Centennial Celebration Sermon

The following sermon was given by the Rt. Rev. Frederick Focke Reese
on the occasion of the Centennial Celebration of the Diocese of Georgia
on April 22, 1923 at St. Paul’s Church, Augusta.
The sermon was printed in a commemorative booklet.


“The Lord, our God, be with us, as He was with our Fathers.” -1 Kings 8:5

“The special event which we are commemorating today is the organization as a diocese of the Church in Georgia, which was accomplished in St. Paul’s Church, in this city on Feb. 24, 1823.

“The review of a hundred years in the time usually allowed to a sermon is manifestly impossible, except in the most cursory fashion. For that reason I shall only briefly allude to the history of the Church previous to that date.

“We all know that when Oglethorpe landed with his colonists in 1733, he brought with him a priest of the Church of England, the Rev. Henry Her­bert, D.D., and that a succession of clergymen served with intervals as chap­lains and pastors to the people until the War of Independence. Included among these were the world famous men, John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, the founder of Bethesda, and one other entitled to honor­able mention for his faithful service of twenty years, the Rev. Bartholomew Zouberbuhler, during whose ministry the first Christ Church in Savannah, begun in 1740, was finally completed in 1750.

“The results of the War of Independence were as elsewhere to leave the Church in a discouraged and depressed condition. There were but three con­gregations in the State, one in Savannah, one in Augusta, and one on St. Simon’s Island. Without organization and without a Bishop, these parishes maintained an independent but uncertain existence. In 1815 Bishop Dehon of South Carolina, visited Savannah and consecrated the church there and confirmed fifty persons presented by the rector, the Rev. Walter Cranston. This was the first confirmation ever held in Georgia. In 1821, Bishop Bowen of South Carolina, consecrated St. Paul’s Church, Augusta, and in 1828 at Savannah confirmed seventy-eight persons, presented by the Rev. Abiel Carter.”In the meantime, however, the faithful few had made the first effort to find each other in the unity of the Church. For on Feb. 24, 1833, three clergymen and six laymen (not five as usually stated), met in St. Paul’s Au­gusta, and organized a convention and a diocese. They were the Rev. Abiel Carter of Christ Church,Savannah; the Rev. Hugh Smith of St. Paul’s Au­gusta, and the Rev. Edmund Matthews of Christ Church, St. Simon’s Island. The laymen were Dr. J. B. Read and Peter Guerard from Christ Church, Savannah; John Course, Edward F. Campbell and Dr. Thomas I. Wray from St. Paul’s Augusta, and later during the session Dr. W. 11. Parker from Sa­vannah. The Rev. Mr. Carter was elected president, and Dr. Wray, secretary. They proceeded with great dignity and due formality to conduct their business, as though the convention was a regular occurrence. They adopted rules of order, and a constitution and canons for the government of the diocese, elected a standing committee, acceded to the constitution of the Protestant Episco­pal Church in the United States and elected deputies to the next General Convention. Bishop Bowen was formally invited to perform Episcopal offices in the State in accordance with the canons of the Church.

“But they were not content to do the formal things necessary to perfect an organization. They knew that throughout the State there were scattered groups and individual members of the Church and they drew up an ‘Address of the First Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church for the state of Georgia’ to their scattered brethren. In this address they said that the pre­sent was an interesting era in the local history of their venerable Church and marked the dawn of a brighter day; that she was now ‘as a city that was at unity with itself.’ They thanked God that He had preserved her members, few and as strangers in the land, ‘in their attachment to her pure and pri­mitive principles.’ They reminded them that it was their duty and their pri­vilege to be ‘fellow workers with God’ in building up and extending the Church. ‘It was the Church of their fathers,’ they wrote. ‘Her ministry is Apostolic, her constitution primitive, her services are fervent and animated, yet chastened and reverential, her doctrines were the doctrines of the Bible, the doctrines of the Cross.’ They reminded them also that they were engaged in a work for which posterity would bless their memory. They knew that there were difficulties. Their number was small and the individuals scattered. But the obstacles were not insurmountable. ‘Despondency itself,’ said they, `must become sanguine, when it inspects the record of past proceedings.’ They did not wish to be considered as evincing ‘sectarian narrowness,’ but they reminded the people ‘of the exclusive claims of their own Zion upon their liberality,’ for her wants were ‘various and pressing and they entreated the ‘zealous co-operation’ of their brethren ‘in this work of faith and labor of love.’ And like practical men they gave the name and address of the secre­tary and the president of the Standing Committee to whom communications and inquiries might be addressed.

