A Firm Foundation

Few know the rich history of the little white church along busy U.S. Highway 278



Soul music legend James Brown used to pass All Saints Episcopal Church almost every time he left his rural ranch east of Beech Island, S.C., or came home from his world travels.

But it’s not known if he stopped to come inside the 188-year-old little white church with its red front doors on busy U.S. Highway 278 (Williston Road) or read the metal historical marker out front.

The truth is that thousands of motorists heading west to Augusta or east to the South Carolina coast – or turning onto Hammond Road across from the church to visit nearby Redcliffe  Plantation National Historic Site – really know the rich history of the church.

Even fewer know it is the place where U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, was baptized and where his father-in-law, the Rev. Samuel Edward Axson, preached.

The Rev. Nathan H. Hoyt, a native of New Hampshire, is credited with organizing the church in 1827 and becoming its first pastor when the church building itself was constructed in 1836.

Hoyt’s daughter, Margaret Jane Hoyt, married Samuel Edward Axson, the son of the well-known regional Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Isaac Stockton Keith Axson.

Samuel became pastor of Beech Island Presbyterian Church in the late 1850s, just prior to the Civil War.

When it became time for Samuel and Margaret’s child to be born, Margaret went to Savannah to be with her in-laws.

Her father-in-law had become pastor of Savannah’s historic Independent Presbyterian Church.

It was in the manse of Savannah’s Independent Presbyterian where Ellen Louise Axson was born on May 15, 1860.

But when it came time for the child to be baptized, she was brought back to Beech Island, where that ceremony occurred.

Just across the Savannah River – at the same time Ellen’s father was pastor of Beech Island Presbyterian Church – the Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson was pastor of Augusta’s First Presbyterian Church on Telfair Street.

The two ministers not only knew each other, but exchanged pulpits in the two churches only seven miles apart, according to The Augusta Chronicle’s 1859 editions.

The Rev. I.S.K. Axson “of Savannah will preach in the Presbyterian Church THIS (Sabbath) MORNING at 10 1/2 o’clock,” the Chronicle published on Sept. 11, 1859.

Just a few weeks later the Chronicle reported in October, “The Rev. S.E. AXSON will preach in the First Presbyterian Church on SABBATH MORNING at 10 o’clock.”

Besides serving his own church in Augusta, Wilson also would preach at Beech Island Presbyterian Church, where he also was an elder.

His son, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, of course, would grow up to become the 28th president of the United States.

Although it has not been proved, the legend goes that Tommy, as he was known, not only attended Ellen’s baptismal christening at Beech Island Presbyterian in 1860 with his family, but also held his future wife at some point during the day.

That seems a little bit unlikely since Tommy was only 4 years old at the time.

He had been born three days after Christmas of 1856 in Staunton, Va., and would live in Augusta from 1858 to 1870 with his family, all of the years of the Civil War.

So it is very clear that the Wilson and Axson families were very close in both religious and social circles.

They became even closer about 24 years later, in 1884, when Ellen and Woodrow crossed paths in a reunion at First Presbyterian Church in Rome, Ga., where Ellen’s father had become pastor.

The couple married on June 24, 1885, in Savannah in the same manse where Ellen had been born, with the co-officiating ministers being her paternal grandfather, the Rev. I.S.K. Axson, and Woodrow’s father, the Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson.

They spent their honeymoon in Adren in the hills of North Carolina and from there went to Bryn Mawr, Pa., near Philadelphia, where Wilson had become professor of history at the local college.

One thing led to another, with Wilson becoming governor of New Jersey and running for the U.S. presidency.  He would become the leader of America’s fortunes throughout World War I, serving two terms from 1913 to 1921.

Ellen’s time as first lady in the White House would be brief and yet lasting.

The Chronicle was impressed in noting on Jan. 31, 1913, “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson is quite an accomplished artist.  Some of her pictures are cherished possessions of Savannahians.”

The article noted that one of her paintings is of her grandfather, the Rev. I.S.K. Axson, and that it was hanging in the Sunday School building of Savannah’s Independent Presbyterian Church, where he had been pastor.

