Springfield Baptist celebrates 225 years

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Springfield Baptist Church has had many milestones in its 225-year history: the founding of Morehouse College; the establishment of the Georgia Education Commission, which pressed for public education for black children in the late 1800s; and the formation of the Georgia Equal Rights Association, which marked the beginning of the Republican Party in Georgia.

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Springfield Baptist Church's current building was dedicated in 1910.  WILLIE MALPASS/FILE
WILLIE MALPASS/FILE
Springfield Baptist Church's current building was dedicated in 1910.

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.”

Sharpton to speak at celebration

WHAT: The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at the 225th anniversary celebration of Springfield Baptist Church (114 12th St.)

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

IF YOU GO: Parking will be available from the Reynolds and Jones streets entrances of the church. A portion of 12th Street will be closed to traffic. Seating is limited.

LEARN MORE: Call (706) 724-1056.

The oldest church?

Springfield is one of at least four churches to lay claim to the title of America’s oldest black Baptist church.

First African Baptist Church and First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., were officially organized in 1788, but First African claims earlier origins. First Baptist Church of Petersburg, Va., was organized in 1774.

Springfield dates its founding to 1787, the year the church settled in the historic village of Springfield. Some historians maintain, however, that the church existed even earlier in the Silver Bluff area of South Carolina before becoming a Georgia institution. Founding members of Springfield met at the Silver Bluff plantation of George Galphin as early as 1773, years before the church was permanently settled in Augusta.

Thanks to its Silver Bluff roots, Edward Cashin, the late professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Georgia History at Augusta State University, concluded “Springfield is not only the oldest black Baptist church in America, it is the oldest black church of any denomination.”

– Kelly Jasper, staff writer

225 Years of church history

1787: Springfield Baptist was founded by the Rev. Jesse Peters Galphin, who pastored the church for 27 years.

1800: Estimates place church membership at about 1,200, making it the largest congregation in the Georgia Baptist Association.

1844: Springfield purchased the former St. John United Methodist Church building, which had to be moved from Greene Street to 12th Street. The building, which dates to 1801, is still referred to as the “St. John building” by church members.

1859: The first Sunday school for black children in Georgia was organized at Springfield.

1866: The formation of the Equal Rights Association at Springfield in January 1866 marked the origins of the Republican Party in Georgia. Members petitioned the Georgia Legislature for the civil treatment of blacks, including the right to vote.

1867: Morehouse College was founded by William Jefferson White in the basement of the St. John Building (above). It was known originally as the Augusta Baptist Institute.

1897: A contract was confirmed to build a new church. The current brick edifice was constructed, and the St. John building was moved farther back on the property. The new building was dedicated in 1910.

1902: Church membership was recorded at about 1,000 members.

1935: The church was recognized as the city of Augusta celebrated its bicentennial. Organizations marched in procession according to date of origin. Kiokee Baptist Church was first, followed by The Freemasons then Springfield.

1944: The church rallied to repair the old church building, which stands today near its original location.

1982: The St. John Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1989: The brick church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1995: Augusta Tomorrow, Springfield Baptist and Historic Augusta reveal plans for Springfield Village Park.

2002: Springfield Village Park dedicated.

Sources: Springfield Baptist Church, Augusta Chronicle archives

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onlysane1left
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onlysane1left 08/11/12 - 11:22 pm
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1866: The formation of the

1866: The formation of the Equal Rights Association at Springfield in January 1866 marked the origins of the Republican Party in Georgia. Members petitioned the Georgia Legislature for the civil treatment of blacks, including the right to vote.

Does this mean Newt Gingrich is coming? Where will the prominent modern Republicans be at to help celebrate the birth of their party here in the fine state of Georgia?

itsanotherday1
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itsanotherday1 08/12/12 - 02:13 am
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I'm very happy for the

I'm very happy for the members of this church and the historic significance of their occasion; but I think they could have done much better than Al Sharpton as a dignitary to help them celebrate.

wribbs
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wribbs 08/12/12 - 08:16 am
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@onlysane1left. I'm sure Newt

@onlysane1left. I'm sure Newt Gingrich or any other 'modern' republican would have been glad to come. I can bet you none of the 'modern' republicans were invited. Do you use the term 'modern' to describe republicans so you can claim the republicans of that era were not racists, but the ones of this era are? Which is entirely false.

