Historic Presbyterian Church in Georgia Kept in a State of Preserved Decay
Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church | Hancock County Georgia | c. 1813
The Mt. Zion community in Hancock County, Georgia emerged as an academy town in the early 1800s. Founded by wealthy cotton planters, the village grew into a prosperous community in the years before the Civil War. But today, all that remains of Mt. Zion is this antebellum church building- preserved in a decayed state to help convey a sense of the history within its walls.
The Reverend Nathan Beman
Mt. Zion had a famous reputation in Georgia as an educational academy, and although it was established before he arrived, it was the impact of Nathan Beman that brought them this success. Nathan was born in 1785 in New York and attended Middlebury College in Vermont where he graduated in 1807. He studied theology and preached in Maine before making his way to Hancock County, Georgia in 1812 with his first wife, Lorane Smith. He was reportedly looking for better weather to encourage his health after he suffered from regular ailments in the cold of the North.
The Community of Mt. Zion
The rural village where Nathan and Lorane settled, called Mt. Zion, was established by wealthy planters in 1811, and as it grew, had a school house and many homes by the time Nathan arrived. The families of the area had been meeting for worship in the homes of members, and once he settled here, Nathan set out to build a proper church for them to worship. They raised $700 for the building and in 1813, construction of this Greek Revival building was completed atop a hill at the center of the community. It has an elevated portico, supported by four square columns and has two doors that were used as separate entrances for male and female congregants who sat in separate pews.
Behind the church, they established a graveyard and in 1814, the first burial occurred here when Reverend Oliver Hulberg, the academy headmaster who also came from Middlebury College in Vermont, passed away. Nathan, who also published a gospel magazine during this time, agreed to take the position as headmaster of Mt. Zion Academy, which sat about 50 feet away from the church. It was here that prominent families sent their sons to learn math, writing, and theology. Many of these pupils went on to contribute to the religious and educational leadership of the state of Georgia and Mt. Zion Academy became one of the most celebrated schools of its day as a result. At one time, there was also a female academy at Mt. Zion, although the only additional information I could find about it was that its headmistress in 1816 was a woman named Electa Strong Storrs who also came from Middlebury, Vermont.
The notoriety of the male academy grew while Nathan was headmaster here, and as a result, he earned many accolades for his educational leadership. The University of Georgia took notice and when they offered him the position of university president, he resigned from his role as headmaster at Mt. Zion Academy.
Reverend Nathan Beman’s Family
But the reverend wasn’t done with Mt. Zion yet. In 1818, his wife Lorane fell ill and Nathan left his position as university president, returning to Mt. Zion and his position as headmaster of the academy. Tragically, she passed away in February of 1819 and their daughter followed her in death just a few weeks later.
In 1821, Nathan married a widow, Caroline Bird Yancey, the mother of one of the students enrolled at Mt. Zion Academy, William Lowndes Yancey. From his marriage with Caroline, Nathan had a son, Samuel S. Beman, but according to family letters, the reverend and his stepson, William, had a tumultuous relationship. In 1823, Reverend Nathan Beman resigned from his positions as headmaster and pastor of the church at Mt. Zion. He returned to New York with his wife and son Samuel where he continued his career as an educator and preacher until his death in 1871.
Although they remained married, Caroline had relocated to Alabama in the 1840s to be near her oldest son William. Her second son, Samuel, came with her and both William and Samuel became active in politics. In 1844, William Yancey was elected to Alabama’s House of Representatives and in 1860, he was the delegate from Alabama to the Secession Convention where he entered a vote for Alabama to leave the Union. Her son, Samuel, eventually returned North but followed in his half-brothers’ footsteps, canvassing for political office in New York in the 1850s. In 1859, Samuel was elected as a senator in Minnesota, and again in 1871.
The community of Mt. Zion changed over time as the fabric of the country around it shifted completely. The community dwindled away as plantations were abandoned and residents moved away for better opportunities. The academy closed its doors after the Civil War and today, no trace of the two-story school building remains.
An article from 1904 mentions that even then: “Nearly all the fine residences that stood in the village have disappeared. Those that are remaining show signs of dilapidation and decay.” [The Atlanta Constitution 02 October 1904]. By then, there were less than 10 members on the church rolls and the Presbyterian Church decided to sell the building to the local Methodists who held services here until 1958. The church sat empty for many years until it was acquired by the Hancock County Historical Trust, which keeps the building in its current state and makes repairs when necessary.