“One other thing these nine men did, was to adopt a constitution for a society ‘for the General Advancement of Christianity in the State of Georgia.’ This society was to promote the extension of the Church `to its destitute members throughout the State’ .and ‘for the distribution of prayer books and religious tracts.’ Two dollars entitled to membership and $10 at any one time constituted a life member and of the life membership receipts they pro­vided that three-fourths should constitute a permanent fund.

“Thus begun the organized life of the Church in this State, a few faithful men, full of courage and faith, with a cheerful confidence, who believed in God and loved the Church, faced the issue and difficulties that seemed almost insurmountable. The population of the State in 1823, was approximately 390,­000 and there were about 131 communicants or one to nearly 3,000 of the population. Doubtless there were quite a number of communicants scattered throughout the state of whom no record was possible. In 1825, three parishes reported 164 communicants.

“The society for the advancement of Christianity was not idle, but with funds collected from the people they engaged a missionary, the Rev. Lot Jones, who came from the Eastern Diocese. The first recorded result of his activity was the organization of a parish in Macon, called Christ Church, which in 1825 was admitted into union with the convention, with nine com­municants and of which Mr. Jones became the first rector.

“I am sure that we Georgians, who are here today, the posterity to whom these men referred in the ‘address’ do “bless their memory.” Now that they have been long “laid low in the grave” as they wrote, we are reaping `fruits of righteousness and joy and peace from that seed which (they) cast into the ground.’ We may still be in comparison with the vast population of our State and its tremendous moral and religious issues a small and feeble folk, but at any rate we are relatively much stronger than they, and we do have, if we will recognize it, the encouragement and strength which comes to us from a well-organized and living national Church.

“The seed thus planted in 1828 continued to grow, though but slowly, as might be expected without the leadership of a Bishop. In 1840 there were eight clergymen and 323 communicants and the ratio of the population was reduced from one in 3,000 to one in 2,141. This year the eighteenth annual convention assembled in Clarkesville on May 4th. There were present seven clergymen and eight lay delegates representing the parishes in Savannah, Au­gusta, St. Simon’s Island, Macon, Columbus and Clarkesville. A parish in Springfield, Effingham county, near Savannah, called St. Michael’s, elected de­legates, bearing the names Charlton and Guerrard, who, however, did not attend. The Church in Clarkesville was unfinished, `being,’ in the language of the rector, the Rev. E. B. Kellogg, `but little else than a skeleton: In what building the meetings were held is not stated. `The convention met,’ the record says, ‘in the parish of Grace Church.’


“At this time, it was resolved to elect a Bishop. His salary was fixed at $2,000 of which Christ Church, Savannah, was to pay $1,000; St. Paul’s Au­gusta, $500; Christ Church, Macon, $300; Trinity, Columbus, $100, and St. Simon’s, $100. These little parishes, the largest having only 150 communi­cants and the smallest, 15, evidently wanted a Bishop and were willing to pay for him. The delegates from Savannah also proposed for its vestry that a new parish should be organized in that city’ to be known as `St. John’s Church, and the rectorship tendered to the bishop-elect, the two rectors to alternate in their respective churches and `thus the interests of both be united.’ The con­vention was also informed that the organization of the new parish was already under way, and that it would pay the bishop-elect as rector a sum sufficient to make his total salary $3,000.

“This was a very remarkable incident, a division to promote strength and accomplish in harmony. `There is that scattereth and yet increaseth.’ Would that all new parishes formed as the result of division had been organized in the same spirit.

“These prelinunaries being completed, the convention then proceeded to an election and as a result the Rev. Stephen Elliott, Jr., professor of the Evi­dences of Christianity and of Sacred Literature in the College of South Carolina, was unanimously nominated by the clergy and unanimously confirmed by the laity. Bishop Elliott was consecrated in Christ Church, Savannah, on Feb. 28, 1841, by Bishops Meade of Virginia, Ives of North Carolina and Gadsden of South Carolina, and presided at his first convention in Christ Church, Macon, on May 3, 1841.

