History of Christ Church at Frederica
Christ Church is set in tall, mossy grass under towering oak trees. The church grounds include a cemetery. Christ Church, one of the oldest churches in Georgia, was founded on St. Simons Island nearly 70 years after the island was first settled by English colonists. Worship has been continuous since 1736 in Christ Church Parish, established by English colonists at Frederica under General James Oglethorpe.
An Early History of Christ Church, Frederica
The Colonial Period – The Mission
In February of 1736, General James Oglethorpe, who had founded the colony of Georgia at Savannah nearly four years before, arrived on St. Simons Island and laid the cornerstone of the town of Frederica and its fort. The outpost on St. Simons was a significant part of Oglethorpe’s charge to take control of “the debatable land” between the English colony at Savannah and present-day St. Mary’s to the south, claimed by the Spanish.
On the first day, Oglethorpe and the new colonists joined in Evening Prayer, quickly planting the roots of Anglicanism in island soil. A month later, The Rev. Charles Wesley, a priest of the Church of England and Oglethorpe’s private chaplain and secretary, took charge of the Frederica mission of Christ Church, Savannah on St. Simons Island. One of the first structures built within the walls of Fort Frederica was a 12-by-20 tabby building housing a storeroom on the lower floor and a chapel on the upper floor. Chapel services were held as long as the soldiers were there, as well as outside under the oaks.
The Rev. Charles Wesley lived and served at Frederica for just a few months. His insistence on daily services and “vigorous shepherding” of the Frederica flock led to a rebellion among his parishioners, and he sailed back to England in the summer of 1736. Charles is most widely known for writing 6,000 Christian hymns.
The Rev. John Wesley, Charles’ brother, was the Rector of Christ Church, Savannah. After Charles left Georgia, John made five trips from Savannah to Frederica over a period of several months, traveling by foot and canoe. He returned to England in December, 1737. John, along with Charles and others, founded the Methodist movement after returning to England.
In 1742, Oglethorpe’s army prevailed over Spanish forces, and the “debatable land” was secured for England. Oglethorpe sailed to England in July 1743, and his regiment was gradually withdrawn from Fort Frederica and was completely disbanded in 1749.
Georgia became a royal colony in 1752 and, in 1758, the province was divided into parishes with Frederica and Saint Simons Island designated as Saint James Parish. The town’s population decreased, a fire swept through in April of 1758 destroying most of the town, and by the time of the Revolutionary War, St. Simons was practically abandoned.
Following the war, however, these early beginnings were strengthened. And at the dawn of the nineteenth century, families began to arrive from Europe, the Carolinas, and Virginia, bringing their own Anglican traditions and an interest in growing cotton. The Episcopal Church was founded in America in 1789 as part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. St. Simons emerged as a producer of the finest cotton in the world, and an Episcopal church, was established on the island.
The Plantation Period – The Church Established
By 1808, St. Simons was home to 14 large cotton plantations, and the planters felt the need for an established church. They petitioned for a charter and won incorporation by act of the Georgia State Legislature on December 22, 1808 as the “Episcopal Church in the town of Frederica called Christ Church.” Former Fort Frederica land was granted for use by the church which became the second oldest Episcopal church in Georgia after Christ Church, Savannah. The planters were instrumental in the construction of the first church on the site in 1820.
While the new church was being built, the congregation met in the home of John Beck, who was paid $1.00 per week for rent, plus $.50 for cleaning and preparation of services. The Reverend Dr. William Best, an Englishman, was called as the first rector. However, he resigned after two years, discouraged by the church’s failure to construct a building immediately.
The Reverend Dr. Edmund Matthews replaced Dr. Best in 1810; he is remembered as “The Sometimes Rector of Christ Church, Frederica” in the small windows above the altar of the present church. During the War of 1812, British troops invaded the island, causing significant losses to the planter families and further delaying construction of the new church. An early 19th century recession added to the delay.
Not until 1820, did the church’s governing body feel financially comfortable with constructing a building. George Abbott laid the cornerstone of the church and preached the first sermon from its pulpit. Christ Church parishioners worshipped there until the outbreak of the Civil War.
The little church was a community and social center as well as a place of worship. Parishioners could pick up their mail, delivered by John Couper of Cannon’s Point Plantation, catch up on the news, and generally enjoy being together. The congregation’s leadership consisted of the planter families that had founded the church, names familiar in St. Simons history – Page, Couper, King, Hamilton, Demere, Abbott, Gould, and Hazzard.
In 1823, the three Georgia Episcopal churches – Christ Church, Savannah, Christ Church, Frederica, and St. Paul’s, Augusta – formed the first Episcopal Diocese in Georgia. Though the smallest of the three, Christ Church, Frederica played an important part of the life of the diocese. In 1837-1838, Warden James Hamilton Couper designed the building for Christ Church, Savannah, the mother church of the diocese, in which its congregation still worships.
