It is hard to believe that the wood frame church before you was built in 1792. It is simply a stunning example of colonial architecture that would look at home on the banks of the Potomac as a fitting tribute to the richest class of English planters. In fact, Midway was built by rich planters who had migrated from the Dorchester region in South Carolina. They were prosperous planters accustomed to the production of rice, indigo and other crops, who quickly developed a strong agricultural economy aided by the recent legislation which had rescinded the prohibition of slavery in the colony.
Slavery had been banned by the Trustees in the original colony but this law was rescinded in 1751. The lifting of the Trustees’ ban opened the way for Carolina planters to fulfill the dream of expanding their slave-based rice economy into the Georgia lowcountry. The planters and their slaves flooded into Georgia and soon dominated the colony’s government. Within twenty years some sixty planters, who owned roughly half the colony’s rapidly increasing slave population, dominated the lowcountry rice economy of Georgia.
The village of Midway was built by Puritans who migrated into the area from Dorchester in South Carolina as a result of a land grant of 31,950 acres from the Council of Georgia in 1752. The grant was given to these first settlers in order to create a southern buffer against the Creeks and the Spanish for the emerging port of Savannah. Midway Congregational Church was founded by Congregationalists and were so named because the affairs of each church were directed by its own congregation, a decentralized approach to religion that greatly appealed to the independent nature of these earliest Georgia settlers. The original church was completed in 1752 on the site of the present structure. Land was reserved for a cemetery just to the west across the road that connected Savannah with Darien and Fort Frederica.
As the fever for American Independence heated up, the settlers of Midway were strongly in favor. In 1775 they elected Lyman Hall, a member of the church, to attend the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, along with Button Gwinnett of Sunbury and George Walton of Augusta. Another Midway resident, Nathan Brownson, served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1778 but did not sign the Declaration. It is well to remember that in 1770, Georgia’s total population consisted of just 23,000. In contrast, the South Carolina population was 124,000 and Virginia had a population of 447,000. This sparse population was clustered along the lower Savannah River and a narrow stretch of coastline south of Savannah. All other land that we would come to know as Georgia (approximately 40 million acres) belonged to the Creeks in the south and Cherokees in the north.
At the time, Georgia was organized into eight ‘parishes’ with uncertain boundaries, but this began to change as Georgia converted to the county system. In 1777 St. John’s Parish, St. Andrew’s Parish, and St. James’ Parish combined to become Liberty County. The patriots at Midway paid a price for their fervor during the war and the Midway Congregational Church building was destroyed by the British in 1778. After taking the town and sacking the local farms, the British commander, Colonel Prevost, ordered the church to be burned to the ground by his troops as they retreated. It would take 14 years, but another church would eventually rise from the ashes of the original. That structure, the one you see before you, was completed in 1792 and has been lovingly maintained by the local citizens. Midway Congregational is a fitting tribute to the Colonial period history of Georgia. In 1973, the Midway Historic District, encompassing the Midway Congregational Church and Cemetery, the Midway Museum and the Old Sunbury Road, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
This is the stunning view of the Midway sanctuary's interior from the pulpit. We know of no other old rural churches in Georgia whose interior, with the exception of the pine floors and other wood trim, is entirely painted bright white! Equally unique is the cathedral-like architecture… a sanctuary that soars to a raised, tray ceiling 25-30 feet high. The first floor walls contain almost twenty, tall, six over six clear glass windows and a clear story above which illuminates the gallery and provides additional light for the sanctuary from ceiling to floor. Bold Doric columns supporting the slave gallery which is faced by elegantly curved, wood paneling. Add in the fact that the pews are all enclosed with doors for each and you might guess you were in England, or at least New England.
Given the imposing exterior view of Midway and the bright white, elegant sanctuary previously pictured, you might think these Congregationalists were turning their back on their Puritan heritage and roots. One look at this unadorned, stark, very plain but commanding raised pulpit that stands at the head of the sanctuary and you recognize that these are still doctrinaire Puritan's at heart and this is their church. It reflects their desire to purify the Church of England by advocating simpler and less "puffy" forms of creed and ritual. That desire is what lead many to immigrate to the New World and establish churches reflecting their belief. As an historic construction aside, note the black iron strap hinges on the plain, four paneled side door that were installed in the late 18th Century. They still work well.
