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Gene Ramsay's History Blog

Are you a history buff who can't get their hands on enough stories about Norcross? You've come to the right place! In this blog, local historian Gene Ramsay will take you on a journey to Norcross' past to discover the people and culture who laid the foundations for the city we know and love today. 

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Jan 28

The Presbyterians Return To Downtown Norcross

Posted on January 28, 2022 at 11:09 PM by Gene Ramsay

The city of Norcross recently welcomed a Christian congregation into its midst: the Norcross Presbyterian Church, now meeting regularly in a renovated building located at the corner of Jones and College Streets.  The church has roots that stretch back almost two centuries in Gwinnett County, and has met over the years in several locations, including, from 1899 – 1972,  in this same building.  In this article we will look back at a few of the twists and turns in their journey over the last two centuries.

One of the first Presbyterian churches founded in Gwinnett was Goshen, dating from the 1830s, which met in a location near the intersection of Beaver Ruin and Indian Trail Roads.  Thomas Hardaway Jones, who was raised in the Presbyterian church in his native North Carolina and owned land in that part of the county, donated an acre for a church building.  The site included a large spring as a source of water. James Russell, a member of the congregation, designed and built a church building there that was used by the congregation for the next several decades.  The name of the church, Goshen Presbyterian, honored the name of the church that T H Jones had attended in his home state.  

A history of the church, written by Mrs. H. V. Jones and Mrs. W. M. Keady in 1931, described Russell’s building as follows:

The church was a large well built structure with long communion tables in the center and a large gallery in the rear for the use of the negro members.  It was completed in 1833.

As was the case in many church buildings constructed in pre-Civil War days in the southern United States (where slavery was legal), the building was designed to accommodate both white and black worshipers – separately – the white members of the congregation would sit on the lower level, while the blacks were confined to the balcony area.

A school building was also constructed near the church.

Goshen was served by a number of preachers over the next 40 years, but church attendance dwindled during the Civil War years (1861-1865) and afterwards.  In 1870 the Georgia Air-Line Railroad was built into western Gwinnett, connecting the area to Atlanta and (as the railroad was extended north and east over the next two years) to South Carolina and beyond.  After some consideration the congregation decided to move their church to the newly-founded town of Norcross, on the railroad, a few miles away from the church’s existing location.  

The Lawrenceville newspaper of the day carried a notice in December 1873 that the property and buildings of Goshen Church were to be sold:

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For some years the Methodists and Presbyterians shared space for their meetings in Norcross, but in 1899 the Presbyterians built their own building – the one still standing at the corner of Jones and College Streets. 

One of the preachers who served the church in the early 20th century became well-known after his days in Norcross.  This was Scottish native Peter Marshall, who growing up had a strong calling to preach.  Despite having no money, he emigrated to New York City in 1927 when he was 24 and came to live in Birmingham, AL.  There he so impressed church leaders that the congregation paid for his education at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur GA.  While in school there he would come out to Norcross on the Saturday “Airline Belle” train, spend the night with the Rainey family (members of the congregation), preach on Sunday and return to Decatur that afternoon.  

In the 1930s he was called to serve the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and then later was appointed the Chaplain of the United States Senate.  He served in that position for two years, until his sudden death of a heart attack at age 46. A biography recounting his life, written by his widow, Catherine Marshall, titled A Man Called Peter, became very popular when it was published in 1951, and the 1955 film adaptation of the book spread his fame even further. Peter Marshall is shown in the photo below.

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In the years after-World War 2 Gwinnett County, and especially the Norcross area, was growing in population, and the church needed more room, not something easily accomplished in their downtown location.  In 1972 the congregation decided to sell their building and move to a larger location on Medlock Bridge Road, where they stayed for almost 50 years

One of the Georgia’s worst storms in recent years passed near the church during its time on Medlock Bridge Road.  This was a strong storm cell system which spawned multiple tornadoes over the period April 6-9 of 1998, moving across the Midwest and then Southeast United States, killing 34 people in Alabama and 7 in Georgia.  In the metro Atlanta area the storm struck Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties during the night of April 8, damaging thousands of homes and downing tens of thousands of trees.  The church suffered substantial loss of trees on its property, as is shown in the photo below.  Luckily there was little damage to the building itself, and no one was hurt on the site. 

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In recent years the demographics in southwestern Gwinnett have changed once again, with a proliferation of new religious institutions and a decline in attendance for some of the existing ones, including Norcross Presbyterian.  As a result, the church once again decided to move, this time from the Medlock Bridge location back to its previous location at Jones and College streets in downtown Norcross.  

A celebratory dedication service for the newly renovated facility (shown in the photo below) was held on October 17, 2021, with the participation of various dignitaries.  

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A video of that morning’s service is available on YouTube – to see it please follow the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jYTP1irr7U

For more information on the history of the church and the dedication service see:

https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/a-celebration-122-years-in-the-making/

 

Many thanks to Jason Bernardo and Tanya Gilmer for their help in providing material for this article.

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