Three more rectors served the church following Dr. Matthews’ death in 1827. The church sold the “glebe lands” to church member, Captain Charles Stevens, in 1848. These lands had been part of the land grant given by the town in 1808, which had been rented by planters with proceeds to be used for erection of a new church building. The church retained five acres and invested the sale proceeds in a Savannah bank.
Christ Church, Frederica was a vital congregation during this time, but with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, St. Simons Island was evacuated and all but abandoned. Union troops occupied the island and the little church. When island families returned after the war, they found their little church damaged beyond repair, and the church’s endowment, deposited in a Savannah bank, did not survive the conflict.
Rev. Edmund Brown tried to renew Christ Church after the war, but with a congregation too poor to rebuild the church and support a priest, he left the post in 1868. The islanders were faced with the destruction of their church and way of life, and began meeting for Evening Prayer at Black Banks Plantation, the home of Horace Bunch Gould, a vestryman and planter.
The Dodge Years-The Church Rebuilt
As the island moved into the later nineteenth century, timber mills began appearing in Darien and on St. Simons Island offering jobs to former plantation workers, management positions for planter families, and income for mill owners. Georgia pine and oak boosted the local economy when planters were struggling to hold on. “The Mills” became the commercial, social, and religious center of the island with the construction of a nondenominational chapel, St. James Union Church. Christ Church parishioners were once again able to worship in a church building. Today, the rebuilt church, located at Epworth, is known as Lovely Lane Chapel.
Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. was the grandson of one of the largest mill owners on the island, William E. Dodge of New York. Anson first visited the island in 1879 at the age of 19, dispatched to help his family with the lumber mill which his uncle George was overseeing at the time. He discovered the ruins of the little church and met its parishioners who touched his heart. With a plan to restore the church and become its priest, Anson began studies at General Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1882, Rev. H. E. Lucas, Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, was appointed Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church to serve until “the Rector-designate, Mr. Dodge” completed his studies.
Anson and his wife, Ellen Ada Dodge were on an around the world trip in 1883 when she tragically died in Allahabad, India, probably of cholera. Heartbroken, he resolved to continue his call and resumed his theological studies in New York. In 1884, construction began on the new church, to be dedicated to the memory of Ellen; it was funded with Anson’s inheritance from her and his own substantial resources. Anson was named Rector in June of 1884 and ordained to the priesthood in 1885. The church had been completed and was consecrated in January of 1886 on the Feast of the Epiphany to the joy of its parishioners.
The Rev. Dodge conducted services at Christ Church, Frederica, at St. James, and at three new churches he established with Dodge funds. He was the center of missionary activity in southeast Georgia, setting up a number of trusts for the church and establishing The Georgia Mission Fund. In all, the Dodge Fund was responsible for the founding of some 34 Episcopal churches in southeast Georgia.
In 1890, Anson married Anna Deborah Gould of Black Banks Plantation, a descendent of the Gould and Abbott families who had helped establish the early church. Anson and Anna had a son who tragically died in a runaway carriage accident. Heartbroken, they responded by establishing the Anson Dodge Memorial Home for Orphan Boys in 1895 in their home at Frederica.
Anson Dodge did not enjoy good health, and at his suggestion, the vestry appointed The Rev. Watson Winn “Associate-Rector, with the right of succession” in 1897. The following year, Anson Dodge died at the age of 38 after giving his life totally to service.
Rev. Watson Winn was a Virginian and a descendent of a sister of John and Charles Wesley. Described by a church member as having a “versatile nature,” Winn would regularly go from the pulpit to the organ to play hymns and then back to the pulpit during church services. In 1910, he wrote a Commemoration with a detailed history of Christ Church, Frederica. He served as rector for 28 years, the longest term of any rector in the church’s history.
During Winn’s tenure, the island’s financial health waned again with the closing of the mills in 1906. Winn died in 1926, followed by Anna Dodge in 1927. Months after Anna’s death, the Dodge Home burned. Again, it seemed the church and its missions might nor survive. However, shortly before his death, Rev. Winn provided the benediction for the event that would usher in modern times, prosperity, and a small amount of fame for the island – the opening of a causeway to the mainland. Tourism provided the next economic boom for the island, and people began finding the island a delightful place to build a home and raise their families.
Christ Church, Frederica Today
Today, Christ Church, Frederica is a thriving parish of over 900 members. We offer a generous worship schedule of four Sunday morning services, and a fifth on Saturday evenings at St. Ignatius Church. Our Children’s Chapel focuses on child-friendly liturgy and music, and we offer Holy Eucharist at all services to those who have or seek a relationship with Jesus Christ. We have an informative adult education as well as a lively Sunday School program for children. A vibrant music ministry, a continuing commitment to mission, and an energetic sense of fellowship and pastoral care are all an integral part of Christ Church. Parishioners serve as docents, opening the church Tuesday-Sunday afternoons from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm in order for visitors to see the church and learn about its history. The Episcopal Church Women sponsor an Annual Tour of Homes and offer the sale of cookbooks and other items; all proceeds go to local charities benefitting women and children.
