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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Churches were built in Charleston from the time of the earliest settlers in the late 17th century. People migrated from the United Kingdom, France and Germany and soon built churches of various Protestant denominations as well as Roman Catholic churches. There was a great deal of religious tolerance, and the city became known as “The Holy City” due to its large number of churches. It has more than 400 places of worship in a city of 120,000 people.

One of the first churches in Charleston was St Philip’s Episcopal Church at 146 Church Street. St Philips is South Carolina’s oldest religious congregation. The original church was built of wood in 1680 and 1681 a few blocks away on the present site of St Michael’s Episcopal Church at 80 Meeting Street. After damage by a hurricane in 1710, a new church was erected at the Church Street site but was destroyed by fire in 1835. The present stuccoed brick St Philip’s Church was completed in the following year and the steeple in 1850. The design features three Tuscan pedimented porticoes. For many years, the tower was the rear tower of a pair of range lighthouses used to guide ships into the city’s harbor. Only one other church in the US is known to have provided this function. Henrietta Johnston, wife of early rector Gideon Johnston, was America’s first female artist. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.

The Bethel Methodist Church at 57 Pitt Street was built in 1853 and 1854 in the Greek Doric Temple architectural style. Its roof is steeper than usual for this style to allow quick drainage of rainwater. The church has a huge six column Doric portico with a simple pediment and entablature. It was the city’s only Methodist church to stay open in the Civil War. The building survived the 1886 earthquake without damage. The original Bethel Church was built on this site in 1797. A schism developed in the 1830s between black and white worshippers. This resulted in the building being removed to one side of the site in 1852 and used by the black congregation, while the present Bethel Church was built on the original spot soon after for the white Methodists.

Another famous early church in Charleston is the Cathedral of St John the Baptist at 120 Broad Street. Bishop John England bought the lot the cathedral now stands on in 1821 and used the then existing house as the initial place of worship. The first cathedral, seating 1,200 people, was built between 1850 and 1854 but it was lost in the 1861 fire that destroyed much of the city. It took 45 years to raise funds for a new cathedral. The cornerstone was laid in 1890 and the cathedral was finally completed in 1907. It was built in the Gothic style but without a spire as it was too expensive. The new cathedral is made of Connecticut brownstone, with unique stained glass windows featuring the Papal Coat of Arms as well as the South Carolina state seal. Flemish oak was used for the pews and white Vermont marble for the main altar. The life of Christ is represented in 14 two-light windows in the nave. The cathedral is the home church of the city’s Roman Catholic Diocese.

One of the first churches in Charleston built by African Americans is the Central Baptist Church at 26 Radcliffe Street. It was designed by black architect John P. Hutchinson and completed in 1893 in the vernacular Carpenter Gothic style. Typical of this form is the protective hood over the central double doors as well as the plate tracery on the Gothic windows. Murals of the life of Christ were added between 1912 and 1915. It had an octagonal belfry tower with dome but this was replaced in the 1950s by a square tower. Further renovations were conduced in 1977 before severe damage was done in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo. Repairs and restoration work were completed in 2003. The church continues to have a large and strong congregation.

A very early church still in existence is Johns Island Presbyterian Church which is thought to have been built in 1719. This quite likely makes it older than any other church building in colonial America’s five major cities of Boston, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg. Extensions in 1823 included a gallery to seat slaves. The building survived the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War as well as the 1886 earthquake and a number of hurricanes. A Sunday school building was added in 1935 and another building in 1954. The sanctuary underwent a complete restoration in 1992.

If you are visiting Charleston, or are a local resident, and want to tour the city and see the historic churches, a good starting point is http://www.sciway.net/tourism/chaschurches.html. This site has detailed information on the history of a large number of the city’s early churches.