“Many of the details of St. James A. M. E. Zion Church’s history are lost to time, but the congregation’s beginnings were in the 1890s. Sam Mitchell, who was married to Sudie Rountree Mitchell, was one of its founders, and Will Mincey was its earliest pastor. The church structure itself was built in 1908 under the leadership of Reverend J. H. Williams. The building was erected by Reverend R. Lee with the help of a group of trustees.” –from The Swainsboro Forest-Blade, 3 December 2014.
Established in Pennsylvania in 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church arrived in Georgia at the close of the Civil War. Today there are more than 500 AME churches in Georgia, the oldest of which is St. Philip in Savannah that dates to 1865. Most members are of African descent, although the church does not limit membership by race. The denomination’s theological orientation is Methodist, while its organizational structure is Episcopal, meaning that it is primarily governed by bishops elected by the vote of the General Conference, which meets every four years. The AME Church, whose official motto is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother,” places a strong emphasis on social service. As such, the denomination folds its primary mission of preaching and religious education into a secondary mission of service to the homeless, the imprisoned, the poor, and other needy persons.
The AME Church did not make headway in Georgia until the closing months of the Civil War (1861-65). Missionaries from the denomination often followed Union troops into occupied parts of the collapsing Confederacy, adding numerous ex-slaves to their membership rolls. Henry McNeal Turner, the state’s first AME bishop, played a vital role in organizing new churches during the Reconstruction era. After Reconstruction, AME congregations grew in number and importance. In 1881 the denomination founded Morris Brown College in Atlanta. Along with programs in home economics, education, and commerce, the school had a theology department for the training of ministers. In 1913 the college became a university and expanded its reach through branch institutions, but financial difficulties forced the branches to close in 1929. The school’s original name, Morris Brown College, was reinstated at that time.
During the civil rights movement, AME churches sometimes served as organizational centers for black leaders. For instance, W. W. Law led mass meetings at St. Philip AME Church in Savannah. In recent years AME churches in Georgia have sustained their social vision by maintaining emergency food banks and homeless shelters, in addition to providing other social services for local communities.
Most of the original features of this church have been obscured by application of dry wall and carpeting. Originally the church had beaded tongue and groove wall and ceiling boards and slightly wider tongue and groove flooring. We think the choir loft was formed by the addition of two small rooms in the corners, and the apse has been raised. This type of communion rail dates to the time of the construction of the church is likely original.
Our host at St. James AME Church did not know the history of this depiction of Jesus shepherding two of his flock. The message is obvious.
This type of turned newel post and balusters are seen in rural churches across Georgia. They were possibly mass produced in shops in August, Macon or Savannah and distributed to rural builders across the state by rail. These form the bannister for the choir loft.
The St. James AME Church Cemetery is located on the opposite side of Twin City from the church. The original church building was located in the area of the cemetery. The oldest marked grave (1904) is that of A.C. Watson who was probably born into slavery in the year 1856. His marble tombstone is has the familiar symbols of a handshake and the three linked chain. The handshake symbol represents a farewell to earthly existence and God's welcome into heaven. It may also indicate a relationship between the deceased and the loved ones they left behind. Additionally on this gravestone are three links of chain enclosing the letters FLT for friendship, love and truth, a symbol also associate with the Order of Odd Fellows. At the top of the stone are the letters GUOF that represent Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (distinct from Independent Order of Odd Fellows). The GUOF and other organizations typically functioned as an expanded resource to help families through hard times and offer social and educational benefits. Many benevolent societies established before the end of slavery also helped the transition of blacks into their life of freedom by providing them with financial resources….”
This leafy depression is the grave of Marvin Mincy, 1940 – 1949. Marvin was the pride of his family and was a well-liked in his community, and as a bright, young man who represented their hopes for the future. Family or church members met annually to go into the woods to areas along streams to gather bullises (singular bullis), a delicious form of wild muscadine grape useful in making jelly, jam or wine. Everyone was supposed to refrain from eating the grapes but Marvin, like most other boys his age would, was eating as he went along. Later Marvin developed a stomach ache which was attributed to too many of bullises but which was actually due to appendicitis. Sadly, his appendix ruptured resulting in death. This grave appears to be unmarked but actually a small cement slab was poured in the depression and Marvin’s name and dates of his life were inscribed by hand before the cement dried. Mrs. Cookie Cephus, one of few remaining church members, and others are attempting to identify the unmarked graves in the cemetery, at least those interred within the span of their memory.
St. James AME Church is a quaint church just outside the town of Twin City. In searching out rural churches for inclusion in our project, we have observed a similarity among many of the rural African-American structures. They are characterized by a simple rectangular building with one or two towers. We have located no architectural publications to account for the similarities.The tower still houses the church bell though it is no longer rung. Mrs. Cephus related that in times past there was no problem getting the boys to come to church as the first one there got to ring the bell.
AME, Primitive Baptist
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