This is our third time visiting Savannah, GA, and one of the highlights of our second trip (July, 2019) was discovering Savannah’s church history. While we visited some of the church history sites we discovered last time, we also stumbled upon new sites as we vacationed in the Jekyll Island area. I want to share some of our discoveries in this post.
The most famous and iconic church in Savannah is probably The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, but a close second is the Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) with its steeple towering over the city.
Knowing that theologically liberal Presbyterians (e.g., PC USA) outnumber theological conservatives (e.g., PCA), I didn’t have high expectations that IPC would be a church that was faithful to the Bible. However, I looked it up anyways. To my great surprise, IPC is not only faithful to the Bible, but the pastor, Dr. Terry Johnson, has written several books on reformed worship, one of which is titled “Reformed Worship.”
I bought and read his book “Worshipping with Calvin,” and I was very pleased to read a thorough defense for reformed worship, including the singing of hymns and psalms, and Bible-focused worship. I gained a better understanding of reformed worship, and I was able to incorporate some of what I learned in writing our liturgy (order of worship) each Sunday. In God’s providence, we not only stumbled upon a church, but also a deeper understanding of Biblical and reformed worship.
During the pandemic, we had the opportunity to stream IPC services and truly enjoyed it (an experience we otherwise would not have, if not for the pandemic).
IPC Savannah was established in 1755, 22 years after the founding of Georgia by James Oglethorpe (1733). In 1885, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President, married Ellen Louise Axson, who was the granddaughter of a minister of IPC. Their wedding ceremony was held at IPC and officiated by the grandfather of the bride, I.S.K. Axson. A few years later, the great fire of 1889 destroyed much of the church, but it was reconstructed.
Lowell Mason served as the organist of IPC from 1820-1827. He is known as the father of public school music and the author of several tunes to the hymns still sung today: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  He also arranged “Joy to the World.” Outside of sacred music, he wrote the tune to “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Having a musical background and a love for the organ, this was a very exciting discovery for me.
Wesley and Whitefield in Savannah
The city of Savannah is beautifully laid out with 22 squares in the city (part of the Oglethorpe Plan). One of the more notable squares is Chippewa Square, where the park bench scene in Forrest Gump was filmed. At the center of Chippewa Square is the James Oglethorpe Monument (you see a lot of Oglethorpe in Savannah, e.g., IPC is located at the corner of Oglethorpe and Bull).
Another square frequented by tourists is Reynolds Square on the north side of the city. This square is home to a bronze statue of John Wesley, widely known as the founder of Methodism. And on the southeast corner of the city is Whitefield square, which is named after George Whitefield, a key figure in the First Great Awakening. Because of its location at the edge of the historic city, we only discovered it when we saw his name misprinted as “Whitfield” (without the “e” at the end of “Whit”) on a tourist map and figured the square might be named after George Whitefield (pronounced whit-field; thus prone to misspelling).
The brothers John and Charles Wesley came to Savannah in 1735 at the request of James Oglethorpe. John Wesley served as a minister of Christ Church Episcopal (Christ Church Savannah) from February 1736 to December 1737. While he was here, he founded one of the first Sunday Schools in the U.S. One year after John Wesley’s left his short tenure at Christ Episcopal, George Whitefield became the parish priest starting in December 1738. While in Savannah, Whitefield founded the Bethesda Orphanage in 1740.
Charles Wesley is also a notable figure in Christian history. Charles Wesley is considered one of the greatest hymn-writers of all time, having written over 6,000 hymns. Many of his hymns are still sung today in faithful churches (and if not, they should be sung): “A Charge to Keep I Have” (music written by Lowell Mason), “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” (music arranged by Lowell Mason), “Lo! He comes with Clouds Descending,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” “And Can It Be that I Should Gain,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Rejoice, the Lord is King,” and more.
Not only was he a poetic genius, his hymns are rich in sound theology and doctrine. Peter Masters, the current senior pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London (founded by Charles H. Spurgeon), said that “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is one of the greatest hymns in the English language, containing more about the teaching of Christ’s incarnation than any other Christmas hymn. It is remarkable that a hymn written in 1739 is still considered one of the best hymns on the doctrine of the incarnation.
John Newton’s Distant Connection to Savannah
Another figure that had a very distant connection to Savannah was John Newton, the writer of one of the most famous hymns, Amazing Grace. Prior to entering ministry as a pastor, John Newton enjoyed a comfortable career as the tide surveyor in Liverpool. Of course, before that position, he worked in various capacities as a slave trader, including captain of slave ships.
