The Rev. Hardy S. Bennings III counts this weekend among those milestones.
Augusta’s Springfield Baptist Church, which claims the title of the country’s oldest continuously operating black church, celebrates its 225th anniversary Sunday.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the founder and president of the National Action Network, will speak at 3 p.m.
Augusta Fire Chief Chris James delivers the keynote address at the church’s 10 a.m. service, which will be followed by a wreath ceremony to honor former pastors. At noon, the church unveils the new name for the portion of 12th Street in front of the church: Springfield Way.
“This is a momentous occasion for us,” Bennings said. “Everybody’s excited. This is one of the biggest events in the history of Springfield.”
The church was officially organized in 1787, though its congregation is believed to date to 1773, two years before the American Revolution. The Rev. Jesse Peters Galphin, a slave whose master allowed him to receive training as a minister, was the first pastor.
Today, Springfield has about 175 members. In the 1800s, the congregation numbered more than 1,000, making Springfield the largest church – black or white – in the Georgia Baptist Association.
“After all these years, Springfield stands tall. It proves Springfield is a resilient people,” said Bennings, the pastor since 2009. “I think history will look back on us and say we were a small group of people who envisioned big things. This chapter in our history is for all of those long nights, those difficult times when Springfield had to stand tall. This is for all of those moments.”
Springfield was Augusta’s only Baptist church until 1817, when First Baptist began as the Baptist Praying Society.
“Springfield isn’t just significant to the black community, but to the whole of Augusta,” said Corey Rogers, a historian at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History.
He often starts historical tours of Augusta at the church.
“We start at Springfield in 1787 and end at Beulah Grove in 1968, where Dr. (Martin Luther) King was a week before he was assassinated,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about all these social and political movements that springboard out of the church.”
Springfield’s parish hall, built by Augusta’s first Methodist Society, dates to 1801, making it the oldest church building in Augusta and one of the oldest in Georgia.
The historical marker outside the old sanctuary calls Springfield a church that “helped bridge the transition between slavery and free citizenship” and “the major landmark remaining from the early free-black community of Springfield.”
“People know about it from all over the country and come here to visit,” said Christine Miller-Betts, the executive director of the Laney museum. “It’s a place that’s sought after for tours.”
Springfield keeps a small collection of documents and historical artifacts inside the church. In the months leading up to the anniversary, the museum has helped Springfield tend to the collection.
The church’s collection features old church minutes, records of giving and photographs, along with gifts from Morehouse College.
Morehouse got its start in the basement of Springfield as the Augusta Baptist Institute in 1867. The school quickly outgrew the church. In 1879, it moved to Atlanta as the Atlanta Baptist Institute and was subsequently renamed Morehouse College, an institution that has produced several prominent black leaders, including King.
“Springfield as a church has been the study of national study for decades. It’s been a cradle for black education and politics in Georgia,” said Bobby Donaldson, an Augusta native and associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina. He’s writing a book about William Jefferson White, the Augusta pastor who founded Morehouse.
“The church was a place for community development,” Donaldson said. “It was a trend-setter in many ways.”
Springfield has changed over the decades, said Ruby Green, daughter of the Rev. W. P. Sanders, who served at Springfield from 1923 to 1931. The congregation is smaller, services are less formal, and people hardly ever walk to church as she did as a girl, said Green, 87.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, Springfield honored its former pastors with presentations each Sunday. Sanders’ great-great-granddaughter, 11-year-old Tierra Johnson, spoke about his legacy.
“It’s so, so important,” Green said. “Our children need to know the stories.”
Betty Martin agreed.
“The children that knew the history are grown. They’re off with families. They move away from Augusta,” said Martin, the widow of the Rev. E.T. Martin, the church’s pastor from 1971 to 2008. The longtime pastor led the church in historical preservation and had stained-glass windows restored, the old wooden church renovated, offices constructed, and the properties added to the National Register of Historical Places.
“He wanted to preserve everything. He believed in preserving Springfield for the future generations,” she said. “Our history is very valuable to us. We want to share it.”
That’s what today’s celebration is about, said Martin, a member of the church’s history committee.
“Our church, we know it’ll hold 1,000, but we don’t know how many more. It’s a good problem to have,” she said. “A lot of people today don’t know about Springfield. They don’t know what a treasure we have.”