"Let us hold fast the profession of our faith ... and not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing."
- Hebrews 10:23, 25
As my psychology professor once said, "Church buildings are a lot like prisons. Their thick, solid doors are locked most of the time and their windows are placed high up the sanctuary walls or made of opaque glass so no one can see in or out - because those on the inside don't want anyone else to know they are there."
Naturally, we skeptical students did not believe everything our professors told us, but when I read recently about the "wardens" at the original St. Paul's Church in Augusta, I immediately thought of my college professor and his strange linking of worship and incarceration.
With excerpts from The Colonial Records of Georgia and other sources, Augusta writer Berry Fleming delightfully captured the facts and flavor of this area's beginnings in his 1957 book, Autobiography of a Colony. For those who had left Europe to settle in the New World, religion was as much a part of colonial life as tilling their newly acquired land - and just as difficult to carry out.
It wasn't easy attracting a minister to 18th-century Augusta, where living conditions were primitive and promised salaries rarely materialized. The Rev. Jonathan Copp, first minister supplied by "The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the Province of Georgia," had hardly arrived before the SPGPG began receiving his complaints.
"Sirs, I have been in these parts four months, during which I have waited with patience of acquainting you with something pleasing with respect to this little part of ye wilds of America. ... There is no house built as yet for me, nor even the foundation laid... ."
Copp wrote frequently, alternately fearing for his life at the hands of the Indians, and reminding the Society that his house was not yet built. Finally, almost four years after his arrival, he wrote, "The parsonage house is finished, and would make a pretty good one were there any windows in it."
The unhappy minister then began a new series of letters requesting another assignment. Receiving no reply, he made the decision himself to move to Charleston, "after faithfully discharging my duty without any temporal profit and no happiness to myself... ."
With Copp gone, the church vestry began a letter-writing of their own - for another clergyman, a half-hearted process that took five years. In retrospect, following the arrival of William Duncanson, perhaps they should have been a little more patient.
"Having been long without a clergyman, St. Paul's Church invited Mr. Duncanson to come up from Savannah, but unhappily found themselves disappointed in their expectations, for he hadn't been there six weeks before irregular conduct showed itself, if an excess of drinking and profane swearing may be termed so... .
"After such behavior they concluded him incapable of forming the great principles of religion in the minds of the unlearned people in these remote parts of America, who are more apt to be taught by example than precept."
With the departure of the debauched Mr. Duncanson, the Georgia General Assembly got into the church act - literally. After enacting several bills regulating the behavior of its citizens, the legislators decreed: "The inhabitants shall attend church on Sundays and there shall abide, orderly and soberly, during the time of prayer and preaching, on pain of forfeiture for every neglect the sum of two shillings and six pence sterling. The Church Wardens and Constables shall once in the forenoon and once in the afternoon in the time of divine service walk through the town of Augusta to enforce said Act."
I still don't know if my professor was on to something, but my Anglican-Episcopal friends assure me their "wardens" serve as advisors to the rector and as "under-shepherds" for the congregation. None is aware of any guarding or policing role in their job description. The word "warden" in that setting probably means "caretaker," as in someone who takes care of a child or a section of a community, both of which are sometimes called, "wards."
Some points to ponder as you are deciding whether or not to attend today.
(Incidentally, the original St. Paul's Church in Augusta served the needs of the entire early community and has no connection to the current church on Reynolds Street.)
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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