Dorchester Presbyterian was built in 1854 on a lot of four acres donated by B. A. Busbee, and was initially used for summer services only. It was the last of the three “retreat churches” that were born of the mother church in Midway. The two most important towns nearby were Midway and Sunbury, a port city rivaled only by Savannah at that time. There were also many plantations throughout the county. In 1843 , the Rev. T. S. Winn, who was at that time a private teacher in the home of Dr. C. C. Jones, suggested the expediency of building a community in some area half way between Midway and Sunbury. According to a local history “This particular spot, being high and dry, was favorably considered and the people followed Rev. Winn’s suggestion very shortly. Twenty eight one acre home sites were placed around a four acre “square” in the center of the Village given by Mr. Busby for a school and church by deed dated June 14, 1852. The school was built in 1852 and Sunday School was held there until the Dorchester Presbyterian Church was built in 1854. Church services were held once a month, and 162 years later services are still held there once a month”.
In The Children of Pride, which details the lives of a Liberty County family during the Civil War, Robert Manson Myers said “the record of the Midway district was both astonishing and unique for a small rural community that never had a population of more than a few hundred people and that was dispersed little more than a century after its founding. Besides the obvious contributions these relocated Puritans made to the early history of Georgia, especially through service in the Revolutionary War, there was the broader impact of plantation society on the fledgling economy. This fostered an agrarian pattern that persisted well into the 20th century. Moreover, many of the Puritan ideals which the Midway settlers brought from England were instrumental in framing our modern social and legal structure. That the three retreat churches remain influential forces in the social and spiritual life of Liberty County today is proof enough of their enduring legacy”.
At first the church was only used for summer services. Soon, however, due to the general dispersion and impoverishment of the people of the area caused by the Civil War, the people of this area sought to organize their own church. On January 6, 1871, a committee went before the Savannah Presbytery and the Dorchester church was officially organized. The church was organized with one ruling elder and fourteen members. From 1871 to 1881, the Reverend J. W. Montgomery served this church, serving at the same time the sister churches at Walthourville and Flemington. Records show that in 1898 there were forty-nine members. The ministers served Walthourville one Sunday, Flemington the next, and Dorchester the third. The fourth Sunday was also rotated so that every three months each church would have the minister two Sundays.
According to the history, “Prior to the War Between the States, slaves attended the services and sat in the balcony. Even after the war, Negroes attended the services until they acquired a building of their own. The Reverend James Thomas Hamilton Waite, who ministered to the blacks, for many years resided in Dorchester. Arthur Waite carved the wooden hand pointing to heaven which was on the steeple of the Negro Presbyterian church in Midway. When this church was razed and a new building erected across the road, the Negroes gave this hand to the Midway Museum”.
We feel the present congregants of Dorchester Presbyterian deserve our gratitude for their loving stewardship for the church itself and the surrounding history of Liberty County, a history that is rooted in the earliest days of the Colony. Dorchester and the little academy have been carefully maintained and respected. We are so grateful that this beautiful place, a reminder of days gone by, can now be enjoyed by future generations………well done.
This handsome church constructed in 1854 looks today, over a century and a half later, much as it did when completed. It provides a stark contrast to the plain and homely rectangular center gable boxes being erected in the backcountry of Georgia during this period. Of course, its architecture and appearance was dictated by the wealthy white planter families who began to flow into this area of Georgia in 1752. The Georgia Charter was amended to allow slavery in that year and this area was prime Sea Island cotton country. Settlers quickly moved in and replicated the Virginia heritage they had been practicing in South Carolina since the late 1600’s. Looking at this facade featuring a set back entryway framed by paired gothic pilasters, their sophisticated taste is in full display.
The hints of sophistication and elegance that the exterior of Dorchester provided spring to life within this mid-19th century sanctuary. We see New England styled pews with doors reserved for each families use. Delicate, fluted Doric columns in the same style as the sanctuary entryway pilasters support a commodious slave gallery. Huge, sashed, six over six windows sit beneath large, clear paned transoms that allow maximum ambient lighting. The entire sanctuary is painted white while the stained, exceptionally wide heart pine floors almost glow in the reflected light. “Welcome to an exceptional, historic space”.
This view of the east chancel area gives us a detailed look at the windows, framing and spare but attractive decorative structural elements framing the pulpit and apse. The six over six sashed windows are special, as earlier noted. But, we can now see that the transoms above are as large as the windows below and contain 25 clear glass panes! The doubly elevated chancel provides space for the pulpit and the apse behind is framed, again, by quietly elegant pilasters. The apse includes two windows to provide light, a chair rail and a place for a traditional Federal sofa for the officiants.
This is a view of the gallery area which we are told remains as originally constructed. For the modest size of Dorchester’s sanctuary, this is a large gallery. Seating in the gallery would have been around 50/60% of the seating below for the white congregation. This is evidence of the fact that these coastal plantations needed many slaves to work the land…. King Cotton demanded it!
This photo from the gallery provides a “bird’s eye view” of the front of the sanctuary. Though regular services have ceased, monthly services along with special events are still welcoming attendees. Here we see that the sanctuary remains immaculate and provides the organ, piano and beautifully maintained church for the public. The fact that this authentic space is still available to be seen, used and appreciated is a tribute to all those locally involved in preserving this wonderful relic of the past for continuing use in the years to come.
This photograph is of the reconstructed “Academy” which was originally built in 1852 on the 4 acre site that the church would later occupy when built in 1854. Sunday School was originally held at the Academy until the sessions were later moved to the “new” church. We love the touch of the “his and hers” outhouses. Life was closer to the bone in those days.
This photo of the interior of the “Academy” provides visitors an insight into the layout of a rural 19th/20th century rural school environment…pretty spartan! The furnishings/desks/chairs are not period but the potbellied stove is… and this correspondent can swear to that statement. We would have frozen if stoves like these had not been present.
Dorchester was a retreat church for Midway. The Dorchester villagers in 1854 built the structure you see above but still remained members of their Midway Church home. Another Midway affiliated, retreat church earlier built at the town of Sunbury (now gone) began to decline, and the Sunbury Church bell now resides in the belfry seen above at Dorchester. A particularly rich period in Georgia’s history was played out in this area and is still available for exploration and admiration in Liberty County.
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Can we make arrangements with someone to enter the building? Planning a tour of historic churches April 3. Please contact me to discuss.
We aren’t typically able to assist with getting inside these buildings, but I can check on Dorchester for you, just in case. Please email me here where we can keep in touch better: [email protected]
Hi there. I think the map is wrong on the Dorchester church. It shows it’s in Algeria. Very odd.
Thanks for catching this. Fixed now.