St Michael's Church in downtown Charleston (Adam Kring/Unsplash)
Friday, January 24, 2020 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

The phrase “Holy City” is a fixture of the Charleston lexicon often used to describe our community’s deep history of religious freedom and diversity. Contrary to popular belief, however, the early inhabitants of the South Carolina Lowcountry did not enjoy the liberty of conscience that we take for granted today. As we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the city’s birth, let’s pause to consider the systematic religious discrimination that once legally divided the people of Charleston and shaped the lives of many subsequent generations.

If you search the Internet, as I have just done in late January of 2020, you’ll find scores of websites that use the phrase “Holy City” to describe the City of Charleston, and at least a few dozen websites that provide brief explanations of the origins of that nickname. If you walk the streets listening to tour guides, you’ll hear well-meaning men and women providing similar information about the roots of the phrase “Holy City” to curious visitors. The various explanations of this phrase that you read or hear might differ in the details, but the majority of them express a common theme: Charleston has been a place of religious freedom since its founding in 1670, and over the years has become the home to a large number of houses of worship representing a diversity of spiritual beliefs.

As a professional historian committed to the promotion of factual accuracy, however, I take issue with such explanations of the phrase “Holy City,” and with the use of that phrase in general. The documentary record of our city and state provides copious and indisputable proof that religious discrimination was, in fact, a conspicuous feature of the law and culture of early Charleston. As our community commemorates “Interfaith Harmony Month” in January, now seems the appropriate time for a conversation about the facts of Charleston’s religious history.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe anyone in present-day Charleston who repeats the phrase “Holy City” is engaging in a premeditated effort to deny or to willfully obfuscate the sins of the past. Rather, I believe that the phrase “Holy City” has gained popularity in recent years through a benign ignorance of the facts. In all fairness, the history of religious tolerance and intolerance in Charleston is a massively complex topic that is shrouded in a labyrinth of obscure records scattered over many generations. It’s not an easy story to tell or to summarize. In this program, I’m attempting to provide a useful overview of about 150 years of our community’s early history. In the interest of time and utility, I’m consciously omitting numerous details and examples. A truly comprehensive treatment of this topic would fill volumes of hefty books.[1] With all that in mind, let’s begin our journey by rewinding the clock to the beginning of South Carolina’s colonial history.

Three hundred and fifty years ago, Charleston was founded as the capital of the southern part of the English colony of Carolina. The settlers who created the civil government that initially defined this community were mostly English folk who brought with them English customs, beliefs, and laws. As a result of these facts, the legal and political landscape of early South Carolina became an extension of the prejudices and discriminatory practices that characterized English culture of the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. I realize that most Americans today aren’t intimately familiar with the details of the religious controversies that colored English politics of the late Stuart period, so I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment for a brief review of that history. In order to understand the roots of Charleston’s religious culture, it’s crucially important that we see our community’s place within the broader colonial landscape of the English-speaking world.

The religious construct we call Christianity arose in the then-Roman province of Judea some two thousand years ago. While it began as an offshoot of the ethnically specific religion of Judaism, which was already an ancient culture at that time, Christianity gradually developed into a more heterogeneous religion that embraced people of different cultures and languages as it spread westward into Africa and across Europe. Despite their differences, far-flung Christians by the fourth century shared a common faith in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Within its first thousand years or so of existence, Christianity developed from an obscure community of disciples into a powerful international conglomerate, led by a pope based in Rome, that dominated the political, economic, and cultural landscape of the European continent.

Efforts to reform abuses within the institutional apparatus of the catholic (or universal) Christian Church in the early sixteenth-century led to a number of philosophical fractures that induced many adherents in several nations to diverge from the mother church. A significant feature of this Protestant Reformation, as it is generally known, was the withdrawal of English churches from the traditional church hierarchy in Rome. In 1534, King Henry VIII declared himself (with the help of Parliament) to be the supreme ruler of a separate branch of Christianity that was tailor-made for his country, called the Church of England, or the Anglican Church. From that moment onward commenced a long period of conflict and struggle between English-speaking adherents to the new Church of England and the old Church of Rome. This religious strife dominated English politics during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and it spilled over into the founding of her American colonies as well.