This is a view from the back of the church toward the pulpit. Other than the historic plaques mounted on the wall and the organ, there is not a single icon, picture, wooden ornamentation, raised molding or other bric-a-brac in sight. This congregation lived and lives the doctrines they espoused. The simpleness and purity they sought is in evidence here. The dedication of the thousands of congregants who have successfully maintained and preserved this site since 1792 is in evidence as well.
This view from the slave gallery demonstrates how the lower floor windows and the clearstory windows above work together to provide excellent natural illumination of the large sanctuary. Drawing attention to the gallery itself, look at the large number of seats available to accommodate the slaves in this community! This huge gallery is evidence of how important slaves were to the operation of the planters' rice, cotton and indigo enterprises from which the profits to build a grand edifice such as Midway Church sprang. This gallery foreshadows one of the major types of culture we will see settling the frontiers of Georgia in the 19th century to come.
Liberty County was a hotbed of patriot activity and paid a heavy price for it in November of 1778 when British forces moved north from East Florida to invade Georgia. Savannah had already fallen and the focus now was on Midway and Sunbury. Heavily outnumbered, an American force engaged the British one and half miles south of the church in what has come to be known as the Battle of Midway Church. The patriots were defeated and their commander, Col. James Screven, was mortally wounded. Screven is buried at Midway Cemetery, as are other veterans of the Revolutionary War. The tall monument you see was erected there in 1915 by the Daughters of the American Revolution to pay tribute to both Screven and Gen. James Stewart, another war hero buried there. It is interesting to note that both of these men later had Georgia Counties named in their honor, a coincidence you don't expect to find in a relatively small rural cemetery.
Given the great age of this cemetery (over 260 years since the first burials), the shot above provides a unique opportunity for us to observe the evolution of materials, types and styles of grave monuments in Georgia graveyards. In this view we see primarily mid to late 18th century tablets and false crypts (sometimes referred to as "Colonial Crypts). The brick walled boxes covered by a single ledger stone are false crypts. The body is actually buried in the ground but the grave site is enclosed beneath the structures. Because of their style (shoulders with a curved or semi-circular top) the tablet stones in the foreground (flat pieces of marble/granite not resting on a base but buried directly into the ground) are from the 18th century as well. In the background are many other styles of 18th and early 19th century as well.
As in the preceding photo, we can date most of the simple tablet markers above as pre-1850. Those tablets in the foreground reflect a slow downsizing of markers as we move into the 19th century. Moving into the right background we can detect other trends beginning in the 19th century as some of the markers become thicker , other new styles are introduced and come into vogue(the pedestal topped by an urn), more obelisks, etc. The heavy cast iron grave enclosure in the deep right background began to become common in the 1850's. You might enjoy a visit to this ancient cemetery and a walk through the monuments while observing the death dates on each marker. You will gain a unique, personal insight into the evolution of how citizens tastes changed from the mid-1700's all the way into the 20th Century.
In 1778, the British army stormed across the ground you are looking at and destroyed Midway Church during the Revolutionary War. Midway was rebuilt in 1792 and stands today as you see it. In 1864, Sherman's Calvary used the walled cemetery above as a place to bivouac their horses before charging into Savannah to initiate 'the beginning of the end' of that Civil War. This spot has certainly earned its title as 'Historic' in spades. In 1973, about 110 years after Sherman, through the efforts of many in Liberty County and throughout Georgia, the cemetery and the church were added to the National Register of Historic Places. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the people and organizations that successfully worked over hundreds of years to insure that this sacred place and grounds remain and will be with us for all time. A site that all can visit, learn, contemplate and enjoy. Amen.
This is a great view of the church and community in the early 1900's prior to the construction of Hway 17. She is still serving the community and standing proudly.
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As a descendant of the same family as Dr. Lyman Hall this was a neat place to visit. Lots of history at this Church, the nearby cemetery and the Midway Museum.
Enjoyed our last visit to Midway and sad we will not have the annual Homecoming this year.
Thank you so much for giving us this lovely church and its history. I so enjoyed reading this and seeing the pictures. You are doing a great job.
You are very kind to take the time to do this. We appreciate it.