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Christian ecumenism and Judeo-Baptist relations in Savannah, Georgia.

On February 12, 1733, the earliest settlers in Georgia pitched four tents on the Yamacraw Bluff, and the birthing of the colony and the town of Savannah occurred.

At least two Baptists were among those some 120 English settlers led by James Edward Oglethorpe. One Anglican minister, Henry Herbert, slept restlessly in one of those tents that cold February night. Virtually five months later to the day (July 11), the William and Sarah dropped anchor in the Savannah River with forty-two Jews on board. Thus began "the largest Jewish settlement in the New World." (1) Two years later, July 12, 1735, these Jews opened a synagogue and named it "Mickva" Israel (the Hope of Israel), the "third founded Jewish congregation in America." (2) First in the South, it was third only to ones in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. The present Temple Mickve Israel (Reform Judaism) is indeed "third to none."

From the start, this religious mission-setting in Savannah was an ecumenical cradle. When the earliest Salzburgers (Lutherans) disembarked from the Purysburg on March 12, 1734, their first meal in Savannah was rice soup for breakfast, and it was served by a Jew from Frankfurt, Germany, Benjamin Sheftall. (3) These two religious groups that had been persecuted so harshly in Europe developed strong ecumenical relations from the start in the young Georgia colony. Though strong anti-Semitism still existed in England, it did not exist in the new Georgia colony. The Jewish community was completely accepted and from the very start made constructive and important contributions to the colony. (4)

Three Circles of Ecumenism

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, one generally speaks of three circles of ecumenical experience. The innermost circle is intradenominational, the second is interdenominational, and the third is interworld religions. From its founding in Savannah in the eighteenth century, the Georgia colony experienced and expressed all three of these circles. The third circle was illustrated in Judeo-Christian relations; and as soon as the white Baptists began to organize in the last years of the eighteenth century, they, too, initiated ecumenical involvements in their own denomination, in relation to other denominations (including the Roman Catholic body), and at least to one other world religion, Judaism. (5)

Baptist Beginnings in Savannah

Baptists in Savannah were indeed sparse in the early years, and it was not until 1771 or 1772 that the first Baptist church was founded in the Georgia colony (Kiokee Baptist Church now located in Appling in Columbia County). There was no formal or organized white Baptist group in Savannah until the last few years of the century. (6)

In this early national period, the principle of the separation of church and state did not preclude gifts of land to religious bodies by civil authorities. An ordinance was passed in Savannah, for example, in September 1790 granting specific lots to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Jews. Early the next year, these lots were officially presented to the various religious groups. Through the years, lots were granted and regranted, and religious bodies located and relocated in different settings. (7)

The original lot granted to white Baptists was exchanged by 1795 for a lot on Franklin Square, and the "Calvinistic Baptist Society" had erected a simple frame building by the end of the year even though there was no formally organized or chartered "church." Friendly ecumenical relations and a burned-down Presbyterian church building resulted in the Presbyterian church worshiping in the Baptist structure for four years and for a time even being served by a Baptist minister, Henry Holcombe. When the Presbyterians moved to their new church building in 1800, the Baptists constituted themselves into a church on November 26, 1800, with five males, eleven females, and a used building. Interestingly, they called Holcombe as their first pastor. White Baptists now officially joined the larger Christian community that included the First African Baptist Church, Christ Church (Episcopal), the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church, and, within a few years, the Methodist, Unitarian, and Mariners churches. Holcombe, an ecumenical and progressive Baptist, led this Baptist church into genuinely ecumenical experiences and "acceptances" from its founding days. (8)

Evolving Ecumenical Relationships

By 1831, the white Baptists had relocated to Chippewa Square (selling their original structure to the First African Baptist Church), only two half-blocks from the Mickve Israel Synagogue. Unknowingly, the white Baptists had now built a church destined to be known in the twenty-first century as the oldest standing religious structure in Savannah. The ever-present danger in the nineteenth century, namely, fire, had reduced all the other earlier religious buildings to rubble and ashes. This one fact alone often resulted in ecumenical "sharings" of worship places where persons of differing religious commitments rubbed shoulders with one another and developed appreciative and accepting relationships both in religious and civic circles.