In 1755, the same year John Newton started his career as tide surveyor, he heard George Whitefield preach. He became friends with George Whitefield and eventually befriended John Wesley. While the entire life of John Newton is interesting, his brief, and remote, connection to Savannah came in 1765, one year after he was ordained into ministry.
John Newton’s path to ordination was turbulent and fraught with opposition; however, in God’s providence, Newton befriended William Legge, a very powerful man who became his supporter. Legge made Newton’s path to ordination possible. William Legge was the second Earl of Dartmouth. Dartmouth College (an Ivy League school in New Hampshire) is named after him, though it was named without his permission. 
John Newton was finally ordained in 1764, and his first year in ministry impressed Lord Dartmouth. In 1765 Lord Dartmouth offered Newton a position in Savannah, Georgia. Remember that George Whitefield started an orphanage in 1740? Twenty five years later, Lord Dartmouth wanted to convert that orphanage into a university, and he offered John Newton the presidency of this school.
John Newton was attracted to the offer, but he questioned whether it was God’s will. John Newton reflected on this decision: “This offer is great, but unless the Lord calls and clears my way, may I be preserved from listening to the sound of honor and profit.”  He eventually rejected the offer, as he determined through prayer that God had not called him to Savannah. This is an important reminder for all Christians that not all things that appear “good” is God’s will, and not all things that are done “for God” is His will either (cf. 2 Samuel 7:1-17).
St. Simons Island & Frederica
John Wesley’s involvement in the Southeast did not stop in Savannah. While we vacationed in Jekyll Island (about 1.5 hours south of Savannah), we spent one morning visiting the nearby St. Simons Island. We just wanted to see the area, but Jennifer read online that we should see Christ Church Frederica while on St. Simons Island.
Christ Church Frederica was established as a mission of the Church of England in February 1736, which is around the time John Wesley arrived in Savannah. Charles Wesley, John’s brother, served as the priest of this church and conducted the first service in the chapel (in a separate, but nearby location). John Wesley also served this church.
A little ways from the church, next to the road, stands a sign that says, “The Wesley Oak,” which is near the spot where Charles Wesley preached on the first Sunday after his arrival in 1736. James Oglethorpe was also present on that occasion. A year later, George Whitefield would hold evening prayers and taught under the large tree with many in attendance. A wooden cross was made from the Wesley Oak and hangs on the wall of Christ Church.
Across the quiet road from the church is the entrance to the Wesley Garden, where an 18 foot Celtic Cross weighing 15 tons stands as a memorial to John and Charles Wesley for their ministry in Georgia, and more specifically, Frederica. Unfortunately, Christ Church–unlike IPC Savannah–has departed from Biblical teachings, like many churches today.
The relationship between the Wesleys and Whitefield fascinates me. John Wesley is an Arminian who was against Calvinism, and Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist. Since we are reformed, we are Calvinists. We would agree more with Whitefield than Wesley. But, John Wesley is respected by many modern day Calvinists. Jennifer gave me a set of books for Christmas a couple years ago, featuring mostly reformed authors (Spurgeon, Bunyan, etc.). However, one of the books was a collection of John Wesley’s sermons.
Here is an interesting question to consider: How do certain Arminians, such as the Wesleys, hold a prominent place among reformed Christians? I heard a short Q&A on this not too long ago on Ligonier that addressed the question. In the Q&A they refer to J.I. Packer’s article, “Arminianisms,” which I think is very helpful. He distinguishes between Rationalistic and Evangelical Arminianisms. Without going into detail, Wesleyan Arminianism is fairly evangelical, whereas the other end of the Arminian spectrum tends toward heresy, if not outright heretical. There are some common grounds between Wesleyan (evangelical) Arminianism and Calvinism, and I think the relationship between Wesley and Whitefield demonstrated the common grounds among differences. But we also need to exercise great caution, because in some of its forms, Arminianism is an “error tending toward heresy.”  J.I. Packer warns: “The Bible forbids us to take a single step along the Arminian road.” 
We love visiting Savannah and the surrounding areas, but knowing that it is so rich in history, particularly church history, makes our visits much more exciting. I’m sure there is more to explore and learn, and hopefully we’ll discover even more in future visits.
 The text of the hymn is set to several tunes, two of which are popular today: HAMBURG and ROCKINGHAM. Lowell Mason composed the tune HAMBURG, which is the more familiar one to me. ROCKINGHAM was written by Edward Miller, and that tune has become increasingly popular as the text “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow” by John Newton is set to this tune, as well as “‘Twas On That Night When Doomed to Know.”
 J.I. Packer, “Arminianisms.”