By the Act of Supremacy of 1534, the English Parliament required every public officer to take an “Oath of Supremacy” that acknowledged the King’s supreme authority in England, and to reject the authority of the Pope in Rome. This act was the beginning of a long series of “Penal Laws” that lasted into the nineteenth century, designed to strengthen the authority of the Church of England and to restrict the civil liberties of those who did not conform to its practices. By extending the Penal Laws to Ireland, which England began to colonize by force in the late twelfth century, the English government subjugated and discriminated against the vast majority of the Irish population that chose to remain faithful to the Church of Rome. (This is one of the reasons the Irish didn’t really get along with the English for around 800 years.)

England’s internal religious strife, which pitted Anglicans against Catholics, also spilled over into the nation’s relations with its European neighbors. The crowned heads of state in France and Spain, both powerful nations with colonial aspirations in the New World, continued their long-standing affiliations with the Church of Rome. Traditional political and military tensions between these countries were inflamed by England’s new-found contempt for the Catholic religion. The lengthy periods of warfare between England and her European neighbors in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries generated an intense national paranoia that English-speaking Catholics might secretly be agents of foreign powers who sought to undermine the authority of the English crown.

In this environment, one’s religious beliefs had powerful political implications. England’s ruling monarch was the head of state as well as the supreme head of the Church of England. This duality created a direct link between the concepts of religious conformity and national security. The question of the day was this: Is it possible to be loyal to the nation while rejecting the Church of England? Or to put it another way, was adherence to the Anglican Religion a civil requirement to be imposed on all members of the English-speaking world? Intense debates and disagreements over this mater led England into a destructive Civil War in the 1640s that spilled over into Ireland as well as England’s overseas colonies (Barbados, Virginia, Massachusetts, etc.). The Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 included a restoration of the legal supremacy of the Church of England, however, and the nation returned to a state of relative stability.

It was this political environment that gave birth to the Carolina Colony. If you look closely at the text of the Carolina Charter of 1663, you’ll find two seemingly contradictory statements about religion. First, King Charles II granted to the eight Lords Proprietors of Carolina dominion over all the churches in Carolina, and commanded the proprietors “to cause them to be dedicated and consecrated according to the ecclesiastical laws of our kingdom of England.” Second, the Carolina charter also recognized that “it may happen that some of the people and inhabitants of the said province cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the public exercise of religion according to the liturgy, forms, and ceremonies of the Church of England, or take and subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalf.” In such cases of non-conformity, therefore, the King instructed that “all and every such person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times, freely and quietly have and enjoy his and their Judgments and consciences, in matters of religion, throughout all the said province or colony.”

It's important to recognize that the religion clauses included in the Carolina Charters of 1663 and 1665 should be interpreted in the context of the rising religious tensions in England in the 1660s. Shortly after the Restoration, the English Parliament passed a series of new laws to strengthen the supremacy of the Anglican Church and to limit the civil liberties of non-Anglican Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The several so-called “Test Acts” of the 1660s and 1670s, for example, required anyone holding a public office to take a series of oaths to acknowledge the supremacy of the Church of England, to reject the tenants of the Catholic faith, and to receive communion periodically within an Anglican Church. In the new Carolina Colony, as in England, the king expected religious worship to conform to the established, prejudicial legal framework. Carolina colonists unwilling to conform to the laws of the Church of England would be tolerated, but, as in England, they would not enjoy the same civil rights and privileges afforded to conforming Protestants.

Shortly before the first English colonists came to Charleston, the Lords Proprietors adopted a set of instructions for framing the government of Carolina, called the Fundamental Constitutions. Article No. 95 specified that “No man shall be permitted to be a freeman of Carolina, or to have any estate or habitation within it, that doth not acknowledge a God, and that God is publicly and solemnly to be worshipped.” So much for atheists in Carolina. Article No. 96 stated that the government of Carolina will build and maintain churches, “to be employed in the exercise of religion, according to the Church of England; which being the only true and orthodox and the national religion of all the King's dominions, is so also of Carolina.” That is to say, your tax money will be used to support the state religion, regardless of your religious preference.

