Columbus, GA Downtown Churches: St. Luke United Methodist Church (Part 1 of 6)
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
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Sources: Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley, Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Kenneth H. Thomas Jr., The Columbus Museum Archive, Historic Columbus Foundation Archive, Sesquicentennial Celebration 1828 - 1978: St. Luke United Methodist Church, The Story of the Frank M. Parr Wall Hanging, and 'Splendor' in the Past: Billy Winn pens 600-page history of St. Luke UMC by Allison Kennedy for the Columbus - Ledger-Enquirer, and Red Clay, White Water and Blues by Virginia Causey.
Church Square is a city block home to two churches, First Baptist Church and St. Luke United Methodist Church. The block is significant because it is the only remaining square designated for church use by Edward Lloyd Thomas, who surveyed the area in 1828 and drew up the original city plan. The 1828 plan included a rectangular grid of city blocks thirteen long and eight wide which encompassed the area bounded by what is now 17th Street, 10th Avenue, and the river, much of which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Columbus Historic District. At several locations throughout the area were "squares" dedicated to civic, religious, and academic use. The Methodist and Baptist churches still retain their original holding in the Church Square block, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues and 11th and 12th Streets. Placement for the Catholic and Presbyterian churches were originally given in the block bounded by 2nd and 3rd Avenues and 7th and 8th Streets with the block divided by a street running east to west called Chapel Street. Church Square and the three adjacent churches (First Presbyterian, Trinity Episcopal, and Holy Family) were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Today when Church Square is referenced, it is used to describe all five religious structures. Church Square has been home to a congregation of Baptists and one of Methodists since its inception. Lot B, the southern lot, was granted to the Methodists in 1828 while the northern Lot A was given to the Baptists in 1829.
Reverend James Stockdale was sent by the Methodist Conference to organize congregations between Chattahoochee and Flint counties. At first, preaching was carried on in the open air on the riverbank. In 1828, when the land on the block that became known as Church Square was designated for religious purposes, Methodists moved to the southern part of the block and used a brush arbor for worship. The newly formed Methodist congregation of 54 white members and seven African American members organized and built a log structure on the southwest corner by 1829. Reverend Andrew Hammill was the first Minister sent to become the pastor of this group. In 1833, a frame building was constructed and painted white. When membership boomed once again, Georgia’s first brick Methodist Church was built on the site in 1836.
A still larger brick building was erected in 1847 (pictured above) – this would be the fourth structure on the lot. Dr. Lovick Pierce, called the "Nestor of Southern Methodism", was one of the earliest ministers of St. Luke. Originally from South Carolina, he was educated in Philadelphia to be a Doctor of Medicine. He later went into the Ministry, becoming one of the most influential Methodist divines the South ever produced. He was the great-great grandfather of D. Abbott Turner. Coming from Greensboro, Georgia, to Columbus, he was pastor of St. Luke in 1836. Dr. Pierce served for two years, later being made Presiding Elder, and being a potent influence in the religious and philanthropic affairs of the town. He planted the beautiful elm trees on the church square of St. Luke, and with his own hands helped clear away the underbrush around the new brick church erected through his efforts. In his later years, he became the first pastor of St. Paul. Dr. Lovick Pierce built his home on Wynnton Road, which later became known as "Hilton." A distinguished son of a distinguished father was George Foster Pierce, son of Dr. Lovick Pierce. He was born in Greene County in 1811 and served as pastor of St. Luke for a short time in 1848, when the membership included 415 white members and 375 Black members. At a meeting of the Methodist General Conference which took place in Columbus in 1854, Dr. George F. Pierce was elected Bishop. Bishop Pierce was the first President of Wesleyan, the first woman's college in America, and the next President of Emory College, then in Oxford, Georgia, to be elected after Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who had succeeded Ignatius Few, the founder, after one year.
