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Steeple Chase: South Carolina's Skyline Filled with Historic Churches

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Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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South Carolina is home to dozens of historic churches, representing nearly every major faith. Here is a small sampling of a spiritual tour of the Palmetto state.

St. John's Episcopal Church in Florence was established in 1865, serving mostly Civil War refugees from the coast. The church got its start in a classroom offered by schoolteacher Frances Church as a meeting place for Episcopal services. Church history says the name St. John came after the death of the Rev. Walter C. Guerry, who was ordained on St. John the Baptist Day and took the text for his first - and only - sermon from the Gospel of John. Guerry became ill and died within weeks of that sermon, and the church chose the name St. John in his honor. The current building was designed by Silas McBee and built with stone from Anson Quarries in Wadesboro, NC. The first service was held in the building just before Christmas 1889, though the building was not completed for another year. While it has undergone several renovations over its nearly 150 years, the church today retains its 19th century beauty. Sunday services at 7:45, 9 and 11 a.m.

Old St. David's Episcopal Church in Cheraw, has the distinction of being the last Anglican parish in South Carolina. Established in 1768 and completed in 1774, the church served as a hospital for both Colonial and British troops during the Revolutionary War. It ended its affiliation with the Church of England after the war. The churchyard holds the graves of soldiers who fought in all major American wars, including a contingent of British soldiers who died from chicken pox. The graveyard has many interesting monuments, including the grave of Moses Rogers, who made the first steamboat trip across the Atlantic in 1819 aboard the SS Savannah.

The Huguenot Church in Charleston stands today as a reminder of the search for religious freedom. Many South Carolinians can trace their roots back to the late 1600s and the French Protestants who fled persecution. In 1680, 45 French Protestants, also known as Huguenots, arrived in Charleston, and just seven years later, the congregation was large enough for a church at Queen and Church streets. By the end of the century, 450 Huguenots were in the Lowcountry. The original church - known as the "Church of Tides" because worshipers came to services in boats - lasted more than 100 years. A replacement was completed by the end of the 18th century. That building was dismantled in 1844 to make way for the existing building - a Gothic revival designed by Edward Brickell White. The church was damaged during the Civil War and nearly destroyed by the Charleston earthquake of 1886. The church's Henry Erben organ was saved from pillage during the Civil War by a particularly persuasive organist. Tours are offered Monday-Friday in the spring and fall, and each Sunday after services.

The Old Stone Church in Clemson was built in 1797 by John Rusk. Revolutionary War heroes Andrew Pickens and Robert Anderson were among its early members. The church's construction of stone and appearance of a fortified structure was probably intentional as there were occasional skirmishes between settlers and Indians. One of the oldest graves is that of Osenappa, a Cherokee who helped the Colonists during the Revolutionary War and who died in 1794.

Washington Street United Methodist Church in Columbia is known as the "Mother Church" for Columbia Methodists. The church's founder, the Rev. John Harper, was ordained by John Wesley, who co-founded the entire Methodist denomination. Bishop Francis Asbury, one of the denomination's first two bishops, visited Washington Street and helped guide the congregation. One young pastor, William Capers, started the church's ministry for slaves from surrounding plantations in the early 1800s. Capers was one of four Washington Street pastors to become a Methodist bishop and he is buried beneath the altar of the sanctuary. Burned during the Civil War, the current church building was completed in 1875 after much fundraising around the country. The current church is noted for its beautiful stained glass windows, including one with a cross and crown in memory of the Rev. William Martin, a former pastor who also helped raise the money needed to rebuild the church. Sunday services are at 9 and 11 a.m.

First African Baptist Church in Beaufort was built in 1865 by freed slaves and has been the spiritual focal point of its community for 150 years. An earlier church on the property was created by a local white Baptist congregation as a praise house for slaves. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War two years later, those former slaves bought the land and built a new church that stands today mostly in its original form. Among the church's earliest members was Robert Smalls, an African-American hero of the Civil War and a US congressman during Reconstruction. A monument to Smalls is on the church grounds. The two-story white wood frame building is in the Gothic Revival style and is included in the Beaufort Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The church maintains its own archive in the former parsonage with artifacts, documents and books from the church's earliest days, including the Bible used by the first pastor and an old traveling Communion set. The church has services at 11 a.m. on Sunday.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is the oldest AME church in the South and as home to one of the oldest black congregations in the country is known as Mother Emanuel. The current building, in Gothic Revival style, was built after the 1886 Charleston earthquake. But the congregation dates back to 1791, when a group of freedmen and slaves organized religious services. After a break with the Charleston's Methodist Episcopal church in a burial ground dispute, black church members formed a new congregation in 1818 under the leadership of the Rev. Morris Brown. The church was affiliated with what was then known as the Free African Society and had about 1,400 members. Brown and other ministers of the church were jailed for violating local laws barring religious gatherings of blacks without white supervision. The church and its founders were central figures in a planned slave rebellion in 1822. The rebellion was planned by Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom from a slave trader in 1799 with the proceeds from a winning lottery ticket. Vesey was a successful carpenter and began organizing the rebellion in 1821. He also was one of the church's founders, which led to an investigation of the church when the rebellion plan was uncovered. More than 300 people were arrested in the plot and 35 - including Vesey - were executed. The congregation met in secret until the end of the Civil War, when the church was formally reorganized and the name Emanuel adopted. The current building was completed in 1891 and has undergone only minor restoration since, making it one of the few historic churches that retains its original appearance inside. The church was horribly thrown into the spotlight in 2015 when an armed gunman killed nine parishioners during a prayer meeting. Sunday worship begins at 9:30 a.m.

