By Peggy L. Brown
Senior Warden, Church of the Ascension, 2019
On the occasion of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension’s 175th anniversary as a congregation, I asked our rector, the Very Rev. Mary K. Erickson, how the church today is connected to the one in 1844. “We have been proclaiming the Good News continuously here in Bartow for 175 years,” she said. “One of the things I really like about our liturgy and our way of understanding the work we do as ‘Church’ is that through time and in this space we have been saying virtually the same words–even as the Book of Common Prayer has changed, much of it has not–through the generations.”
On Ascension Day, May 30, 2019, the tiny gray church with the red doors kicked off its year-long celebration. Now located on West Cherokee Avenue in Cartersville, the church began on November 6, 1844, when the Rev. Thomas Scott, of St. James Episcopal Church in Marietta, and Bishop Stephen Elliott, the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, visited the Etowah River. According to the bishop’s diary, the two met with community leaders, including his friend William Henry Stiles, Savannah native, statesman, Ambassador to Austria, and agricultural innovator. Elliott was encouraged to form a parish near the Etowah River “in this most interesting country.” After the bishop preached on November 8, 1844, at Pettit’s Creek Baptist Meeting House (the church that became Cartersville Baptist Church), “it was determined among the friends of the church to erect a church, a parsonage, and a school house” and call it Ascension. Soon Major John S. Rowland–of Rowland Springs fame–donated ten acres for the church near Valley View plantation, and forty acres were purchased directly across Euharlee road from the parcel, the area which is now River Station Subdivision, where the parsonage and school house were built.
Though marked by times of struggle when Ascension had no rector or when the rector divided his duties among up to four mission churches, Ascension has survived into the twenty-first century. What helped the small church endure? Partly the support of landowners migrating from Savannah and elsewhere, such as the Stiles, Shelman, and Gilreath families and partly the liturgy helped, according to Erickson, rector at Ascension since 2010. Liturgy comes from Greek word liturgia meaning the work of the people for the common good. Erickson said that the liturgy is key to emphasizing “the role of the people over and above the role of the clergy. It is important to have an ordained person, but regardless of who is the clergy, it is the community that gathers that really matters.”
It seems, in fact, that in the Stiles 1840 home Etowah Cliffs, Episcopal services in the drawing room had been the norm. William Henry and wife Eliza Mackay Stiles often led Episcopal services such as Morning Prayer on Sunday mornings with family and friends present. Rector diaries from 1844 state that prayer books were circulated, and “thus the means of knowing our doctrines and modes of worship have been open to a few.” The liturgy was in the hands of the people in their homes. Bishop Elliott also wrote that he held services at Etowah Cliffs on Sunday evenings when he visited.
So, as the church organization began in 1844, Morning Prayer at home was a regular event in at least one of the founding members’ homes. Soon a teacher and a rector were hired for Ascension. Rev. Scott reported in 1845 that a “very accomplished classical scholar and able teacher, Frederick Elwell,” had been acquired for the School House. By 1846, the first rector Rev. Owen P. Thackara had charge of the Ascension mission and the Episcopal missions in both Cassville and Kingston, as well as the one in Floyd County. But the difficulties of this mission and ill health compelled Thackara to abandon his post by early 1847. The pattern of rectors leaving after a short tenure required the people in the community to carry on the liturgy without them. The liturgy, Erickson said, is not just for ourselves. “Every Sunday when we are saying the liturgy,” she said, “we are doing something in this community by continuing this word, this proclamation.”
In 1848 Rev. Thompson L. Smith served ably two Sundays every month, and following “in the afternoon of each Sabbath, services [were] held for a large and attentive congregation of people of color,” usually at Etowah Cliffs. Rev. William J. Perdue served Ascension for eighteen months into 1851, but the same year Bishop Elliott noted “the absorption of the land into a few hands has so much diminished the population immediately around the church, as to render it a work of greater toil than ever, to plant the church successfully at this point.”
From 1851 through1860, Ascension was closed or without a rector for all but a couple of years, and similarly during the Civil War when—arguably—the help of God was needed most. However, the Episcopal church, Erickson said, “has a strong tradition of embracing the importance of our community, that the relationship with God and with one another is important. It’s not either-or; it’s both.” This may have helped the small number of communicants, which in 1860 was described as “little more than a summer colony from Savannah.”
During the Civil War, Union soldiers encamped at Etowah Cliffs and Valley View, very close to Ascension and likely in the church itself. But, history shows the damage inflicted upon the community. From Etowah Cliffs Union Brigadier-General Milo S. Hascall wrote of the damage to personal property on May 23, 1864: “I have seen as many as half a dozen houses and barns on fire at one time and in too many cases the wanton destruction of fine paintings and other works of art and culture has been reported to me, and also come under my own observation…” Indeed, the Stiles library was completely destroyed, and the Episcopal mission at Cassville did not survive the Civil War.