In fact, in late 1831, the Baptist Sunbury Association met in Savannah with extended ecumenical preaching services as part of the program. Large crowds were accommodated by using the Independent Presbyterian Church's sanctuary with their own minister doing some of the preaching. The association duly took note: "Our Paedo-Baptist brethren heartily united with us during this interesting season." (9) Such exchanges of pulpits and buildings were commonplace in Savannah during the nineteenth century, and this pattern of religious practice has continued to the present time.

Through most of the nineteenth century, Baptists were more prone to "excommunicate" (the actual word in the records) any of their members who moved their membership to another denomination. Toward the close of the century, however, Baptists in Savannah were growing more sensitive to friendly changes of denominational affiliation in an ever-growing pluralistic society. Increasingly, the church moved to the stance of being willing to write a "good character letter" to the receiving new denominational church. In August 1887, Marie Hopkins joined the Independent Presbyterian Church, and the Baptists sent a letter concerning her positive moral character to the Presbyterians. In September 1896, Mrs. E. D. Miltier took a similar letter with her as she joined the same Presbyterian church. "Excommunication" for such an act was henceforth forsaken, as inclusiveness replaced exclusiveness and separatism in relation to interdenominational affiliation. (10)

Judeo-Baptist Relations in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

The religious liberty for which Baptists in America had fought so bravely had resulted in widespread religious pluralism in the young new nation. Baptists in Savannah awoke early to the implications of all this change and began to act more appropriately and maturely in line with their primary commitment to the principle of religious liberty. They could not possibly deny the concept of the freedom of conscience and still be true to an authentic understanding of religious liberty. Subscribing to both concepts, Savannah Baptists experienced ecumenical involvements in their own chosen denomination, in relation to other Christian denominations, and at least to even one other world religion--Judaism. All this took place during their first one hundred years of history. Their ground was definitely fertile and receptive of the many seeds sown by the "great new fact" of the twentieth century in religious circles--the ecumenical movement. Baptist-Jewish relations in Savannah from the start dramatically illustrated these extended ecumenical commitments.

From 1833 to 1878, Baptists and Jews in Savannah had neighboring sanctuaries for they were only two half-blocks distant from one another. Christians and Jews in Savannah had deep respect for one another as well. By the close of the century, Savannah had its only Jewish mayor of the century--Herman Myers, who served 1895-97 and 1899-1907. (11)

In 1878, the Jewish congregation moved to its beautiful new sanctuary on Monterey Square (the present location of the Reform Jewish Congregation, Mickve Israel). The consecration rites were conducted on April 11, 1878, with extended coverage of the event on April 12 by the Savannah Morning News. Timothy Harley, English-born pastor of First Baptist Church, was present at the consecration ceremony. The right front pew had been reserved for Harley as well as for Pastor Simmons of the New Houston Street Methodist Church and Pastor Dunlap of Saint Matthews Episcopal Church. An ecumenical overflow crowd packed the new sanctuary. (12)

The rabbi of Mickve Israel at the time of the consecration was Isaac P. Mendes. Mendes had come to Savannah from Richmond, Virginia, in August 1877 and would serve creatively during a long tenure in office. He was replaced in 1903 by Rabbi George Solomon and honored with an emeritus title. The next year, 1904, Mendes died. Funerals themselves are often occasions of ecumenical symbols and expressions. The interment service was on June 30 and Pastor John D. Jordan of First Baptist Church was appointed as an honorary pallbearer. (13)

Interestingly, Mendes died in the same year as Theodor Herzl, "progenitor of Zionism." The Baptists' centennial pastor was an evangelistic success, increasing membership by more than 50 percent during his tenure, but at the same time was ecumenical in his commitments, in this case to the Jewish faith. (14)

Pastor Leroy G. Cleverdon's Tenure

Leroy G. Cleverdon (pastor, 1942-61, longest tenure of office of any pastor at First Baptist Church) was probably the best educated and most ecumenical pastor who ever served First Baptist Church. Among other degrees, he had earned a Ph.D. at Yale University, working under the famous missiologist there, Kenneth Scott Latourette (also a Baptist). Well-traveled and known in ecumenical circles, Cleverdon was an accredited visitor at the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948 (the founding meetings of this organization) and a delegate to the Third World Conference on Faith and Order in Lund, Sweden, in 1952. In Baptist ecumenical circles, he was a delegate to the Ninth Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in London in 1955.

