We continue to be impressed with the history of Darien and the beautiful churches that are associated with it. There are five very historic churches in the village by the sea that has seen so much Georgia history, from the Colonial period through the devastation of the Civil War, and the changing economic fortunes in the post Civil War environment. The First Presbyterian Church is the oldest of the five, having been organized in 1809, but its origins go all the way back to the original settlement of Darien by Scottish Highlanders in 1735.
The Highlanders brought their families, the Presbyterian religion and their own minister of the gospel in the form of John McLeod. Reverend McCleod was recruited by the Trustees to provide spiritual sustenance to the Highlanders as well as provide a ministry to the Indians. Actually both of these goals had marginal results but it did result in bringing Presbyterianism to Georgia and establishing Darien as the second oldest settlement outside of Savannah. This military outpost was manned by the “warrior farmers” from the west coast of Scotland that were to provide a southern buffer against Spanish incursions into ‘the disputed lands‘. The story is well documented and worth your time to do a little reading on the subject. Quite a story.
The Reverend McCleod did not work out so well and left Darien and Georgia in 1741 after just a few years on the job. No replacement was brought into this little settlement for several decades which is where our story of the First Presbyterian Church of Darien begins. Dr. William McWhir came to McIntosh county in 1809 and organized what eventually became the First Presbyterian Church in Darien. At the time, this was the only church in Darien. Dr. McWhir was a noted Irish preacher and a confident of George Washington we are told. He organized a church at Sapelo Bridge in 1809 but moved to Darien permanently in 1820 to establish the First Presbyterian Church with 70 members.
There is some question about the exact location of the original church but it is known that it disbanded in 1862 as a result of the Civil War. Until that time, the church was thriving as a bi-racial church that reported 50 members in 1858, 15 of whom were black. By the middle of 1861 the church records showed a total membership of 120, of whom 61 were black. Alas, the dark days descended on Darien in early 1862 as the last service was recorded on March 9, 1862. Union gunboats were in total control of the waters around Darien and would frequently shell the town, causing the congregation to disburse and flee further inland. It got worse. In June of 1863, according to the local history ‘Darien was invaded, looted, and burned to the ground on June 11, 1863 by Union troops, which consisted mainly of black soldiers commanded by two white officers. Col. James Montgomery is blamed for the pointless destruction and was later relieved of his responsibilities. The other officer was 25-year-old Col. Robert G. Shaw, who died about a month later during a famous assault on Battery Wagner on Morris Island, which guarded the southern approaches to Charleston harbor. The movie “Glory” tells the story of Shaw and the burning of Darien’.
The church was burned to the ground and there was no Presbyterian presence in Darien for years. However, in 1874 a meeting was held and the decision was made to build a new church. The Phoenix would rise from the ashes. The new church, on the same site as the present one, was completed in 1876 at a cost of $4,100. However, misfortune would soon visit Darien and the church again, in the form of a severe hurricane in 1898. The hurricane was bad enough, but then another disaster struck in 1899 when the church caught fire and was totally destroyed. Dark days indeed, but the Presbyterians of Darien are resilient and soon a new structure, the present one, was built on the same site in 1900. The beautiful sanctuary you see above, built of ‘concrete tabby‘ is the result. Thus the Presbyterians first arrived in Darien almost 300 years ago and are still going strong in this wonderful village on the banks of the Altamaha. Darien is a special place and well worth a visit.
The interior of the Darien Presbyterian sanctuary reflects the most popular style of the time (1900), High Victorian – also known as Carpenter Gothic. Its most striking feature is the hammer-beam trussed roof/ceiling. This is also referred to as English Medieval-perpendicular style. The Romanesque arches flank and reflect the larger arch soaring above the pulpit area. The framed, colorful windows are in a contrasting Gothic style. Eclectic mixtures of decorative and architectural detail such as these are a common component of these late Victorian sanctuaries.
This closeup gives us a chance to appreciate the high quality fit and finish of the churches wainscot and window framing. All are made of heart pine, very appropriate given the fact that Darien was the distribution center for this much sought after wood. We can also see how thick the walls are and how the windows are set back from the interior . This adds decorative depth and visual impact. The windows themselves are quite striking features. They are American made, grid style memorial windows and flank the left and right sides of the sanctuary. They are particularly treasured by the congregation. The varying shades of color used in the border-panes of each window produce a cheerful, suffused light that illuminates the sanctuary.
This black and white photo of the sanctuary documents the geometrical harmony of the elaborate, Carpenter Gothic trussed roof. It demonstrates how the arched windows and flowing trusses work together to create an eye-pleasing and serene scene. This bright and airy atmosphere is largely a product of the light that streams into the sanctuary through its many large and lovely, muli-paned colored windows.
Here is a view of the rear entry shed roof area. Despite the major damage to the sanctuary by the hurricane of 1898 that was immediately followed by the tragic, total destruction of the building by fire in 1899, the congregation chose to rebuild on the same site in 1900. Because of their wealth and resilience, a grand new church arose in 1900. Here we see evidence of the dedication of the re-builders at Darien Presbyterian to raise a grand and beautiful new home…. including such luxuries as the installation of expensive and decorative Gothic stained glass windows throughout their church… even in the most prosaic places. That pride in the entirety of their sanctuary remains today and is on display for all to see.
In this photograph, the fanciful beauty that is the hallmark of Carpenter Gothic architecture is clearly on display. We see a slate roofed, steeple spire rising from a hexagonal shaped, open wood framed gallery (similar to a widow’s walk often found on homes in seafaring towns such as Nantucket, MA and Darien). All of this is supported and rests on a square, buttressed stone and concrete tabby tower reminiscent of the English Renaissance. This is a remarkable, eclectic structure in a style seldom found in Georgia… well worth a visit.
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