Ascension bounced back, however, as windows and a wood stove were added at the Etowah site in 1869. But by 1871 the congregation chose to move into the growing town of Cartersville. Much ado was exercised in this project, begun in 1871 by Rev. R.W.B. Elliott who sold the last twelve acres of property at the river for purchasing the lot in Cartersville. Early (1872-73) in the new Bishop John W. Beckwith’s tenure and with Beckwith’s influence and perhaps partiality, the church chose construction plans for a Carpenter “Country” Gothic style, built by local homebuilders the Jackson Brothers–for the new Church of the Ascension. Rev. Samuel J. Pinkerton oversaw the move from Etowah and fundraising for building materials in 1873.
During Reconstruction in the South everything was scarce—from lumber to money—so the project moved slowly. On March 13, 1873, the Cartersville Courant-American newspaper stated, “The new Episcopal church, in this city, is not going up very rapidly, owing to the difficulty getting lumber.” A week later, the building committee of Ascension published a “notification that the first installment is now called for.” In May 1873, Pinkerton noted in his rector diary that “every proper exertion has been made, on the part of the Church people, and others in Cartersville, to complete the building; but mainly on account of money embarrassments they have not been able to do as they wished. They lack yet about one thousand dollars…” The community supported the building with a December 1873 fundraiser, advertised in the newspaper as follows: “We understand that some of the young ladies and gentlemen of Cartersville design getting up a musical entertainment, to be interspersed with tableaux, for the benefit of the Episcopal church…We wish them success. The Episcopal church ought to be finished. It will be an ornament to the city…”
By April of 1874 with gifts from “kind friends in Savannah, Augusta, and Macon” as well as one $400 gift from Grace Church, New York, the church we see today was finally occupied, consecrated on June 22, 1875, 144 years ago. Over time additions and demolitions to parsonages, education wings and parish halls have changed the overall property, but the central nave, the sanctuary that the community of Cartersville helped to build, remains very much the same. According to Stiles descendant and current Ascension member Frederick Knight, “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love that church.”
Erickson said that the first time she ever walked into it she “was struck by its beauty, its warmth, and the sense of all the prayers and the songs that have been said and the people that have been in that space over time.” She continued: “But also…As Christians, we have been saying the same words of praise as everybody else around the world as part of the Anglican Communion. So, it makes for a very rich and beautiful space to me.”
Having built a new church, the congregation of Ascension from 1875 through 1907 continued much as before: sharing rectors with Cave Spring, Cedartown, Calhoun, Dalton, Kingston, or any combination of these mission churches. The bishop himself would often travel from Atlanta to conduct services, especially baptisms. During this 32-year span, eleven rectors served Ascension over 21 years with nine years unaccounted for. Highlights include the Rev. W.R. McConnell, who in 1866 wrote a history of the church for the Diocese of Georgia. In it he listed names of vestrymen during his tenure: the names George H. Gilreath and W.H. Stiles, Jr., among others, continued to appear. In 1890 with Mr. Jones listed as Missionary in Charge, gas lights and aisle carpet were added to the nave. With the Rev. George E. Benedict in 1892, Ascension reported 17 families and 79 individual members, an upward trend. Rev. F.W. Ambler—also rector of St. Andrews in Kingston–the church embarked on building a rectory in 1900, located directly behind the church in the current parking lot.
Bishop Beckwith, whose tenure from 1868 till 1890, observed growth from 31 churches to 53 churches and chapels, with five missions added, according to Henry Thompson Malone’s book The Episcopal Church in Georgia 1733-1957. But one church, the mission at Kingston, did not survive after 1907 and was declared dormant. With the bishop’s death in 1890 and installation of the Right Reverend Cleland Kinloch Nelson, D.D., as bishop in 1892, discussion began for dividing the diocese into two to make overseeing it more manageable. This finally occurred in 1907, with the creation of the Diocese of Atlanta—Columbus and Macon north–and the Diocese of Georgia—Augusta, Valdosta and Savannah south. Church of the Ascension, the little gray church, remained in the Diocese of Atlanta, a small mission church in Cartersville.
Sources for Ascension Church’s Beginnings: 1844 to 1907
By Peggy L. Brown
Crumbliss, R. (1950). “Mode of Living in Other Days.” In J.B. Tate (Ed.), 2014. Sketches of Bartow County(pp. 68-70).
Malone, H. (1960). The Episcopal Church in Georgia 1733-1957. Diocese of Atlanta.
Hascall, M. (1864). Letter. In Keith Hebert, 2017. The Long Civil War in the North Georgia Mountains: Confederate Nationalism, Sectionalism, and White Supremacy in Bartow County, Georgia.U of Tennesee Press.
Episcopal Church. (1844, 1845, 1846, . . . , 1907). Journal of the [Fiftieth, etc.]. . . Annual Convention of the Diocese of Georgia.
Erickson, M. (2019, May 29). Phone Interview.
Knight, F. (2019, May 31). Phone Interview.
Parmenter, G. (2019, June 10). Email Interview.
Cartersville Courant-American. (1873, December). Article.
Etowah Valley Historical Society. (2019). “William Henry Stiles—Ambassador to Austria.” Retrieved from https://evhsonline.org.
Henkel, J. (2010). “William Henry Stiles, Jr.” Find a Grave. Retrieved from https://www.findagrave.com.