Cleverdon had unique and ground-breaking relations with Catholics as well as Jews in Savannah in the 1940s. This was highly unlikely in most Baptist contexts. In numerous Baptist churches, tracts were available instructing members how to convert (proselytize?) both Jews and Catholics to the Baptist faith. Even in the third millennium, this remains a practice, especially in some Southern Baptist churches. (15)

This Baptist pastor was active annually in ecumenical endeavors in Savannah, but two occasions merit special attention and mention. In 1943 during the National Brotherhood Week, citizens of Savannah were offered several absolutely unique religious experiences. A special ecumenical committee composed of Cleverdon, Rabbi Solomon of Mickve Israel, and Monsignor McNamara of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist planned a number of religious panels reflective of the several religious traditions and offering true brotherhood (and sisterhood) opportunities. The war years thus witnessed in Savannah the first interfaith endeavor in that city involving clergy of three major religious congregations: Baptist, Catholic, and Jewish. For its time, this was an amazing accomplishment. (16)

Several years later another ecumenical milestone was reached, this time in relation to pulpit exchanges. In March 1946, Rabbi Louis Youngerman of Mickve Israel preached from the pulpit of First Baptist Church, and Cleverdon preached from Mickve Israel's pulpit. This was actually the first such pulpit exchange in the history of religious congregations in Savannah. The Savannah Morning News praised it as "an inspiring manifestation of brotherhood in America at its best." (17) The early ecumenical commitments of the Baptist congregation of 1800 continued to evolve, and these instances were important building blocks in that evolution. Again, even in the third millennium, numerous Southern Baptist as well as other denominational pulpits would still not allow such pulpit exchanges.

On November 26, 1950, First Baptist Church staged an elaborate sesquicentennial celebration. Prior to this special day, scores of greetings and messages were received from Savannah and elsewhere. Perhaps the most ecumenical greeting came from Mickve Israel's congregation, including the following key sentence: "This 217-year-old congregation holds your congregation in affectionate regard and welcomes this opportunity to give its expression." (18)

Pastor Thomas D. Austin's Tenure

Cleverdon had the longest tenure of office as pastor of First Baptist Church in Savannah--nineteen years. Thomas D. Austin had the second longest tenure as pastor--eighteen years (1970-88). He was equally as ecumenical in his outlook and practice as Cleverdon had been. Austin wore well the ecumenical mantle of his predecessor. Cleverdon's death in May 1974 prompted ecumenical musings and compliments from Austin. He praised the pastor emeritus for his "healthy denominationalism" and his leading First Baptist to a healthy ecumenism. Austin concluded his comments as follows:
 He recognized the distinctives of Baptists, but also that God's
 gifts to others were just as numerous. To wit, he was a participant
 in the World Council of Churches meeting in Amsterdam, and the
 World Conference on Faith and Order in Lund, Sweden. He saw very
 clearly that to affirm the unity of the Church is not to deny the
 denominational branches of the Church. (19)

Austin, too, had a strong dose of genuine and healthy denominationalism as well as ecumenism. Soon enough, however, he would increasingly become deeply disappointed and disillusioned in his own denomination as the result of a right-wing fundamentalist takeover and a predictable resultant antiecumenical spirit.

In January 1977, Austin led the church to found the Interdenominational Committee and to begin a "People to People" continuing program that would include experiences with the Jewish as well as Catholic traditions in Savannah. The initial experience due to the program was with Mickve Israel Synagogue as the two congregations shared worship and social times with one another. Hands across faiths touched, and an unusual and deep bonding resulted. Certainly, Austin's closest clerical friend during his tenure in Savannah was Rabbi Saul Rubin. Through the years, facilities, worship, pulpits, and social occasions were shared by these two congregations.