Article No. 97 of the 1669 Fundamental Constitutions noted that the natives of Carolina were “utterly strangers to Christianity,” but the colonists should not use such “idolatry, ignorance, or mistake” as an excuse to mistreat the Indians. If fact, the Proprietors advised, the natives, as well as “Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion,” should be welcomed in Carolina, so they might witness the majesty of the Church of England, and have “an opportunity of acquainting themselves with the truth and reasonableness of its doctrines, and the peaceableness and inoffensiveness of its professors, [and] may, by good usage and persuasion, and all those convincing methods of gentleness and meekness, suitable to the rules and design of the gospel, be won over to embrace and unfeignedly receive the truth.”

The Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolina Colony contain a few other items related to religion, but there’s no need to belabor the point. These instructions were drafted by Anglican men who clearly intended the Church of England to dominate the religious landscape of their new colony, and who clearly held a limited respect for those who did not conform to their religious preferences. In the end, however, the content of these prescriptions really didn’t matter. The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina were a set of philosophical guidelines written by armchair adventurers, and the colonists who settled Charleston refused to implement them. The Constitutions were simply too impractical for a frontier settlement starting from scratch. Religious practices in the early days of Charleston might have been loose and relatively unencumbered, but that situation didn’t persist for long.

When the English public learned in the 1670s that James, the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II and next in line to the throne, had converted to Catholicism, English politicians scrambled to exclude James and his Catholic heirs from the royal succession and to create further distance between the English crown and the Church of Rome. Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury and one of the principal Lords Proprietors of the Carolina Colony, was at the vanguard of this virulent anti-Catholic campaign. In spite of efforts to exclude him, James did ascend to the throne in 1685, and even tried to promote increased religious freedom in 1687, but anti-Catholic sentiment forced him to flee to France in late 1688. When James’s Protestant daughter, Mary arrived in 1689 to assume the throne with her Dutch husband, Prince William of Nassau (Orange), the English public hailed the event as a “Glorious Revolution” simply because a Protestant monarch had returned to the throne without a bloody war.

Anti-Catholic sentiment continued to form a significant part of English law during the reign of William and Mary, but in 1689 the new monarchs gave their royal assent to a law that extended a modicum of religious freedom to the English-speaking realm. The so-called “Toleration Act” of 1689 allowed freedom of worship to Protestants who did not fully conform to the Church of England (such as Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists), but it required them to take several oaths pledging allegiance to the English crown, acknowledging the supremacy of the English king and queen over the Church of England, and rejecting the basic tenants of the Catholic Church. Failing to take the oaths, or failing to register one’s non-conforming church with the government, or worshiping behind locked doors, were all treasonable offenses. Membership in the Church of England was required for anyone employed by the government or holding public office, and this limited religious toleration did not extend to Catholics, Unitarians, or atheists.

The point of all of this religious history is to make one fact abundantly clear: The religious prejudices inherent in English law and culture in the late seventeenth century came to South Carolina with the English settlers who populated Charles Town in the early years of the colony. They, in turn, applied these prejudices to the non-English people who settled here as well. The French Huguenots who began arriving here in the 1680s, fleeing a wave of anti-Protestant violence in staunchly Catholic France, for example, were afforded the same limited religious toleration as other Protestant groups that did not conform to the Church of England. Here the Huguenots could form their own church and worship in peace, but their civil rights were likewise abridged by the ingrained legal prejudice against non-conforming Protestants. In response to this inequity, many of the early South Carolina Huguenots aligned themselves with the Church of England. Henry Laurens and Peter Manigault, among many other examples, became important political leaders, but such success required their families to make a religious compromise in order to circumvent South Carolina’s culture of discrimination.