“Of the character and ability, the devotion and labors of Bishop Elliott it is not necessary to speak, ‘He being dead yet speaketh.’ His fame still abides in the diocese and in the whole Church. Of distinguished lineage, with a handsome and impressive appearance, with a mind richly endowed and stored with large learning, a disposition benign and gracious, a temper patient and well poised, he was naturally a leader among his fellows, and he gave himself and all that he had without stint to the Church.

“The result of his early labors manifested itself in the establishment of new congregations among the scattered Church folk. In 1850 there were eighteen clergy at work, 874 communicants were reported and eighty-eight people confirmed—the ratio between population and communicants being re­duced to one in 1,036. In that year we find congregations reporting in Milledgeville, Marietta, Montpelier, Athens, Darien, Glynn county, Rome, St. Mary’s, Cass county, Atlanta, Talbotton and among the negroes on the Ogee­chee river. Missionary work was also being carried on in Lexington, Wash­ington and Petersburg and among the plantations on the Savannah river. I wish I could take time to read copious extracts from the Bishop’s addresses for it is in them that are recorded what they call now-a-days “the human interest stories’—the romance of the Bishop’s work and travels.

“Like all other human efforts there was experiment with alternating suc­cess and failure. Some of the plantings survive to this day and some failed and are forgotten. But throughout it all there was courage and patience and faith and love.

“In one of the Bishop’s addresses he speaks of the ‘period of gloom and almost hopelessness, every new parish must encounter and overcome.’ `Upon the first introduction of the Church into any neighborhood,’ he writes, ‘its novelty, the education of the clergy, the desire of having an edifice that may ornament the rising town, the hope of attracting settlers by the introduction of a form of worship most current among the rich and educated of the land, gather around it a number of adherents who are seeking their own and not the things of Jesus Christ.’ But then the scene changes; ‘the novelty is past, the worldly objects are attained, false friends fall away, persecution begins its bitter work’ . . . . and then comes ‘the struggle of faith and endurance.’ And the struggle of faith and endurance is still on and will continue, but let us share the Bishop’s faith and hope, when he says ‘if her ministers and members are true to themselves, the struggle ends but in one way, the com­plete triumph of the Church.’


“I can only refer to the great Bishop’s heroic effort to maintain a Church school for girls at Montpelier, near Macon. It had encouraging success at first. It did a great work for the Church. I have known personally some of the faithful women who were educated there in secular knowledge, Chris­tian piety and Church loyalty. To its success Bishop Elliott contributed much of his time and labor, most of his means, his great personality and his loving zeal.

“But in the terms of worldly success it finally failed. Just another one, ‘of which there have been so many in our Church.

“It is impossible not to mention Bishop Elliott’s intimate connections with a movement which we must recognize to have been probably the most impor­tant and statesmanlike enterprise undertaken by the Church in the South be­fore the war and none more so since, the founding of the University of the South. The three distinguished men whose names are most closely identified with that enterprise, were Bishops Otey of Tennessee, Polk of Louisiana and our own Elliott. Three men of great vision and power, each by his qualities complementing the others. The first allusion which I find in the convention addresses of the Bishop is in 1858 in which he says that on July 4, of the previous year, `in pursuance to a resolution come to during the session of the General Convention of 1856,’ he attended a meeting of bishops, clergy and laity on Lookout Mountain, `for the purpose of organizing a Southern University.’

“In 1859 he served with Bishop Polk as commissioners to canvass the dio­ceses to procure an endowment for the university. They began at New Or­leans, and from the encouragement they received from the planters of the Mississippi valley they believed that three millions of dollars could—with time, labor and patience, be raised in the ten dioceses for the purpose.

“In 1859 and 1860 the same two bishops prepared and submitted to the Board of Trustees `the plan of the inner life of the University’ and it was con­fidently expected that the plans would be rapidly consummated and the school opened. But alas ! what was so wisely planned and so ably prosecuted and so nearly successful went down as did so many other plans in the tragic ruins of the war of 1861-65. After peace came, however, other brave hearts laid anew, in poverty but in faith and hope, the foundations of the University, which lives now, a heritage to us from the noble souls who planned it, that we may with like courage and fidelity maintain and strengthen it as an enduring monument to their wisdom and unselfish service to nation and Church.

