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A Country without Memory

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2011 John Lesage


        Savannah


I
get an early start and arrive in Savannah after six hours. I drive most of the length of Bay Street, past a strip of park above the river. Near the eastern end, I turn right on Houston Street and park just beyond Washington Square. The weather has grayed up, and I leave the camera in the car. It’s the last Sunday of February. The magnolias are not yet in bloom, but it’s pure joy to walk the soft air beneath the live oaks – a world apart from a New England winter. It’s also a pleasure to walk without the camera. Rather than through a lens, I experience things directly – shutters on brick, iron-work encasing stairs, crooked, overhanging, bearded limbs.
        Other than the river front, Savannah’s 24 squares are its most notable feature, each a haven of green beneath spreading shade trees. As I wander from square to square, I encounter on the side of a church a plaque commemorating John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church. It’s misleading to associate Wesley with any particular church building, as none yet existed when Wesley was here, but the plaque prods me into learning something.
        Wesley stayed in Savannah a little less than two years, in 1736 and 1737. The colony was only three years old when he arrived. Of necessity, he preached in the open air, as did most of the early Methodists. His followers became associated with issues of social justice, such as
reforming prisons and abolishing slavery. The first of his General Rules forming the core of Methodism admonishes his followers to do no harm, echoing the Buddhist concept of ahimsa, as well as the Hippocratic Oath.
        They ran him out of town.
        But to be fair, he left town because he ran afoul of local politics – after a disastrous love affair. As an Anglican priest, he denied communion to the lady after she married someone else. It didn't help that she was the niece of the most powerful man in town, the shopkeeper for the only source of supplies, the chief magistrate – and thoroughly crooked. Wesley denied communion because she ignored a rule about signing up for it. She countered with a lawsuit claiming defamation of character. In any case, Wesley sailed home rather than fight related litigation. He would develop Methodism, not in Georgia, but in England.
        I venture down to River Street, where I find some oysters and a dark beer.