English-speaking Irish immigrants were likewise welcome in early South Carolina, so long as they weren’t Catholic, or at least kept their faith in secret. France and Spain were the traditional Catholic enemies of the Protestant English nation, and the English viewed the predominantly Catholic island of Ireland with an abundance of suspicion and contempt. Irish sailors and settlers in the English-speaking colonies were routinely detained and interrogated in case they might be acting as enemy spies. The laws of England and most of her colonies afforded no civil liberties to Catholics. As a result of such practices, the Irish population of colonial-era South Carolina was miniscule. Many in the Lowcountry might recognize the names of such Irish immigrants such John Barnwell, Jonathan Amory, John Rutledge, James Parsons, and many others, but these men were actually Anglo-Irish Protestants whose Irish roots were rather shallow.

In the spring of 1697, the South Carolina legislature ratified a law to naturalize a number of non-English “aliens” residing in the colony “and for granting liberty of conscience” to most citizens. The first part of this act provides the earliest evidence that a handful of Sephardic Jews were living in Charleston at that time, but the laws of this colony afforded neither legal recognition of nor protection for their religious traditions. The second part of the act confirmed “that all Christians which now are, or hereafter may be in this province (Papists only excepted) shall enjoy the full, free and undisturbed liberty of their consciences, so as to be in the exercise of their worship according to the professed rules of their religion, without any lett [sic], molestation or hinderance by any power either ecclesiastical or civil whatsoever.”[2] The word “Papist,” is, of course, a pejorative term commonly applied to Catholics throughout the colonial-era of South Carolina’s history. According to this 1697 law and similar legal acts in force here, therefore, only Protestants could worship freely (although the civil rights of non-conformists were abridged), while Catholics in South Carolina continued to be subject to “molestation and hinderance.”

As you can see, the legal playing field of colonial-era South Carolina was skewed by an inherited system of religious discrimination. A law ratified in Charleston in the spring of 1703, and based on English precedent, went so far as to criminalize a variety of beliefs that deviated from the teachings of mainstream Protestant Christianity. “An Act for the more effectual suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness,” as it was formally known, declared that “if any person or persons, having been educated in, or at any time having made profession of the Christian religion within this province, shall, by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking, deny any one of the persons of the Holy Trinity to be God, or shall assert or maintain there are more Gods than one, or shall deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be of divine authority,” he or she shall be “disabled in law,” or stripped of their civil liberties, “and shall also suffer imprisonment for the space of three years, without bail or mainprize.”[3]

The Church of England was the legally preferred religion of early South Carolina from the beginning, but it became the official church of the colony by the so-called “Church Acts” of 1704 and 1706. The Lords Proprietors of Carolina rejected the language of 1704 version, but the revised law of 1706 formally empowered the provincial legislature to apply public tax revenue for the construction and maintenance of Anglican churches in each of the newly created parishes of South Carolina, as well as the salary of all Anglican ministers.[4] At that time, there were just four churches in urban Charleston: one Anglican (St. Philip’s), one Congregational, one Huguenot (French Protestant), and one Baptist. Anglicans formed a minority of the town’s population of approximately 2,000 souls, but in the spring of 1711 the provincial legislature endorsed a plan to construct a grand new church for the urban parish of St. Philip that would express the majestic dominance of the Church of England in the capital of South Carolina.[5]

No discussion of religious history in colonial South Carolina would be complete without acknowledging the plight of the enslaved population. White Europeans began bringing Africans and people of African descent to this area immediately after the founding of Charleston in 1670, and by the year 1708 they formed a majority of the local population. Documentary evidence of their religious opinions and practices is virtually non-existent, however, because white settlers exhibited so little respect for the humanity of their enslaved brethren as to ignore their spiritual lives. It’s likely that many of the enslaved men and women who came in bondage to South Carolina had been raised in the Islamic faith, but the brutal realities of their new lives here made it next to impossible for them to preserve their native traditions.

As with the indigenous population of South Carolina, the early settlers of this colony viewed their African slaves as uncivilized savages, incapable of complex thought or philosophical introspection. Introducing African laborers to Christianity was not a priority in colonial South Carolina, but the practice gained acceptance as the colony matured. When it did take place here, religious instruction to enslaved people followed a distinctly Protestant agenda that emphasized Old Testament lessons of obedience and stoicism. At the same time, however, Spanish clerics in nearby Florida were actively converting both Indians and Africans to Catholicism, and rewarding such converts with freedom from slavery. This path to liberty induced many enslaved men and women to flee from South Carolina in the hope of reaching Spanish Florida, and provided white authorities in Charleston with further reasons to distrust anyone who practiced the Catholic faith.

