Timeless Lowcountry Discovery

6 Must-See Historic Charleston Holy Places: A Self-Guided Tour

Faith Built More Than Congregations in the Holy City.

Houses of worship represent fantastic architecture of earlier times, reflecting both the Colonial era, and the Charles Towne settlement’s enduring history. From the earliest construction in the 1670s, these impressive structures survived the destructive forces of man and nature — two wars, three substantial city-wide fires, an earthquake, a tornado, and numerous hurricanes — but faithful congregants consistently rallied to rebuild their sacred houses. Today the history and architectural marvels remain for all to appreciate.

With a proposed route covering 1.3 miles, these six must-see historic Charleston holy places are within comfortable walking distance of one another. Along the way, you’ll pass other great places to see in downtown Charleston, including the Dock Street Theatre, Gibbes Museum of Art, the City Market, and Marion Square, as well as plenty of coffee shops and restaurants for a quick bite, lazy brunch, or late afternoon lunch.

For those readers who found us through our January 2022 Map Guide, you’ll find the answers to “What Many Locals Don’t Know About the Holy City’s Holy Places” in this feature article. Didn’t see the article, click to the bottom of the page** for the questions.

St. Philips Church in historic downtown Charleston is one of the 6 must-see holy places in the city.
St. Philip’s iconic spire and burial grounds draw architecture lovers and taphophiles alike. ©TPJPhoto.net

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church

Established in 1681, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church is the oldest religious congregation in South Carolina and one of the most iconic steeples on the peninsula. St. Philip’s is often referred to as the “Westminster Abbey of South Carolina,” for its London-influenced Anglo-Palladian style. Its first edifice — constructed for a small founding congregation — originally stood where St. Michael’s Church stands at the intersection of Broad and Meetings Streets today.

Services in the new larger church were held in 1723 at its present Church Street location. Named for one of the 12 Apostles, Philip, the relocated church was badly damaged by a major fire in 1835; rebuilt by a determined congregation, services resumed in 1838. 

The churches’ graveyards — both adjacent to the church, and across the street — contribute to why St. Philips is high at the top of historic Charleston holy places to see. Significant graves of revolutionaries, politicians, confederates and artists include:

Still holding service today, the church and its adjacent graveyards are open to the public for limited weekday hours. 142 Church St., Charleston.

The French Huguenot Church in historic downtown Charleston is one of the 6 must-see holy places in the city.
The French Huguenot Church houses a rare Tracker organ, known for its smooth responsive sound resulting from unusual keyboard and pipe mechanics. ©French Huguenot Church

The French Huguenot Church

Fleeing persecution in France, Huguenot refugees founded the French Huguenot Church in 1867; it remains as the only present-day independent Huguenot Church in America. As South Carolina’s oldest Greek Revival-style church — and the third structure at the original location — the site and congregation have endured fire, earthquake and war. Worshipers arrived by boat in the 1800s, earning this holy house the name, “The Church of Tides” as boats depended on the harbor’s ebb and flow for navigation. Today service is still practiced in French once a year in homage to the founding congregation. 

Of noted significance is the Huguenot Cross, believed to have been a sign of recognition among French Protestants (Huguenots) as early as the 16th Century. Designed after a cross worn by Henry IV who issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598 to protect Protestant freedoms, a similar design used in Charleston is the most widely recognized today. In addition to its enduring symbolism, the French Huguenot Church features marvelous buttresses and elaborate brick ornamentation are a few of 1845 houses of worship’s architectural wonders; its famous Tracker organ is one of the last of its kind in the country. 44 Queen St., Charleston.

St. Michael's Church in historic downtown Charleston is one of the 6 must-see holy places in the city.
A true time keeper for many downtown residents, the bells of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church faithfully ring every hour on the hour, and at each 15 minute increment in between. ©Regal Shave/Pixabay

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church

Charleston’s oldest church building, and also one of the Four Corners of Law, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church was originally constructed as a small wooden building in the 1680s for the St. Philip’s Church parish. The current church was completed in the 1750s and named St. Michael’s while a newer St. Philip’s was built on nearby Church Street. St. Michael’s remains substantially the same today — though its steeple sank eight inches after an 1886 earthquake. 

The original pulpit’s scope and scale are considered noteworthy for its height and mass, but the steeple and clock tower bells are where notoriety ring. Housed in what is thought to be the oldest functioning colonial tower clock in the country, the steeple was painted black during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to make it less conspicuous to enemy gunners.

The English cast clocktower bells were captured during the Revolution as a prize of war. Later purchased by a London merchant and shipped back to Charleston, they reliably rang for decades, announcing both time and celebration, until the Civil War when they were sent upstate to the capital to escape melting for munitions. Burned in a fire there, the salvaged metal was sent to England and recast once more in the original molds. 71 Broad St., Charleston.

