The Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church is located on the banks of the Savannah River about 30 miles above Savannah. The historic brick edifice is the oldest church building in Georgia and sometimes it is called the oldest public building in the state. The church was organized in Augsburg, Germany, in 1733 with the Reverend John Martin Bolzius and the Reverend Israel Christian Gronau as pastors. Both are buried in the church cemetery. The members had been exiled from their homes in Salzburg, Austria, and were looking for a place to live and worship. In England the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge sponsored their passage to the new world and the first ship arrived in Savannah on March 12, 1734.
The Salzburger exiles were led by General Oglethorpe to their new homes at Ebenezer. This site had been chosen for them on Ebenezer Creek several miles inland from the Savannah River. However, the settlers suffered severe hardships at this site. The soil was infertile and many succumbed to sickness and death. They requested of General Oglethorpe that he allow them to relocate to a new settlement on the banks of the Savannah River. General Oglethorpe agreed and in 1736, they were allowed to move to the present site at New Ebenezer, located where Ebenezer Creek runs into the Savannah River. The town of New Ebenezer was laid out in a similar fashion to Savannah and the Salzburgers propered there. They were successful in agriculture, raising cattle, lumbering and silk culturing and by 1741, the town had grown to a population of twelve hundred. These early settlers built the first saw mill in Georgia on Ebenezer Creek (1735), the first orphanage (1737) and the first rice and grist mill in Georgia (1740). They organized the first Sunday School in Georgia (1734) and constructed the first Church of any denomination.
The church above is the oldest Church building in the Georgia backcountry and the oldest rural brick church by decades. The Salzburgers were wealthy, industrious people and the church architecture and construction reflect this in many details. The church was built from handmade bricks made of local clay from 1767 to 1769. The walls of the church are 21 inches thick and some of the original panes of glass are still in the windows. The bells were brought from Europe and are still rung before each service. All that now remains of the original settlement is the church building and cemetery.
After the British invasion of 1778, during the American Revolutionary War, the town was severely damaged and never fully recovered. It was made the county seat of Effingham County in 1797, but two years later the seat was transferred to Springfield, taking much county business with it. By the time Ebenezer was abandoned in 1855, the town covered only 1/4 square mile. The Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church is one of the few buildings that has survived in Ebenezer. Jerusalem Church is still a very active congregation and, historically, it is the oldest continuing Lutheran congregation in America worshiping in the same building. Presently at the Town of Ebenezer, one will find the Jerusalem Lutheran Church, the Cemetery, a Salzburger home built in 1755, and the Old Parsonage built in 1835. The Georgia Salzburger Museum is, also, located at the settlement. Come by for a visit when in the Savannah area.
Jerusalem Lutheran Church is not just a Georgia state treasure but a National treasure. When people talk about historic, architectural, social and community significance, this structure (along with its cemetery and its now-gone town) has to be considered among the top tier. As you step into the church through its wide and welcoming door, you are walking into a time capsule. Founded circa 1733 in Augsburg, Germany, the congregation fled to the new British Colony of Georgia to escape religious persecution. Their narrative echoes those of the other 13 original Colonies and America's birthright as a bastion of the new, "freedom of religion", movement sweeping the western world. The church you are walking into in 2014 was completed and first occupied in 1769! Though the initial view of the interior seen above has changed over the past nearly 250 years, the exterior and bones of this colonial masterpiece remain as they were then. The deeply recessed lower level windows topped by smaller, clear second story windows still shed great light into the sanctuary just as they did in 1769. Some of that light pours through a number of the remaining original panes. What a unique and precious place.
Unlike many of Georgia's rural churches that we have featured, Jerusalem has remained active and occupied, well-loved and well-attended for all its history. This is even more remarkable given that its hometown is now a ghost. The site is carefully maintained and that is why this church is the visual delight and historic jewel that it is today. The view above is much like it has been from the beginning. But, the congregation determined that this special place should not only be well maintained but have a magnificent pipe organ to properly accompany the hymns and praise of its congregation. The Zimmer pipe organ you see above was installed in 1970. To accomplish this, an upper window was removed and the pulpit was lowered two steps to accommodate the pipes. With congregants such as these, the church will surely be standing proudly for another 250 years.
