As far as we know, there has been a hand atop the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson ever since the building was completed in December 1860. It was witness to Grant’s march up the Natchez Trace after the Battle of Port Gibson, as he proceeded to Jackson and then to Vicksburg. That hand of carved wood covered with gold leaf was replaced by the current sheet metal hand right after the turn of the 20th century.
The hand’s silent presence has comforted us through a multitude of life events and conditions – births, deaths, marriages, great personal joy, great personal tragedy and the simple passage of time. The sight of it has stilled our fears and nudged us into gratitude. It has said “goodbye,” and it has welcomed us home. All the while, it has reminded us that our true home is really where it points. It reminds us of the One Way to the One True God.
The hand was removed from the steeple on June 26 and personally delivered to Virginia by congregation members for repairs. The American Stripping Company of Manassas Park, Virginia, and the Gilders’ Studio of Olney, Maryland, cooperated to restore its golden surface. The hand was wrapped up for delivery back to Port Gibson in early August, and placed atop the church on August 16.
Donations designated for this special project would be greatly appreciated, and of course, we invite you to visit us to see the regilded hand. Please join in with us as you can, but most especially, please pray for our efforts that they may always and only be to the glory of our loving God.
The congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson was formed in 1807. Different churches were built through the years – including the first building, which was a tiny log cabin – before the present structure was finished in 1860. The church had many pastors, including Zebulon Butler, a native of Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania.
In his day, Rev. Butler was known as a great preacher, “who depicted the fiery furnaces of hell in terms scorching enough to make the most hardened sinner quiver.” During his sermons, he often raised his fist with a “quivering index finger jabbing toward Heaven.” In the years just prior to the Civil War, he urged his congregation to build a new church, and it was almost complete when he died on Dec. 23, 1860. The first service held in the new church, ironically, was his own funeral.
Wishing to find a suitable memorial for their beloved preacher, the members of the congregation decided to place a hand pointing toward heaven on top of the steeple to mimic his oft-seen gesture in the pulpit. According to other accounts, the hand was first carved in 1859, prior to his death.
Either way, it is likely in recognition of Rev. Butler’s influence and dedication to his congregation. The first hand was carved from wood and covered with gold leaf. Eventually, time (and perhaps woodpeckers) took care of that one, and it was replaced about 1900 with the current 11-foot-tall metal hand.
Today, the church with the golden hand is recognizable the world over, a fitting tribute to a pastor who served his congregation well for more than three decades.