St. Bartholomew Episcopal

Chatham County
Org 1896
Photography by Wayne Moore

St. Bartholomew Episcopal is a visual feast of Victorian architectural elements both inside and out. It is also one of the most historically significant African American churches in Georgia with roots of the church dating back to the 1830s. At that time, there were approximately 1,000 enslaved people working in the rice fields on several large plantations nearby. According to the National Register history, “In 1832, Episcopal religious education for slaves in this area was initiated by a white family on their plantation. In 1845, the Ogeechee Mission was formally established when, in an effort to reach out to the slaves, the Episcopal bishop appointed the first permanent pastor to the area. This priest, Rev. William C. Williams, was to join contiguous plantations under his ministry, live in the area and become the slaves’ pastor. Williams established a school and a chapel on each of the three plantations he then served. His success with the slaves was such that by 1860 his congregation was the largest, black or white, in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia.”

This is a very historical congregation in that prior to the Civil War, slaves were allowed to attend their master’s church but rarely allowed to form their own. Furthermore, African American Episcopal Churches are rare in Georgia and they are located, for the most part, in the coastal region. In the early 1800s, rice began to be replaced by cotton as the most important cash crop and as the plantations moved inland, the predominant religions that emerged in the backcountry were Baptists, Methodists, and some Presbyterians. The Episcopal church was unusual in its dedication to education for enslaved people. The church wanted them to understand the Episcopal liturgy and therefore felt an effort to teach them to read was desirable. Writing was another matter as it was viewed to be a more dangerous skill, and was even outlawed at one point in Colonial Georgia

St. Bartholomew, located in the village of Burroughs, is the oldest continuing black congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. Following the Civil War, Burroughs was established as a settlement of former slaves who, in the 1870s and 1880s, were given the opportunity to buy the land they were living on from their former owners. An 1881 gift of $400 to the Mission Congregation from St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City (hence the name) for a new schoolhouse and church – illustrating the post-Civil War Northern interest in assisting the free blacks. In 1896, the present St. Bartholomew’s Church was consecrated. The school building (parish house), which played such an important role in the church’s mission, was completed the following year. The church has served as an important religious and educational center for the community ever since.

The church had over 400 members at its peak in the early 1900s and is still active with a few members today. We are so grateful that this special part of Georgia history is alive and well and still serving the African American community as it has for over 170 years. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is the source for much of the above history.

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