Hallowed Ground: Circular Congregational Church, Charleston

By:Page Ivey

Date:7/17/2014

One of the oldest congregations in Charleston meets in one of the most unique churches in the state.

The Circular Congregational Church, at 150 Meeting St., was organized in 1681 (that’s not a typo, 1-6-8-1). It was already 200 years old when the church’s building was damaged in the earthquake of 1886. The original meetinghouse gave iconic Meeting Street in Charleston its name.

The congregation was originally started as an alternative to mainstream churches, and it is now one of the few churches in South Carolina affiliated with two denominations: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

In the beginning, the church and the original city of Charles Towne were born about the same time. The church served English Congregationalists, Scots Presbyterians and French Huguenots, who had traveled to the New World for religious freedom.

Like the residents of the port city, the church faced challenges with the weather, and many early records were lost in a hurricane in 1713. The oldest surviving church artifacts are in the cemetery, with graves dating back to 1695. The cemetery reveals the evolution of grave markers and the fascinating symbols that tell the stories of the dead and how they were thought of by their survivors. Look for the markers belonging to the Peronneau family to see this progression in one family.

The cemetery was hit by a British cannonball during the siege of Charleston in 1780, but the biggest explosion for the church came when three dozen of its most prominent members were captured and sent as prisoners to what would become St. Augustine, Florida, and later to Philadelphia. During the occupation of Charleston, the British used the meetinghouse as a hospital.

After the war, the church was reorganized and repairs began almost as soon as the British left town. By 1787, the congregation was so large that a second meetinghouse was built and ministers preached a second sermon each Sunday.

To bring everyone back together, a larger church was later built on the original Meeting Street site. The church’s history says the circular design was suggested by Martha Laurens Ramsay, and famed South Carolina architect Robert Mills was hired to design the building in 1804. Another unique feature was its lack of a steeple, a fact that drew so much sport and derision that one was added in the 1830s.

For much of the 19th century, the church flourished and had a large congregation that included both black and white members. A Sunday school to teach congregants about their faith was started here as well as the Charleston Bible Society. The church membership included governors, senators and newspaper editors as well as slaves. But like most things in Charleston, all that ended with the start of the Civil War and the ensuing devastation. Black members of the church left after the war and founded the Plymouth Congregational Church.

The Circular Church began rebuilding in the late 19th century and maintained its round exterior combined with a Greek cross interior. Always fiercely independent, the church joined the Congregational Association (later the United Church of Christ) in 1882 and the United Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1968.

Today, the congregation is international and multiracial with part-time ministers leading services. A 19th-century tracker organ was brought here from Boston and restored in the 1980s.

The church is open to visitors when tour guides are available, but guests are always welcome at Sunday services at 8:30 and 11 a.m. Don’t miss the unusual Jazz Vespers service, held at 6 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month. 

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Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is the oldest AME church in the South and is home to one of the oldest black congregations in the country. The building was completed in 1891 and retains its original appearance inside.

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