St. James AME

Bartow County
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Org 1872
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Photography by Tom Reed

The nondescript little church you see above in no way reflects the historical significance of it. The church was originally organized as Cassville Presbyterian in either 1833 or 1844, the records are not clear on which date is the proper one. We also know that the the Presbyterians dissolved in 1872 and the church was “given to the black families living in Cassville”, thus the AME church was organized at that time.

According to a the Cassville Historical Society “It was on November 5, 1864 when the city of Cassville was destroyed by fire at the hands of the Fifth Ohio Regiment of the Federal Army under the command of Colonel Heath and Major Thomas. They said they had orders from Sherman “that not a house be left within the limits of the incorporation, except the churches.” The town had been in the hands of Yankee forces since May 25th, when General Johnston had retreated without a fight, and left the city to the mercy of the Union Army. Sherman’s forces had marched on in pursuit and, as General Sherman gave no order to burn the town at that time, many people believe that possible he never did, but the burning of the town was the work of Yankee stragglers who had some sort of grievance against the people of Cassville”.

The history further states that “The three churches which still are on the same grounds and three residences were the only structures left standing by Sherman’s Army. The home of Dr. Weston Hardy served as a hospital and was not burned for that reason. The Mercer home also, was spared because of sickness. Tradition has it, the home of Mr. A. C. Day was saved when the captain saw a certain Masonic emblem as it dropped from a bible while the family brought out their furniture. These three homes and the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches were unharmed”. Cassville never fully recovered from the war time damage and the business center of Bartow County moved to Cartersville. 

The old church has been heavily modified over time so it is difficult to recognize what may be original to the old structure and what has been modified. However, the historical aspect of St. James is significant in that we know it is one of only a hand full of structures to survive the 1864 destruction. After the war, the African Americans in the Cassville area were told they were emancipated but it took years to realize what that actually meant. They were given freedom but little else. Our research indicates a pattern of confusion in the south after the war for both races. The blacks embraced the white man’s religion because that was what they had been exposed to, but they learned to embrace it in their own way within their newly emerging and very strong culture. AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal and is the oldest independent Protestant denomination founded by black people in the world. It was founded by the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1816 from several black Methodist congregations in the mid-Atlantic area that wanted independence from white Methodists.

After the war, southern African Americans began to form their own congregations, often assisted by whites. Thus churches like St. James AME came into being in 1872. Even though the original church had been Presbyterian, St. James would likely have been formed by congregants who had been raised in the Methodist church of their masters. This was a very difficult time for both races and they found spiritual comfort in these old churches, but they found it in very different ways. We salute the Historical Preservation efforts of the citizens of Bartow County. Hopefully, a way can be found to save historical sanctuaries like this that tell us who we are and how we got here.

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