They did chose to invite one of the biggest racists I've ever seen; Al Sharpton. If the man didn't keep alive the perception that everything is based on race, he would be out of a job.

Why not invite Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts, or Walter Williams?

JRC2024
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JRC2024 08/12/12 - 10:10 am
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As wribes says "Why not

As wribes says "Why not invite Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts, or Walter Williams". While I am very happy that the church has been around that long and for the church members, I think the above people are way more important than Al Sharpton. He is not a rev. in my book and just does not deserve recognition. I put zero weight in anything he says but alot in what the people above say.

Granddaddy John
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Granddaddy John 08/12/12 - 10:19 am
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Its a great church with alot
Unpublished

Its a great church with alot of good people,why stain the church by bringing in a race hustler.

seenitB4
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seenitB4 08/12/12 - 12:49 pm
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Silver Bluff

I remember my granmom talking about that area......fishing nearby...many good people there she said.....at one time that must have been a busy spot for gatherings....
map
http://itouchmap.com/?d=1250889&s=SC&f=cliff

seenitB4
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seenitB4 08/12/12 - 01:41 pm
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VERY INTERESTING

Home › Geography: United States › South Carolina

Silver Bluff Baptist Church, Silver Bluff, South Carolina (1773- )

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The first black Baptist congregation in what would be the United States was formed in 1773 on the Galphin Plantation in Silver Bluff, South Carolina, 14 miles northwest of Savannah, Georgia, by Rev. Wait Palmer, a white Connecticut minister, and African American pastor, George Liele. The first ordained, black minister in Georgia, Liele in turn baptized and trained David George, an enslaved trader owned by George Galphin, before continuing to evangelize along the Savannah River between present-day Augusta and Savannah. With David George as pastor, Galphin allowed his enslaved population to use an empty barn to worship.

In 1778, when Galphin abandoned his plantation in the wake of the British advance, the Silver Bluff congregation fled to British lines in Savannah and joined the First Colored Baptist Church of Savannah, established in December 1777 by Liele. David George and George Liele along with hundreds of other blacks left Savannah for Nova Scotia during the British evacuation of Loyalists in July, 1782. Eventually the remaining Silver Bluff congregation came under the spiritual leadership of Rev. Jesse Peter, an enslaved itinerate preacher from Augusta who periodically conducted services at Silver Bluff before agreeing to serve as its official minister between 1788 and 1793.

In 1793, the year he secured his freedom, Peter became pastor of the First African Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia (presently the Springfield Baptist Church). Begun in 1787, the Augusta church was officially organized by David Tinsley, a white pastor, in 1793. Many historians argue that most of the Silver Bluff congregation transitioned into this new congregation, making the present-day Springfield Baptist Church the oldest continuously operating African American church in the United States.

CryoCyberTronics
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CryoCyberTronics 08/12/12 - 05:43 pm
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Congratulation Springfield Baptist Church of 225th Anniversary

First of all I like to say happy 225th anniversary to Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta. You are truly an inspiration and icon in a city of Augusta Georgia. Now in regards to some of the previous comments. How soon you forget that Rev Al Sharpton was a mentor for The Late Great "God Father Of Soul" Mr. James Brown. JB was also from S.C. who at times had homes in Augusta Georgia and also concerted Augusta, Georgia his hometown. It's good to see that you know current active Civil Rights Leaders. Don't know if it was from hindsight or if you just didn't know that The reverend Jessie Jackson is also from South Carolina. His hometown is Greenville South Carolina. 

wribbs
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wribbs 08/12/12 - 08:44 pm
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So where a person is from is

So where a person is from is what is important, not what the person stands for? Instead of bringing Al Sharpton all the way from Hollywood, or wherever he is from now, why not pick somebody out of the local jail that is from Augusta and let them speak.

If you want someone to speak at a church that represents a symbol of achievement and pride, get someone who has achieved something and should be held up as example of something to be proud of. Al Sharpton is not that person. In my opinion Martin Luther King would not have been associated with him. King understood what matters is the content of a man's heart and his character. Sharpton make’s his living convincing people the world is against them, no matter what they do. In his world racism will never end, because only he can proclaim it is over and to do that would mean the end of his career.

duncan
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duncan 08/12/12 - 10:47 pm
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sharpton

Race baiting opportunist, enough said.

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