On April 14, 1978, for example, Austin stood in the pulpit of Mickve Israel to bring greetings and salutations from First Baptist Church on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the consecration of the synagogue building on Monterey Square. Rubin and Austin also collaborated during these years on a series of educational religious programs on television. (20)

In June 1978, as a result of Rubin's contacts and planning, Austin visited Israel for two weeks as a guest of the American Jewish Committee. During this visit, he spoke with political, religious, and cultural leaders in Israel. Austin was by then well-versed in, as well as committed to, strong Jewish-Christian relations and shared the principles and "life" of this commitment with his own congregation.

Southern Baptist Antiecumenical Storms on the Horizon

Meanwhile, an antiecumenical movement was afoot in the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early 1980s as fundamentalists secretly met in their planning sessions to take over the convention. (21) These meetings eventually became public knowledge, and Austin clearly saw the storm clouds gathering. Austin alerted his congregation to this and warned his people that these neofundamentalists ("neo" because they had become astute in power politics as well as separatistic-fundamentalist in spirit and theology) would be hypercritical and intolerant of genuine ecumenism, open membership, open communion, and the ordination of women as deacons or pastors--principles to which First Baptist Church was deeply committed.

In 1980, these neofundamentalists were successful in electing one of their own, Bailey Smith, to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Early in his tenure, Smith remarked publicly that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." This insensitive and absurd remark (for he actually by this statement ruled out the prayers of Jesus who was Jewish) did not go without notice, to say the least. Austin was dismayed and angry and wanted publicly to distance himself as well as his congregation from such an obnoxious statement. In September 1980, his strongly worded letter was published in the Savannah Morning News, a letter supported by the church's diaconate. (22) Prophetically, Austin informed the diaconate that "we are in for some very hectic times" as well as increasing challenges from the growing neofundamentalist power brokers of the Southern Baptist Convention. (23)

By 1983, Austin was describing his congregation as an "alternative" Baptist congregation. The ecumenical mood of the leadership of the church, both lay and clerical, was now carefully coloring the responses to the rapidly changing climate in the denomination of which they had been a vital part since 1845. Meanwhile, also in 1983, while the interior of the Baptist sanctuary was being painted, in good ecumenical fashion the congregation held its Sunday worship services in Mickve Israel Synagogue.

In 1985, in the wake of another troubling meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, Austin published in the June 26 issue of The Calendar (the church's weekly newsletter) an excellent and perceptive statement of the commitments of First Baptist Church. Set in the context of swirling denominational controversy, it read as follows:

We shall continue to be a Baptist congregation which affirms our missionary and educational institutions.... Secondly, we shall be a Baptist congregation maintaining our traditional support of the separation of church and state. Thirdly, we shall be a congregation which champions the priesthood of every believer, the autonomy of every congregation, and the equality of all in God's kingdom. Fourthly, we shall be a Baptist congregation that refuses to see learning as an enemy of faith, and one which will not close its mind and spirit to the God who leads always into new and larger truth. Finally, we shall be a congregation capturing the best of our past; in our life and work we will demonstrate the marks of an authentic Baptist congregation: freedom, the pursuit of truth, and undiluted integrity. (24)

Indeed, these commitments would serve any Baptist congregation well in the midst of unbaptistic changes in a denomination that was changing course in midstream and rejecting so much of the genius of its prior history. The large Southern Baptist Convention umbrella covering a diversity of views was rapidly being closed and replaced by a jail-cell image with powerful politically-oriented guards. "Ecumenical" was increasingly becoming a dirty and heretical word; this could only cause pain for a congregation that had been continuously ecumenical since its founding in 1800.