“The period of the war had its tragic record in Church as well as in State. Through storm and tempest of strife and bloodshed the Church in the diocese lived and carried on its ministry of praise and service to the stricken souls at home and to the well and the injured and dying souls at the front. But time fails to dwell upon the details.

“Bishop Elliott and Bishop Polk as the senior Bishops of the dioceses in the Confederacy `took it upon themselves’ as they said, to address a letter to their right reverend brethern calling for a meeting of bishops, clergy and laity to consider the duty of the hour, and this meeting led to the organiza­tion of the General Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Con­federate States of America. A first meeting was held in Montgomery, Ala., on July 3, 1862, and the first General Council assembled in Augusta, in this Church, on Oct. 16, of the same year. Bishop Elliott being then the Senior Bishop presided at this convention and was its moving spirit, writing also the first and only pastoral letter, issued by the House of Bishops.

“The war ended, the two churches, North and South, were immediately united in General Convention in 1865, because both in North and South the sense of unity and fellowship was stronger than the sense of estrangement and the bitterness engendered by war. And for that we, Churchmen, can never be thankful enough to our God and Saviour, and to those noble men who under Him sacrificed their natural feelings and brought it about.

“Among the distressing consequences of this war, undoubtedly was the death of Bishop Elliott, who on Dec. 21, 1868, suddenly fell asleep, in the sixty-first year of his age in the prime of his intellectual and spiritual maturity.

“During the war the confirmations reported were in relation to the num­ber of communicants very large, in four years from 1860 to 1864, the latter increasing from 2,088 to 2,674. But in 1866, the, confirmations fell off and the communicants had been reduced to 1,923. This was possibly due to the discouraged condition of the social and industrial life of the people and may be, also to the inevitable slump which seems to follow all wars.

“The Rev. John Watrus Beckwith was elected the second Bishop of Georgia in Christ Church, Macon, on May 10, 1867, and he was consecrated in St. John’s Church, Savannah, on Tuesday, April 2, 1868, by Bishops Green of Mississippi, Atkinson of North Carolina, Wilmer of Alabama, Wilmer of Louisiana and Young of Florida. He had been rector of Trinity Church, New Orleans, and had served as a chaplain in the Confederate army on the staff of Gens. Hardee and Polk. He was a young man at the time of his election, being in his thirty-eighth year.

“He began his episcopate at a time when in the language of Bishop Thompson who preached the Memorial sermon in 1891, ‘The land was covered with the scars of battle, the people were in mourning. There were cities of burned and blackened ruins. Impoverishment was the rule. But with a sol­dier’s courage and with a Christian’s faith, and trust in God, he dared the tremendous task of the Episcopate under these circumstances, and equally he dared in all humility and utter lack of self-consciousness to follow and stand in Elliott’s place and do duty for God and His Church. A strong, self-con­tained, reticent man he yet was one of the most gentle and pitiful of men. A cold and harsh act was impossible to him. He was a fatherly Bishop and meekly ruled as remembering mercy.’ `Endowed by nature with a marvelous voice that ranged throughout the whole realm of human emotions,’ Bishop Beckwith’s reading was so impressive that, as I have heard people say, they crowded to hear him read the service which was to them as a benediction.

“I came to Georgia only a few months before his death and saw him only two or three times. But not only immediately after he passed away but even yet among those who knew him I hear the echo of his eloquence in the pulpit, and his beautiful reading of the service.

“Among the first special interests which appealed to the Bishop was a home for the orphans of Confederate soldiers to be under the care of a Church sisterhood. The means to accomplish this were furnished him by a Churchman of the city of New York, the late William H. Appleton of the well known publishing house. The Appleton Church Home at Macon was accordingly built and occupied in July, 1871, under the charge of Sister Margaret. This remarkable woman was assisted in the management and education of the girls by Sister Katherine and Sister Mary. Among the most cherished memories of my life in Georgia are the memories of the friendship of these noble women, the last named of whom still survives. During the episcopate of Bishop Beckwith, there was carried through an amendment to the Diocesan law by which all vestrymen were required to be baptised and confirmed men. Previous to that apparently it was canonical to elect any man who was `a supporter of the gospel,’ as the old charters state it. I am sure that among these vestrymen were many fine and generous men who served in this capacity. I knew some of them. And it may be that in the early history of the Diocese it was particularly impossible to secure enough communicants to fill these positions. But the manifest irregularity of having men vote in the conventions and administer the affairs of the Church who were not acknowledged members of it finally under the Bishop’s leadership led to the adoption of this plain and common sense requirement.