In the 1730s, the South Carolina legislature launched a program to offset the colony’s black majority by increasing the white population of the colonial backcountry. To encourage white Europeans to come to South Carolina rather than one of the other mainland colonies, our provincial government offered free land, a cash bounty, and a variety of agricultural tools for every incoming adult who promised to settle here. In conformity with established law, however, these benefits were only available to “poor Protestants.” Not Jews, not Catholics, nor any other religious group.[6] Among the thousands of people who took advantage of this incentive program, which lasted from the early 1730s to the late 1760s, were Anglo-Irish Protestants from the northern province of Ulster and large numbers of German-speaking Palatines from the southwestern corner of modern Germany.

A few years ago, while reading through one of the manuscript journals of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, I stumbled across a brief and curious religious anecdote that I neglected to copy into my notes. I was searching for something related to Charleston’s urban fortifications at the time, and I failed make note of the precise date of the following conversation, which took place sometime around the year 1750. A German immigrant was standing in a queue at the Council Chamber, along with many other Germans who had just arrived by ship, waiting to receive their royal grants for free land. When it became his turn to take the usual oaths of allegiance and abjuration, this particular immigrant paused and stepped back in confusion. He was Catholic, he told the clerk, and could not, in good conscience, take an oath swearing allegiance to the Protestant King and renouncing the authority of the Pope and the basic tenants of the Catholic faith. Then you will receive no free land in South Carolina, replied the clerk, and His Majesty’s government will provide no assistance to you in this colony. After a brief pause, the poor German, who had just travelled more than four thousand miles to start a new life in America, temporarily swallowed his faith and took the oaths necessary to receive his free land.

We can imagine that many other Catholics who came to colonial-era South Carolina had to make similar decisions about their faith, when their survival depended on it, but there are no written records of such closet conversions. Other immigrants, whose Catholic identity was a matter of public knowledge, had fewer options. In the autumn of 1755, for example, British forces began forcibly removing the large population French Acadians from the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada. Portions of these Acadian or “Cajun” refugees were distributed among each of the colonies in North America, and more than a thousand of them arrived in Charleston during the winter of 1755–56. Unlike other groups of immigrants who came to colonial Charleston looking to start a new life, the French Acadians were well-known to be staunchly Catholic. For this reason alone, the government of South Carolina offered as little assistance to these men, women, and children as humanity would allow. The Acadians arrived here in a state of complete poverty, having been expelled from their homes in Canada, but they were denied the free land and cash bounties extended to all Protestant immigrants at that time. Our government grudgingly made minimal provisions for them to receive blankets and medicines, while most Carolinians refused to accept them as neighbors. In this inhospitable land of plenty, hundreds of Acadians died in South Carolina, and the rest eventually fled to French outposts in Louisiana, Saint Domingue, or back to Canada.[7]

The fact that South Carolina’s prejudice against the Acadians was based on religion rather than nationality is demonstrated by a similar incident that transpired just a few years later. In 1763, the British government undertook another program to resettle a large group of French Protestant refugees from England to the colonies, and shipped a group of more than 250 men, women, and children to South Carolina. They arrived in Charleston in April 1764 and received a warm welcome here. The provincial legislature provided them with all the bounty money, free land, and agricultural tools needed to begin new lives in the Abbeville District, along the Savannah River.[8] Where the Catholic Acadians of 1755 were treated like criminals and roundly rejected, the Huguenot refugees of 1764 were comforted and encouraged to prosper in their new homes.

Let’s review the scorecard of religious freedom in colonial-era Charleston. White Anglicans, conforming members of the Church of England, enjoyed full rights of worship and citizenship. Non-conforming Protestants, including Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Huguenots, enjoyed the freedom to worship, but their civil rights were regularly abridged. Likewise, Jews were tolerated, but they were not regarded as full citizens. Catholics, Unitarians, atheists, and members of any other religious group, were simply not tolerated in colonial-era South Carolina. Quakers, though technically Protestants, refused to swear oaths, and thus were often suspected of being closet Catholics. For this reason, Charleston’s early Quaker population never blossomed.

