Our History is a story of God’s enduring goodness. “Those who go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.” (Psalm 107.23,24). God has worked on behalf of seafarers for 165 years through the Savannah Port Society and its International Seamen’s House. Following are some of the highlights of its long and fruitful history.

The “Bethel Movement” for the evangelization of seamen began in London in 1814 and spread to New York in 1821. In 1831, Penfield Mariners’ Church was built in Savannah through a bequest by Josiah Penfield, a local Baptist deacon and philanthropist who advocated a high level of Christian service for seamen. It was located on Bay St., just west of Lincoln, and it featured a scaled-down ship with full rigging set into the brick wall of the building, just above the door. It continued operating for 12 years, but when the funds were used up several churches formed the Savannah Port Society to continue its ministries. Its first meeting was held at Independent Presbyterian Church on November 21, 1843. Only four years earlier, the Port Society of Charleston had opened the first Seamen’s house in America.

In 1850 the Savannah Port Society opened a sailors’ boarding house. Later, deciding that more adequate facilities should be provided, it opened a new Seamen’s Bethel in 1898 at 307 E. St. Julian St. The Bethel operated at 205 E. Bay St., from 1953 to 1965, when the present International Seamen’s House and Chapel were dedicated.

The Society’s annual meetings reported vigorously operating ministries throughout its history, just as it does today. In 1874 the chaplain visited 981 vessels, distributed 67,405 gospel tracts, 1,900 Christian magazines for seamen, and preached 196 sermons to which seamen had been invited. In 1911 there had been 1,109 ships in port, and the chaplain made 700 visits to ships and 40 visits to hospitals. Needy seamen had been given 977 beds during temporary stays, and the dormitory had accommodated 83 foreign ships’ crews. In 1939 attendance at religious gatherings exceeded 4,200. Destitute men had been given 13,465 beds, and over 9,000 meals were given to seamen.

A sailors’ burial ground at Laurel Grove Cemetary was purchased and donated to the Society in 1860, for the interment of seamen who died while in Savannah. Seafarers from many nations are buried there: United States, Norway, Sweden, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany.

Today seafarers from 58 nations call on the Port of Savannah, and are met by our dedicated chaplains. The International Seamen’s House continues to faithfully fulfill its mission of spiritual and physical care, and, by God’s grace, will continue to do so as long as seafarers enter our harbor.