and were worked by one of the largest slave populations on the coast. The rice production peaked, according to Richmond Hill Reflections, in 1860 when the Bryan Neck plantations along the Ogeechee produced 1.5 million pounds. This prosperity created a need for a local congregation to support these families who had previously been affiliated with churches in Savannah or the Congregational church at Midway. Bryan Neck Presbyterian was established by several of the planter class families in 1830 with the official sanction of the Savannah Presbytery and with assistance from the Congregational Church at Midway.
The first church was established in November of 1830 by Trustees John Maxwell, Thomas Clay, Richard Arnold, Edward Footman and George McAllister, some of the wealthiest planters in the region. The church, which was incorporated on December 27,1831, made use of a former Episcopal church building until a new church building was dedicated in 1841. This building was a wooden framed building with two entrances, a belfry and a slave gallery. This church served the community for over 40 years until it was destroyed by fire in 1882. After the second church was destroyed by fire, services ceased to be held until two church leaders, Habersham Clay and C. C. Maxwell, began conducting services. These men eventually purchased land for the current church approximately two miles from the original site and provided funds for its construction in 1885. The church is very unusual in it’s size, architectural configuration and interior finishes. The present congregation has done a remarkable job of maintaining the original structure.
The church cemetery, known as Burnt Church Cemetery, is located at the original 1831 church site. The cemetery includes the family plots of early church leaders, such as the McAllisters and Clays. Thomas Savage Clay was a devout Presbyterian who led the movement on Bryan Neck for the “Religious Instruction” of the slaves of the local plantations. He was instrumental in enabling the Bryan Neck church to become a leader in this movement in coastal Georgia. Bryan Neck Presbyterian was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 and furnished much of the above history.
The first, exterior view of Bryan Neck Presbyterian presents a perfectly lovely, late-19th century rural church. Built in the shape of a cross (cruciform-plan), the craftsmanship, quality materials and attention to detail (the gable ends feature full returns, matching six by six windows with shutters, tin roof, etc) is extraordinary. When entering the sanctuary, you see that the same …and more …can be said of its interior. This small, inviting masterpiece defines the expression “it is a jewel box.” The most recognizable feature first noticed is the tongue and groove wood panelling that is presented in many decorative patterns. These panels are varnished from floor to ceiling and create a warm glowing light throughout the space. At the same time, the mixture of horizontal, vertical and diagonal patterns produces a pleasing, entertaining, almost kaleidoscopic visual experience.
The decorative power of the diverse panelling at Bryan Neck Presbyterian is particularly evident in the apse behind the altar. We see two, clear glass, windows on each side that focus light into that spot.The diamond in the middle sits amidst converging diagonal boards creating a “bulls eye” effect which draws the attention of the congregation to that spot. Now, the pastor has a better chance of drawing in and holding his audience, the congregation pays better attention to the message. By any measure, the scene created above is simply beautiful and calming!
In this photo, we are looking from the front toward the south west corner of the church. The coziness of this sanctuary is evident in this view. This church was designed to meet the religious needs of the 40 or so, wealthy planter families for whom it was built. To the left we see one of two school rooms that are sited at the end of the east and west arms of the cross-shaped sanctuary. The rooms could be closed off from the sanctuary by folding wood and glass doors and would have served Sunday school or parochial school classes.
In this view, we are standing in the transcept and looking north into the second classroom. Examining again the incredible fit and finish of these rooms and the nave, we are reminded that the Bryan Neck congregation, from the church’s beginnings well into the 20th century was made up of a few extremely wealthy planter families. According to Kenneth Krakow in his Georgia Place-Names, “Bryan Bryan Neck was the name given to a narrow, lower part of the county between the Great Ogeechee and Midway Rivers.” The land and its endless flow of fresh water from the two rivers was perfect for growing rice. The planters who settled there in the 18th century prospered for generations thanks to their land and water availability. The profits they made are reflected in the uniqueness and quality of their church.
In this view we see many items and pieces of furniture original to the church… pews, lectern, organ, clock, furnishings! We are looking at a church building, its interior and contents that is a rare, relatively authentic and well preserved 130 year old historic landmark. The National Register documentation states, “A large number of rural churches which survive in Georgia have undergone some alterations… Bryan Neck Presbyterian Church building has escaped these frequent alterations. The church is also important for its high level of historic integrity and survives as an outstanding example of a rural community landmark building”.
According to National Trust records, in the 1990’s, the congregation decided that in order to insure the survival of Bryan Neck church for generations to come, merging with nearby Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church was an attractive, long-range strategy. That merger was successful and now a trust fund to provide maintenance exists. This striking landmark is currently used for special functions and religious services, hopefully for at least another 130 years.
There are 320 interments in the current cemetery since the church was moved to this location in 1885. The oldest interment is that of Ellen Walcott Cory who died in 1902.
Burnt Church Cemetery was the original site of the Bryan Neck Presbyterian church until it burned in 1888 and was relocated to the present site. Some of the most successful lowcountry planters founded the original church in 1831. Here are multiple graves of the Clay family. Thomas Savage Clay, who died in 1849 was one of the original founders of the church. Also interred here is George Washington McAllister, who was one of the largest slave owners in the area. His plantation home, Strathy Hall built in 1838, was restored by Henry Ford in 1940.
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