THE FOUNDING PASTOR OF BLACK PRESBYTERIANISM IN LIBERTY COUNTY, GA – REMEMBERING REV. JOSEPH WILLIAMS ON NOV 22, 2019!
As an historic African American Presbyterian church, Midway First Presbyterian Church is a legacy of love, survival, perseverance, and hope. And it began with Reverend Joseph Williams who had, through Divine Providence, formed three Presbyterian churches in Liberty County by the end of his life in 1899.
Born in British West Indies in 1805, Williams migrated to America before the Civil War. He was a contemporary of Rev. David Laney, father of famed teacher at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, GA – Lucy Laney. In The Church at Home and Abroad, Volumes 13-14, By Order of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1893), it is written: “[Lucy] Laney is the daughter of a colored Presbyterian minister, Rev. David Laney, one of the three colored men who after the war entered the service of our Church as members of the Knox Presbytery of Georgia.
In 1866 the Presbytery of Hopewell (Southern) after careful consideration ordained Joseph Williams, David Laney and Robert Casters as evangelists to ‘their own race’. When the commission was given them Joseph Williams, known as “Uncle Joe,” and David Laney both objected. They declined to receive such an interpretation of ministerial ordination as both unscriptural and unpresbyterian.
Under the leadership of “Uncle Joe” these three men left the Hopewell Presbytery, and in April of 1867 they organized the Presbytery which they called Knox and sent Mr. Williams to the old school General Assembly meeting that year at Albany, N.Y., with a petition to be received by that Assembly. This petition was presented by Rev. Dr. Logan, the first Secretary of our Committee on Freedmen, and thus the Presbytery of Knox in Georgia, with also those of Catawba in North Carolina and Atlantic in South Carolina, were received and formed into the Synod of Atlantic.
Rev. Williams was sent to the Midway area from Washington Avenue Presbyterian Church in Macon, GA to shepherd the newly free men, women, and children in their spiritual experience at Old Midway Church. The congregation worshiped there for decades. In fact, African Americans’ stewardship of the colonial edifice is the reason that Gen. Judson Kilpatrick did not burn it down on General Sherman’s March to the Sea. When a rift occurred within the congregation, Rev. Williams requested the assistance of a minister (Rev. James Thomas Hamilton Waite) to quell the discrepancy between the black Presbyterians and the black Congregationalists. The result of this dispute is that Congregationalists, led by Rev. Snelson, would convene at Golding Grove.
As the years passed Rev. Williams and Rev. Waite formed Medway Chapel and School (now Midway First Presbyterian Church-PCUSA). Williams also formed Williams Chapel and School in the community called “Freedman Grove.” His daughter Ruth Ann Williams Grimes Bacon was the first teacher and the school was supported by the Freedmen’s Bureau and aid from northern Presbyterian aid societies. Williams Chapel would eventually become (Second) Ebenezer Presbyterian Church. He also formed the Riceboro Presbyterian Church.
His love and positive influence upon African American citizens in East Liberty County from slavery to freedom was evident by the number of men, women, and children who: remained faithful communicants to through the third and fourth generations until now; employed themselves in an honest living as teachers, doctors, and skilled laborers and landowners; received a formal education; and continued their studies at Presbyterian-supported historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) including Biddle Memorial Institute, now Johnson C. Smith University.
If you’ve ever driven on N. Coastal Hwy and noticed an old monument in the unmarked cemetery across the street from (Second) Ebenezer Presbyterian Church-PCUSA, know that it is Reverend Joseph Williams.
On this day in history (Nov 22nd, 1899) a faithful servant of God passed away. My church, Midway First Presbyterian Church, is the only active African American Presbyterian church formed by Rev. Williams in Liberty County. It is because of Rev. Williams that we who are faithful know who we are and Whose we are as Presbyterians. Thanks be to God!
Written by Hermina Glass-Hill and posted on the Liberty County Historical Society’s Facebook page on 11/22/2019