In 1844, there was a split in the Methodist Church into a Southern and a Northern branch. The Methodist General Conference had censured Bishop James O. Andrew for owning enslaved people. This was followed by St. Luke Methodist Church passing resolutions condemning the action of the General Conference and favoring a division of the Methodist Church. The resolutions committee was composed of Dr. A. H. Flewellen, J. M. Chambers, Seaborn Jones, Van Leonard, and George F. Foster. Dr. Lovick Pierce was among those present and supported the resolution. In consequence of this action by the committee, Rev. Daniel Curry, who was opposed, resigned the pulpit.
In 1849, the City Council gave the Methodist Church the authority to build a church for African Americans on the East Commons. There was some opposition, and an application for an injunction was refused by the Superior Court. The church was then built at 11th Street and 6th Avenue. St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church (pictured above) was later organized close to this location in 1863 and a grand sanctuary was constructed by 1876. 1849 was also the same year that Lovick Pierce was made Presiding Elder of the Columbus District, and Samuel Anthony, another name well known to the Methodists of Columbus, was made pastor of St. Luke. An assistant of Dr. Lovick Pierce, who was also destined to be a Bishop, was the Reverend Joseph S. Key, ancestor of James W. Key and Jack B. Key, Jr. Reverend Key was twice pastor of St. Luke, became Presiding Elder of the Columbus District, and was elected Bishop in 1886.
St. Paul Church, c. 1859
The congregation of St. Luke was the first Methodist Church established in the frontier town of Columbus. It was not for another three decades from the founding of St. Luke that some members of the church’s congregation outgrew the guidance of its ministry. As a result, a second Methodist Church was formed in Columbus from the devout members of the elder church’s congregation. With the Rev. Dr. Lovick Pierce, the “Nestor of Southern Methodism,” leading the founding families, St. Paul was formed in 1858, with Lovick Pierce as the first pastor. The first brick-and-mortar St. Paul was completed in 1859 on the corner of Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street in downtown Columbus.
On April 26, 1866, the first Confederate memorial services were held in St. Luke. The services were held under the auspices of the newly formed Ladies Memorial Association, successor to the Ladies Aid Society. The Memorial Day was suggested by Mrs. Lizzie Rutherford Ellis, a member of St. Luke Church. Following the Civil War, the numerical strength of St. Luke fell from 970 to 630 (296 white members and 334 African American members). But the congregation would grow again by the late 1880s/early 1890s following a revival meeting which added membership to a total of 801. On October 14, 1896, when a Columbus shoemaker named James White and his son Henry shot and killed two police officers as they walked to a downtown bar. Another officer, William Jackson, was shot and killed on James White’s porch after officers went to his home. James White was later killed. Jackson was a member of St. Luke, and a funeral at the church offered a stately funeral to all the felled officers. As money was being raised for the officers’ families, a campaign to drive out the whiskey business from Columbus and Muscogee County began. The Columbus Woman’s Christian Temperance Union met at St. Luke to rally around this cause.
St. Luke Methodist Church, c. 1911. This is the 11th Street façade.
SOURCE: The Columbus Museum–St. Luke Church, Columbus, Ga.–Schomburg, F.
In 1897, the construction of the fifth church structure was started. It was not complete until it opened for worship in June of 1900. A bell would ring from the tower as the invitation for worship. The bell had its origin in the 1830s. Somewhere along the Ohio River, it was installed on a steamboat traveling to the Gulf of Mexico. St. Luke bough the bell at a salvage sale of the boat which was dismantled in Columbus. The building contract did not include the art glass windows, seating, heating, painting, or furniture. The ladies of the church sponsored the purchase of the pipe organ and a large window. Church members also paid for windows and the men of the church provided seats and furnishings. A low point in the church’s financial history, as was for most in the nation, was the Great Depression that hit the late 1920s and early 1930s. In the post-depression years, there was much unemployment. A small group of people, led by Mrs. George Matthews, Mrs. Ralph King (both active members of St. Luke) and Mr. Jess Schrimshire, acquired a cottage next to Hamp Stevens Methodist Church, raised $10,000, and opened a facility of day care for working mothers. This was the beginning of Open Door in 1935.
