Charleston churches deliver history lessons daily. Charleston, whose nickname is The Holy City, was a beacon of religious freedom and tolerance in its early days. How did the city get its nickname? It’s still a bit clouded, but Charleston’s skyline is notable for abundant towering church steeples. Many date to the 16th and 17th century and were used by ship captains to guides their ships into port. During the Civil War steeples were targeted by Northern ships firing cannon balls into the city. These buildings are still in use, often with congregations whose names have dotted the registries for centuries.
The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue is the country’s oldest synagogue in continual use. Churches such as St. Michaels Episcopal Church and St. Philips are National Historic Landmarks, full of architectural grandeur and historic significance. A day spent visiting them is a day well spent, a remarkable way to view a remarkable city’s beauty.
The 1681 Circular Congregational Church is a Greek Revival wonder. Its cemetery holds Charleston’s oldest grave. Head a little farther up Meeting Street to find the First Scots Presbyterian Church built in 1814. The designer? Benjamin Latrobe, best known for designing the U.S. Capitol. Check out the Scottish symbol in the stained glass windows and try to find the thistle in the wrought iron grills, long a symbol of Scotland.
Nearby is the oldest surviving religious structure in Charleston, St. Michaels Episcopal Church, with a 186-foot steeple topped with 7 1/2-foot weather vane. St. Michaels bells still ring from North America’s oldest tower clock.
Nearby on tiny Church Street is the imposing St. Philips Episcopal Church. Built in 1836 in the Wren-Gibbs tradition, St. Philips houses the oldest congregation in South Carolina. A few blocks from here, the 1844 French Huguenot Protestant Church is South Carolina’s oldest Gothic Revival church.
Old Bethel Methodist Church, the third oldest church structure in Charleston, was the city’s first congregation to serve black and white members. A few blocks away is the 1816 Emanuel African Methodist Church, the Mother Emanuel Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. Wreaths and notes cover the small iron gate of a sidewalk entrance in remembrance of the mass shooting that took place during Bible study class in 2015.