Savannah’s historic places of worship are some of the most beautiful, architecturally interesting, and historically significant buildings in the city.
Probably the easiest way to visit Savannah’s houses of worship is to see which are open as you are passing (or just enjoy them from the outside); most are located in prominent positions on the city’s central Historic District squares.
If you want to see a particular place, it may be best to consult its own website to time your visit outside of services and other events, though most do welcome visitors for services if that is what you want. Some also offer periodic musical services; see their own websites for details of upcoming events.
All Savannah’s places of worship are free to enter. Two – Congregation Mickve Israel and First African Baptist Church – offer a guided tour of the building and its history, and a small museum, for a nominal fee; others may appreciate a small donation.
Historic Black Churches
First African Baptist Church
23 Montgomery Street, west side of Franklin Square
First African Baptist Church, now located on Franklin Square, has its origins in one of the oldest black congregations in the United States. The first founding of the church was in 1773, then arranged on an informal basis by the enslaved preacher George Leile (whose name is variously spelled as Liele or Lisle).
Leile began preaching to other slaves on the plantations around Savannah. Later granted his freedom, he continued to convert and baptize African-Americans on nearby plantations, before moving to the city. One of his earliest conversions was of Andrew Bryan, who would go on to be one of the most important figures in the African Baptist Church of Savannah.
The First African Baptist Church (then First Colored) was formally recognized in 1788. Brampton’s Barn, just west of the city, was their first official meeting place.
In 1794 the congregation built a new frame church on land that Andrew Bryan had purchased the previous year, coincidentally on Bryan Street. The congregation now called itself the Bryan Street African Baptist Church. By 1802, the congregation had grown large, and split, forming the new Second African (then Colored) Baptist Church in addition to First African Baptist, as the Bryan Street congregation was now named.
In 1832, First African Baptist Church, now under the leadership of Andrew C Marshall, became deeply embroiled in doctrinal issues that would split the congregation again. Marshall and the greater part of the congregation left the original church, setting up a new organization (though retaining the name First Baptist) on Franklin Square, in a building purchased from the white First Baptist Church. The remaining congregation on Bryan Street took up the Bryan name again.
The current First African Baptist Church building, of which guided tours are available, dates from the late 1850s, completed in 1859. It was constructed entirely by African-American labor, and was the first black-owned brick building to be erected in Georgia. A museum in the church contains memorabilia dating back to the church’s founding, along with images of its pastors, newspaper articles and other artifacts and records.
First Bryan Baptist Church
575 West Bryan Street, three blocks west of Franklin Square
Situated just west of the Historic District, this church shares the claim to be the oldest African-American congregation in Savannah. Opinions differ as to whether First Bryan Baptist or First African Baptist, both directly descended from this original congregation (see above), deserves the title of oldest black church, the question resting on through which congregation the “true” lineage of Savannah’s African Baptist Church passes.
The current First Bryan Baptist Church building was erected in the 1870s and 1880s, the cornerstone laid in 1873. Designed by John B Hogg in the Greek Revival style and built entirely with the labor of black workers, it cost $30,000 and is large enough to seat 1500. The completed building was dedicated in 1888.
Second African Baptist Church
123 Houston Street, west side of Greene Square
This congregation was formed in 1802 after a split from the First African Baptist Church. The church, organized under the leadership of Henry Cunningham, built its first house of worship soon afterwards on Greene Square. The neighborhood around this square was then a popular residence district for Savannah’s more well-to-do free African-Americans; Cunningham’s own house was also on Greene Square.
The current structure dates from 1925. The first building is famously the location from which General Rufus Saxton proclaimed Sherman’s Special Field Orders (No 15), intended to grant a parcel of land to the region’s freed slaves. More popularly known as the “40 acres and a mule” order, Sherman’s command was later revoked by President Andrew Johnson.
Beth Eden Baptist Church
302 East Gordon Street, westwards of Whitefield Square
Beth Eden Baptist traces its lines back to the First African Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Savannah, via Second African Baptist.
Beth Eden Baptist Church was formed in 1889. A portion of Second African Baptist’s congregation left the church in that year after their pastor, Reverend Alexander Ellis, was deposed. He founded the new Beth Eden Baptist Church.
Henry Urban designed the neo-Gothic style building, which stands just to the west of Whitefield Square, in 1893. Today, the church is one of the few spots in the city where you can see the work of noted black folk artist William Pleasant.
