Thursday, August 12, 2010

On the Steps of Wesley Chapel

"When she reached Wesley Chapel, she was breathless and dizzy and sick at her stomach. Her stays were cutting her ribs in two. She sank down on the steps of the church and buried her head in her hands until she could breathe more easily." -- Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXI

Today's post should be called "How Research Spoiled Bugsie's Childhood Dreams: Part 1." You see, every time I read Gone with the Wind without bothering to google for Wesley Chapel (which is really every time I've read Gone with the Wind), the image I had in mind  reading that scene was that of an imposing structure with wide stone steps leading to it. Something like, well, this: 
The Church of the Immaculate Conception
Wesley Chapel, though? Looks like this:

Wesley Chapel
Sometimes historical accuracy quite plainly sucks. But leaving my lost naivete about historical buildings aside, this type of (more than just a little) unglamorous construction makes sense, considering that this was Atlanta's first and oldest church. Some of you might remember the post in which we talked about Marthasville's/soon-to-be-Atlanta's first religious establishment, a plain clapboard structure where the city's five religious groups held their services alternatively. The Methodists were the first to move out. With much difficulty, some $700 were raised in 1847, out of which $150 were used to buy a lot a few hundred feet south from the original building. 

The funds were barely enough to cover the costs of the simple frame structure you see above and little was left for the inside, but the members were determined to have their own church, so they furnished the interior by collective effort/improvisation. Benches were made from rough slabs obtained from a local mill, a druggist prescription table upon a crudely built platform became the pulpit, while a homemade tin chandelier provided the illumination. The chapel was named Wesley in the honor of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and dedicated in March of 1848. 

In 1850, money was raised again, this time to buy a bell for the church. The $300 bronze piece, with the silver of 100 Mexican dollars mixed into alloy for better resonance, proved too heavy for the chapel's frame, so it was installed into a separate bell tower. The sounds of the new bell soon proved a nuisance for an invalid woman living on Peachtree Street, so her caring and resourceful husband paid some boys to steal the clapper. In a moment of inspiration worthy of their colleague fictional prankster Tow Sawyer, the boys dumped the clapper into a well... the Baptist preacher's well, to be precise. The Methodist pastor had to publicly declare he wouldn't suspect his Baptist brothers of such a low trick to avoid an interdenominational crisis. 

Wesley Chapel's bell was the only bell spared during the Civil War, when every available piece of metal was melted, and it's still in use today. In 1870, it was moved into the new Gothic design church that was erected on the site, keeping in line with the penchant for monumental and richly-decorated structures in Atlanta's architecture at that time. (See? 6 years later,  Scarlett could have rested on the steps of my dream church!)

Finally, in 1903, the First Methodist Church moved to a different location altogether: a granite building at the northwest corner of Peachtree and Porter Place. On its old location a brand new Atlanta hallmark would rise: the Candler Building, home of the Coca Cola Company.

Candler Building
As a last interesting tidbit: Margaret Mitchell herself was well acquainted with the history of Wesley Chapel, for she wrote an article on this topic for The Atlanta Journal.

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