South Carolina first declared its independence in March of 1776, but the state’s first constitution did not address the topic of religion. Article 38 of the South Carolina Constitution of 1778 removed the Church of England from its status as the “established” religion, and in its place proclaimed that “the Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this state.” Confirming the traditional prejudice against Catholicism, Judaism, and other faiths, the Constitution of 1778 declared that only “denominations of Christian Protestants in this state . . . shall enjoy equal religious and civil privileges,” so long as their members acknowledge “that God is publicly to be worshiped . . . that the Christian religion is the true religion,” and so on.[9] Our state was shedding its traditional alignment with British culture at that time, but we still had a long way to go.

The pact of friendship and assistance made in the spring of 1778 between the nascent United States and the King of France forced the English-speaking Protestants of this nation to set aside, at least temporarily, their traditional animosity towards the Catholic religion. With the assistance of French soldiers, ships, and cash, the United States prevailed in its War of Independence against Great Britain. The new state and federal laws created in the aftermath of that eight-year struggle demonstrated that the people of South Carolina, and most of the nation in general, were willing to be a bit more accepting of cultural differences.

Since the 1530s, when King Henry VIII split from the Church of Rome, all public officers in the English-speaking world had been required to take a “test” or oath pledging allegiance to the King and renouncing Catholicism. That practice ended in each of the respective United States during the American Revolution, and was officially prohibited in the United States Constitution, ratified in 1789. Article 6, section 3 of that document states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The First Amendment to our Constitution, ratified in 1791, strengthened the separation of church and state by confirming that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

South Carolina again revised its state constitution in 1790, and, for the first time in the legal history of this community, removed all legal barriers to the free practice of religion. Article 8, Section 1 of that document states simply “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed within this state to all mankind.”[10] In the years after this legal change, the people of Charleston entered an era of increased, but not full, religious freedom. A Roman Catholic congregation, St. Mary’s Church, on Hasell Street, coalesced in 1789 and formally emerged after the new constitution of 1790. A few years later, the city’s first Methodist church opened on Cumberland Street in 1787. While the appearance of these two denominations provided evidence of the city and state’s increasing religious tolerance, the members of both churches experienced significant discrimination in the early years of their existence.

American Methodism in the 1780s advocated the belief that the practice of slavery was antithetical to the tenants of Christianity. This simple but then-controversial fact drew to the Methodist church large numbers of enslaved people of African descent, as well as the ire of white slaveholders in Charleston. The early history of Methodism in this city was marked by years of protests and discrimination motivated by the contrary belief that slavery was, as John C. Calhoun described in 1837, “a positive good.”[11] Similarly, St. Mary’s Catholic Church was scorned in the 1790s for receiving into its congregation black Catholics who had come to Charleston along with the waves of refugees fleeing the bloody revolution on the island colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti). Those Catholic slaves and free people of color had witnessed a successful slave revolt, noted many of Charleston’s white Protestants, who feared the integration of these newcomers into the local black majority might inspire Lowcountry slaves to imitate the Haitian revolution and rise up against their white masters.

The fears and paranoia that motivated discrimination against Charleston’s first Methodist and Catholic churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reached a horrific climax in 1822. The free man of color named Demark Vesey, who was executed that summer along with thirty-five other men, represented to many white Charlestonians the embodiment of those two streams of religious prejudice. Vesey and his alleged co-conspirators were among the more than 4,000 black Methodists (representing 77% of Charleston’s Methodist population) who split in 1818 to form their own “African church.”[12] White paranoia about the motivations behind Charleston’s new African Church were amplified by rumors that Vesey and his men had been corresponding with black Catholics in Haiti, who were allegedly prepared to welcome them in the wake of a bloody slave revolt in Charleston.[13] By executing the alleged conspirators, dismantling their African Church, and prohibiting black worship without white supervision, the white authorities of Charleston extended the city’s long tradition of religious intolerance for many more decades.