One of the 6 must-see holy places in historic downtown Charleston is the Circular Congregational Church.
The Circular Congregational Church is an architectural sight to behold among the Holy City’s many churches. ©Warren LeMay

Circular Congregational Church

Organized in 1681 in the original Charles Towne settlement, the Circular Congregational Church underwent three different building renditions. Its first dwelling, known as White Meeting House — thus how Meeting Street earned its name — proved too small for a burgeoning congregation; a second structure built in 1806 was of its unique signature circular design. Severely damaged by the Great Fire of 1861, and ultimately flattened by Charleston’s 1886 earthquake, a third structure was completed in 1892. Retaining original brick for the earlier structure, today’s Romanesque-style building pays homage to its roots. As the Holy City’s oldest cemetery, evidenced by a 1695 monument, it is considered highly significant for its burial grounds.

History points to John Newtown, a 1700s slave trader who worshipped at least once at the church; with awakening sentiment toward his business, he wrote the words to Amazing Grace. Though he continued to trade after penning the words, he fully renounced his slave trading business decades later. But it wasn’t until 1835 that William Walker put Newton’s Amazing Grace words to the popular tune “New Britain.” 150 Meeting St., Charleston.

The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue in historic downtown Charleston is one of the 6 must-see holy places in the city.
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue in Charleston SC is the second oldest synagogue in the country. (Courtesy Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim/Facebook)

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue

Built in 1840 to replace the original 1794 building destroyed by the 1838 fire, the Greek Revival style Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is the second oldest synagogue building in the country and the oldest in continuous use. The original dedication stone is in the foyer, over the entrance to the sanctuary. In 1980 the synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark, reinforcing its place in our top 6 historic Charleston holy places. A small museum houses such artifacts as a letter George Washington wrote to the congregation, along with an original painting of the interior of the 1792 synagogue. 

Charleston is acknowledged as the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States. Though early 1800s dissension led to division in the synagogue, a reunited congregation in 1873 makes the KKBE one of the earliest synagogues of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Its Coming Street Cemetery is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in the South. 90 Hassell St., Charleston.

The Mother Emanuel Church in historic downtown Charleston is one of the 6 must-see holy places in the city.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (©Wellesenterprises/Dreamstime)

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Housing the oldest black congregation south of Maryland, the Gothic Revival style Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is more commonly known as Mother Emanuel AME. The Church’s roots are easily traced to enslaved and freed African Americans, including ties to Denmark Vesey — a freed man who led the 1821 uprising of enslaved Africans; a monument stands in his honor at Charleston’s Hampton Park. 

The church underwent numerous evolutions from 1787 through 1872 — including decades of dormancy due to strict regulations forced upon the worshipping community. A wooden two-story church was built on the current Calhoun Street site. Though damaged by the devastating earthquake of 1886, a dedicated congregation ensured the structure seen today was rebuilt by 1892. Today’s magnificent brick Gothic Revival design with encircling marble panels was redecorated and stuccoed in the mid 1900s.  

A 2015 church massacre corralled the Charleston community to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina State grounds. In 2020 the same united voice incited the removal of the John C. Calhoun monument in nearby Francis Marion Park. 110 Calhoun St., Charleston.

Some of the must-see historic places in Charleston include houses of worship as shown on this walking trail of Charleston map

Self-Guided Tour of the Top 6 Historic Charleston Holy Places

  1. Begin at St. Philip’s Church on Church Street; 
  2. Head one block south to the French Huguenot Church on Queen Street; 
  3. Walk south along Church Street and west on Meeting Street to St. Michael’s Church;
  4. Head north on Meeting Street to the Circular Congregational Church;
  5. Continue north on Meeting Street to left on Market; follow one block to King; right on King one block to right on Hassell Street; Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue on the left; 
  6. Finish your tour by heading east on Hasell, then north on Meeting Street and east on Calhoun Street to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

These are but a few of the many must-see historic Charleston places to discover. Explore museum homes, former plantation sites, the City Market, The Battery, Fort Sumter, and other attractions featured in the article links below. For more history on Charleston’s cemeteries, enjoy this article hosted on the Charleston County Public Library’s site.

**Didn’t see the article? Here are the questions we posed:

  1. Which church steeple was painted black during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to camouflage against enemy munitions?
  2. What house of worship has a museum with a letter from George Washington? 
  3. Which graveyard entombs two signers of the Declaration of Independence? CORRECTION: this should read,
    • “Which graveyard entombs two signers of historically significant American documents?” There is no graveyard with two Declaration of Independence signers. There is one graveyard that contains the tomb of one Declaration of Independence signer and one US Constitution signer.

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