Thanks to its Salzberger heritage, Jerusalem is unlike the vast majority of rural churches that sprung up in Georgia during the last part of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th. Most were first crude brush arbors, and later simple wood frame structures that reflected the character and lack of financial wherewithal of the early pioneers. Jerusalem, founded by relatively wealthy and accomplished Salzbergers, was very different and the first of its kind. Once again, the 'melting pot' that was to be America is reflected in the differences between this church and others in the area. From 1767 to 1769, the Jerusalem Lutheran Church was built from bricks made of clay from the area, not of wood. The walls of the Church were a sturdy twenty one inches thick and the architectural design and construction was much more sophisticated than other early rural Georgia churches. As you see above, its interior design and construction used thin columns to support the balcony while still allowing a generally unimpeded view of the sanctuary for all, very unique for its time and place. Jerusalem is an effective and striking structure inside and out… then and now. Adding to its historical credentials, it is believed to be the oldest surviving intact building in Georgia.
This is just one of the entry gates to the Jerusalem Cemetery, but a grand one it is.....a soaring, Victorian, brick Gothic arch bounded by two highly decorative curved walls that seem to wrap the cemetery in reverent protection. This late 19th Century structure was added a hundred or so years after the church's completion. This reflects the on-going, century-by-century devotion of the parishioners who want to continue to see and insure that the church and graveyard reflect the love and reverence in which this sacred place is held. The gates provide a unique example of an effort to provide a decorative motif designed to 'fool the eye'. Look closely and you will see that the placement of the bars on each side of the gate create patterns that provide the illusion of depth… the eye is teased to perceive it is looking into the cemetery as if through a visual corridor! This is pretty sophisticated decoration for a rural Georgia church in the 19th century.
Once you are inside the cemetery gates, you are in a rare place indeed. Because of its early founding date and the fact that the cemetery has remained in continuous use for its entire existence, there are few if any other cemeteries in Georgia where burials date from the mid-17th Century to today. Here you will find burial markers from every era, a characteristic rarely found in Georgia graveyards. Some of the original, unmarked graves of the 1700's are now identified only by the depressions that have developed in the ground as the bodies beneath melted away. You will also find primitive early graves marked only by undecorated/unmarked stones. Probably the most rare of the markers you will find at Jerusalem are the few surviving wooden ones. These biodegradable, simple wood tablets have usually been claimed by nature after so many years of exposure to the elements. Several examples of these can be seen above along with many other types of granite and marble monuments that represent the earliest to the most recent burials. A visit to Jerusalem Cemetery is a must for fans and scholars of funerary and burial customs in America.
Above is a row of small, mostly rectangular markers. These "tablets" are inscribed with the names of the dead and are examples of the predominant 'common' style of monuments used in the late 18th to the first half of the 19th century. In the near background are a number of earlier, simple unmarked stone grave sites. In the far background are many examples of the more elaborate styles of markers, larger round tablets, obelisks, large horizontal ledger stones, etc. that came into favor at different times. We know of no better place to visit to see examples of almost every variety of monument popular from the 1700's to the 21st century.
This is the grave of one of the early Pastors of Jerusalem. Rev Bergmann served the church from 1788 to his death in 1824. Also buried on the grounds are Rev John Martin Bolzious (1703-1765) and Rev Israel Christian Gronau (?-1745). These two men were born in Germany, founded their congregation in 1733, led that congregation from the religious persecution they encountered in Saxony to New Ebenezer and later oversaw the Salzberger's rise to prosperity in a new world............a remarkable story. There are 898 marked/identifiable burials here that provide vital genealogical insights into one of Georgia's earliest and most well known religious communities. For a full documentation of Jerusalem Lutheran interments click here.
What a lovely spot by the river where the Salzburgers have gone for spiritual comfort for over 250 years. As the song says..... As I went down to the river to pray, studying about those good old days and who shall wear the starry crown. Good Lord show me the way. Amen.
It is hard to express the gratitude we all should feel for the stewardship, love and care the descendents of these first Georgia settlers have put into their beloved sanctuary that has stood for over 250 years. What a beautiful reminder of who we are and where we came from. Thank you for your good and faithful service.
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The church building was built in 1767-1769.
The congregation was organized in 1733 in Augsburg, Germany.
Thanks John. We have it correctly on the website. Org dates and built dates get confusing sometime.