The Church of the Holy Apostles in Barnwell survived Sherman's troops during the Civil War because it was used as a stable for their horses, or at least that's how the legend goes. The Episcopal church was built in 1856 and counted among its members some of the most prominent families in the area. The church's original altar window was a gift from Gov. James Hammond. Church members buried the window along with the silver and other church valuables to keep them safe during the war. The church's graveyard includes former Gov. Johnson Hagood, Civil War Gen. A.P. Butler and historian William Gilmore Simms. Also buried there are two of the most powerful state lawmakers from the 20th century, Solomon Blatt and Edgar Brown. The church was built in the Gothic style typical of English parish churches. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites in 1972. Sunday services at 10:30 a.m. The church is open 9 a.m.-dark each day.

First Presbyterian Church in Columbia was organized in 1795 and lays claim to being the oldest congregation in town, though its current sanctuary was not built until nearly 60 years later. The distinctive reddish-brown stucco church is in the English Gothic style and has a 180-foot tall spire. A vaulted ribbed ceiling and balcony that runs along three walls offer a beautiful setting for the church's unique organ, which has horizontal pipes instead of vertical. The graveyard at First Presbyterian started out as the first public burial ground in the city and is a walk through the history of the church, the city and state and the nation, including the graves of the University of South Carolina's first president Jonathan Maxcy (1768-1820), Revolutionary War veteran John Calvert (1734-1803) and Joseph and Jess Wilson, the parents of US President Woodrow Wilson. The Wilsons, including young Woodrow, lived in Columbia while Joseph Wilson was on the faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary. Sunday services are at 8:30 and 11:15 a.m. and 6 p.m. The graveyard is open during daylight hours for visitors.

The Parish Church of St. Helena in Beaufort is truly a step back in time. Completed in 1724, the Episcopal church just a couple blocks off the Beaufort River is one of the oldest in the country in continuous use. The congregation was founded a dozen years earlier but construction was delayed by the war between European settlers and the local Indians. St. Helena's graves tell the story of those early years and include Col. John Barnwell (1671-1724), a famed fighter in early Indian wars; two British officers killed in a battle near Port Royal; and Declaration of Independence signer and judge Thomas Heyward Jr. (1746-1809). During the Civil War, the interior of the church was gutted and turned into a hospital for US troops occupying Beaufort. After the war, sailors from the USS New Hampshire, which was anchored in Beaufort during the war, donated an altar to the church that is still used today. The church is also open to visitors Monday-Saturday. Sunday services are at 8 and 10:15 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston is the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in the US. Founded in 1749 as a Sephardic Orthodox congregation, the original synagogue was dedicated in 1794 and described as spacious and elegant. It burned in the Charleston fire of 1838, and the colonnaded Greek Revival building that stands today was dedicated just three years later and is the oldest synagogue in the US in continuous use. Charleston has been cited as the birthplace of Reform Judaism, when members of the congregation sought to abridge the Hebrew ritual, add an English translation of the prayers and a sermon in English. Inside, the synagogue includes some items from the original 1794 building, such as the bases of two menorahs, the marble tablet above the entrance doors with the words: "Hear O Israel the Lord Our God is the sole Eternal Being" and the original dedication stone. Volunteers lead tours of the sanctuary daily. Services are at 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday.

First Baptist Church in Charleston can truly claim to be the first Baptist church in the South, even though its roots are in the Northeast. The congregation was founded in 1682 under the sponsorship of the First Baptist Church of Boston. Fourteen years later, Pastor William Screven and two dozen members of his congregation moved to Charleston and joined with immigrants there to create a congregation of nearly 100 by the early 1700s. Richard Furman led the church into the 19th century and was a proponent of education and missions. He was the first president of the first national Baptist Convention in the US. The current building was designed by famous SC architect Robert Mills and completed in 1822. The building lost an organ to a Civil War shell and was damaged by a storm in 1885 and the earthquake the next year. Each time, the church was repaired. In the mid-20th century, the church's interior was restored to its original Robert Mills design. A Henry Erben-built organ was installed in the late 19th century. Sanctuary tours are offered Tuesday- Friday. Sunday services are at 8:30 and 11 a.m.

St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston anchors the city's Church Street, with its iconic steeple standing sentinel over the city since before the Civil War. Founded in 1680, St. Philip's is considered the mother church for Anglicans in the Carolinas. Its rocky beginnings saw two buildings destroyed by hurricanes and delayed by Indian wars. A home was finally completed in 1723 and survived the city's occupation by the British during the Revolutionary War and afterward, a new church was formed in the new country. In the mid-19th century St. Philip's was destroyed by fire and had several temporary homes before moving into its current building. But then came the Civil War when the church's bells were appropriated by the Confederate Army to make cannons. It wasn't until 100 years later that the church got its voice back when a women's group raised the money to buy four bells for the steeple. The bells first rang out July 4, 1976, on the bicentennial of the US. The church has survived fire, hurricanes, tornadoes and war. The church is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Sunday services are at 8:15 and 10:30 a.m.

Page Ivey
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.