In any survey of the early history of Georgia, the name of one church comes up far more often than any other as a seat of power in the colony. Midway Congregational Church, about thirty miles south of Savannah, was founded by families quite unlike other Georgia colonists, who were usually recent immigrants from the British Isles. The settlers who came to St. John’s Parish in 1752 descended from English Puritans from the counties of Dorset, Devon, and Somersetshire, who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, naming their settlement Dorchester, after a beloved town in England. They were the first commercial fishermen in New England and had as much a commercial motive for being in the New World as they did a religious one. It should be noted that the town charter of Dorchester in 1633 was the first in Massachusetts and, indeed, in all of the English colonies. By 1636, though, weary of Governor John Winthrop’s dominance and an increasingly authoritarian clergy, many of the families resettled to the Farmington River in Connecticut, establishing the town of Windsor.
In part because of their success and the need for more land, and because they felt a calling to “settle the gospel” elsewhere in the colonies, they left New England for good in 1695 and spent the next half-century in South Carolina. Their colony along the Ashley River, which also bore the name Dorchester, soon thrived to the point that land holdings were becoming inadequate to perpetuate their industry. Though a necessity for the cultivation of rice and other labor-intensive crops, their embrace of slavery seemed out of synch with Calvinist ideology, and many of their New England brethren openly expressed disdain with this unusual alliance. However, the Puritan principles of thrift, the dignity of hard work, social and racial superiority, and profit made this alliance inevitable. When large land grants in Georgia were made available in December 1752, Benjamin Baker and Samuel Bacon brought their families to a sparsely populated district between Georgia’s two most important ports, Savannah and Darien. This foray into the southernmost colony was soon met with interest by their South Carolina compatriots.
By 1754 the Reverend John Osgood and sixteen families in his charge came to Georgia and officially transferred the Dorchester church and its mission to this new location. In late August of that year, they drew up articles of incorporation of the “Society Settled Upon Medway and Newport in Georgia.” [Medway refers to the nearby Medway River, which ran through historic Sunbury. Some have surmised this to be the origin of the name Midway, though most historians agree that the name is solely geographical.] One of the objectives of the society was to establish peace and harmony among themselves and inoffensiveness to their neighbors, and to this goal they succeeded. The first school of any importance in Georgia was established by Midway members at nearby Sunbury, and one of the first notable libraries in the state was maintained by the Newport and Midway Library Society, which evolved from the plantation-based Beech Hill Alphabet Society.
Some of the best-known names in early Georgia were associated with Midway Church. Two of the state’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence were counted among the membership. Dr. Lyman Hall, whose plantation Hall’s Knoll was located just northwest of the church, was a regular congregant. Hall, who also served as governor, was instrumental in convincing the fledgling, loyalist-leaning colony to vote for independence. Button Gwinnett, infamous for his duel with Lachlan McIntosh, was also a member of the Midway congregation, as he maintained a home and small farm on nearby St. Catherine’s Island. Two important generals of the Revolutionary War, James Screven and Daniel Stewart, were also members. General Screven lost his life in a battle near Midway Church. So esteemed was the patriotism of Midway members that in 1777 the legislature combined the historic parishes of St. John, St. James, and St. Andrew and named them Liberty County.
Other prominent members of the congregation included Governors Nathan Brownson, Richard Howley, and John Martin; United States Senators John Elliot, Alfred Iverson, and Augustus O. Bacon; Continental Congressman Benjamin Andrew; U. S. Representatives John A. Cuthbert and William B. Fleming; and the first U. S. Minister to China, John E. Ward. Another member, Dr. Louis LeConte, who owned Woodmanston Plantation and its well-known botanical gardens, was the father of two of 19th century America’s most important scientists, John and Joseph LeConte. John was the second president of the University of California. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., telegraph inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson, and President Theodore Roosevelt were all descended from Midway families. Five Georgia counties were named for citizens of this era: Hall, Gwinnett, Screven, Stewart, and Baker, created in 1825 in memory of Colonel John Baker.
In the interim between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, change gripped the Midway community. Much of the population of Liberty County was pushing westward to the interior, and in this time, the so-called “retreat” communities of Walthourville, Flemington, and Dorchester developed. These retreats were no more than a summer safeguard against the malarial mosquito invasions which plagued settlements near the coast, but their emergence hinted at great changes for the future of Midway Church. The shift in agriculture to a more stable inland base and the destruction wrought by the Civil War hastened the end of the congregation. By 1867 the last regular minister was dismissed. Soon thereafter, the trustees leased the building to a group of African-Americans for use as a church and school.
National Register of Historic Places