The end of slavery in 1865 finally empowered black Charlestonians to form their own churches, and the latter years of the nineteenth century were marked by a general profusion of church-building projects across the city. While these facts provide evidence of a new era of religious freedom in the community, they also represent the growth of a new kind of religious segregation in Charleston. Under the old regime of slavery, the law required white men to keep watch over black worship services in order to control the religious message offered to them and their interpretation of it. Such policies of social control disappeared in 1865, however, and most white Charlestonians of the late nineteenth century expressed a desire to worship separately from their black neighbors. That feeling was generally reciprocated by the black population, whose collective experiences motivated them to embrace the all-black church as a powerful refuge from the painful legacy of civil and religious oppression. From the late 1860s to the present day, Sundays became the most segregated day in Charleston’s weekly routine.

From the founding of this community in 1670 to the present, our laws and culture have evolved to a point where the majority of the population now recognizes and embraces the peaceful coexistence of a broad spectrum of religious beliefs and practices. That transformation is certainly laudable, but we must also acknowledge that vestiges of past prejudices continue to linger in Charleston and beyond. The final legal barrier to freedom of conscience was removed just over twenty years ago, in 1997, when the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down an 1895 state constitutional provision that disqualified candidates for public office who denied the existence of a “supreme being.”[14]

While the law no longer tolerates public religious discrimination, some traditional prejudices continue to survive in the private opinions of a minority of our citizens. Protestants have formed a majority of South Carolina’s population for three hundred and fifty years, and members of the Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, and other faiths are still subjected to occasional religious discrimination here. Having been raised Catholic in South Carolina, I can personally attest to the continued existence of anti-Catholic sentiment in this state. Let’s remember, too, that freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion. We might not share our neighbors’ spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, but humanity requires that we exercise a bit of respect for our respective differences.

To conclude today’s program, let’s return to that phrase “Holy City.” Yates Snowden (1858–1933) was a Charleston-born educator and professor of history at the University of South Carolina in the early years of the twentieth century. His career was dominated by a passion for the history of his native state, and especially that of his hometown. Snowden was obsessed with Charleston history, and while he lived and worked in Columbia for much of his life, he frequently spoke of Charleston as the center of his world. Friends like John Bennett, an Ohio-born writer living in Charleston, often teased Snowden by noting that Charleston was his “holy city”—the destination he aspired to more than any other. In Snowden’s 1933 obituary, the Charleston News and Courier described his devotion to his native city as “charming,” and noted that the old professor had “always said he was a missionary from ‘the Holy City.’”[15]

Newspaper columnist Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., writing under the pen name “Ashley Cooper” in the News and Courier, began dropping the phrase “Holy City” into his regular series of local history columns of early 1950s. In the summer of 1955, one of his readers asked him to explain the origin and meaning of that unfamiliar phrase. Gilbreth replied that Yates Snowden had often used the phrase “holy city” some years earlier, and in his journalistic opinion, the reason was “pretty obvious.” “Any city that is full of sacred cows, worshipped by its inhabitants and envied by the rest of the world, would inevitably become known—I should think—as the Holy City.”[16]

Through the prolific columns of Ashley Cooper in the 1950s, the phrase “Holy City” took off and began flowing from the pens of other writers who wanted to appear to be “in the know,” so to speak, about Charleston history. In this manner, the modern moniker “Holy City” gained credibility and legitimacy. By the 1970s, it had entered the mainstream lexicon of Lowcountry banter. Today you’ll hear the phrase repeated around this city by tour guides, media outlets, and business folk. It has become an institution, but in my opinion, it’s based on a misunderstanding.

The idea that the phrase “Holy City” is based on Charleston’s long legacy of religious freedom and its proliferation of diverse houses of worship is simply a myth. The name is a product of twentieth century marketing, and was originally used as a metaphor for a certain obsession with the city of Charleston and its history. To assert that Charleston is called “the Holy City” because its inhabitants have enjoyed the privileges of religious freedom since its founding is to ignore the sobering facts of our discriminatory past. The early inhabitants of this community—black and white, enslaved and free—suffered varying degrees of religious persecution under a system of laws and cultural practices inherited from England. Rather than religious freedom, Charleston was founded on a system of limited and conditional religious toleration.