Rabbi Saul Rubin's Observation

The irony and poignancy of this evolving tragedy in the Southern Baptist Convention was sharply illustrated in the May 28, 1986, letter from Rabbi Saul Rubin thanking Austin for the gift of a Lenox Elijah's Cup on the occasion of Rubin's retirement at Mickve Israel. Rubin spoke of "an uncommon bonding" between the two congregations and praised First Baptist as a "remarkable congregation." Then, in a cogent and perceptively worded paragraph, Rubin summarized the essence of Jewish-Baptist ecumenism in Savannah:

Finally, one must marvel at the bridge building process that has occurred in a relatively brief span. It seemed unlikely, in 1972, that an historic Southern Baptist congregation like Savannah would develop friendship, yea spiritual linkage, with an equally historic and venerable community of Jews. Where understanding is limited, suspicion abounds. There is enough difference in matters theological between us that we may overlook that rich strata which constitutes our common heritage. I have been excited at the prospect that year after year more and more of that layer has been mined in your church. It will only deepen and intensify your appreciation of what is ancient and strengthening in your faith. Whatever triumphalism was within me has diminished over the years. I am a devotee of religion; the God Whom I cherish is the God of all humanity. I worship Him in the way of my forebears because that is comfortable to me and has led to levels of fulfillment and tranquility. I believe that all that I have derived from my faith is open to you in yours. I treasure your friendship because we are steadfast affirmers of Diety and that makes us profoundly one. (25)

Within one and one-half years, Austin left Savannah and went to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but Baptist-Jewish relations in Savannah continued to evolve with these same principles freshly expressed by new personae.

The More Recent Ministries of Fred Andrea and John M. Finley

Fred Andrea's rather brief tenure continued the ecumenical commitments of the church and elaborated on them. He, too, associated with the moderate movement in the Southern Baptist Convention that also was genuinely ecumenical in its outlook. In 1991, he built even more bridges between the black and white faith communities by special programs and by developing a sister-church relationship with First African Baptist Church. Included in this were occasional joint worship services. He also planned a series of special lectures and sermons on homelessness in Savannah, participating with retired Rabbi Saul Rubin and Mike Elliott, director of Union Mission in the city.

The present pastor, John M. Finley, came to Savannah in 1994 and was immediately active in many ecumenical projects with both other Christian bodies and Jews. By 1995, he led the congregation to consider carefully its denominational relationships and became very active in the Alliance of Baptists as well as in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, both moderate Baptist groups. (26) Early on, he shared a brief document with the church that had been produced by the Alliance of Baptists on the topic of Jewish-Christian relationships. It aimed at genuine dialogue (as opposed to diatribe) and education as well as opposing anti-Semitism and a theology of conversion. The document was actually a mirror of views developed by First Baptist church years earlier. (27)

In the spring of 1997, friendships with Mickve Israel Synagogue were freshly renewed. While the Baptist sanctuary was undergoing minor construction and painting, the congregation met once again for worship in the historic synagogue of Reform Judaism. Sunday School for a large group of adults was also held there prior to worship, and genuine Jewish-Baptist dialogue took place as led by Rabbi Arnold Belzer.

After a long bout with cancer, Tom Austin died in Winston-Salem on June 24, 1997. On October 12 First Baptist Church said its final farewells and closure was experienced. Appropriately, Rabbi Saul Rubin offered the eulogy of his own closest ministerial friend.

From 1997 to the time of this writing, Baptist-Jewish relations in Savannah have continued in a similar and evolving mode between First Baptist Church and Mickve Israel Synagogue. One of the most recent interesting, and ecumenically illustrative, programs took place on the evening of September 23, 2000. Baptists, Jews, and Lutherans (First Baptist, Mickve Israel, and Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension) sponsored a dramatic presentation at First Baptist Church. Dramatist Al Staggs gave a moving presentation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and included much material concerning the Holocaust. Following the presentation, members of the three religious congregations met at Mickve Israel Synagogue for stimulating discussion and a social time together. Joint worship, cooperative efforts in educational and social services, special occasion meetings, and friendly clerical relationships are and will be important parts of the core experiences of these congregations. This is largely due to the accumulative ecumenical commitments through the long history of First Baptist Church, Mickve Israel Synagogue, and other congregations.


