Hallowed Ground: First Baptist Church, Columbia

By:Page Ivey

Date:7/17/2014

Few churches have a place in history as distinct as Columbia’s First Baptist Church. It was here in 1860 that a unanimous vote by delegates led to South Carolina’s secession from the United States of America.

Because its sanctuary was the largest building in Columbia in 1860, First Baptist Church was the location of the Secession Convention. An outbreak of smallpox in the city forced delegates to move to Charleston where the Articles of Secession were signed a few days later.

A few months later, joined by a half-dozen other states, soldiers in the newly formed Confederate States of America fired on US troops occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and the Civil War began.

Four years later, the church was a target for burning by US Gen. William T. Sherman as he marched from Savannah to the North, continuing his destructive path that had blazed a scorched earth from Atlanta to the sea. Sherman supposedly had promised his wife he would not burn any Catholic churches during his campaign, but Columbia’s First Baptist, as the birthplace of the rebellion, was in his sights.

With no Google Maps to guide him, Sherman had to rely on local markers (and sometimes local people) to find his way. According to at least one legend, a man sitting guard outside First Baptist told the general that he was protecting the Catholic church and that First Baptist was down the street. Whether the account is accurate or not is left to history, but the fact is First Baptist was not destroyed and many other churches were during the burning of Columbia in the waning days of the Civil War.

The First Baptist congregation was established in 1809, and the historic sanctuary was built in 1859 under the leadership of James P. Boyce, a native of Charleston and founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Today, the church’s historic building, featuring a Roman Tuscan portico and pilasters down its sides, operates as offices while the congregation has found its home in a larger, more modern sanctuary next door. The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

The new 3,400-seat sanctuary was completed in 1992 and has its own claim to fame as the place where longtime US Sen. Strom Thurmond was eulogized after he died in 2003. The church today is known for its annual Christmas pageant and Celebration of Liberty (held around July 4). These events are open to the general public.

If you are going

First Baptist Church holds services every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Guided historical tours are available after services on the first Sunday of the month. Call 803.256.4251 for more information.

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