During her time as first lady, she also organized the weddings of two of her three daughters in the White House:

• Jessie Woodrow Wilson married Francis Bowes Sayre in the East Room on Nov. 25, 1913.

• Eleanor Randolph Wilson married William Gibbs McAdoo (future secretary of the U.S. Treasury and U.S. senator) in the Blue Room on May 7, 1914.

And even more significant, it was the former member of the Beech Island Presbyterian congregation who created the White House Rose Garden bordering the Oval Office and the West Wing!

The nation was plunged into grief on Aug. 6, 1914, when Ellen became the third first lady to die in the White House.  She was just 54.

There was a family funeral in the East Room, but the main goodbye was held in Rome, Ga., where she was buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, joining her parents.

Her mother had died at 43 on Nov. 1, 1881, and had been buried in the same cemetery.

Her father, the past pastor of Beech Island Presbyterian, suffered mental breakdowns and had violent outbursts after his wife’s death.

Eventually he was committed to the state mental hospital at Milledgeville, Ga., where he died at 47 on May 28, 1884.  His body also would be buried in Myrtle Hill.

Neither of Ellen’s parents would know that their oldest child would become first lady of the United States.

Meanwhile, as decades passed in the early 20th century, the little church on Williston Road in Beech Island survived but faced declining membership due to changes in population and internal conflict within the Presbyterian denomination itself.

Then, in the late 1940s, along came a woman to save the wooden frame building that had become deteriorated and abandoned.

She was Sarah Atmar Harrell Dunbar, a resident of Beech Island whose main church was Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal on Walton Way in Augusta.

A graduate of the Junior College of Augusta, Dunbar also had graduated from the University of Georgia, where she had been a member of Phi Mu sorority.

In July 1941, she married Paul Hammond Dunbar Jr., a graduate of Georgia Tech who worked with Babcock and Wilson Co. in Augusta.

“I was about 7 or 8 when my mother decided to create an Episcopal church in Beech Island,” recalled her son, Paul Dunbar III, an Augusta lawyer who served as city attorney (1985-1996).

“My mother was a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Augusta, and we lived in Beech Island,” he added. “She wanted an Episcopal church closer to her home.

“She talked to Allen Clarkson, rector of Good Shepherd, who told her, if she would get together a group of members for the new church, he would come over every Sunday evening and conduct the service to get them started.”

Dunbar enlisted the aid of her cousin and Beech Island resident Mrs. Leroy Simkins, and the two began working toward creating the new church, which eventually was organized in June 1950.

According to an article in the Chronicle on Jan. 31, 1954, it was the Rev. Michael J. Kippenbrock, rector of St. Thaddeus Church in Aiken, who suggested the name “All Saints.”

Through working with the South Carolina Presbytery, the unused Beech Island Presbyterian Church building, parish hall and grounds were sold to the Episcopalians for only $5,000.

Renovation work included creating a center aisle along with building a simple altar, altar rails and pulpit.

The church was enlarged in 1983 with a sacristy and vesting room added.  Old altar rails were used to make the cross above the altar.

Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the public is welcome to celebrate the Holy Eucharist often led by the Rev. Sally Putnam with other pastors serving as well.

Although the congregation is small, one particular ministry is an outreach food program. It began serving about five local families but now provides food to roughly 100 people from 1 to 3 p.m. the second and fourth Fridays.

Hoyt, the founder of the Beech Island Presbyterian/All Saints Episcopal church, also served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Washington, Ga., and for 36 years as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga.

Two of his sons also became Presbyterian ministers; one serving at a prominent church in Philadelphia. He died on July 12, 1886, at 73 and was buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens.

The next time you are in the “Classic City” for a game or other event at the University of Georgia, you can see where the Hoyt family lived. Within walking distance of downtown is the two-story house at 295 E. Dougherty St.

It was used in recent years as the Hoyt House Restaurant but now has become part of the Graduate Hotel Athens.

Wedding couples frequently use it for receptions and for lodging guests in the three bedrooms of the house. Call at (706) 549-7020 for reservations.

Somehow you just know that the Rev. Hoyt would be happy with how his former home is being used.

Appears in the November/December 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.

Have feedback or a story idea? Our publisher would love to hear from you!

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