Since the birth of Charleston in 1670, the laws that define our society have gradually evolved to become increasingly tolerant, but we are still a work in progress. In my opinion, the phrase “Holy City” promotes a false narrative about an imaginary past. Charleston is an imperfect place endowed with a deep well of history that contains both inspiring facts and painful memories. To do honor and justice to those who came before us, as well as those newcomers who visit us, we cannot whitewash the sins of the past. I believe it’s incumbent on us as Charlestonians of the twenty-first century to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

With apologies for a long-winded journey through a difficult but important topic, I’ll leave you with this final thought. If we need a good nickname for our favorite city, why not return to Charleston’s original alt-handle, which I profiled last year in Episode No. 96: “The Palmetto City.” It conveys an inclusive, positive message and has bona-fide historical roots. For what it’s worth, it has my vote!



[1] A good place to being exploring this topic is James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke, eds., The Dawn of Religious Freedom in South Carolina (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006).

[2] See “An Act for the making aliens free of this part of this province, and for granting liberty of conscience to all Protestants,” ratified on 10 March 1696/7, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 2 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1837), 131–33.

[3] See “An Act for the more effectual suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness,” ratified on 6 May 1703, in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 196–97.

[4] Act No. 225, “An Act for the Establishment of religious worship in this province according to the Church of England, and for the erecting of churches for the public worship of God, and also for the maintenance of ministers and the building convenient houses for them,” ratified on 4 November 1704, in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 236–46; repealed by the “Repealing Act” (No. 255) of 30 November 1706, see Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 281–82; Act No. 256, “An Act for the establishment of religious worship in this province, according to the Church of England, and for the erecting of Church for the publick worship of God, and also for the maintenance of ministers and the building convenient houses for them,” ratified on 30 November 1706, in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 282–95.

[5] Act No. 296, “An Act for the erecting of a new Brick Church at Charles Town, to be the Parish Church of St. Philip’s, Charles Town,” ratified on 1 March 1710/1, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 56–57.

[6] For more information about the “Township Scheme,” see Robert L. Meriwether, The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729–1765 (Kingsport, Tennessee: Southern Publishers, 1940), 17–30.

[7] For more information about the Acadians in South Carolina, see Marguerite B. Hamer, “The Fate of the Exiled Acadians in South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History 4 (May 1938): 199–208; Chapman J. Milling, Exile Without an End (Columbia, S.C.: Bostick and Thornley, 1943).

[8] See “The French Protestants of Abbeville District, S.C. 1761–1765,” in Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, volume 2 (1858), 75–103.

[9] See the Constitution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1778 in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 1 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1836), 128–34, 137–46.

[10] See the Constitution of 1790 in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 1: 184–93.

[11] John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, Delivered in the Senate, February 6th, 1837,” in Richard R. Crallé, ed., Speeches of John C. Calhoun, Delivered in the House of Representatives and in the Senate of the United States, volume 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883), 631 (of 625–33).

[12] John O. Willson, Sketch of the Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C. 1785–1887 (Charleston, S.C.: Lucas, Richardson & Co., 1888), 13.

[13] For details about the motivations behind the execution of Demark Vesey and his alleged co-conspirators, see Egerton, Douglas R., and Paquette, Robert L., eds. The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017).

[14] The revised South Carolina Constitutions of 1868 (Article III, section 3, and Article XIV, section 6) and 1895 (Article VI, section 2; Article XVII, section 4) both included provisions to disqualify candidates for public office in the state who denied the existence of a “supreme being.” See Silverman v. Campbell, et al.; Herb Silverman, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (Durham, N.C.: Pitchstone Publishing, 2012).

[15] See the papers of both Yates Snowden and John Bennett at the South Carolina Historical Society; Charleston News and Courier, 25 February 1933.

[16] See Edward M. Gilbreth, “Research says ‘Holy City’ term not church-based,” in Charleston Post and Courier, 25 May 2016.


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