Image above owned by the Charleston Area Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, taken from their Flickr page.
It is believed that Charleston came to be known as “The Holy City” due to the religious freedom that was found on the peninsula several hundred years ago. In the early days, the church steeples towering over the skyline, were an extremely useful landmark in guiding ship captains into Charleston, one of the most important ports on the eastern seaboard.
There are many large and small houses of worship in the Charleston area. Examples of the diversity among them are: St. Michael’s Protestant Episcopal Church, St. Phillip’s, Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue of Charleston, the Circular Congregational Church, and The French Huguenot Church.
The oldest church structure in Charleston would be St. Michael’s Church. Originally built as the first Anglican Church south of Virginia in the 1680s, it was named St. Philip’s. This church had become too small for the growing population in 1727, so they moved into a new brick structure on Church Street. (This structure was later destroyed by fire in 1835) St. Philip’s again proved too small and another church was authorized to be built on the old site and this was named St. Michael’s. The cornerstone was laid in 1752. There has been little change to this structure, except for the addition of the sacristy in 1883. After the earthquake of 1886, the entire steeple sank eight inches as a result! It now stands 186 feet in height.
Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue, located on Rutledge Avenue, is the oldest Ashkenazic congregation in continuous use in America. The Synagogue’s founding dates back to 1852 when a group of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Lithuania, Prussia, and Poland, assembled for prayers, according to the Ashkenazic traditions of Orthodox Judaism. (There had been an Orthodox synagogue in Charleston since 1749, but they adhered to the Sephardi traditions of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. The founders of the Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue wanted to worship using the customs and pronunciation of Hebrew they had grown up with.)
The Circular Congregational Church is one of the oldest continually worshiping congregations in the south. It was founded by the Scots Presbyterians and French Huguenots. The founders built a Meeting House in the northwestern corner of the city, which was then a walled city. The current sanctuary occupies this exact space. Present day Meeting Street is the shortened name for the street leading up to this Heeting House, which was called Meeting House Street at the time.
In 1700, about 450 Huguenots had settled in the Lowcountry. The Huguenot Church was built on its present site in 1687. (But it is not the original structure) In 1796 it was destroyed in an attempt to stop the spread of fire that had burned much of the surrounding area. A replacement of the original building was completed in 1800. By 1884 it was dismantled in order to replace it with a Gothic Revival edifice. The church was damaged by artillery during the lengthy bombardment of historic Charleston in the War Between the States and nearly demolished by the earthquake of 1886. The structure that stands presently dates to 1845.
These are just a few examples of why Charleston is called the “Holy City.” Of course, there are many more houses of worship, too numerous to list. Most importantly, there is one major link between all the different religious traditions and beliefs in Charleston. Throughout the years, after building and re-building, after fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wars, Charleston has remained an open-minded city, incorporating all thoughts, beliefs, and cultures with open arms.
Learn about the history of the Holy City on a Charleston carriage ride and harbor tour combination trip! The carriage ride takes you through the downtown Charleston area, introducing you to the history behind some of Charleston’s famous landmarks, while the Charleston Harbor Tours’ 90-minute, narrated historical tour takes you along the coast of downtown Charleston. For more ticket information, click here.