One final observation is in order and necessary to this account. A major historical fact about First Baptist Church is that from its founding days, it has been ecumenical in the purest sense. Since 1980, the denomination in which it had held membership since 1845 has been growing increasingly antiecumenical and separatistic as well as antipluralistic in doctrinal viewpoints. It was, then, a foregone conclusion that this congregation in being true to its convictions as genuinely Baptist and ecumenical would eventually have to make a painful choice. On October 15, 2000, the church voted overwhelmingly as follows:
 Be it further resolved that the First Baptist Church, in
 furtherance of those things which it holds dear, hereby
 formally dissolves its institutional ties with the
 Southern Baptist Convention, recognizing that
 informal relationships will continue and that
 cooperative ventures can continue unabated. (28)

Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, Savannah's First Baptist Church would continue to be ecumenical and appreciative of pluralism in its own congregation and city. Its ties with many other Baptists, other denominations, and the Jewish faith would continue to flourish and be descriptive of its inner character. As one layperson put it on October 15, "Let us do this and get on with the business of being Baptist and church." To this congregation and its forebears, being Baptist had always meant freedom. (29) And, this freedom had from the beginning committed itself to thoroughgoing ecumenism.

(1.) Rabbi Saul Jacob Rubin, Third to None (Savannah: Congregation Mickve Israel, 1983), 2.

(2.) Ibid., 5.

(3.) George H. Shriver, The Historic Pilgrimage of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension (Savannah: Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 1991), 3.

(4.) Kenneth Coleman, ed., A History of Georgia, 2nd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), passim.

(5.) See George H. Shriver, Pilgrims Through the Years (Franklin, Tenn.: Providence House Publishers, 1999) for a more complete and contextual elaboration of this ecumenism in Savannah. Also, see George H. Shriver, "Pilgrims Through the Years...: An Overview," Baptist History and Heritage 35 (Summer/Fall 2000): 93-107.

(6.) James Adams Lester, History of the Georgia Baptist Convention (Nashville: Curley Printing, 1972), 1 ff., 22 ff.

(7.) Shriver, Pilgrims, 17.

(8.) Mabel Freeman La Far, ed., The Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia: History, Records, and Register, Vol 1, Pt. 1 (Savannah: Savannah Baptist Church, 1941): 11 ff.

(9.) Minutes, New Sunbury Association (Ga.), November 11, 1831.

(10.) Minutes, Savannah Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga., August 31, 1887, and September. 2, 1896.

(11.) Rubin, 88 ff.

(12.) Ibid., 183 ff.

(13.) Ibid., 229.

(14.) Minutes, Savannah Baptist Church, 1897-1906.

(15.) Shriver, Pilgrims, 120-26.

(16.) Rubin, 272.

(17.) Cited in Rubin, 308.

(18.) Cited in Shriver, Pilgrims, 172.

(19.) Ibid., 133.

(20.) Rubin, 332 ff.

(21.) For a full account of this tragic story, see such works as David T. Morgan, The New Crusades (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996), and Walter B. Shurden, ed., The Struggle for the Soul of the Southern Baptist Convention (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1993).

(22.) Minutes of the Diaconate, First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga., September 23, 1980.

(23.) Ibid., October 13, 1980.

(24.) The Calendar, June 26, 1985.

(25.) Letter from Saul Rubin to the clergy, diaconate, and members of First Baptist Church, May 28, 1986. For the full text, see, Shriver, Pilgrims, 229-30.

(26.) For a full account, see the full folder of the Denominational Relations Committee, First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga., Church Archives.

(27.) Minutes of the Diaconate, May 8, 1995.

(28.) For the full text, see "Resolution for the Membership of First Baptist Church," Savannah, Ga., Church Archives. Also see "First Baptist Votes to leave Convention," Savannah Morning News, October 16, 2000, 1 A, 7A.

(29.) George H. Shriver, "A Norman Rockwell-Like Baptist Church Meeting," Baptists Today, 18 (November 2000): 25, 32.

George H. Shriver is professor emeritus of history and religious studies, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia.
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Author:Shriver, George H.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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