“When Bishop Beckwith began his episcopate there were 28 clergymen and 2,424 communicants and 19 white parishes, and a number of other places to which he made visits and in which services were held more or less regularly. Unfortunately the records are so imperfect that it is impossible to be more accurate.

“At the end of his episcopate there were 50 parishes and missions reported, and 55 church buildings, 39 clergy and 5,272 communicants. In 1870 there was one communicant to 419 people in the State; and in 1890 one to 846. Bishop Beckwith died in Atlanta on Nov. 23, 1890, in the 59th year of his age and the twenty-third of his episcopate.

“It was a year and three months before his successor was consecrated. Bishop Nelson was elected at a convention held in St. Paul’s Church, Macon, on Nov. 11, 1891. And he was consecrated in St. Luke’s Cathedral, Atlanta, on St. Matthias’ Day, Feb. 24, 1892, by Bishops Quintard of Tennessee, Howe of South Carolina, and Lyman of North Carolina, five other bishops being present and assisting in the laying-on-of-hands.

“Many of those here knew Bishop Nelson, for he was our Bishop. He came to us in the full vigor of his manhood. With robust physical health and mental vigor, a stalwart and handsome presence and a zeal and industry in service that knew’ no limit, he gave himself to the Church in the Diocese in missionary labors. From the North to the South and from the East to the West he went incessantly, establishing missions, building churches and preaching the gospel of Christ and His Church. The best proof of his industry and veal is found in the fact that in fifteen years the work of the Diocese, especially in the number of churches which must be visited and sustained by his encouragement and assistance outgrew even his capacity for labor.

“He was especially interested in and energetic in carrying on and enlarging the work among the negroes, which had been the concern of both his predecessors. If there were any mitigation of the evil of human slavery, it was found in the solicitude and care which all of the Bishops of Georgia evinced in their efforts to minister the Gospel to the black people, both in slavery times and after freedom. Slavery among our forbears in itself not a Christian institution, was, however, permeated by Christian feeling and softened by the Christian conscience of the Church’s bishops and priests and by devout lay people, whose ownership was felt to be a solemn trust, And if we who have the responsible trust of propagating the Church’s mission in Georgia in our clap are faithful to that trust, we should permit no changed conditions in the relations between the races, to make us indifferent to this duty.

“In 1907 the Diocese was divided and the diocese of Atlanta set off of which Bishop Nelson elected to become the diocesan. At the time, of the division, there were 54. clergymen on the roll, and 8,524 communicants and 439 people were confirmed, an increase since 1892 of 3,252.

“Bishop Nelson died Feb. 13, 1917, in the sixty-fifth year of his age, his episcopate having lasted just 25 years.

“I must leave it to some later chronicle to tell the story of the last 15 years, since the Diocese of Georgia has been reduced by the separation of our brothers in the northern part of our State. The growth of the two Dioceses is baldly stated by the fact that in 1921, when the last available reports were made, there was 75 clergymen and 11,057 communicants and 583 persons confirmed. The estimated population of that year may be said to have been 2,925,800, and the ratio between the population and communicants would be about one in 246. This is not indicative of great relative strength as a religious communion. But at any rate compared to the ratio in 1823 of one to 3,000 it is an evidence of growth, which may indeed cause us to take courage for the future.

“It will have been impossible to have made special mention of all the faithful clergy and lay people who during the century have made their contribution of loving service and faithful labor to the Church’s life and growth. Nor is it possible even to mention some of them by name. But I have not forgotten them. Without a faithful laity and clergy a Bishop as leader is helpless. The record of the past is therefore the record of their lives. Their names and cures are hidden in the dusty journals of the past, but better they were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. As the men of 1823 said in their address: `They (and all who follow them) were engaged in a work for which posterity would bless their memory.’ We do bless their memory. We thank God for them and we pray, first that God’s peace and light’ may be eternally theirs and second that we too in our day and generation being also faithful unto death, may pass on to our posterity, a richer heritage than we have received and may likewise inherit the Crown of Life. For if we are faithful we may confidently believe that the Lord our God will be with its as He was with our fathers.”