Bull Street’s Historic Places Of Worship
Bull Street, Savannah’s historic promenade and one of the city’s most important streets, is the location of many of its oldest and finest places of worship. All these churches (plus one synagogue) can be found around or near the five squares along the mile-long stretch of Bull Street between City Hall and Forsyth Park.
28 Bull Street, east side of Johnson Square
Christ Church Episcopal, the Mother Church of Georgia, is one of the state’s oldest religious institutions. It was founded in 1733 – the year Savannah was settled – as a mission of the Church of England. One of the most prestigious of Savannah’s churches, it has counted many of the its most prominent families and individuals amongst its congregants.
Christ Church, being almost as old as Savannah itself, has suffered many of its setbacks, its meeting houses destroyed several times by the fires and hurricanes that periodically ravaged the city.
The first Christ Church building was destroyed in Savannah’s Great Fire of 1796. The second building, not begun until several years after, was destroyed (this time by a hurricane) before it was even complete. Rebuilt, this second red brick church stood for barely 20 years before it was was found to be structurally unsound. It was demolished to make way for the third and present Greek Revival building, consecrated in 1840.
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension
120 Bull Street, east side of Wright Square
Savannah’s Lutheran Church is one of the city’s most beautiful and historied places of worship. Its origins lie in Savannah’s early Salzburger community, Protestant exiles of Salzburg who arrived in the city in the 1730s.
Some of the Salzburgers stayed in Savannah, the rest forming their own settlement of Ebenezer not far away. Those who stayed formed a congregation in 1744. By the 1750s, the church was established on an official basis and had its first permanent home, a small wooden building on Wright Square.
The church’s fortunes waxed and waned over the decades to follow, closing in the late 18th century due to poor attendance. It was revived in 1824, and two decades later, a brick Greek Revival style building was erected on the lot at Bull and President Streets, at a cost of $15,000.
The current church, designed by George B Clarke in the eclectic ecclesiastical style, was constructed between 1875 and 1879, using the walls of the former building. Stained glass windows depict Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer for whom the Lutheran denomination is named; the life of Christ; and the Ascension, from which scene, following its installation in 1879, the church acquired its full current name.
Independent Presbyterian Church
207 Bull Street, between Wright and Chippewa Squares
The Independent Presbyterian Church is one of Savannah’s oldest congregations, formed around 1755 by adherents of the Church of Scotland. Its first church was built on Ellis Square.
That building, incidentally used as a military hospital during the Revolutionary War, burned down in Savannah’s great fire of 1796. For a time, the congregation shared its worship space with the Baptist Church. The new Independent Presbyterian Church was soon completed, this time on Telfair Square.
Only 20 years later, the congregation had grown too large for its small church. Accordingly, plans were made for a new and larger structure, the cornerstone for which was laid, with ceremony, on January 13 1817.
This new building was erected in the Church’s current location, on Oglethorpe Avenue between Whitaker and Bull Streets. It was completed, and dedicated, in May 1819, at a cost, less the price of the building lots, of almost $100,000. The building was destroyed in 1889. A replacement, the current church, was erected in 1891.
First Baptist Church
223 Bull Street, west side of Chippewa Square
First Baptist Church is Savannah’s oldest standing house of worship. The church received its charter in 1800, building first on Franklin Square and moving from there to its present location on Chippewa Square in 1833.
The building, one of several examples in Savannah of the Greek Revival style of church architecture, was designed by Elias Carter. It was very substantially renovated in the early 1920s, a cupola removed from the top of the church and the front redesigned in a more open style, six full columns replacing the original two.
St John’s Episcopal Church
1 West Macon Street, west side of Madison Square
The origins of St. John’s Church lie in Savannah’s other early Episcopal Church, the Christ Church. In 1841, Christ Church’s congregation split, the new St. John’s congregation formed that year.
At first, the new congregation continued to hold its services in the Christ Church building, using its basement. Plans for a new sanctuary began in 1850; Buffalo, NY architect Calvin Otis drew up its design, in the Gothic Revival style. The cornerstone of the present church on the new Madison Square lot was laid in 1852, the inaugural service held the following year.
Congregation Mickve Israel
20 East Gordon Street, east side of Monterey Square
Congregation Mickve Israel is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States, organized in 1735 by (mostly Sephardic) Jewish people who, fleeing persecution in Europe, settled in Savannah in the first year of the city’s founding.
