The nondescript little church you see above in no way reflects the historical significance of it. The church was originally organized as Cassville Presbyterian in either 1833 or 1844, the records are not clear on which date is the proper one. We also know that the the Presbyterians dissolved in 1872 and the church was “given to the black families living in Cassville”, thus the AME church was organized at that time.
According to a the Cassville Historical Society “It was on November 5, 1864 when the city of Cassville was destroyed by fire at the hands of the Fifth Ohio Regiment of the Federal Army under the command of Colonel Heath and Major Thomas. They said they had orders from Sherman “that not a house be left within the limits of the incorporation, except the churches.” The town had been in the hands of Yankee forces since May 25th, when General Johnston had retreated without a fight, and left the city to the mercy of the Union Army. Sherman’s forces had marched on in pursuit and, as General Sherman gave no order to burn the town at that time, many people believe that possible he never did, but the burning of the town was the work of Yankee stragglers who had some sort of grievance against the people of Cassville”.
The history further states that “The three churches which still are on the same grounds and three residences were the only structures left standing by Sherman’s Army. The home of Dr. Weston Hardy served as a hospital and was not burned for that reason. The Mercer home also, was spared because of sickness. Tradition has it, the home of Mr. A. C. Day was saved when the captain saw a certain Masonic emblem as it dropped from a bible while the family brought out their furniture. These three homes and the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches were unharmed”. Cassville never fully recovered from the war time damage and the business center of Bartow County moved to Cartersville.
The old church has been heavily modified over time so it is difficult to recognize what may be original to the old structure and what has been modified. However, the historical aspect of St. James is significant in that we know it is one of only a hand full of structures to survive the 1864 destruction. After the war, the African Americans in the Cassville area were told they were emancipated but it took years to realize what that actually meant. They were given freedom but little else. Our research indicates a pattern of confusion in the south after the war for both races. The blacks embraced the white man’s religion because that was what they had been exposed to, but they learned to embrace it in their own way within their newly emerging and very strong culture. AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal and is the oldest independent Protestant denomination founded by black people in the world. It was founded by the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1816 from several black Methodist congregations in the mid-Atlantic area that wanted independence from white Methodists.
After the war, southern African Americans began to form their own congregations, often assisted by whites. Thus churches like St. James AME came into being in 1872. Even though the original church had been Presbyterian, St. James would likely have been formed by congregants who had been raised in the Methodist church of their masters. This was a very difficult time for both races and they found spiritual comfort in these old churches, but they found it in very different ways. We salute the Historical Preservation efforts of the citizens of Bartow County. Hopefully, a way can be found to save historical sanctuaries like this that tell us who we are and how we got here.
As you saw in the introductory photograph, this is a center gable, rectangular wood frame box typical of rural Georgia churches of the early 19th century. Its actual construction date is not well documented, however, it is believed to have been built between 1833 and 1844. The Founding date of the congregation was 1833, though the church wasn’t formally represented at the Presbytery’s first meeting in 1844. The bell tower is certainly one of the exterior modifications made over its many decades. In any case, its stolid, totally unadorned and simple character is certainly authentic for its era. The interior sanctuary today, as seen above, has been heavily modified and bears little resemblance to the original sanctuary. But, its architecture is totally authentic. Its suspended truss design allowed the interior to have a high ceiling allowing for installation of many large windows. This brings ambient light into the structure at a time when interior lighting was limited to oil lamps.
We often point out that many of these old rural churches now have heavily modified interiors. Lets remember that this building was occupied by Union Troops from May 25, 1864 until November 5th of that year. During that period, after the Battle of Chickamauga September 21-24, this room became a hospital for casualties of that battle for a period of time. Let your imagination paint the picture of what it was like in this space at that time. On November 5th, the town was ordered to be burned to the ground by Union Troops. This Presbyterian sanctuary was spared from the fire that destroyed Cassville.
After the Civil War, the Presbyterians dissolved and in 1872 the church was given to “the black families living in Cassville”. That congregation moved in and made the sanctuary their new AME Church Home over the next century and beyond. Before the renovations which you see above, we are told that it was, ” …. customary for the congregation to invite visitors to a Sunday evening service, especially during the summer months. After Baptist Training Union and Methodist Epworth League, the young people would go to an evening service at St. James. Reba Matthews Allen remembers that there was no electricity and only two oil lamps on the pulpit. ‘It made an eerie glow as one walked across the wooden floor which creaked’.” The importance of this AME church to Cassville’s black community was large.
With a dwindling congregation, St. James is too small to afford a full time minister. They do have one that comes over to preach on the 2nd and 4th Sundays. And, they do all that they can afford to keep up the building and grounds. But, as at so many other rural Georgia churches we present, survival isn’t guaranteed.
This fabulous, square grand piano remains a monument to a more prosperous period in the history of St. James. We hope that the congregation can find a path to recapture those better days. Their’s is a tradition and legacy that needs to be sustained.
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Is there a way to get funds to restore/preserve this historic church.
At one time the historical community in Cassville and Bartow County had some restoration plans. Hopefully, these are still active.