Nestled under wide-spread oaks with its welcoming grounds and stunning interior, Christ Church, Frederica offers a place of rest and peace, a chance to look into past history, and the challenge to parishioners to continue to do God’s work. All are welcome at Christ Church, Frederica!
The Building and Grounds
As you pass through the lych gate onto the grounds of Christ Church, Frederica, the story of our little church begins to unfold. We are an Episcopal church and part of the world-wide Anglican Communion. Traditionally, a lych gate was used as a covered gate to a churchyard where the clergy would meet the family and the departed to begin a funeral procession into the church. Today, we use it to welcome parishioners and visitors to church services.
Our grounds continue to see parishioners gathering after church services, children hunting Easter eggs, fellowship gatherings in the tent, often weddings and funerals, and wild deer enjoying our lush grass. The grounds have also long been a place of solace for both parishioners alike. And many choose these grounds as their final resting place.
We believe burials began in Christ Church Cemetery in the 1700s; there are some recorded accounts of burials conducted by John and Charles Wesley in the days of Fort Frederica. However, our oldest decipherable tombstone is that of Harriett Ross, a merchant’s wife who died in 1803 at the age of 26. Typically, a burial ground attached to a church as ours is would be called a graveyard; however, given that burials began on the grounds prior to the construction of the church, it has long been called a cemetery.
Remains of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War and every American conflict since that time lie alongside those of writers, captains of commerce, historians, educators, priests, and lay people. The cemetery has been enlarged since its early days, and burials continue there today. Rich and poor, famous and infamous, old and young rest in the beauty and serenity of this very special place.
A map of the cemetery showing so many of the people who were instrumental in the development of Christ Church, Frederica and St. Simons Island is available in our booklet, “Christ Church, Frederica: An Early History.” The booklet is offered for sale by our docents when on duty in the church, or by contacting the church office at (912) 638-8683. The history booklet and our Christ Church Cookbook are also offered for sale in island bookstores.
The church building was completed in 1885 and consecrated in 1886. It is dedicated to the memory of Ellen Dodge, wife of Anson Greene Phelps Dodge, Jr. who funded the construction and served as Rector from 1884 to 1898. The architect, James Chapman was from Kent, England; he became so enchanted with the land and its people, he later bought West Point Plantation, renamed it New Hope, and became an active member of Christ Church.
Walking into the church nave, you immediately notice the beautiful wood and stunning stained-glass windows throughout. The building is constructed of natural heart pine that has never been painted or stained. The sanctuary is laid out in the shape of a cross or cruciform in design.
The building is Trussed Gothic or Carpenter Gothic in style. We believe construction was given to shipwrights who might have been working on maintaining the large number of ships calling at both Brunswick and St. Simons Island in those days. The lower walls of the church are tongue in groove laid out in a slant rather than horizontally, and the rafters resemble an upside-down hull of a ship. All of the wood is wood-pegged; the only nails used were around the windows. Craftsmen often comment on the beauty of the workmanship when visiting the church.
The windows, installed over the years, are painted scenes on glass. Beginning in 1885, the small American-designed windows above the altar, the large English Nativity and Resurrection windows seen in the transept, and several more English designed-windows were installed first. Others came later, with four windows in the back of the church installed in 1969. Several are from studios in England, Germany, and America; some were simply given to the church while others were commissioned by members. All but two are inspirational in subject or stories from the Bible; the other two represent the Wesley brothers preaching under the oaks and General James Oglethorpe speaking with Chief Tomochichi and his nephew, Toonahawi; the chief gave Oglethorpe land on which to build Savannah and was a help to the General with Indian affairs.
A few items salvaged from the 1820 church remain: the four-legged credence table base behind the lectern, a piece of wood from the original altar worked into our altar, and the smaller pews with cross cut-outs in their ends seen mostly in the choir loft. A piece of the original altar cloth is displayed in our Archival Display to the rear of the church in the adjacent Winn Building.
Christ Church, Savannah originally loaned the communion rail, two clergy chairs, the pulpit and lectern for a period of ten years, but we still have them today! The baptismal font was given to the church by The Rev. Anson Dodge’s Sunday School class in Connecticut. The bust at the rear of the church is of Anson as a boy; his mother commissioned the large Confession of St. Peter window above the sculpture in 1898 on the occasion of Anson’s death in 1898. It is from the Mayer Studio in Munich, Germany.
The church is open to visitors Tuesday-Sunday from 2-5 pm; a docent will be on hand to answer questions and tell you about the history of the church. We are closed on Good Friday and Easter Saturday/Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and for weddings and funerals. We hope you will come and see us in person; we look forward to welcoming you!