They came in carriages, men in powdered wigs, ladies in lace and satin, down the shady lane to the parish church of St. James – located near enough to Charles Towne Landing to be safe from Indian attacks, and yet close to plantations in the area. Very British were these landed gentry who together with a few Huguenot families constituted the congregation of perhaps 150 colonists gathered for worship.
One can only imagine the scene of these gentle persons who one can tell by the gravestones in the churchyard were not to live much beyond their 40th birthdays. A few died in their 60’s, but most had entered eternal rest by their 30’s and 40’s. It was a tough life, and nutrition was not what it is now known to be.
But they came, and for nearly 100 years services, mostly from the Book of Common Prayer, were held. One can imagine that many were torn between loyalty to the mother country and zeal for the Revolution. But during the turbulent years of the American Revolution the church stood, since – according to tradition – the British soldiers refused to destroy it when they saw the Royal Arms of King Georges I over the altar and pulpit.
But by the early 1800’s the congregation had dwindled. During the post Revolutionary period a wave of secularism followed the War. Churches all over the colonies were having a tough time, perhaps in part because some reacted to the excesses of the Great Awakening that had touched so many. One can guess that many Anglicans in their enthusiasm for Christ were by the Great Awakening swept into the arms of the Baptists and Methodists, whose churches seemed to thrive nearby.
My visit to St. James, Goose Creek took place on April 15th of this year. I was fortunate to be the guest preacher and officiant for the annual service of Morning Prayer. The Church was packed, with standing room only. The sun shone through the windows, and the building – carefully maintained by the attentive vestry and resident caretaker – looked like it had been built yesterday.
In fact it was completed in 1717 as a grand illustration of Colonial Baroque architecture. It reflects the restrained English Baroque of Christopher Wren, but with a Barbadian influence seen in its distinct roofline and painted plaster-over-brick exterior.
I felt, as they say, “10 feet above contradiction”, preaching from a magnificent raised pulpit strategically located in the very center of the Church. Its location reflects the evangelical emphasis on Word over the Sacrament. At some point it had been moved to that location most likely in response to the hunger for preaching that accompanied that period, and was never replaced off to the side because by the early 19th Century the church had fallen into disuse.
Thanks to the vision of parishioners from St. Michael’s Church, in 1844 a donation of $500 was given for the repair of St. James’, and with it cracked and bowed walls were re-plastered and pulled together by iron bands. Bishop Gadsden re-consecrated the Church on April 17, 1845.
Thanks to generous land holdings, some of which have been sold, and to the giving of friends, St. James is able to remain a living relic of a bygone age – opened now just for occasional weddings and for the annual service that is followed by family-sponsored picnics under the shade of tents in the churchyard. I was delighted to see so many St. Michael’s parishioners at the service, and also on the vestry. I was also struck by the vigorous singing augmented by the Charleston Men’s Chorus that sung a magnificent period anthem in praise of Jesus Christ.
This national historic landmark remains a testimony to the love and care of people who would never have dreamed of horseless carriages, much less skyscrapers, cell phones and moving pictures on a silver screen. But they are our ancestors, our great, great, great grandparents who loved this land, cherished their church, and gathered to worship the same Lord Jesus Christ whom we love and honor. Like us they came not just on Easter and Christmas but week by week, saying many of the same prayers and giving thanks with the same General Thanksgiving that we do. So, we thank God for those who have gone before, and lift our voices with the Church Triumphant in praise of Him.
-Peter C. Moore, D.D.