The current synagogue was constructed in 1878. It is one of the few examples of synagogue architecture in the Gothic Revival style in the United States. The design is by New York architect Henry G Harrison.
A small on-site museum is open to the public on most days (closed on Jewish and federal holidays), and guided tours of the historic synagogue are also available, for which a small charge applies. See details
Other Historic Churches
Cathedral Of St John The Baptist
222 East Harris Street, north side of Lafayette Square
The Cathedral of St John the Baptist on Lafayette Square is one of Savannah’s most architecturally striking religious buildings. The present structure, built in the French Gothic style, was constructed in the early 1870s and dedicated in 1876, though the spires were not completed until 1896.
The Catholic Church has been a center of Savannah’s Catholic population – first predominantly French, and later Irish – for more than 200 years. Catholicism was banned in the Georgia colony’s early years, but the ban was eventually lifted, and by the end of the 18th century, the number of Catholics in Savannah was sufficient to warrant the construction of a church.
The first Church of St John the Baptist was completed in 1800 on Liberty Square. A new and larger church, this time at Drayton and Perry Streets, was completed in 1839 to accommodate the ever-expanding congregation.
By the time the present Cathedral on Lafayette Square was built, the Pope had created a separate Diocese of Savannah (Savannah was before that part of the Diocese of Charleston), and the Church of St John the Baptist, then the only Catholic church in the city, became its cathedral.
Trinity United Methodist Church
225 West President Street, west side of Telfair Square
The history of Trinity United Methodist Church, which stands on the southwest trust lot of Telfair Square, is closely linked to that of Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church.
Methodism in Savannah had its origins in the work of John Wesley and George Whitefield, two preachers who stayed for a time in Savannah in the early years of the Georgia colony. Records of Methodist practice in the city stretch back to the 1770s, but an organized church was not formed until 1807. The congregation’s small Wesley Chapel was built just north of Colonial Park, completed in 1813.
By mid century, the congregation had grown too large for this small meeting house. The cornerstone for a larger church was laid on Telfair Square (then St James’s Square) in 1848, on land bought from the Telfair family. The congregation changed its name to Trinity Church, its new building, designed by architect John B Hogg, completed two years later.
Unitarian Universalist Church
311 East Harris Street, west side of Troup Square
Savannah’s Unitarian Society was formed in the 1820s by northerners settling in Savannah. Political difficulties and the growing unpopularity of Unitarianism in Savannah soon beset the new Unitarian Church. Attempted arson, rapid turnover of ministers and financial difficulties throughout the 1840s nearly ruined it, forcing the sale of the congregation’s meeting house in 1847.
Shortly afterwards, the Unitarians received a new church building through the benefaction of Moses Eastman, but within the decade the Unitarians were again in financial disarray, and obliged to sell this building too.
Now the property of the black St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the building was moved to its current location on Troup Square, nearer to the more densely African American neighborhoods of the city’s eastern side, rather than the whiter central district. St Stephen’s Episcopal Church remained in the property for almost a hundred years, eventually moving to new premises in the mid 20th century.
A new Unitarian Church, that was to become one of the city’s first churches to speak in favor of integration during the South’s Civil Rights era, was formed in the 1950s. In 1961 the Unitarian and Universalist Churches merged, Savannah’s small congregation becoming in consequence the Unitarian Universalist Church. By 1997, it had bought back its old home, in its new place on Troup Square.
In 1857, James Pierpont composed the well-known song Jingle Bells whilst employed as an organist by the Unitarian Church (his brother, John Pierpont, ministering). Now one of the most widely known tunes in the world, the song earned Pierpont almost nothing during his lifetime. The actual spot on which the song was composed was on Oglethorpe Square, not Troup, the Unitarians still being in that location in the 1850s.
Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church
429 Abercorn Street, west side of Calhoun Square
Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church was erected in the 1870s to honor the work of brothers John and Charles Wesley (depicted in the church’s stained glass windows). Amongst the earliest arrivals in Savannah, the Wesleys were instrumental in the founding of Methodism.
Methodism was at first unpopular in Georgia, finding no footing until the early 19th century. Savannah’s first proper Methodist congregation was Wesley Chapel, founded in 1807; it later became the Trinity United Methodist Church. Construction of Wesley Monumental, a mission of Trinity, began in 1875. Though the Gothic-design building, with its distinctive asymmetrical spires, was ready for use within three years, it was many years more before it was fully completed.