Scotsmen landed with James Oglethorpe at the founding of Georgia in 1733 and brought with them a strong faith. By 1755, the Presbyterian Church of Savannah, later called the Independent Presbyterian Church, had been established. Its first building, facing Market Square (now Ellis Square), was erected on property granted by King George II, “to the intent and purpose that a place of public worship be there upon erected and built for the use and benefit of such of our loving subjects . . . as are and shall be professors of the Doctrines of the Church of Scotland, agreeable to the Westminster Confession of Faith.” In many ways it became the mother church of Georgia Presbyterians.
The first minister was John Joachim Zubly, a member of the Continental Congress. He preached from a brick structure that was used by the British as a magazine and stable during the Revolution. It was destroyed by fire in 1790. A portion of the building on the original site was excavated and reconstructed as a wall in 1980 on the church’s property on West Hull Street across from the present Sanctuary. In 1800, a new building was built on St. James’ Square (now Telfair Square), which was subsequently damaged by a hurricane. The needs of an increased membership led to a third site and structure at Bull Street and South Broad Street (now Oglethorpe Avenue).
Closely modeled after his own designs for the First Congregational Church of Providence, Rhode Island, architect John Holden Green designed the original building on the present site. Master builder Amos Scudder of Westfield, New Jersey supervised its construction. Present at the dedication of this building on Sunday, May 9, 1819 was John C. Calhoun, President James Monroe, and members of his cabinet. Reporting on this occasion, The Columbian Museum and Savannah Daily Gazette wrote that “from grandeur of design and neatness of execution, we presume this church is not surpassed by any in the United States. It is seldom that we discover a scene more affecting and impressive than this solemn ceremony afforded; and in this city we never witnessed such an immense congregation, so large a portion of which was formed by female beauty.”
Prior to the completion of the sanctuary, many of the pews were sold at public outcry with the average auction price of $1,140. Families purchasing pews include such distinguished Savannah names as Adams, Anderson, Barnard, Been, Bryan, Bolton, Burroughs, Cumming, Davenport, Demere, Gibbons, Gordon, Habersham, Hunter, Jones, Lathrop, McIntosh, Reid, Sorrell, Stebings, Stoddard, Sturgis, Taylor, Telfair and Wayne.
During the next decade, Lowell Mason, noted hymn tune composer and father of public school music, served as organist. His works are familiarized in “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” and “From Greenlands Icy Mountains.”
By the time of the Civil War, the ravages of which both the church and Savannah escaped, some of the state bank notes, hand signed and dated, carried engravings of the Independent Presbyterian Church.
In 1885 the manse of the church served as the setting for the wedding of Ellen Louise Axson and Woodrow Wilson. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. I.S.K. Axson, minister of the church and grandfather of the bride.
The Great Fire of 1889
The magnificent edifice of 1819 was destroyed by the great fire of 1889. A marble baptismal font and flagstones, which Scudder had hauled in wagons pulled by oxen from near his farm in New Jersey, were salvaged. It was immediately decided to reconstruct the sanctuary exactly as it had been. Supervising the reconstruction of the church was Boston architect, William Preston Gibbons. The dedicatory sermon was appropriately entitled, “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:9). William Dean Howells, writing in the Harper’s Magazine of February, 1919 notes, “In architecture the primacy must be yielded above every other edifice in Savannah to the famous Independent Presbyterian Church.”
The structure on the outside is of such Sir Christopher Wrennish renaissance that one might well seem to be looking at it in a London Street, but the interior is of such exquisite loveliness that no church in London can compare with it. Whoever would appreciate its beauty must go at once to Savannah and forget for one beatific moment in its presence the walls of Tiepolo and the ceilings of Veronese. Savannah historian, Walter Hartridge speaks of the Independent Presbyterian Church as “Savannah’s most notable building.”
The Axson Memorial Building, constructed in 1928 on the site of the church manse, contains the Mary Telfair Chapel, educational facilities, and a reproduction of the manse parlor, the Wilson-Axson Room. The Administration Building, located across the lane, was built in 1895 and renovated in 1993, houses the church offices, library, bookshop, youth ministry, and other classrooms.
Pastors Over the Decades
Calvinistic orthodoxy and religious revival have been characteristic of the church since its founding. Fruitful ministries were experienced under the leadership of J.J. Zubly (1758-1777), Henry Kollock (1806-1819), Daniel Baker (1823-31), Willard Preston (1831-56), and I.S.K. Axson (1857-86). Southern Presbyterian luminaries such as John L. Girardeau and Benjamin Morgan Palmer preached from the High Pulpit with great effect. In 1896, when the church was without a pastor, an estimated 2,500 people crammed into the sanctuary several times to hear the powerful preaching of the famous D. L. Moody. These meetings were referred to in the newspapers as “possibly the most successful revival ever held in Savannah.”
At the turn of the last century, the congregation called to serve as its ministers a succession of graduates from “Old Princeton,” the bastion of Reformed and Evangelical apologetics at the time. Drs. Fair (1897-1909), Brank (1910-17), and Anderson (1917-30) (the Princeton men) led the church safely through the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies with its faith intact. Likewise Samuel McPheeters Glasgow, Charles Woodbridge (1945-50) (another Old Princeton man), and James English Cousar (1953-63) conducted substantial ministries, bringing the church to the brink of the 21st Century. Terry L. Johnson has been the pastor since 1987.
The passing of the decades have seen I.P.C. pioneer the establishment of several area churches, vastly increase its mission and benevolence giving, and continue to increase its membership and attendance. Today we stand gratefully on the shoulders of this heritage.
The authority of the word of God, symbolized by the massive mahogany pulpit, remains the focal point of its ministry. Without apology, Independent proclaims the unchanging gospel of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Its enduring commitment to the application of the word of God to every sphere of life made this a church that is ever contemporary, addressing the ancient Scriptures to the needs of modern times.