Three Old Churches In Charleston, South Carolina


The oldest church building in Charleston, South Carolina, St. Michael’s Protestant Episcopal Church, is a relic of three wars. At the beginning of the Revolution the rector and the vestry disagreed; the rector was a loyalist and most of the members were patriots. Accordingly the rector resigned. Later the beautiful tower, which is unlike any other church tower in America, was painted black, lest it become a guiding beacon to the British fleet. Unfortunately the black tower against the blue sky proved a better guide than a white tower would have been.

The clear-toned bells, which were cast in London in 1757, were taken from the tower when the British evacuated the city in 1782, and were sold in London as spoils of war. Fortunately a Mr. Ryhiner; once a merchant in Charleston, learned of this, bought them, and sent them to Charleston as a business venture.

When the bells were landed on the wharf from the brig Lightning, on November 20, 1783—according to Johnson’s ” Traditions of Charleston “—” the overjoyed citizens took possession, and hurried them up to the church and into the steeple, without thinking that they might be violating a private right.” In June, 1785, Mr. Ryhiner asked for payment for the bells. Later a subscription was ordered to pay the merchant.

During the British occupation of the city horses were stabled in the church, and the lead roof was removed, for use in bullet making.

In 1811 and 1812 the church figured in the second war with Great Britain. The vestry, whose patriotism was as great as ever, opened the building more than once for meetings of the citizens who wished to consider what they could do to help their country in the impending conflict.

During the Civil War the bells were taken to Columbia, to be cast into cannon. Fortunately they were not used for this purpose, but during Sherman’s march to the sea they were burned and broken into small pieces. A friend of the church in London, on learning of the disaster, searched records of the bell-founders till he learned who had cast the bells. These records told the proportions of metal used and the sizes of the bells. Then the Londoner wrote to Charleston and asked that the fragments be sent to him. When these were received in London they were recast in the original moulds, which were discovered by an old employee. The cost of recasting the bells and restoring them to their places in the steeple was $7,723, of which sum the City Council contributed $3,000; $2,200, the charge made for import duty, was later returned to the church by special Act of Congress.

For nearly twenty years after the receipt of these new-old bells, they were used to sound fire-alarms, as well as for calling to the services of the church.

The venerable building has suffered from fire, wind, and earthquake, as well as from war. In 1825 a cyclone damaged the spire and the roof, and in 1886 earthquake cracked the walls, destroyed a portion of the tower, and did so much further damage that a Charleston paper spoke of it as the ” saddest wreck of all.” At first it was feared that the building would have to be demolished, but repairs were found to be possible at a cost of $15,000.

The structure dates from 1752, when Governor Glenn of South Carolina laid the corner stone. The cost was $32,775.87.

St. Michael’s parish was set off in 1751 from St. Philip’s parish. The first St. Philip’s Church was burned in 1681 or 1682. A second church was opened in 1723. This famous building survived until 1835, in spite of wars and fires. The building was saved during the fire of 1796 by a slave who climbed to the tower and threw to the ground a burning brand. ‘ As a re-ward the vestry purchased his freedom. But during the great fire of February 15, 1835, the edifice was destroyed.

The old church had been so much a part of the life of the city and was so thoroughly identified with the history of the country, that the citizens rejoiced when the decision was reached to rebuild it in practically every detail like the original, with the addition of a chancel and spire.

Older than either St. Philip’s or St. Michael’s, as an organization, is the Huguenot Church of Charleston. The early records of the congregation were destroyed in the fire of 1740, though the building was saved. This first building was blown up during the fire of 1796, in a vain effort to stay the progress of the conflagration. A second building followed in 1800, and the present building was erected in 1828, when English displaced the French language in the services.

Many of the early members became famous in history. The tablets erected to their memory are so numerous that the Huguenot Church might well dispute with St. Philip’s Church the title, ” The Westminster of South Carolina”