Kenneth H. Thomas Jr.'s book-Shown here the 1950 view of the front portico, which faces 2nd Avenue.
Fire destroyed the 1897 church building on Mother’s Day in 1942. After the fire, St. Luke built the original Stockwell Hall (which faces Third Avenue) under wartime restrictions. It served as a place of worship for six years. The hall was named in honor of Annie Stockwell whose sacrificial bequest of $69,000 made construction possible. The present sanctuary is Georgian in architecture; the portico is supported by graceful columns and a tall spire with a cross on top. The eight windows in the sanctuary depict incidents from creation to establishment of the Methodist Church in America. It was "officially" opened in 1948. The Turner Chapel was dedicated on April 14, 1965. Both struggles and triumphs during its over 180 years played out in St. Luke as they played out in the rest of the town and nation. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that reading prayers in the New York Public Schools was unconstitutional. At its summer meeting, the church board passed a resolution protesting the decision. It sent the resolution to Georgia Senators Richard B. Russell and Herman Talmadge. The next year, in the spring of 1963, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare sent a letter to Muscogee County instructing that “segregated schools are not deemed suitable for the education of on-base Federal children.” This was due to Columbus’ relationship with Fort Benning. The department also asked Muscogee County to come up with a plan for desegregation. Then in the summer of 1963, group of Black school children staged a “read in” at the then-segregated Bradley Memorial Library.
The superintendent at the time, William H. Shaw, taught Sunday school at St. Luke. All public libraries were desegregated by September 1963, and the district approved a “freedom of choice” plan to desegregate schools beginning in September 1964. The pressure around him intensified. A charter member of the Shaw class recalled that William Shaw “kept his mind on the Bible rather than his personal situation” when he taught, according to Allison Kennedy’s article of Billy Winn’s book Line of Splendor. Also stated in the article, St. Luke had to deal with the big issues facing the larger society, like race. At times, it is noted, that members of the church were indifferent to African Americans and at other times very bold in support of racial equality.
In the early 1990s, the desire for expansion was growing at St. Luke. Across Third Avenue were several older homes that had been turned into apartments over the years and had definitely seen better days. They were prime, due to their location, for the future site of a new building. Historic Columbus and its third Executive Director, Virginia Peebles, joined the conversation on the future of these historic homes. It was a losing battle to save the homes on their original sites. All were to be demolished to make way for parking and church expansion. The Columbus Historic District, on the other hand, had many areas in need of revitalization, with a number of empty lots where houses had been destroyed by fire, neglect, etc. For the next two years, Historic Columbus and St. Luke – along with numerous corporate and private partners – put a first of its kind project together. Four houses were moved to Seventh Street and Second Avenue on a single day in October 1993. It was a huge success.
Continuing through the 1990s to today, St. Luke has continued to expand and grow with the needs of their congregation, as well as with the needs of this community – and they have done so within the original grid pattern of our historic Uptown. The St. Luke Ministry Center was built on the site from where several of the historic houses were moved. St. Luke Preschool and Early Learning Center were established within existing buildings across the intersection of 11th Street and Third Avenue. St. Luke School started in 1998 and returned our city’s first high school building to become a functioning school once again. St. Luke UMC has also supported many outreach programs such as Respite Care, Meals on Wheels, Samaritan’s Fund, BRIDGE, Open Door Community House/Circles of Columbus, Valley Interfaith Promise, Right From the Start, Bereavement Ministry, Prayer Shawl Ministry, Food Pantry, and FANN (Friends and Neighborhood Network.
For 193 years, St. Luke United Methodist Church has been located on its original plot of land in downtown Columbus. Through six structures and over 90 pastors and their associates, St. Luke and its membership have served our community. Here's to 193 more.
Next Week: First Baptist Church! If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director